FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- A battalion from the crack 82nd Airborne headed for Saudi Arabia Wednesday to join other U.S. troops in fending off a possible invasion by Iraqi forces poised at the border.
The first Americans arrived in Saudi Arabia shortly after noon EDT, only minutes before a massive rollout of military might began back at Fort Bragg, where more than 2,000 paratroopers were pressed into action by President Bush.
At 12:28 p.m., a World Airways DC-10 landed at Pope Air Force Base, adjacent to Fort Bragg. At 1:37 p.m. it taxied down the runway and lifted off.
It was followed in rapid succession by three mammoth C-5A cargo planes and another World Airways jetliner, all headed non-stop to Saudi Arabia, where Bush said the troops were to join a multi-national force in ensuring the Iraqis do not cross the border.
'At my direction, elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, as well as key units of the United States Air Force, are arriving today to take up defensive positions in Saudi Arabia,' Bush said from the White House.
Tensions in the Mideast have escalated sharply since Iraqi forces invaded oil-rich Kuwait last week and set up a puppet government. Bush said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has become the Adolf Hitler of the Mideast and is not to be trusted.
'As was the case in the 1930s, we see in Saddam Hussein an aggressive dictator threatening his neighbors,' Bush said. 'Only 14 days ago, Saddam Hussein promised his friends he would not invade Kuwait. Four days ago he promised the world he would withdraw. And twice we have seen what his promises mean -- his promises mean nothing.'
The mission largely remained cloaked in secrecy, as military officials nationwide -- and especially at Fort Bragg -- refused to talk. At Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Mass., base spokesman Gordon Newell said eight aircraft at the base would help move equipment.
'Where, I don't know,' he said. 'And if I did, I could not release that information until the mission is over.'
Wednesday, only regular Army, Navy and Air Force troops were headed for the Mideast. But Newell said plenty of reservists were volunteering to go in a show of support for Bush's get-tough stand.
'The phones have been ringing off the hook,' Newell said. 'We're taking their names at this point.'
Four groups of planes were headed for Saudi territory -- F-15 jet fighters, the World Airways DC-10 passenger jetliners and two classes of cargo planes: the C-141B Starlifters, which are primarily used to transport troops, and the C-5As, the largest air transport vehicle in the world. The cavernous C-5As are capable of carrying two M-1 battle tanks, three CH47 Chinook helicopters, eight to 10 Cobra gunship helicopters and 73 support personnel.
The president noted Iraq has used chemical weapons in previous hostile actions, including its war against Iran, but he warned America will not tolerate the use of such weapons if fighting erupts. The paratroopers carry gas masks as part of their standard equipment.
A fatalistic pall hung over Fort Bragg in the hours before the base was placed under lockdown Tuesday. Soldiers were told to update there wills and others took steps to assure they would not be misidentified if they were killed in action. The sale of dogtags surged.
'Business has doubled compared to when they went to Panama (last December) and doubled again compared to when they went to Grenada,' said James Mave, manager of Old Sarge's Surplus Store on Bragg Boulevard. 'By 10 a.m. yesterday we had made 1,500 dogtags and had lots more to do.'
Neither the White House nor the Pentagon would say how many troops were being sent to the Mideast, but 15,000 Marine and Navy personnel left East Coast ports Tuesday.
The Fort Bragg exercise began Tuesday night when the first of three C-141B Starlifter cargo planes took off at 9:30 p.m, followed by two more at 3:30 a.m. and 3:55 a.m. Wednesday. The trip to Saudi Arabia takes 14 hours, and the first American troops arrived exactly on schedule, around noon Wednesday.
Other military movements were also afoot. In Morehead City, N.C., 100 miles east of Fort Bragg, some 2,500 Marines from Camp Lejeune set sail Tuesday for the Mediterranean, part of 15,000 sailors and soldiers scheduled for a routine six-month training exercise when the Iraqi forces invaded oil-rich Kuwait last Thursday.