The wind died, the skies cleared and, just before dawn today, the weather-delayed USNS Dahl berthed with the last critical U.S. Army weapons needed to attack Iraq.
By noon the first of 72 helicopters belonging to the 101st Airborne Division had been hoisted from the hold and moved to a dockside parking lot. Army mechanics in white hard hats swarmed over the initial Apache attack helicopter, stripping away protective plastic and reattaching rotor blades that were removed two weeks ago, before the voyage from Jacksonville, Fla.
The helicopters will fly from the port to camps in the Kuwaiti outback over the next two days, to be joined by 96 others from the USNS Bob Hope, which is expected early Monday. With most of its helicopters ready to launch deep strikes hundreds of miles inside Iraqi territory, the 101st will be ready for war, according to senior officers. The division is the final major component of a U.S. ground attack force that includes the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, complemented by Special Forces, an enormous air armada, British troops and other units. The 101st is the Army's only "air assault" division, with a capacity to move a brigade of roughly 4,500 combat soldiers 100 miles by helicopter in six hours -- even as the Apaches strike even farther behind enemy lines.
"If we do what we think we're going to do, there will never have been a military campaign that has moved that far, that fast," one senior Army officer said today.
The division's Apaches, equivalent to nearly half of the Army's attack helicopters in Kuwait, are considered vital to any ground attack. The new Longbow model has a fire-control radar system capable of detecting in less than a second more than 1,000 potential targets spread over several miles, sorting them into categories such as wheeled or tracked vehicles, and prioritizing them instantly for purposes of destruction by the helicopter's 16 Hellfire missiles. "If you don't do a 'human interrupt,' the Longbow will automatically kill those targets in order of priority," said Brig. Gen. Edward J. Sinclair, an Apache pilot and assistant commander of the 101st. Target data can also be e-mailed from one Longbow to another.
Today, however, the task at hand involved simply getting the division's equipment off the Dahl, which was delayed a day when high seas prevented Kuwaiti tugs from escorting the 950-foot ship to berths 18 and 19. No sooner had the great slab of the stern ramp been lowered than 1,859 tons of cargo began pouring from the holds. Two huge yellow gantry cranes lifted ammunition crates onto the docks -- everything from Hellfires and rockets to rifle rounds -- while Humvees and fuel trucks, hospital generators and radio equipment, rolled down the ramp.
"We can do one aircraft about every 12 minutes, from the time we hook them up [to a crane] to the time we lower them to the ground," said Lt. Col. Joe Dunaway, commander of the division's aviation maintenance battalion. "If you're living right, it all works."
Today, at least, the 1,000 soldiers, dockworkers and contractors working the Dahl were living right. On C deck, a Pakistani driver behind the wheel of a Humvee pulled a trailer loaded with 32 helicopter blades -- enough for eight Apaches -- down the ramp to the 33-acre helicopter assembly yard. Moments later a commander's Humvee followed, bound for the 327th Infantry Regiment.
As vehicles and helicopters left the ship, up on the 01 deck cooks prepared lunch to the lyrics of a 1967 Buffalo Springfield song on the galley tape player: "There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear."
As if prompted by the flashback, the ship's captain, Bradford Collins, pointed to a plaque noting that the vessel was named for Larry G. Dahl, an Army quartermaster specialist, who on Feb. 23, 1971, threw himself on a grenade near An Khe, South Vietnam, saving his comrades at the sacrifice of his own life. Killed at age 21, Dahl was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Collins pointed to a rubbing of Dahl's name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and added, "I'm very proud of him."