AUSTIN, TEX., AUG. 6 -- Another country, another coup. Donnita Cole, wife of an oil-drilling supervisor, said she did not want to appear blase but the fact that her husband, Johnny, is one of about 3,800 Americans trapped in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait is just one more chapter in a family history rich with revolutions, invasions and toppled governments.
"He's just a good ol' boy doing his job, honey, that's all he is," she said of her husband, who is holed up in his lavish apartment four blocks from the Persian Gulf in the ultramodern village of Abu Halifah. "Just an oil-field worker doing his job. Not really an adventurer at all, but adventure just somehow follows him around."
Hers was typical West Texas understatement.
The Coles' international adventures began more than two decades ago, in fall 1969, when Cole was sent to Libya as a young drilling supervisor. His wife remained in Odessa, Tex., caring for twin boys, the youngest of four children. The Coles were thinking of moving to Tripoli, she said, but Col. Moammar Gadhafi rose to power by overthrowing Libya's King Idris I.
"That was our first coup," Donnita said. "It was a quick one, happened before I could get there."
Then they moved to Cork, Ireland, for what she called a "relatively peaceful stay," interrupted only when Cole's office was firebombed. From there, Cole was sent to Nigeria, while Donnita and the children stayed nearby in the Canary Islands. One day, she learned that her husband was being held in an old British hotel by guards attempting a palace coup.
"It wasn't much, really," she said. "He was only held for six hours. But the people who were supposed to be protecting him were pointing guns at him. I guess that could be frightening."
His next assignment was Iran. Again Donnita and the children stayed a comfortable distance from the action, in a grand marble estate on Malta, while Johnny Cole found himself in another hot spot in 1979. One week after the shah fled Iran, Cole sneaked out, hiding in a work boat bound for Bahrain.
Most of the 1980s were spent blissfully, if somewhat less interestingly, in Odessa, their home base. Then, last April, Johnny Cole signed up with OGE Drilling Co. of Houston to work as a supervisor in Kuwait. He left in April. Donnita -- their children are grown -- was preparing to join him Aug. 15.
"Johnny told me all about the apartment," she said, "and he sent me a drawing. It has a built-in hair dryer! That's one luxury I've never had before."
Cole was among 18 OGE Drilling Inc. employees stationed in Kuwait, according to Bill Schaub, the company's Houston-based drilling supervisor. Two were on leave in the United States when Iraq invaded Kuwait last week. Of the 16 in the tiny Middle Eastern country, two escaped to Baghdad, six others made it to Saudi Arabia and eight, including Cole, remain in Kuwait.
Donnita Cole said she has stayed up until 3 a.m. each night since the invasion, working the telephones to get word of her husband. She had heard nothing until late this afternoon, when Margie Whitaker of Abilene, who had lived with her husband, Bernie, in an apartment near Cole's, called to say she had seen Johnny Cole before she and her husband were evacuated last Friday morning.
"She said he was in his apartment, stocked up with food and water, staying low," she said. "I expect him to keep a very low profile in a situation like this. To me he is taking the wisest course of action, keeping his mouth shut, staying inside. All my friends are calling up all worried about him. I tell them that Johnny knows what he's doing. I've never considered him missing. He's too experienced."
The Whitakers were among 24 Americans in the housing complex who made a run for the Saudi border Friday morning in eight cars. Margie Whitaker said she did not know why Cole decided not to join the group. Some of their Kuwaiti friends, she said, "were laughing and talking to us, saying: 'Where are you going? What are you leaving for?' "
"My husband and I wanted to go for it, but we didn't want to go alone," she said. When the band of Americans reached the border, there were no Kuwaitis on the Kuwait side of the line, Whitaker said. The Saudis were there, however. "They were extremely helpful and nice," she said. "They let us pass through without exit visas and with vehicles -- that's very unusual."
The families of some other Americans in Kuwait did not take the events of the last few days quite as calmly as Donnita Cole. When the oil boom went bust eight years ago, Donald G. Whatley went where the jobs were: the Middle East. "There's no work anyplace else," his wife, Doris, said.
Last week, the 49-year-old drilling supervisor had just gone back to work after a month off in the United States when Iraq bounded over the border.
He had been assigned to Kuwait for the past nine months, a posting he liked much better than Oman and some of the other countries where he'd worked. It was pretty and peaceful. Food was good.
But he didn't much care for the whole environment.
"He was just a little bit apprehensive after they put him so close to the border," his wife said. "... After he worked there a couple of months,he didn't think there was anything to worry about.
"He never wanted to go. It's just something he had to do. No one wants to leave their country and live a month someplace else. All he did was work and sleep. There was nothing else to do.
"We was thinking of going into something else sooner or later."
Connie Ogle was watching television last week, getting ready to go to work, when the news flashed across the screen: Iraq had invaded Kuwait.
"I think they got your granddaddy," she told her son as she bundled up the child and hightailed it over to her mother-in-law's, where the Walterscheid family gathered to await any scrap of information.
Her father-in-law, Rainard Walterscheid, was working on an oil rig on the Iraqi border, a couple of weeks from finishing a month's duty that would give him a month back home in Jacksboro, Tex., not far from Fort Worth.
Ogle said the State Department told the family that 11 Americans are being kept under Iraqi guard at the Sheraton in Baghdad, that U.S. Embassy personnel are allowed in and out, but that the oil workers are restricted to the hotel's facilities.
"I have to go, the soldiers are here to get us," she said he had messaged his company via computer on the morning of the invasion.
Several times, after innumerable tries, family members have gotten through to Kuwait on the telephone, only to have the operator hang up after being given the number for the U.S. Embassy.
"We just never dreamed this was going to happen," Ogle said. "It's real hard to accept."
At 52, Walterscheid, known on the rig as "Peanuts," has been in the oil business for decades, recently as a rig supervisor based in Egypt, but assigned to Kuwait since March.
He never feared a region known as lawless and explosive.
"Right before he left I said, 'Rainard, how can you do this work? It's so dangerous.' He said, 'I'm going to tell you something, it's just like walking on the street, you can get hit by a car.' This was his life. He never acted like he was afraid. All this time he had convinced me he was safe."
She didn't know how much money he made, but she said, "They lived pretty good. I don't know if it was worth it."
The family of Steve Betts, a 35-year-old American who served as the Kuwaiti national swim team coach, suffered four agonizing days without hearing a word from him until he called this afternoon from an unnamed spot on the Saudi border and said he was okay.
Betts, whose wife, Dawn, and 2-year-old son, Braden, were visiting family in Oregon when the invasion took place, lived in a luxurious, marble-floored, government-owned apartment in the Reggae section of Kuwait City -- part of a complex that seemed like a sort of mini-United Nations, according to his wife, with coaches who had been recruited from Yugoslavia, Brazil, the United States and other places. The only problem with the apartment, as it turned out, was that it was located across the street from the country's ministry of power and water and near one of the largest national guard posts -- two prime targets of the Iraqis.
"The morning after the invasion, Steve called me and said he saw 100 or more tanks rolling down the street. He said he'd been able to get to the bank to withdraw all his money," Dawn Betts said. "He said there had been an invasion but the swim team still might have a workout that afternoon. Then I got another call a few hours later. He said troops were shooting on the roof of the apartment building. The sliding glass doors in our apartment had been blown out. He said he and some friends were heading down to the basement parking lot for safety." That was the last any of Betts's family had heard from him until this afternoon, when he called his mother, Betsy Conley, in Santa Fe, N.M., after reaching the Saudi border.
"It had been a nightmare until a few hours ago," Dawn Betts said. "The type that you read about other people going through, but never expect to go through yourself. Even though we went to the Middle East knowing it was volatile, we felt safe in Kuwait the whole time I was there. I've been in shock. But now I've got tears of relief."
Staff writer Michael J. Ybarra and special correspondent Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.