Heroes of 20th Century’s Last Great Tank Battle
John Hillen’s Cavalry Unit was supposed to scout the enemy and relay information back to headquarters.
But on Feb. 24, 1991, Hillen and his squadron found themselves in the middle of the largest tank battle of operation Desert Storm.
“Because we were moving fast and because of the way the Iraqis were arrayed, we were on top and in the middle of them so quickly,” said Hillen, who at the time was a 25-year-old first lieutenant assigned to the 2nd squadron, 2nd armored cavalry regiment.
A BRONZE STAR
Hillen, now 53 and a member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter, earned a Bronze Star for his role in what is known today as the Battle of The 73 Easting, which took place in the flat desert of southern Iraq.
In that decisive engagement — the last great tank battle of the 20th century — the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment defeated two brigades of Iraq’s elite Republican Guard, destroying more than 160 Iraqi tanks, 180 personnel carriers, and 12 artillery pieces.
Hillen, who was his squadron’s assistant operations officer, commanded a Bradley Fighting Vehicle — a cross between a light armored tank and personnel carrier — that used its tow missiles to destroy two Iraqi armored personnel vehicles.
“We used up our entire basic load of ammunition,” said Hillen, adding that his Bradley “took a lot of small arms fire” during the battle, but were otherwise unscathed after several hours of fighting Iraqi forces. One American soldier died in the battle.
U.S. MILITARY TRAINING TOPS
“You can try to chalk it up to equipment, but at the end of the day, our training was the thing that made the American military not only victorious, but easily victorious,” Hillen said. “It didn’t have to be that easy, but it was because we were that much better.”
In the years before Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq, invaded Kuwait in 1990, Hillen had been a young Army officer. He commanded a tank platoon in Germany before becoming a scout platoon leader for the Second Squadron’s E Troop, which was then commanded by Capt. H.R. McMaster, who decades later became President Donald Trump’s national security adviser.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Hillen and the Army officers of his generation trained for a war with the Soviet Union that many expected but hoped would never happen.
“The philosophy was command and control from the rear because everybody was preparing for a defensive battle of Western Europe,” Hillen said. That defensive posture went out the window when his unit was deployed to the Persian Gulf in December 1990.
ON THE OFFENSIVE
“All of a sudden, we got thrown into a war where we had to be on the offensive,” Hillen said. “So we took all the things that slowed us down and we burned it all in a big bonfire in the desert. We moved everything we had left onto the most mobile and heavily armored offensive vehicles we could have, in order to ride with the forward surge of troops, and command and control from the front.”
When the aerial bombardment began in Operation Desert Shield, Hillen’s unit started moving across the Saudi Arabian desert toward Iraq. The day before the ground war commenced, the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment crossed the border into Iraq. The plan was to get behind the Republican Guard forces and destroy them while preventing them from retreating from Kuwait.
“Our job was the traditional cavalry job,” Hillen said. “We were the reconnaissance element for the entire VII Corps. We were the first ones in, ahead of everybody else. We had 120,000 people behind us.”
As E Troop neared a line on the map called the 70 Easting, Hillen and his troops encountered a large group of Republican Guard tanks that were dug-in and well-hidden.
“All of a sudden there was this field full of Iraqi T-72s, fully manned, with elite crews in them and everything,” said Hillen, who added at that point, the Americans had little choice other than to engage the Iraqis in battle because to retreat would have resulted in large numbers of casualties.
AMERICAN FORCES PREVAIL
“Those guys knew what they were doing. These weren’t the Iraqis who were just surrendering,” Hillen said. “They fought back, had brand-new equipment. They had elite leaders, they were arrayed in a very professional defensive position and they counter-attacked.”
The Republican Guard may have been the Iraqi military’s elite, but they were no match for the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. The American forces destroyed the Republican Guard. One Bradley Fighting Vehicle was lost. Not one American tank — the impermeable M1 Abrams — was destroyed.
“If we were all playing baseball, they were playing Single-A ball while we were playing in the big leagues,” said Hillen, who left active duty a year and a half after Desert Storm and went on to have a successful career in the private sector and in public service, even serving from 2005 to 2007 as the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.
Hillen, who today runs his own consulting firm, speaks fondly of the soldiers he served with in that battle, adding that many of them have seen each other at reunions over the years.
“We were all really lucky to have served with each other,” Hillen said. “That unit in Desert Storm was a real good team. We cared for each other and we had each other’s backs, as all good teams do.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer