A. Background

On August 13, 1997, the predecessor to our Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, Medical Readiness, and Military Deployments published an interim Al Jubayl[2] case narrative.[3] The narrative reported on an investigation of three separate events that occurred during the Gulf War at the port city of Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia. Through veteran testimony during congressional committee hearings, testimony before the Presidential Advisory Commission, news reports, and interviews of Gulf War veterans, these events became known as the "loud noise event," the "Scud impact event," and the "purple T-shirt event."

Veterans responded to the release of the interim case narrative. On September 5, 1997, we met with two individuals who wished to discuss the loud noise event.[4] During the meeting, the two individuals presented two scenarios challenging our assessment of the loud noise event of January 19, 1991. They believed that Iraqi military action—not the sonic booms from Coalition aircraft reported in the original case narrative—caused the loud noise. We agreed to investigate the new scenarios.

As the new investigation of the loud noise event progressed, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed the previously published case narrative. In their report, the GAO agreed with the finding and assessment of the original investigation of the loud noise event. However, the GAO criticized the narrative because it did not address the medical problems that some veterans, many of whom were assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24, have experienced since returning home from the Gulf. The GAO recommended that we include this information in any updates to the narrative.[5]

This edition of the Al Jubayl narrative updates the original version, includes an analysis of the two scenarios, and addresses the GAO’s concerns. The focus of this paper is the investigation of the alleged incidents and is not a primer on chemical weapons, chemical warfare agents, or Iraq’s chemical weapons program.[6]

B. History of Al Jubayl

Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, is the largest of eight planned industrial cities designed to take advantage of Saudi Arabia’s vast oil resources. The city is located on the Persian Gulf coast (Figure 2), approximately 250 kilometers south of the Saudi Arabian-Kuwaiti border. The Saudis developed the Al Jubayl area as an industrial city in the early 1980s. Before that time, the land where Al Jubayl now stands was an uninhabited desert coastline.

Figure 2. Map of Saudi Arabia

Al Jubayl City consists of an industrial zone and port facilities (Figure 3). The city also contains a residential area and other non-commercial areas. The industrial zone of Al Jubayl is a nine-kilometer by nine-kilometer area, (5.5 miles by 5.5 miles) located approximately five kilometers (3 miles) inland. Jubayl Naval Air Facility lies northwest of the city, approximately 20 kilometers inland. King Abdul Aziz Naval Base (KAANB) is a naval station and airfield complex located on the coast, five kilometers southeast of the city.

Figure 3. King Fahd industrial port and Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia

Housing camps existed throughout the industrial zone to house the work force. US forces used several of these camps as billeting and administrative spaces. Two Naval Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCB), NMCB-40 and NMCB-24, occupied Camp 13 throughout Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Camp 13, which was temporarily renamed Camp Rohrbach, was located in the north central part of the industrial area (Figure 3). The Seabees of NMCB-40 and NMCB-24 were the first tenants of Camp 13. The Saudis had built the camp some years before but never used it. During the Gulf War, Camp 13 was a fenced, 0.5 square kilometer (0.2 square mile) compound surrounded by various industrial plants, including a fertilizer plant, petrochemical plants, and a steel company. The Seabees used an area located directly across the street from the main camp as the motor pool.[7] Other units of other Coalition forces near Camp 13 included the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) 32 Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery,[8] and maybe a Saudi Arabian military unit located in the area of Camp 13.

Al Jubayl played a crucial role during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Almost all Marine Corps personnel and many Army units deployed through this port city. The Navy positioned several fleet hospitals in the area, and the Air Force had units on the ground to support airlift missions and medical evacuation missions.[9]

C. Involved Units

During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, US Navy and Marine Corps units occupied Al Jubayl (Tab B). The US Marine Corps’ I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) and 3d Marine Air Wing were located there. A detachment from the Army’s 702nd Transportation Battalion, a Patriot missile battery, and other military units were in the immediate harbor area, at local airfields, and in the industrial areas throughout the city (as were Camps 5, 13, and 15). Although many units were in Al Jubayl before the ground war, most combat and combat support units moved to the north for the ground war. Two units that remained in Al Jubayl, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24, and the Coast Guard’s Port Security Unit 301, are important in this narrative.

To obtain as much information as possible, we reviewed documents from other units located in Al Jubayl and conducted interviews of personnel assigned to those units. Tab B provides a listing of units that passed through or remained in Al Jubayl during the dates of events in this narrative; it does not cover the entire Gulf War deployment period.

1. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24

The Navy activated Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24 (NMCB-24), a reserve unit headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, in November 1990. NMCB-24 arrived in Saudi Arabia in December 1990 and reported to the 3rd Naval Construction Regiment. NMCB-24’s mission was to support the I Marine Expeditionary Force and other Coalition engineering and construction requirements. NMCB-24 was collocated at Camp 13 with NMCB-40, an active-duty Seabee unit that arrived at Camp 13 in September 1990. The commanding officer of NMCB-40 was also the commandant of Camp 13. NMCB-24 consisted of five companies: Headquarters, A, B, and C at Camp 13, and Company D (referred to as the air detachment or Air Det) 10 kilometers away at the KAANB. In addition to its regular complement of reservists, approximately 100 Seabees from other US-based reserve units augmented NMCB-24. NMCB-24’s assigned personnel totaled 724 enlisted and 24 officers.

NMCB-24 conducted construction operations in and around Al Jubayl, and deployed forces to Al Khanjar (referred to as Camp Smith or Lonesome Dove) and Al Jabar airfield in Kuwait. NMCB-24 returned to the United States on April 26, 1991.

2. US Coast Guard Port Security Unit 301

US Coast Guard Port Security Unit 301 (PSU-301) was an activated US Coast Guard reserve unit manned by personnel from Coast Guard reserve units throughout the United States. PSU-301 deployed in two phases—PSU-301-A and PSU-301-B. PSU-301-A deployed in September 1990 and PSU-301-B relieved 301-A in early March 1991.[10]

With its headquarters in the port area of Al Jubayl, the PSU’s primary mission was to conduct harbor patrol and surveillance, including interception, search, and apprehension of all suspicious or unidentified vessels in the area of the port and harbor. PSU-301 patrolled the harbor and performed other port security operations using Raider gunboats (Figure 4).

Figure 4.  Raider gunboat

3. US Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team, Detachment 33

A third unit that played an important role in Al Jubayl was the US Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team, Detachment 33. Members of Detachment 33 recovered components of a Scud missile after it came down and sank in the waters of Al Jubayl harbor.

D. Investigation of the Loud Noise Event of January 19, 1991

Veterans in the Al Jubayl area during January 19-21, 1991, report hearing a loud noise or explosion and seeing a bright flash of light in the night sky. Some people attribute the loud noise and bright flash to an Iraqi chemical warfare agent attack on Al Jubayl.[11] Although veteran descriptions of the loud noise are generally consistent, their descriptions sometimes differ on specifics such as the day(s) in question or the weather conditions at the time. After we began our investigation into the loud noise, we determined the loud noise and bright flash occurred during the early morning of January 19, 1991, and during the evening/early morning of January 20-21, 1991, but it is the incident that occurred on January 19 that some veterans believe was an Iraqi chemical warfare agent attack. The anxiety caused by the start of the air war coupled with the incidents in question has made it difficult for some veterans to discriminate among the dates in question. Therefore, we investigated reports of incidents during the entire three-day period. For clarity, we discuss the incidents of January 19 and January 20-21 separately.

We interviewed 67 NMCB-24 personnel, including the command staff, nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) team members, medical personnel, and unit personnel. Seven of these individuals also testified before Congress. Their recollections differed. Some recalled a mist in the air, which indicated the presence of a significant concentration of an airborne substance,[12] while others recalled a blowing wind and no mist.[13] Some veterans recalled an immediate onset of symptoms (burning eyes and skin) while others did not experience any symptoms.[14] There was also disagreement concerning the operational status of the M8A1 Automatic Chemical Agent Alarms issued to NMCB-24.[15] The M8A1 alarms did not detect any chemical warfare agents at Camp 13 during January 19-21, 1991.

1. January 19, 1991, Chronology

At approximately 3:30 AM[16] on January 19, 1991, many people in the Al Jubayl area heard a very loud noise. Believing an attack occurred, units in the area increased their alert status.[17] At 3:25 AM, a Camp 13 security guard at post 5 reported two blasts west of Camp 13. A second security guard reported that a white cloud was moving toward Camp 13 from the south.[18] At 4:07 AM, the NMCB-24 NBC officer had an NBC team member check for the presence of chemical warfare agents at Camp 13 using an M256A1 detection kit. The test was negative.
The NBC team conducted a second check using the M256A1 kit at 4:59 AM. This test was also negative. A log entry made at 5:01 AM noted that testing for chemical warfare agents in the port area also produced negative results.[19] At 5:41 AM, Camp 13 returned to Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) level 0+[20] and returned to normal operations at 5:45 AM.[21] The log of the NMCB-24 Air Detachment at KAANB contains entries noting a sonic boom at 3:30 AM, an air raid at 4:00 AM, and an all clear at 5:00 AM. There is no record of air detachment personnel running any chemical detection tests.[22]

However, during congressional testimony and in interviews with our investigators, a Seabee from NMCB-24’s air detachment said he conducted M256A1 tests that were positive for mustard agent two out of three times.[23] No one recorded these detections in either the NMCB-24 command log or air detachment logs, and there are no records that anyone reported such an event to higher headquarters. The air detachment Seabee testified that he informed the air detachment’s leaders of the positive M256A1 test results. An officer who was the assistant officer-in-charge of the air detachment stated he was in a position to receive such a report but never heard of these positive tests.[24] In an interview with one of our investigators, the NMCB-24 air detachment officer-in-charge (OIC) stated that the person who reported the positive tests had been detailed by the air detachment to the Marine chemical, biological, and radiological element at KAANB. The detachment OIC also stated that during attack alerts, this individual was under the control and direction of the Marine’s Defense Operations. The detachment OIC emphasized that he and his air detachment personnel were under the control of the KAANB commander, who was a Marine colonel. Any chemical, biological, or radiological monitoring, surveying, reporting, or decontamination operations took place under the direction and control of the KAANB commander. The air detachment OIC stated that the Marines (of Marine Air Group 13) were sensitive to the timely flow of information up and down the chain of command. The air detachment OIC does not remember anyone reporting to him that someone had detected blister agent. He stated that he would have remembered such a report, and the talk about a chemical detection during the early morning hours was exactly that, talk. He said that he and all the rest of the tenant unit commanders were in their areas of responsibility during the loud noise event and there were no reports from any unit or the Marine Air Group 13 chemical, biological, and radiological team that anyone detected any agent or that there were any injuries suffered or treated.[25]

There were no casualties reported during or after the events of January 19, 1991. However, the Seabee who claimed he conducted the positive M256A1mustard agent tests also identified another Seabee in the air detachment who developed a blister on his wrist under his wristwatch. Both Seabees believe a mustard agent caused the blister.[26] During an interview, a hospital corpsman senior chief, the senior medical corpsman for NMCB-40 and Camp 13, stated that he does not remember the individual from the air detachment who developed a blister, but added that he treated a lot of similar cases at Camp 13. He said ringworm or some other fungus most likely caused the blister under the wristwatch. He explained that if a watch was worn too tightly, heat and humidity built up under the watch, creating perfect conditions for a fungus to grow.[27] The individual who developed the blister under his watch said during an interview that he went to see NMCB-24’s doctor a couple of days after the incident. He said that even though the doctor told him the blister was ring worm he still believed chemicals caused the blister.[28]

During this period, a US Central Command (USCENTCOM) NBC log entry at 4:30 AM noted that there was an earlier report of a chemical attack at Al Jubayl. A British unit (not identified in the log) reported a slight reading for mustard agent by a chemical agent monitor (CAM). A British NBC team sent to the site of the reading to conduct further tests did not obtain a positive indication for a chemical warfare agent and reported all clear to the USCENTCOM NBC cell.[29] At 4:40 AM, the British reported that another one of their units was getting a positive reading for mustard using M9 Chemical Agent Detection Paper[30] and that unit personnel heard a propeller-driven aircraft in the area. At 5:10 AM, the USCENTCOM NBC cell contacted the British NBC team that attempted to verify the earlier reported positive detections and found the British NBC team was not wearing chemical protective clothing and had not had any positive M9 paper readings. Because of the conflicting reports, USCENTCOM dispatched NBC teams at 5:18 AM to the sites where the British detections occurred (near Camp 5 in the industrial zone) to recheck the area. At 6:15 AM, a USCENTCOM NBC team, led by a chief warrant officer, performed a reconnaissance of the area between the two British detections. A log entry made at 7:48 AM indicated that the team tested for chemical warfare agents with no positive readings and that two separate sweeps found no chemicals or debris in the area. This entry does note the discovery of a large diesel fuel spill in the middle of the suspect area.[31]

Eyewitnesses at Camp 13 described seeing a large fireball or bright flash that illuminated the sky, an explosion or concussion wave, and a mist in the air.[32] One veteran reported seeing a flare fired from the USS Tarawa presumably at the time the loud noise event occurred.[33] Quotes from NMCB-24 Seabees that appeared in a newspaper article include: "I remember getting woke up by this humongous explosion—it almost knocked us out of our bunks." "I am a Vietnam War vet, and my thoughts were that it was a rocket." "[I initially] thought it was incoming artillery rounds." "Right after I got into the bunker, my lips started turning numb and the numbness lasted for several days." "Nobody believed it was a sonic boom—nobody. I’ve been in the military most of my life and I know that a sonic boom doesn’t leave a flash of red light in the damn sky."[34] Eyewitnesses also stated that those experiencing symptoms reported for medical attention within the next few days. We interviewed the NMCB-24 commander, medical personnel, and senior noncommissioned officers assigned to Camp 13 and reviewed the unit’s sick-call logs. We found no record that any individual sought medical attention on January 19th or during the following days for the symptoms that are consistent with an exposure to a chemical warfare agent or injuries resulting from an attack using conventional munitions.[35]

Several witnesses located at Camp 13 stated that they smelled an ammonia-like odor, while others do not recall any significant odor.[36] NMCB-24’s Camp 13 logs do not mention the presence of any odor during the time of the loud noise. Some personnel have stated that they were unprotected during that time and exhibited no symptoms that would have indicated exposure to a chemical warfare agent.[37] A Seabee assigned to NMCB-24 (Camp 13) stated that during the alert he volunteered to leave his bunker to conduct a M256A1 chemical warfare agent test. Once outside, he became aware that he had forgotten his protective gloves in the bunker. He elected not to return to the bunker for his gloves and continued to test for the presence of chemical warfare agents. He stated that he did not develop any of the symptoms related to an exposure to a chemical warfare agent.[38]

Records of other units stationed in Al Jubayl contain information that describes loud noises on January 19, 1991. For example, the NMCB-24 air detachment log contains an entry reporting the sonic boom at 0330 hours.[39] The command history of the British Critical Facility Force describes the positive blister agent reading by British forces.[40] The I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) journals also contain entries that discuss the British detections.[41] The logistics operations center’s daily update indicates that the reported mustard attack at Al Jubayl was actually an ammonia plant setting off alarms and that the booms were from aircraft.[42] The KAANB commander (a Marine aviator) also stated that he was told that two aircraft made the loud noise. He said it was the loudest sonic boom he had ever heard. He said that immediately after hearing the noise, he called his command center and the duty watch told him the Marine Tactical Air Control Center had informed them that the source of the loud noise was two Tornado F3 aircraft heading towards the north.[43]

2. Identifying the Source of the Loud Noise

Thus far, we have discussed information obtained from unit logs and personal interviews. Certainly, many people heard a loud noise during the early morning hours of January 19, 1991. What is debatable, however, is the source of the loud noise. During interviews, many veterans stated that an incoming Scud missile caused the loud noise. Others believe aircraft caused the loud noise. Records show no Scud launches directed towards the vicinity of Al Jubayl on January 19, 1991.[44] However, on this third day of the air campaign, the skies were full of aircraft flying to their assigned targets, flying air defense missions, or flying to their temporary home station. We reviewed the Air Force Central Command Air Tasking Order for the air campaign. The air tasking order shows that Central Command scheduled several sorties during the early morning hours of January 19, 1991, that would have overflown Al Jubayl.[45] To determine if the loud noise heard in Al Jubayl was a sonic boom from aircraft, we asked the 552d Air Control Wing to review surveillance data recorded during the war aboard Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. Specialists from the Air Force’s 552d Computer Group at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, analyzed the recorded AWACS data. The data showed that at approximately 3:32 AM, two Coalition aircraft (aircraft A and B shown in Figure 5) were exceeding the speed of sound[46] as they flew over Al Jubayl from the northwest to the southeast. This was approximately the same time people in the area reported the loud noise. Aircraft A flew the closest to Camp 13 and was accelerating through 638 knots (734 miles per hour) to 652 knots (750 mph) while flying over the city at 3:27:50 AM. Aircraft A continued to accelerate out over the Persian Gulf, reaching a top speed of 924 knots (1062 mph) at 3:33:53 AM. Aircraft B flew over the outskirts of Al Jubayl. Aircraft B approached Al Jubayl at 3:27:16 AM at a speed of 700 knots (805 mph) and accelerated as it passed by the city, reaching a top speed of 873 knots (1003.95 mph) at 3:27:57 AM. The altitude of both aircraft exceeded 29,000 feet as they flew over Al Jubayl.[47]

Figure 5. Flight paths of aircraft that caused the loud noise (sonic boom)

When describing the loud noise, some veterans have said they heard two near simultaneous booms or explosions. The two aircraft identified as flying over Al Jubayl at supersonic speeds were not simultaneously occupying the same airspace. Aircraft A was slightly ahead of aircraft B. Because each aircraft produced its own sonic boom, and because of the small interval between both aircraft, it is possible that some people heard two booms.

3. Weather Information

The weather conditions at the time of the loud noise incident would have affected what was seen and heard during the loud noise event. As already indicated, veteran’s recollections of weather conditions during the loud noise sometimes differ. Unfortunately, a specific weather observation for Al Jubayl is not available. Therefore, we relied on regional weather data provided by the US Air Force’s Environmental Technical Applications Center.[48] The data indicate that during the early morning hours of January 19, 1991, low clouds with bases at 100-200 feet covered both Iraq and Saudi Arabia; winds were east to southeasterly at 5-15 knots; visibility throughout the area was near zero in dense fog; and temperatures ranged from lows of 0-10 degrees Celsius (32-50 degrees Fahrenheit) to highs of 10-18 degrees Celsius (34-64 degrees Fahrenheit).[49] The dense fog may be what some veterans referred to as a mist or droplets of water in the air. In addition to the Air Force’s weather data, the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense indicated in its report that a temperature inversion existed over the area.[50]

4. Air Force Research Laboratory’s Analysis of Al Jubayl Sonic Boom Data

We thought the weather conditions at the time the sonic boom(s) occurred over Al Jubayl affected the sound level of the sonic boom(s) and caused them to sound much louder than normal. To check our theory, we contacted the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio[51] and asked them to review the sonic boom information contained in this narrative and to determine if the weather had any impact on the sonic booms. The research laboratory reviewed the material and analyzed the data. Although they confirmed the existence of the temperature inversion over Al Jubayl and agreed that a temperature inversion can amplify a sonic boom, they concluded that in this case the inversion had no effect on the sonic boom. Rather, it is their opinion that the sonic booms from both aircraft came together somewhere within the Camp 13 to create a louder (or stronger) than normal sonic boom called a focus boom. Conditions that existed at the time of the loud noise incident (weather conditions and the flight profiles of the sonic boom aircraft) could have caused variations in overpressure (the sonic boom) from 7 pounds per square foot to 21 pounds per square foot. Sonic booms of that magnitude startle most people. It is also highly probable that persons in Camp 13 or those who were close to the point where the focus boom reached the surface could have interpreted the sonic boom as an explosion.[52,53]

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