Georgia Ports provided key gateway for Operation Desert Shield


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Eleven vessels called Savannah to load equipment, supplies and personnel for Desert Shield.

Savannah was most heavily used port in U.S. during mobilization

Vessels named for seven first-magnitude stars dazzled the Georgia Ports Authority in August of 1990 as they docked, loaded and then sailed for Saudi Arabia, carrying the awesome armored power of the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at 30 knots.

The ships’ namesakes, Capella, Altair, Bellatrix, Regulus, Algol, Antares and Denebola, are admired for their brightness in the nighttime sky. As the Fast Sealift Ships of the Military Sealift Command, they were acclaimed for their six decks of cargo capacity that allowed each of them to transport 750 to 1,200 pieces of military equipment. It was a perilous time. Speed and space were paramount. America was going to war.

A small headline on the Aug. 3 front page of the Savannah Morning News presaged the GPA preparations: “U.S. Ponders Use of Force.” The United States, President George H.W. Bush stated, would take the necessary steps to defend its vital interests in the Gulf, but was not “discussing intervention.” That changed quickly. On Aug. 11, several days after Iraq threatened an invasion of Saudi Arabia, SMN front page headlines communicated a different story: “The 24th Moves Out, Convoys Roll Out of Fort Stewart, Hunter for Port,” “Tanks Rumble Toward Army Railhead,” “Military Transport Docks in Savannah” and “Soldiers’ Wives ‘All Praying a Lot.’”

The logistical challenge was immense. Elements of the division had deployed before, but this was the first time it maneuvered en masse. Fort Stewart units quickly set up tents and established a communication center and other support facilities at Garden City Terminal. “The Army is on the move,” Maj. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the commander of the 24th Infantry Division, said.

Abrams M-1 tanks, each weighing some 57 tons and wielding a 120mm-smoothbore cannon, were railed to the port. Other vehicles traveled in convoys, slowing traffic along the highways and interstates that connected Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield to the GPA. Complaints, though, were rare. Families lined roadsides and overpasses, shouting encouragement, waving flags and banners and honking horns. One woman made a sign out of a bed sheet, wishing the soldiers good luck. “If I had known where I could get a flag big enough, I’d have draped my car in it,” she said.

Inside the port gates, a sense of purpose prevailed. The GPA, according to a spokesman with the Military Sealift Command, handled more military hardware than any other port in the nation during the buildup. “We’ll be taking most of Fort Stewart out on these ships, and part of Fort Benning too,” Adm. LeRoy Collins said.

The USNS Capella was the first Fast Sealift Ship to reach Savannah, arriving about 11 p.m. on Aug. 10. The USNS Altair docked the next afternoon. Besides the seven Fast Sealift Ships, three other Ro-Ro cargo ships, Inscription, Cape Hudson and Cygnus, also stopped in Savannah. The loading process was continuous. “I’ve been involved in sealifts before,” Collins observed, “but none of this size.”

Tanks, self-propelled rocket launchers, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and armored personnel carriers were packed and parked with basic ammunition loads in place. It was the same for fuel tankers: Their gauges registered full when they were placed on board. Attack helicopters, trucks, bulldozers, portable bridges, ambulances and jeeps, along with pallets of equipment and necessary supplies, were pulled up by cranes and positioned as Army checklists went on and on. “This is working just fine,” Collins said, as the deployment neared its end.

The USNS Cygnus was the last vessel to depart Savannah. It arrived in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 11, 1990. In all, the 10 Savannah ships carried 7,764 pieces of armored and mechanized equipment, along with other machinery and supplies. By mid-September, 200 Abrams M-1 tanks had been delivered. It was the largest sealift of combat forces since World War II.

As the equipment moved out, so did the soldiers. Most of them flew over. Military and commercial aircraft shuttled Fort Stewart GIs to the Gulf, and then came back for more. Within 30 days, the 24th Infantry Division counted more than 10,000 soldiers in position in Saudi Arabia.

A small contingent, though, took a much slower path. Some 100 soldiers were placed on each ship. Those vessels individually sailed across the Atlantic, crossed through the Strait of Gibraltar, and cruised the width of the Mediterranean Sea, until they reached the Suez Canal, where they were met by U.S. Navy ships, and escorted to Saudi Arabia.

As each ship glided past River Street en route to the Gulf, Savannah reached out with a final salute. Yellow ribbons lined railings and dotted windows, crowds displayed signs, and the 24th‘s Marching Band trumpeted its support with songs from “God Bless America” to “Born to be Wild.”

For some, it was deeply personal. “I knew when I married him that this was his job, but he’ll be back”  Sandra Oetting said as she watched her husband, Pfc. Brian Oetting, depart on the USNS Regulus. “This is something you hope and pray never happens, but when it does you got to go,” Staff Sgt. Thomas Trimble said. “This is really harder on the families than anyone else.”

For others, it was a display of patriotism. “We want to wish them well. We want them to know that we care about them,” said Marion Kleeman, who brought along five grandchildren. The employees of J.C. Bradford & Co., looking on from the second-highest floor of the First Union building on Johnson Square, participated in the send-off celebrations. “Those are our guys,” one of the executives said. “They’re going to fight a possible war.”

Usually, during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Savannah, all eyes are on the Irish. That focus changed in 1991. “Patriotism Marches at Front of Parade,” heralded the headline on the front page of the March 17 edition of the Morning News/Evening Press.

Some 300,000 people jammed into downtown on Saturday, March 16, to watch the parade and participate in parties. But the “real stars of the day” were the handful of 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) soldiers “who carried Savannah’s hearts with them as they spun around the paced downtown squares.”

Just back from Operation Desert Storm, some of them were on a float, and they often reached out in the crowd to shake hands. One soldier celebrated a little closer. He jumped from the float, sprinted into the crowd, and greeted supporters with hugs and kisses.

Applause followed the two Bradley Fighting Vehicles as well, especially when they turned doughnuts in the streets.

“I’m so glad to back. It makes me feel wonderful,” one of the soldiers said. “The only thing I don’t like is the sand on the float.”

Sources: August of 1990 editions of the Savannah Morning News on microfilm at the Kaye Kole Genealogy & Local History Room in the Bull Street Library. “Special Report: The U.S. Army in Operation Desert Storm, An Overview,” by the Association of the United States Library. “Desert Shield/Storm Logistics,” by Lt. Col. Mitchell H. Stevenson, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pa.