At 0545 on the 18th of January, 1991, Lieutenant Colonel Clifford Acree and Chief Warrant Officer Guy Hunter, Jr. took to the air on their second mission of the Gulf War. Their aircraft, a Marine OV-10, was a slow-moving observation plane used to support artillery and air attacks in front of their fellow Marines on the ground. The slow flying “Bronco” was well suited to this task, but it was also susceptible to enemy anti-aircraft fire. Flying these slow-moving aircraft was quite dangerous over Iraqi army emplacements.
Early in the mission, Lieutenant Colonel Acree spotted what looked like several FROG missile launchers preparing to fire on Saudi Arabia. He went in for a look. While reporting his find, he banked his aircraft and slowly circled the enemy. In response, the Iraqis launched a SAM at Acree and Hunter. The slow-moving Bronco had no chance of evading the deadly missile. It struck Acree’s left engine, spewing shrapnel into the cockpit. The thunderous explosion rocked the aircraft and turned what was once a beautiful flying machine into a vibrating metal coffin. Acree fought briefly with his controls, trying to bring the doomed aircraft under control. He quickly decided that it was a futile task and that the plane was going to crash.
Colonel Acree tried to talk to Hunter in the back seat but the plane’s intercom was out and he did not respond to Acree screaming his name. Hunter had been knocked unconscious when the missile struck. Colonel Acree quickly pulled the emergency control that would eject them both and by doing so saved his friend’s life.
Seconds after Hunter was hurled out of the disabled Bronco, Colonel Acree was ejected. Thus, the longest battle of Desert Storm had begun. As they both were floating to earth under their parachutes, Acree and Hunter were beginning a personal battle against desperation; against pain and hunger; against evil! The Iraqis were on them quickly and the beatings started.
When informed of his commanding officer’s fate, VMO-2’s intelligence chief emotionally lamented about Lieutenant Colonel Acree, “This is our worst nightmare. The CO was everything to us. He was a dad and we just lost our dad.”
Days later Lieutenant Colonel Acree was heaped in his cell recuperating from a four-day long grilling and torture at a place he labeled the “Baghdad Interrogation Center.” His first five days of captivity had been filled with endless beatings and questioning. He and Hunter were separated and both were mercilessly beaten. They were beaten so badly that Colonel Acree could not muster enough energy to even sit up. After each beating they were dragged back into pitch black isolation where they waited for the footsteps of guards coming to drag them to their next interrogation. It wasn’t until the 25th of January that Acree received medical attention for the wounds he had suffered during his ejection. A doctor entered his cell and during his short stay, found, and removed, a chunk of shrapnel from Acree’s neck without the aide of a painkiller.
Shortly after his prison-cell surgery, Acree was moved to a military prison. It was here, in his new home that the Colonel lay trying to recover his strength enough to sit up. He had survived his first encounter with Iraqi interrogators. For some unknown reason, they had temporarily suspended their questioning and moved him to a relatively benign environment. At the military prison, he was fed well and allowed to recover his strength. Here he met two of his neighbors; Major Jeffery Tice was in the cell next to his and on the other side of Tice was British Flight Lieutenant John Peters but Guy Hunter was gone.
Acree’s recuperation was ended on the 31st of January when he, John Peters, Jeffery Tice and others were moved from the relative safety of the military prison to the Iraqi Intelligence Regional Headquarters complex in downtown Baghdad. Here they would be subjected to another terrifying round of ruthless interrogations. At the “Baghdad Biltmore,” they were subjected to starvation, solitary confinement, freezing cold living conditions, and sleep depravation. It was clear to Colonel Acree that these people would not take no for an answer. The Iraqis intended to “soften them up” in preparation for one last interrogation. Acree and the others lived the dank and dark, receiving little or no food.
Acree continued his battle as he was held in solitary confinement and nearly starved to death for three weeks. The Iraqis used the isolation, starvation, and constant threats of death to break his will. On the 23rd of February, they were ready to proceed with the next phase of questioning. Colonel Acree was blindfolded and dragged into an interrogation room. His captors began with the usual questions. However, when he refused to answer, he was not beaten. His interrogator simply informed him that he was not being cooperative and he had either lied or had not provided them with any useful information throughout his captivity. Acree was informed that tomorrow would be different. He would be asked ten questions and if he answered to their satisfaction, everything would be fine. But, each time he lied or refused to answer they would cut off one of his fingers. They concluded the interrogation with a request for his wife’s address so they would know where to send his body pieces.
In preparation for the coming ground attack, the Allies flew more than three thousand sorties on the 23rd of February. Many of these aircraft participated in one of the largest attacks on Baghdad since the opening night of the war. One of the missions on this night was against the Iraqi Regional Intelligence Headquarters complex in downtown Baghdad. Five F-117 Nighthawks were scheduled to demolish the facility and an adjoining Ba’ath Party bunker.
Either through divine intervention or just blind luck, three of the five F-117s were diverted at the last moment and ordered to attack a higher priority target. The remaining two bombers attacked shortly after sunset. Colonel Acree was contemplating the loss of his fingers and his life in his next interrogation when the first bomb hit the building. The thought crossed his mind that it would be better to die instantly from an American bomb than to suffer through his next questioning. Both F-117s dropped two bombs and sped home. Two of the bombs were direct hits on the prison building. Miraculously, the section housing the prisoners, while heavily damaged had not been destroyed. The other two bombs probably destroyed the nearby bunker. Had all five planes attacked this facility, the other six bombs would have certainly killed all the POWs held there.
Within moments, guards scrambled into the cellblock and removed the prisoners. They were hustled aboard a bus and driven to Abu Gharib, Iraq’s largest prison, located on the outskirts of Baghdad. Fortunately, Acree never encountered the Iraqis who had threatened to mutilate him. He hoped that they had sought refuge from the F-117s in the nearby bunker.
At Abu Gharib there were no more interrogations but the prisoners were still treated badly by some of the guards. Guards would enter cells and beat the prisoners. Some prisoners were shocked and forced to eat human waste. Clifford Acree spent the last days of his captivity there in that seesaw environment. Some days he was well fed and left alone, other days the food was tainted and the guards cruel. Then one day Colonel Acree was brought a clean prison uniform and taken to the bathroom to shave and clean up.
Within days of the cease fire, all the prisoners of war were rounded up and brought to a downtown Baghdad hotel. As Clifford Acree entered the lobby of the hotel he scanned the crowd of prisoners, searching. Finally, in a sea of unfamiliar faces he saw Guy Hunter. He made his way through the crowd and embraced his friend. They had both survived. The Red Cross fed them and housed them for the night and on the next morning the jubilant ex-POWs boarded buses and headed to Saddam International Airport. After a short delay, they boarded a commercial aircraft for their journey to freedom.
Muhammed “Big Mo” Mubarak, the Kuwaiti pilot shot down in the first week of the war, would be given the honor of leaving the plane first. Then, after Colonel Eberly, would come Lieutenant Colonels Acree, Bellini, and Fox; Majors Cornum, and Tice; Captains Roberts, Sanborn, and Storr; Lieutenants Slade and Sweet; Chief Warrant Officer Hunter; and finally, Sergeant Troy Dunlap, as well as nine Saudis and six other British prisoners.
As the plane landed, every reporter in Riyadh was waiting on the tarmac along with General Schwarzkopf and a large delegation of Coalition commanders and friends of the POWs. Each unit that had a member being released sent a special representative to escort their POW. The escorts were each close friends of the freed prisoner. Their orders were to accompany the returning captive for the next several days and just be there for support.
When the plane taxied to a stop and the door swung open, Colonel Eberly appeared. “Mo” was the first POW off the aircraft. Then the rest descended the stairway in order of their rank. Colonel Eberly came first, then Lieutenant Colonel Acree. As Acree stepped onto the tarmac, General Schwarzkopf greeted him at the foot of the stairs. Acree stood at attention, saluted and said: “Sir, I am Lieutenant Colonel Cliff Acree, United States Marine Corps. I am reporting to you that all naval officers known to me in captivity are all present and accounted for.” Schwarzkopf returned the salute and replied, “Welcome home Colonel. I’m proud of you.”
This is an excerpt from Richard S. Lowry’s “The Gulf War Chronicles.” To learn more about all of the Desert Storm POWs, purchase your own copy of “The Gulf War Chronicles” at www.gwchronicles.com and to learn more about LtCol. Clifford Acree’s ordeal, purchase: “The Gulf Between Us – Love and Terror in Desert Storm” by Acree, Cynthia B. with Acree, Clifford, Colonel USMC - Brassey’s, Washington D.C., 2000.