Iraqi tanks assigned to the Iraqi Army 9th Mechanized Division drive through a checkpoint near Forward Operating Base Camp Taji, Iraq. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush immediately set in motion steps to counter Saddam Hussein’s aggression, which is now remembered as the Gulf War.
The Gulf War unfolded in two phases: Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. The first phase organized a coalition of 35 nations to prepare their forces to defend Saudi Arabia. The second phase was combat action to liberate Kuwait and restore its independence.
As is the case in every conflict, a cast of characters emerged who either went against the grain or broke trail to make history.
From a Polish intelligence officer who formerly worked against the United States during the Cold War to the people behind the first stealth jet fighter and a US Coast Guard reservist given the unique nickname “Gunner Grandma” — the Gulf War misfits all found interesting ways to do their part.
Six American intelligence officers from the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) were on the run near the border of Kuwait and Iraq. They were in the region to monitor Iraqi troop movements when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The White House and the CIA scrambled to get their people out and requested assistance from several countries including the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. All declined to help. The operation was deemed far too dangerous.
The CIA contacted a high-ranking Polish intelligence officer in Warsaw and attempted to persuade the senior spy to slip its officers out of Iraq. Poland already had a network staged in Iraq and pulled resources from Polish engineering companies working construction throughout the country. The Americans took refuge at one of the construction camps in Baghdad while the Poles put a plan together.
“Every week as we prepared the action the situation changed in Iraq,” an unnamed Polish intelligence officer told The Washington Post. “Every day was worse. New restrictions on foreigners, people getting taken hostage.” The Polish officers now helping the CIA had been Warsaw Pact spies working against US intelligence services in the 1970s.
“Most of us weren’t believers, just professionals,” one Polish officer said. “Besides, these guys were CIA guys. If they were caught in Iraq, that’s the death penalty. We said these guys are our colleagues. We had to help them.”
Saddam had restricted movements by foreign diplomats in Iraq and established military checkpoints on all highways. The Poles made fake passports for the Americans from a Slavic country. But the Americans had difficulty pronouncing their new names and couldn’t authentically nail the accent required. Still, after weeks of planning, a Polish civilian technician pulled into a military checkpoint near the Iraq-Turkey border with the Americans as passengers.
An Iraqi officer in perfect Polish said, “How lucky I am to see my best friends.” The fast-thinking Polish technician sprung from the driver’s seat, bear-hugged the checkpoint officer, and planted kisses on both of his cheeks to greet him. The frightened Americans sat silent in the vehicle.
They were waved through. Before reaching the border the Polish officer pulled out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red whiskey in an effort to get the Americans to appear as drunken Slavs — a common stereotype the Iraqis associated with the bunch. The Americans ran across the border to safety. In a token of appreciation, the CIA urged President George H.W. Bush to forgive half of a $33 billion debt Poland owed to 17 foreign governments.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known to the public as DARPA, released a study in the early 1970s that exposed vulnerabilities of US aircraft and their onboard equipment to detection and subsequent attack by radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Lockheed Martin took the lead in response to the urgent need to develop a stealth jet fighter that could operate completely undetected in enemy airspace. Ben Rich, one of Lockheed Martin’s most trusted and experienced engineers, proposed a revolutionary diamond-shaped design that reflected radar waves, subsequently making an aircraft “invisible.” His boss, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, famously stated he didn’t like how the experimental aircraft looked, but it didn’t matter because performance did.
The project was overseen by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works Division — where 85% of the work is classified and developed in secret — and the breakthrough stealth technology was first dubbed the “Hopeless Diamond” by its critics. In the summer of 1975 DARPA held a “pole-off” and Skunk Works won the contract, which ultimately led to the creation of the world’s first stealth jet fighter, also known as the F-117 Nighthawk. The F-117 Nighthawk and its “Black Jet” pilots flew sorties under the call sign “Bandit.”
“There’s a British metal band called Demon that had an album called Unexpected Guest,” recalled retired Lt. Col. Scott Stimpert, a former F-117 Nighthawk pilot. That inspired the nickname for one particular F-117, tail No. 803. “It flew 33 sorties in Desert Storm, it flew one combat sortie in Just Cause, and it flew another 44 sorties in Proven Force later on. It’s got the most combat sorties of any platform,” Stimpert said. The Unexpected Guest F-117 Nighthawk was acquired on permanent loan in 2019 in a joint project called Operation Nighthawk Landing between Lockheed Martin and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
Unexpected Guest was among the 36 stealth fighters deployed to Desert Storm, and together they flew more than 1,250 sorties and dropped more than 2,000 tons’ worth of bombs. Not a single F-117 Nighthawk was shot down over Baghdad, despite Iraq’s 3,000 anti-aircraft weapons and an arsenal of 60 SAM batteries.
The first Coast Guard women to serve overseas in a combat role did so with the newly formed Port Security Units (PSUs). Sandy Mitten was a reservist who earned the nickname “Grandma Gunner” in the Persian Gulf after she manned the aft .50-caliber machine gun while on a PSU Raider boat during a routine patrol.
“I was at Station Milwaukee prior to that and then PSU 303, and that’s what took me over to the Gulf,” Mitten told the US Coast Guard Oral History Program. “We were stationed in the Port of [Dammam], Saudi Arabia, on the western side of Saudi Arabia. It’s the largest port in Saudi Arabia, and that’s where all the munitions, all the equipment and all the men and women came over there, and then they were sent north or wherever.”
Mitten was 49 years old when she arrived in Saudi Arabia, one of six women in their 87-member unit. Although Mitten never fired her weapon at another human being, she was a witness to the Scud missiles and the interceptions made by the Patriot Missile batteries. “We saw six SCUDS coming in from the other end of the port,” she recalled. “We were right on the water. We saw them coming right for us. And we saw the Patriots intercept them. It was like fireworks.”
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.