Memories still vivid 10 years after Operation Desert Storm in Iraq

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Photo courtesy of RON PLUCKER A flight of three EA-6B Prowlers from Navy squadron VAQ-132 fly over Saudi Arabia in preparation for the opening strikes of Operation Desert Storm.

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The aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, from which then-Lt. Cmdr. Ron Plucker flew missions in the Gulf War, sails in the Red Sea in the run-up to the war that started Jan. 17, 1991.

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The commanding officer of the squadron, Cmdr. Tom 'TP” Lane, looks on at far left as (left to right) then-Lt. Cmdr. Ron 'Pluck” Plucker (mission commander), Lt. Phil 'Wadd” Waddingham, Lt. John 'JT” Thomas and Lt. 'Kirbs” Kirby pose just before manning up their EA-6B for the first strike of Desert Storm.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jan. 17, 2011, marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of what is now referred to as the "First Gulf War," Operation Desert Storm. Saddam Hussein had invaded his neighbor, Kuwait, removed its legitimate government and brutally tortured the Kuwaiti people. After five months of failed negotiations and sanctions, the United States, with a coalition of 28 other countries, began the process of removing Saddam. Retired Navy Capt. Ron Plucker, a local native from Touchet, was a lieutenant commander at the time assigned to Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 132 "Scorpions" flying in the EA-6B Prowler jet aircraft off of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. Despite the "fog of war," and with all the emotions of a man going into combat for the first time, Plucker reflects back to that day in history with clarity as if it happened yesterday.

16 January 1991, USS Saratoga, Moses Station, the Red Sea: Early in the morning, the Airwing officers were called to the fo'c'sle (forecastle) to be addressed by CAG (our commander of Airwing17, Capt. Hendrickson.)

"Hey, Pluck," my squadron mate, Too Tall, said, "I bet he is going to tell us that we are finally going home!"

I think most of us actually agreed. Five months earlier the USS Saratoga, with its accompanying Airwing 17, was ordered to "proceed at best speed" to apply pressure to Saddam Hussein and his regime to leave Kuwait.

Months of preparations for a war most of us thought would never really happen had taken a toll on all aboard. The mirror-image strikes we practiced over and over again became nothing but milk runs. Five months of living in close quarters with squadron mates were fraying nerves.

Even our recent port visit to Haifa, Israel, where we were to enjoy some R&R, turned to disaster when 21 Saratoga sailors, including one of our own squadron mates, died as a result of a ferry boat accident.

The carrier USS America had just arrived to the Red Sea a few days earlier to relieve us, and besides, Vietnam was our last real war, and there was no way the U.S. would be involved in another; the sentiment we were getting from the news at home was the country would not support it.

The anticipation of going home was on all of our faces and our spirits were high. With "Attention on deck!" we quickly quieted down, eager to hear CAG's expected words.

As he briskly walked to the front of the more than 200 aviators present, I noted something was not quite right; CAG was there all right, but next to him was Rear Adm. Gee, our battle group commander.

The admiral spoke first and got straight to the point: "Gentlemen, we are going to war."

The collective loss of breath was as if all 200 of us had been sucker punched in the gut at the same time. Adm. Gee briefly outlined the failed political actions leading to this moment and proceeded to give us what I considered more of a fatherly talk.

"You have all sacrificed to this point with your time and effort. Now is the time to remember all of the training you have put in. You are true American heroes, and I will be here to welcome each and every one of you when you return. May God be with you, may God be with us, may God be with America."

I felt a lump in my throat and looked around and saw the entire airwing with bowed heads. The admiral's speech was so moving I began to notice some of the soon-to-be warriors sniffling. Some, I believe, crying silently.

When the admiral finished, CAG began, using quite a different tactic, one I could imagine John Wayne using in an old-time movie with a gruff voice and a knife clinched between his teeth.

"Men, I want you all to imagine for a moment what will be happening back home in the states when you are over the target: It will be late afternoon, people will be heading home from work and hear about it on the news. There will be an old lady sitting at home watching the TV ... she will say a prayer for all the brave American boys. A man in a bar will raise his glass to salute all of us, and all the patrons will shout ‘here here!' Men, we have our butt-kicking boots on and we are going to start kicking!"

Though CAG lacked poetic speech, his pep talk brought a cheer among us as if we were a football team ready to play in the championship game. It was a proud-to-be-an-American, fighting-for-your-country speech. Yes, we were ready to devote ourselves to our calling of a warrior, to bring victory to the U.S. and save Kuwait.

I went straight away to the Combat Information Center (CIC) to meet with my planning team to quickly review our mission with the aircrew of over 20 aircraft. A few months earlier we had planned mirror-image strikes to simulate our specific attacks, and after numerous practice runs we were ready.

Cmdr. Anderson, the commanding officer of one of the F/A-18 squadrons, was the overall strike lead, and I was the electronic warfare (EW) mission commander for what was to be the war's opening first strike on Iraq. Our targets would be sites northwest of downtown Baghdad. My team had been responsible to plan the EW tactics to protect the attack aircraft all the way to the targets and back.

Our squadron's aircraft was the EA-6B Prowler, capable of jamming enemy radars and firing high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM) at radar and missile sites on the ground. It carried a crew of four: a pilot and three electronic warfare officers. Three aircraft from my squadron would be involved on this first strike, each going to a different area in Iraq. The northern Prowler would accompany the main strike force, while the western and southern Prowlers would help create deception away from the strike force.

An F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft would fly on our wing for air-to-air protection.

After some last-minute discussion with skipper Anderson, we all headed to our racks to get some sleep.

On my way down the passageway I ran into my skipper, Cmdr. Lane. "Pluck, I just met with the admiral. He wants the most senior crew to go north, and well, I guess I am the senior crew."

As the commanding officer, Cmdr. Lane was the senior officer in the squadron and his pilot was senior to my pilot, Wadd. I looked at him inquisitively and quickly countered, "Well, skipper, I planned it and I think I should go north."

He looked at me with a sly smile and said, "Yep, you're right ... you go north."

I thought this a bit odd, but it was not until months later after the war at the Officer's Club back home that I found out what that was all about (see "The Rest of the Story").

As I laid in my rack trying to get some rest before the night's mission, I thought of home, my family, the mission, SAR (Search and Rescue) procedures ... they all ran though my mind, a jumbled mass I had trouble navigating through. I was surprised at how nervous I was despite my years of training. I questioned myself whether I was ready for this and asked God to somehow show me a sign, to give me the calm to do the mission I was trained to do.

After mustering only 20 minutes of sleep, I arose and began preparations for the main briefing.

The mission brief in CIC went just as we had practiced many times before with very few questions. Afterwards, all of the aviators departed for their respective Ready Rooms.

Ready One, the VAQ-132 Scorpion's Ready Room, was a flurry of activity of almost the entire squadron's officer ranks present. As we donned our flight gear, we all tried to lighten things up with jokes and light-hearted comments, albeit some rather morbid.

"Hey Pluck, can I have your stereo if you don't come back?" asked Boots.

I laughed, and replied, "Well, OK, but if you don't come back I get your Persian carpet you picked up last port visit!"

As I zipped up my survival vest and took inventory of my .38 caliber pistol, bullets and blood chit, I was reminded of my 11-year-old son's joke he sent me in a letter. "Hey guys, what does Saddam call an EA-6B Prowler? ... A ‘snack-pack'!" (This was in reference to Saddam's promise to eat any American aircrew he shoots down and the fact the four-seat EA-6B Prowler was like the dessert treat that came in a package of four.)

Ready One burst out in laughter. Our sense of humor may have been a bit warped, but they were tension breakers, something we desperately needed.

The time had come; last-minute pictures were taken and hands were shook. But before I stepped for our aircraft awaiting us on the flight deck, I walked to the white board and wrote a verse from Psalms 21:31: "The horse is prepared for battle, but safety is in the Lord." That scripture remained on the board for days.

Out on the flight deck our maintenance crews were there to greet us, all hyped up and excited, patting us on the back and wishing us luck. They had prepared the aircraft for combat, now it was up to us.

As I climbed into the front right seat I still felt the nerves I fretted would prevent me from doing my job. As I strapped in to my ejection seat I looked up toward the island of the ship and what I saw made me gasp: a very large battle flag of the Stars and Stripes vigorously and proudly streaming in the night sky. It was truly awe-inspiring.

After the rest of my crew, Wadd, Kirbs and J.T., took their positions, I shut the canopy of the aircraft. As soon as it locked closed I suddenly felt the calm I was praying for. All of the years of training and months of preparation for this moment took over ... I could do this and was excited and anxious for the combat experience that awaited me.

As we taxied to the catapult I took one more look at the battle flag: My prayer had been answered. "Thank you, God," I quietly muttered to myself.

The jolt of the catapult hurled the 55,000-pound Prowler down the deck going from 0 to 130 knots within 2 seconds. Climbing to 25,000 feet, we turned east and headed to our rendezvous with the tanker aircraft orbiting over Saudi Arabia. It looked like a Christmas tree with the red, green and white lights of over 20 aircraft flying in close formation on three huge Air Force tankers.

As we topped off our gas tanks we moved out, joined up with our F-14 CAP and pushed for the border. With the exception of our internal lights it would be lights out. Only altitude separation would de-conflict us with others in the strike group. It was critical to constantly keep a lookout through the night sky. Despite it being just after midnight, we were able to establish our night vision to see the silhouette of any aircraft that might come close to us.

After accomplishing our combat checklists, it wasn't long before we would cross the border. As we approached a strange feeling came across me ... it was as if we could actually "feel" the border: the hair on the back of my neck stood up and my mouth went dry ... we were actually in Iraq.

"Jammers on," I instructed my crew. We turned north and headed for our destination of "downtown Baghdad," 140 miles away.

As we sped to our northern orbit point at 480 knots, I started to notice a very peculiar thing. From the time we had crossed the border I had not seen one light on the ground in Iraq.

Then, as if someone turned on a light switch, there appeared numerous spots of lights all across the country. The small streaks of lights reminded me of arcs of electricity.

"Hey guys, what do you think that is?"

But before I could finish it hit me: Iraq was shooting at us! Anti-aircraft guns and missiles were streaking into the night sky ... they were shooting everything they had.

About the same time, the Air Force AWACS, our air controller in the sky, began reporting that an enemy MIG-25 fighter aircraft was loitering in the vicinity of our route to our orbit point. We kept our head on a swivel, looking for any sign a missile was on its way toward us.

Suddenly, Kirbs, sitting in the left rear seat, announced, "Hey ... there's an airplane out there ... he's tuning on us ... he fired a missile!"

"Call our break, Kirbs!" I said with anticipation.

"Break now!" Kirbs yelled.

Wadd yanked the Prowler into a hard left turn. I felt the 5 g-forces instantaneously applied against my body, straining with all my might to keep from blacking out. The airplane shuddered and the internal cockpit lights went out.

"I think we're hit!" exclaimed Wadd.

"I don't think so ... check circuit breakers!" I instructed.

We broke out our flash lights and found a popped internal lights circuit breaker. We reset it and the lights came back on.

"Check instruments," I told Wadd.

"RPM good, oil good, no fire lights, controls are good ... I think we are OK."

As we turned back on course for the target area we realized our evasive maneuver had caused our F-14 CAP to lose sight. From then on we were to fly the rest of the mission deep in enemy country without any air-to-air protection.

After all the excitement, "helmet fires" as they are referred to, we concentrated on getting to the target orbit point on time. It was then I noticed a rather large explosion slightly below us and to our right. Whatever it was appeared to be falling, getting smaller and smaller as it approached the desert floor.

For some instinctive reason I marked the location on my map. It wouldn't be until we returned to the carrier that I found out what I had just witnessed.

We proceeded on to our orbit point northwest of Baghdad, arriving on time to provide our jamming as the strike bombers turned to make their bomb runs. Explosions from the bombs lit up the target area as I yelled in excitement.

As we turned for home, elated over what seemed to be a very successful mission, I was confronted with a horrifying realization: we had 140 miles to go in enemy territory with no CAP protection and we now faced a 100-knot head wind! We were truly "alone and unafraid" deep in Iraqi airspace and traveling at what seemed a snail's pace.

This was the longest time of my life ... it seemed we barely moved as we trekked to the border.

In addition, because of the maneuvering and unexpected headwind, I questioned if we would have enough gas to make it back to the tanker awaiting us over Saudi.

What seemed like an eternity, we finally reached the Iraqi border, a sense of exhilaration overcoming us. We had made it.

With a "low fuel" light on we raced to meet the tanker and took the precious gas we needed to get back home to the Saratoga.

By the time we arrived at Moses Station in view of the Saratoga, the sun was coming up over the Red Sea ... the most beautiful sunrise I have ever witnessed in my life.

Wadd made a perfect landing, and as we taxied to our parking place I noticed our maintenance crew was there to greet us.

When we climbed out of the cockpit it was like a scene from the movie Top Gun: the troops came running up to us cheering, patting our backs, pumping their fists. I quickly gave them a recount of our "adventure" and headed down to the CIC to debrief the mission.

As I walked in I noted a somewhat subdued atmosphere.

"Spike is missing," Cmdr. Anderson said. "Did you see anything out there, Pluck?"

It was then I realized what the big explosion I saw had been. One of the F/A-18 pilots, Lt. Cmdr. Scott Speicher, had been shot down by the MIG-25 that had been orbiting in our area, quite possibly the aircraft that shot the missile at our own aircraft.

I was at first shocked. We all were. This is the one thing you cannot train for. As I tried to come to grips with Scott's loss, Adm. Gee walked in. "It's nice to have you back, commander."

"Thank you, sir." With that I slowly walked back to my stateroom to try to get some sleep. Tomorrow was another mission.

April 1991, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Officers Club; The Rest of the Story: Celebrating with the rest of the squadron, Wadd and I were approached by our commanding officer, Cmdr. Lane.

"Hey," he said, "You guys are supposed to be dead."

Wadd and I looked at each other. "What's that you say, Skipper?"

"Well," he explained, "after the decision was made to go to war the admiral met with all of the commanding officers of the squadrons. Based on the intelligence we had, the EA-6B going north with the main strike group was given a zero percent chance of coming home, the middle route had 50 percent chance, and the southern route had a 70 percent chance of survival. You should be dead."

At first I just glared at him, clearly remembering our short discussion in the passageway about how the admiral wanted the most experienced crew to go north, and with the skipper's sly smile how he allowed me to go instead since I had planned it. How could he not have told us this then?

Now I know what that sly smile was all about and why he allowed my crew to go north! After dwelling on it I realized he did the right thing: It was my mission as I was not only the EW lead, but the one who planned that part of the mission.

Also, I would not have wanted to know that piece of information at the time; we had too much else to worry about.

"Here's to you guys," he said raising his glass in our honor. "It's good to have you all back."

A cold beer never tasted so good.

Capt. Plucker went on to fly 25 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm and was awarded numerous Air Medals for combat valor. On his return home, he and his squadron were given a hero's welcome, a testament of how a country had grown from the days of Vietnam.

As he continued his career in the Navy he came to command his own Prowler squadrons, flying more combat missions during Operation Southern Watch, ensuring Saddam adhered to the sanctions placed on him.

In 2004, he volunteered to go to Iraq, where he worked for Gen. Petraeus, helping to build and train the very Iraqi army he once helped destroy. One of his quests while stationed in Baghdad was to find out more about what happened to his friend, Lt. Cmdr. Speicher. In 2009, 18 years after his shoot down, Speicher's remains were finally discovered by investigators. He had been buried by Bedouin nomads in the desert, putting an end to wild speculations that he had been a prisoner of war.

In 2008, Capt. Plucker retired after 30 years of service. He is now a civilian working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He and his wife, Kyoko, of Sasebo, Japan, live in College Place.

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