A clearance diver in the Gulf War (pt2)

A Clearance Diver in the Gulf War:

Part 2

by Eugene Maxwell

Shuwaikh Port


On March 23 our convoy of four semi-trailers and assorted passenger vehicles emerged from the stark countryside into the relatively colourful suburbs of the city. Colourful as they were, they could not bring to life the city of Kuwait. Seemingly devoid of human life, and with tanks, trucks and cars strewn haphazardly on both sides of the highway, Kuwait was empty. Passing mostly military traffic, we were stopped at various checkpoints by Kuwaiti militia, with nervous grins on both sides until our recognition as allies had been established. Soon we got our first look at the city that had once held the world’s undivided attention. Though it was largely deserted and a number of buildings had been damaged, the city was relatively untouched. The obligatory bunkers and fortifications stood tall.

Shuwaikh Port lies approximately ten kilometres to the west of the inner city. Unloading our equipment, we reacquainted ourselves with our US and UK counterparts and settled down for a long stay. A portable mess, field showers and toilets had been erected: a luxury after our previous assignments with ration packs, wash buckets and impromptu thunderboxes. A heavily armed Marine FAST (Forward Area Security Team) manned watchposts and kept a 24 hour vigil over the diving teams, allowing us to do our job unhindered.

The water had warmed up since our arrival two months ago, and diving in Shuwaikh was quite bearable. Visibility, on the other hand, was non-existent. A soft muddy bottom ensured that a cloud of silt obscured all vision, and we were back to the familiar searching technique with our hands as the primary sensors. Some of the port’s dockside cranes had succumbed to Iraqi sabotage, lying shattered on the dock. Others had fallen in the water, with only their twisted foundations on the dock marking their position. While swimming over these massive structures gave some respite from the muddy seabed, they brought with them the hazards of razor-sharp jagged steel.

For the first time since entering Kuwait we began to see the sun. The oil fires were 40km to our south and the prevailing winds generally kept the smoke haze out of our area. We slipped into a steady work rhythm in Shuwaikh, covering 130,000 square metres every diving day. Later a French clearance team joined us. We interspersed our harbour clearance with a number of other tasks that alleviated the tedious harbour crawling. The infamous ‘Highway of Death’ was nearby, and many an hour was spent surveying the scene, imagining the confusion and carnage that took place when allied aircraft relentlessly strafed the vehicles. The morbid side of life again came our way in the task of removing a number of bloated and sun-blackened corpses from the northern Kuwaiti coastline. Like the mines, they had to be cut from their tangled wrapping of barbed wire and were reached by probing a pathway through the soft sand for fear of landmines.

There were, however, more pleasant activities, such as the sports day organised for the multinational forces involved in the clearance of Shuwaikh. We lost the volleyball, don’t want to talk about the tug-of-war, were runners up in the relay race, and finally victorious in the boat race … due entirely to our swimmer attack team that harassed and delayed the opposition Zodiacs!

Diving with a difference came our way when we set about diving a half-necklace team on the underside of a large floating dock. Searching by touch was necessary as the large floating structure blocked out all available light. 104 diving hours later, and after covering an area of 1,046,100 square metres, we finally completed the harbour area in a period of 11 diving days. We then moved on to a nearby small harbour belonging to the Al Ahmadi oil refinery, which had been devastated during the war due to the fact that it had been used to house missile patrol craft. Debris and wreckage littered the wharves and seabed, and a sunken patrol craft lay torn apart on the seabed after an allied bomb detonated the two forward missiles it carried. After four days, 250,200 square metres and 28 hours of diving, we finished the harbour and with it our diving missions in Kuwait.

Heading for home

April 22 marked the end of our stay. Our equipment was already on its way back to Bahrain via USN landing craft, and we were to follow shortly. Assembled in squad formation, we stood alongside our US, UK and French counterparts awaiting the arrival of various military and civilian dignitaries. Arrayed before us were Mine Counter Measure and patrol vessels of US, UK, French, Belgian and Kuwaiti origins; this was the unofficial opening of Shuwaikh. RADM Taylor, USN, presided over the ceremony and delivered a concise and fitting tribute to the clearance teams, and in a private ceremony later our own RADM Holthouse presented each member of CDT3 with the Australian Active Service Medal ribbon. While we always believed we were working for a just cause, this tangible piece of Australian gratitude seemed to make the job even more worthwhile. Clambering into the cars, our mood was one of exuberance with the knowledge of a job well done and the ever-increasing prospect of touching Australian soil. Our tally for Kuwait? 231 hours of diving, clearing 2,157,200 square metres of seabed, and 60 sea mines rendered safe. At 1700 hours, April 22, CDT3 crossed the Kuwaiti-Saudi Arabia border… this time going south!

Eugene Maxwell served as a Royal Australian Navy clearance diver from 1977 – 1998, reaching the rank of Chief Petty Officer. Within that time he worked within the Clearance Diving Teams, RAN Diving School, and SAS Counter Terrorist Unit. He worked as a Diving/MK16 Instructor on exchange to the US Navy EOD training unit in Hawaii, and went to the Gulf War with CDT3. He retired from active service in October 1998 and is now employed as a regional manager with CABA Western Australia, the specialists in life support equipment, hyperbarics, HP compressors, and service and support of the RAN’s A5800 (USN MK16) underwater breathing apparatus.

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