If you’ve been around the Air Force, in and out of different flying squadrons, you’ve seen a variety of war trophies and hardware as part of a squadron’s history and décor. But how many times have you seen a T-72 Main Battle Tank parked outside? The Bull Dogs at Davis-Monthan, the 354th Fighter Squadron, fly A-10s, and they have just such a prize.
This tank’s 13,000-mile westward journey began in 1990. I was a first assignment F-16 pilot who, in early 1990, was told I would transition to fly the OA-10 for the 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base – it was labeled “career broadening.” By June of 1990, training complete, I was mission-ready in the OA-10 and qualified as a Forward Air Controller. With that behind me, our scheduler advised that I would be assigned “by name” to be deployed with a U.S. Army unit in time of war. My gaining Army unit would be the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment (ACR) “Brave Rifles” based at Fort Bliss, Texas.
On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq began a two-day operation into neighboring Kuwait that set in motion a seven-month occupation and the first Gulf War. Life changed. The U.S. military began alerting different Army and Air Force units. When the 3rd ACR called up its Air Liaison Officers (ALOs) from the Air Force, three OA-10 pilots from the 23rd TASS were ordered to report to Fort Bliss – Capt. Mark Register, 1st Lt. Ken Godfrey, and me, Capt. Steve Connolly. We were parceled out to the three squadrons that make up their regiment. We left for Fort Bliss in late August. If you ever travel on I-10 between Tucson and El Paso, you can still see the heel marks we left behind as we went to Fort Bliss knowing we were going into combat but we weren’t going to fly!
Our early September arrival in Saudi Arabia was punctuated with 120-degree temps. We were in the middle of the desert, south of Kuwait and northwest of Wabrah, Saudi Arabia. Our mission was to stop Saddam’s advance into Saudi. Luckily that invasion never happened, but we did practice wearing our chemical gear every single day at noon for one hour. We sweated a lot in our gear while we sat around playing cards in the shadow of our Humvees during our daily chemical preparedness exercises. The good news – at 1 p.m. we could take our gear off and drink all the 100-degree “room temperature” water we could hold.
In January 1991, we began to prepare for the offensive operations of Desert Storm. My unit, 2nd Squadron / 3ACR, would move west into the desert to lead the famous left hook into Iraq, establishing blocking positions so the Iraqi army could not retreat and could not be resupplied. My fellow Hawg drivers, Register and Godfrey, with the 3rd ACR’s 1st Squadron and 3rd Squadron respectively, were positioned alongside of us.
Of course, before the ground war kicked off, the Iraqi army had to be softened by air power. And that’s where I, a young fighter pilot, son of a general who flew in Vietnam, watched every airplane in the free world fly over my head and drop ordnance in Iraq. I wanted to be with them, to do what I trained to do. Instead, I played the hand I was dealt, eating MREs and digging my own latrine in the sand every day. Only later did I realize my training as a fighter pilot was going to be invaluable to the mission by assisting the 3rd ACR in achieving its objectives.
When the ground war commenced, my squadron of the 3rd ACR led the way into Iraq. In fact, because I had this new experimental navigation tool from the Air Force called a “GPS,” I got to navigate and lead the way across the desert for the 3rd ACR.
Feb. 22, 1991
Day one of the ground war arrived with a dense fog. I thought to myself, how did Clausewitz know it would be like this when he wrote of the “Fog of War!” Advancing north toward the Euphrates River, we encountered no resistance in the first few days. As we turned east to attack AR Rumaylah Airfield, our fortunes changed.
Feb. 27, 1991
The day was cloudy with a broken deck at 7,000 feet, but I was able to work the fighters around the weather. Ten miles west of the field we encountered a mine field, so we climbed to the top of the APC and sat on our flack vests to better protect ourselves.
As we moved through the mines, I started calling in airstrikes to destroy targets at the airfield and soften the resistance we would soon encounter. In an hour we were through the mines, unscathed.
To the north, the 24th Infantry Division (ID) was being shelled by artillery near our sector so, in addition to targets at our objective, we also worked airstrikes on artillery positions raining fire on friendlies to the north. It became apparent to me that I was in the right place at the right time.
I knew bomb strikes from F-16s were the best option for the artillery positions that were taking a severe toll on the 24th ID. These positions were protected by anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles. If the Vipers came in below the broken deck at 7,000 feet, they would be vulnerable to the AAA gunners. They could service these targets with radar guided munitions above the clouds, but the SAMs would still be a threat. I was able to direct EF-111s to blind the SAM radars, to pave the way for the F-16 strikes.
The insights I brought to this situation from my time in the F-16 were paying off for the mission at hand. The battle became so intense the Air Support Operations Center gave us whatever assets we wanted. F-16s and A-10s flew to kill zones to attack targets at large or to be used as the Forward Air Controllers needed them. I was on point so I called in strikes on whatever was in front of me. At 4 p.m., artillery from the Iraqi Al-Faw Republican Guard greeted our approach, shells landing within 100 yards of our Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). Working with my OA-10 squadron mate from the 23rd TASS, Lt. Quentin Rideout, we destroyed numerous targets at the airfield. Rideout gave me a detailed briefing on the layout of the Republican Guard Division at the airfield. With that information, we planned throughout the night for our attack the next day.
Feb. 28, 1991: CEASE-FIRE DAY
The cease fire was to take effect at 10 a.m. At noon we proceeded cautiously, arriving at the airfield. The true “Fog of War” took over, and we were soon engaged in a firefight. Small arms and RPG attacks were intense, but the heavy weapons had been destroyed the previous day.
Air Force Sgt. Steve Shores and I captured six prisoners that we escorted to a holding area by having those who were ambulatory walk beside our armored personnel carrier with their hands bound behind their backs. Two prisoners required life-saving first aid. One, whose leg had been shot off, received a tourniquet; a second one with numerous shrapnel wounds was bandaged to keep him from bleeding out.
At the field, we had to go through a myriad of underground bunkers and clear them one by one. I never thought I would be crawling underground with a flashlight and 9mm pistol rooting out the enemy, but there I was.
It was during the bunker clearing that we found a T-72 tank that was mostly buried. We went inside it to make sure it was abandoned and then moved on to the next bunker after we were sure it was clear. The whole 3rd ACR captured numerous tanks and BMPs (Soviet fighting vehicles). By sunset the battlefield fell quiet and the cease-fire took hold.
In mid-March we worked our way back to the United States. Register and I returned to Davis-Monthan via Germany and Dover. Our families were waiting for us at Davis-Monthan where I was reunited with my wife, who was six months pregnant. Godfrey flew from Dover to New York to visit his parents.
A few months later, I got a call from the Air Force ALO assigned full time to the 3rd ACR at Fort Bliss. He said the Army regimental commander was very happy with the Air Force support he received and in recognition of our great work, he wanted to give us a tank. So, I flew an A-10 to Fort Bliss to pick out our reward.
As I descended from the cockpit, a staff car came up and the regimental commander said, “Hop in and let’s find you a tank.” They took me to a fenced-in area that had numerous T-72 tanks and other captured vehicles, and he said, “Find one you like.” So, I walked up and down this “used-tank lot” and found a T-72 that I thought looked pretty good. The commander said, “All right, it’s yours; we’ll load it up on a flat bed and send it to Davis-Monthan.” Was this the tank I climbed in while clearing bunkers during the battle for the airfield? Maybe, but the “Fog of War” will forever obscure that detail.
The tank had one more move to land at its current location. To get to the 354th FS, it had to move from the old 23rd TASS building, north of its present-day spot. And that’s the story of how the 354th FS got its own tank.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Connolly is a second-generation Air Force fighter pilot. His father, retired Brig. Gen. Keith Connolly, had a 34-year Air Force career and his story of a MIG-17 engagement in Vietnam appeared in the Daedalus Flyer, Summer 2018.
Steve is a 1985 Air Force Academy graduate and UPT grad from Willy in 1986. His first assignment, 1987 – 1989, was with the 4th TFS at Hill AFB, flying the F-16. In 1991 he transferred to Davis-Monthan AFB in the OA-10 with the 23rd TASS. After the Gulf War, he was an OA-10 instructor pilot in the 333rd FS. In 1992 he joined the Air Force Reserves, retiring in 2007 as a Lieutenant Colonel. In his last assignment he served as an Air Force Academy Liaison Officer, Director of Area 431. Also, in 1992 he began a career with American Airlines and today is a 737 Check Airman with American.
After his experiences in Desert Storm helping to save the life of a wounded POW who lost his leg in combat, he wanted to help disabled US service members. In February 2014, a group of amputee veterans set forth on a monumental goal for recovery, to climb the world’s tallest free-standing mountain: Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,341 ft). Consisting of six amputees and five wingman climbers, the Kilimanjaro Warriors hiked the mountain for eight days, overcoming insurmountable obstacles and new challenges with each passing mile. Learn more at www.kilimanjarowarriors.com.
He has also completed two expeditions with a total of 17 disabled veterans / Gold Star family members, hiking the Grand Canyon from rim to rim. Another Grand Canyon expedition is planned for September 2020. Learn more at www.operationcanyonrising.com.
For its 2020 Heritage Project, the Old Pueblo Flight 12 at Davis-Monthan installed a granite plaque in front of the Tank at the 354th, to tell the tale of how it came to be there. The Old Pueblo Flight Daedalians, the 354th Bull Dogs, and several members of the 23rd TASS were planning a formal dedication of the tank plaque in July but the COVID-19 trend in Arizona has delayed that presentation, now being planned for October.
The Old Pueblo Daedalian Flight meets September-May at the Davis-Monthan Community Center. Are you a pilot, navigator, or flight surgeon interested in becoming a Daedalian? Contact retired Lt. Col. Jerry G. Bryant – firstname.lastname@example.org – for details. Join the camaraderie of a professional organization of military aviators that advocates for air and space power and honors those who flew and fly in defense of our nation.