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volume 8
february 2006

The Voice of Peace Gulf War Diary


  Remembering the Voice of Peace (31)
by John MacDonald
  The Gulf War of 1991 did not leave the MV Peace untouched. In January the ship moves nearer to the Tel Aviv coast to guarantee ship-to-shore connections. Some days later presenter John MacDonald sees the first Scuds falling on the city and even closer by in sea. Now, fifteen years later, he opens his diary to recall his memories of those disturbing days.
Next Right: The MV Peace off the coast of Tel Aviv (photo: Paul van Onzen)

January 15th, 1991. The United Nations Deadline is due to expire at 07:00 hours local time tomorrow. There are now five crew members and two disc jockeys left on board the Voice of Peace. This afternoon we took on a load of supplies in case of problems later on. Some personal items I asked for were also delivered. My mother called the office; she was not exactly frantic but a little concerned. I managed a link up later on to her and demanded she reassure other family members. Writing to a friend later on, I made the point that I was more nervous now than I would be if anything happened.

Next January 16th, 1991. I presented normal programmes today and worked very hard at not sounding nervous. I decided to make it easy by playing three or four songs in a row. This morning at 07:00 the ship was moved to a position ten miles off the coast off Tel Aviv. This outraged Abie Nathan as he was unable to hear us clearly on the Motorola ship-to-shore link. After a little negotiation we moved four miles closer to shore. Civil Defence in Israel suggests we keep our gas masks close to us. This would be fine if we had any. Equally it is not possible to seal a room in the event of a gas attack thanks to the air condition system. So we all kept watching TV to see if there was anything we could do. Fortunately the Israeli Navy has promised to watch over us.
Next January 17th, 1991. At 02:02 the BBC World Service announced that bombs were falling on Baghdad. I was the only person awake on the ship at the time, so I informed the captain and then called Abie to request instructions. They were very simple, go to sleep. I mean really. Israel TV came on the air and they were relaying CNN at regular intervals. So with that and the BBC we remained informed. Much to my outrage there would be no local English news on TV until 08:00 despite a recent inauguration of English TV news. I guess there was no one awake in the early hours. Today we are playing peace songs. Daryl Richel, who is a Canadian, and I split the day up from 06:00 until 21:00 and get through it feeling exhausted. I watched the late relay of CNN and went to bed after preparing the following days commercials. The ship's crew is keeping watch and will inform us if there are any problems.
Next January 18th, 1991. It's 02:45 and I wake to hear that missiles have fallen on Tel Aviv. Why am I getting this information from the BBC? I rush to the bridge and discover that the radio is turned off. So I call the captain and inform him of the situation, then I go to the studio to call Abie and find out what he knows. Not very much. Well, the BBC will tell me what's happening, so I set up my radio next to the TV and await news. The TV comes back on at 03:10 from a secure location judging by the quality of the picture and a Richard Baker type announcer is doing gas mask demonstrations at regular intervals. There are civil defence films and music from Israeli artists. Turning to the radio I find Israel Radios' English service and am disgusted by the announcer who sounds as if he should be sitting on the toilet instead of broadcasting reassuring news and information. He manages to tell us that the population can now remove their gas masks and then the service switches to Russian. At 04:00 Miriam Herschlag begins the next English news broadcast. Her cool calm tones do much to undo the damage the previous announcer must have caused. Arutz Sheva, the other ship that broadcasts from this area has left the coast and joined us six miles out. There is also a small dinghy from Tel Aviv Marina out here as well. The all-clear is given at 04:50 with requests for continued vigilance.
  Who can sleep after that? I continue watching TV for details of damage and casualties. I have many friends in the Tel Aviv area and I want to know they are alright. Now something interesting happens. Israel radio and TV confirm that the country has been hit by missiles but refuse to say where for security reasons. However, on a short relay from CNN the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations announces that two missiles have fallen in the Tel Aviv area and one or two in Haifa. Although this relay is broadcast on state Television local announcers continue to refer to the impact sites being in Central and Northern Israel. The Mayor of Tel Aviv talks about having visited the scenes and casualty lists are given of seven lightly injured. So who should I believe? It is time to go to work and I take my first shift of the day for 4 hours from 09:00 till 13:00. By this time the only thing keeping me awake is willpower so after listening to the latest news at 13:00 from the BBC I go to sleep. I am back on duty at 17:00 for another four hour shift. I am informed that air raid sirens are sounding at 20:45. It is the Jewish Sabbath so an attack was expected.
  It occurs to me that I am probably the first offshore broadcaster working during an air raid warning. It is a false alarm and the all-clear is sounded at 21:00. I switch off the transmitters and start preparing for the next day. Listening to the BBC later I hear that in the early hours of the morning two missiles had fallen in the Mediterranean. A phone call ashore reveals that at least one fell into the sea off Herzliya which is a few miles north of us. This is getting serious. Shortly after 23:00 I am called to the radio link and informed of a change of policy for the Voice of Peace. With immediate effect our transmitters will be open to Civil and Military authorities should they be required. I am told an attack is expected at any time so I re-open the station immediately and present music until 01:00 am. No attacks, no calls, so I close down and wonder if I will get a full night's sleep.
Next Left: A Scud falling on Tel Aviv

January 19th, 1991. I awake at 07:00 and much to my surprise discover that I have been able to sleep through the night. Checking the BBC news they announce that although there were three alarms during the night there have been no attacks. As I do my morning routine I discover that another alarm has gone off at 07:00. I am on deck watching Tel Aviv at 0725, when I see three missiles strike. One each in North, Central and South Tel Aviv. Ten minutes go by and nothing else happens so I go to call Abie. This is a simple security check so that he will know the ship is alright and I will know that he is fine. I think he needs to talk to us as he is very nervous about the whole business. I tell him what I saw and go to listen to the BBC as experience has now shown that they will give far more information than Israel Radio and do it faster. Sure enough at 07:45 the BBC report that four missiles have hit Tel Aviv, they will later amend it to three. Israel radio announces hits on central Israel at 09:00.

  I am working again at 09:00 and take the opportunity to call the station manager Reuven Levy who tells me that his windows were rattled by the explosions. Happy that he and his family are well it is back to work until 13:00. On checking the news at this time I am pleased to find there are no casualties. I am interested in aircraft and when in the Royal Air Force I once saw a US Air Force Galaxy transporter while I was on exercise. I could never forget the sight of it and that is why I am wondering what one is doing in the sky above the Peace ship at 15:30. It becomes clear later in the day that is delivering Patriot missiles, which it is said can knock down incoming Scud missiles.

  [My notes after this incident show that things were quiet for a couple of days. By this I mean that we have had 8 or 9 hours on air each day along with a little less preparatory work than usual.]
Next January 23rd, 1991. I reached my girl friend on Monday 21st and she was doing all right although like everyone else ashore the nerves start to jangle as nights arrive. The Patriots have been given wide publicity but on Tuesday 22nd, there is destruction again in Israel as a Patriot hits an incoming Scud but fails to destroy the warhead which falls on Ramat Gan in South Tel Aviv. Three people die from heart attacks as the missile impacts and one is killed by the missile. A hundred are injured and there is great destruction of property. On Wednesday 23rd January, Patriots knock down a Scud aimed at Haifa. But soon afterwards comes some amazing sights.
Next January 25th, 1991. The day is normal as far as days in a war zone go. I am on my second shift of the day from 17:00 and have gone into the news at 18:00 when with only thirty seconds of news read there is an air-raid alert. I immediately request listeners to retune their radios to Kol Israel (The Voice of Israel) and announce that we are going to close down until the alert is over. Rushing to the deck I am in time to see a Patriot missile knock a Scud out of the sky. My first thought is that is like a giant firework display but less than ten seconds later I see two Scuds fall and explode in south Tel Aviv. I have no more thoughts about fireworks. The real thing is happening now. Patriots are still being fired and we see a big flash in the clouds but at least two Patriots have fallen to the ground without hitting anything and we see another explosion in North Tel Aviv. The weather has been bad all day today and as rain starts to fall and the ship rolls, two more Patriots head north. This is the last aerial action we see. From three parts of Tel Aviv, smoke thick enough to see, even in darkness, is pouring. The all-clear is not given for over an hour so I am instructed by the owner not to re-open the station. This means I make an entry in the commercial logs: "Cancelled due to missile attack."
Next January 26th, 1991. After the previous night's sights, which television got a good view of, although our view was much better, we discover that one person has been killed and sixty-nine are injured. Life goes on and we present what have become normal programmes for us. On Saturday morning we start at 08:00 as I feel it is not a good idea to present our Arabic Showcase at the moment. Sky News have been making a short film about the Voice of Peace as a soft news item and after talking to Abie they hire a boat and come out for a quick interview with me. The weather has been bad for the last few days so to avoid cutting myself I have not shaved for two or three days. Add to this the wind blowing through nine weeks worth of hair and I must look like a refugee from the Sixties. They are not allowed on board but by hanging over the side I manage a few words or them. It will be broadcast tomorrow. There is another missile attack at about 22:20. The Patriot missiles do their job and although there is a ground explosion it is away from the City so there is no damage and no casualties. Once again I am in my cabin and miss it.
Next January 27th, 1991. Older schoolchildren are back to school today after about ten days off. In fact watching TV pictures there seems to be an air of normality about Tel Aviv by day. At night however it is a different story with reports of it being a ghost town. You can almost feel the tension in the air at night even out here at sea, but today there are no alerts.
Next Right: Patriot missiles trying to intercept incoming Scuds

January 28th, 1991. Today is my 66th straight day on the Peace ship and at last shore leave is in sight. Kenny Page, who left the ship nine weeks ago but did not leave Israel, wants to come back. One onshore bureaucrat is delaying his return but it seems that this time next week I will be able to rest. Abie says he will try to find me a place outside Tel Aviv for my break so I will be safe. I suggest that Cyprus will be a good idea and he is not amused. As I was writing this, shortly after 21:00, there was another alert. It was followed by an incoming Scud. Again I know nothing about it until the next BBC news. We very rarely watch Israel TV and never listen to their radio and as we are too far way to hear the sirens we have to rely on someone to tell us. But if the boss is out somewhere then we have no way to know about it until it is over. I should stress though, that one of the crew is on the bridge throughout the night so that ship's safety can be maintained at all times. This missile fell short and landed in the countryside. TV cameras on top of the Hilton Hotel saw it come down. No Patriots were launched though and this is worrying the people a bit.

  Before I go to bed, details of Saddam Hussein's interview with CNN come through. After he talks about Nuclear, Chemical and Biological warheads, we make an instant demand for gas masks. This time we will get them. I do not believe for a minute that he has the capability of sending a nuclear warhead to Israel but gas is something else. It would only take an overshoot of 15 to cause us problems. Now I can put my air force NBC training to good use. Did you know for example that if you get caught without a gas mask, then if you urinate on a T-shirt or similar material and cover your face with it you will be protected for about twenty to thirty minutes? Not a lot of people know that!

Next January 29th, 1991. Nice quiet day today. I played 56 songs in three hours of Sixties music.
Next January 30th, 1991. It is another quiet day today as far as the war goes, but for us it is a different story. Saddam has promised the Mother of all Wars in the Gulf, but we have a more pressing problem. The Mother of all Storms arrives and as the night goes on the wind is gusting to 75 knots. The Peace ship is flat bottomed and this means we are very uncomfortable indeed. The swell goes up very quickly to seven metres and we can feel every bump. Sleep is out of the question. It is hard but somehow we manage.
Next January 31st, 1991. Some ground skirmishes are reported from Kuwait. We are still living through the storm. It blows down a little bit in the afternoon. It never rains but it pours. I am going into the 18:00 news when the air-raid sirens go again. About two minutes of standing in the wind and rain and I see the flash of ground explosion. This time it is a long way inland and at 19:00 the BBC say it has come down on the West Bank. No casualties or damage this time but the all clear does not sound until 19:20, so once again I enter on the advertising log that tonight's commercials are cancelled due to missile attack. As if in protest at the attack the wind starts blowing faster and soon we are resigned to another sleepless night as the wind gauge reads 50 knots.
Next February 1st, 1991. The day starts with the wind dropping away. During the night our antenna has broken so we are on FM only. Previous experience has shown that it will take about 24 hours to become properly calm again. There has been a lot of rain over the past week. So much in fact that the officially declared drought can be cancelled. As the Jewish Sabbath approaches tension begins to rise again. This is the third one of the war and on the previous two Sabbaths missiles have hit Tel Aviv and Haifa. We are watching and waiting.
Next February 2nd, 1991. Amazing, we got through the night without any missile attacks. With the sea now showing a slight swell, there is a chance to repair the AM antenna. So with the arrival of dawn of 06:30, we are all up and get to work. The break is in the middle, so the whole thing comes down and gets patched up. Really it needs replacing, but we will wait until we can get to port for this. Back on air at 11 am and everything works fine. Scotland beat Wales at rugby and I am feeling good, until the first air raid sirens go again. It is 20:20 and a missile hits the West bank with no casualties. The all-clear is a long time coming so I don't wait. It has been a long day and time for some sleep.
Next February 3rd, 1991. I wake just after midnight to feel the ship rolling a little. A quick walk on deck and the wind is blowing again. Great! I am supposed to be going on shore leave today, but as the wind begins to gust to 50 knots it becomes clear that there will be no chance, so I make a cup of tea and a sandwich and sit down to watch "Midnight Caller" which has just started. Ten minutes into it, the TV shows the word "alert" in six languages, including Latin. It is raining and we can hardly see Tel Aviv so there is no way of seeing the missile, but again it lands on the West Bank. I try for more sleep, but we are pitching and rolling again so I bring this diary up to date. The sea gets rougher and I realise that I have at least two more days aboard.
Next February 4th, 1991. At the height of the storm last night the ship took a 30 degree roll, throwing things everywhere, so it is a clearing up day today. As we are short of sleep and patience it takes longer than usual. I could have done with the day off, but somehow we struggle on until our close-down time of 19:30.
Next February 5th, 1991. Shore leave at last! The sea is far enough down that we can get our first boat in twelve days. Food and Kenny come aboard and by one o'clock I am sitting in a local restaurant eating a huge meal. I'm resting and reading in our hotel when a call comes from Glasgow. The Daily Record interviews me, about life on the Peace ship and in Israel during the war so far. A photograph is collected from my parents who are pleasantly surprised and the article will appear tomorrow morning. I visit friends at night and see for myself how dead the city is after night.
Next February 6th, 1991. As a result of the interview in this morning's newspaper, the BBC call and record an interview for Good Morning Scotland. It will be broadcast tomorrow. My girlfriend comes back from the south of Israel to open her house for the first time in weeks. She is an actress and has been entertaining evacuees in Eilat hotels. Life becomes very domesticated.
Next February 7th, 1991. Following the BBC Scotland interview this morning, I am contacted by the Scottish Daily Express and give another interview. Wow! Gila decided not to go out after dark, so I am getting all the rest and relaxation I can handle. I feel good.
Next February 8th, 1991. I was out and about today to get a little exercise but sunset finds me back with Gila. There is a good movie on TV tonight called "Tin Men" and it is very funny. My exercise catches up with me though and I am yawning by 01:00, so it is off to sleep.
Next Left: John MacDonald sits back and awaits the events while wearing his gas mask

February 9th, 1991. At 01:20 the air raid siren sounds. This is the first time in six days and the first time I have been ashore for one. It sounds exactly the way you hear it in the movies. A rising and falling note sending its message through the night. We close the seals on the door, which is the only part of our room that is unsealed. Gas masks on and sit back and wait. There has been five minutes warning and it is a very nervous time.

  All the time I keep thinking that the chances of anything coming close enough to hurt us are very low. Suddenly two Patriot missiles are launched. I am told that where ever you are in the city you can hear them. They sound like they are flying across our roof although that is very doubtful. Seconds later we hear an explosion. It is not close enough to shake the apartment, but it is very loud. We sit back with gas masks on and have to wait twenty minutes until the all-clear is given, when it is time for a cup of tea. It becomes clear that Ramat Gan has been hit again this time by a damaged Scud missile. There is a lot of damage, but only eight injuries and none of them are serious. Who can sleep after that? We will try. Eventually sleep does come and as another day arrives, life gets back to normal. There is live football on TV in the afternoon; it is a shame that it is Israeli football. Oh well, I did not expect to see Morton anyway. Everyone is home by sunset again, but as it happens tonight is a quiet night.

Next February 10th, 1991. Last day of shore leave, so it is shopping and lunch with friends. The ship goes to Ashdod port in the evening for water and that is where I join it. We sail shortly after midnight and I get ready for a return to work.
Next February 11th, 1991. Daryl has left the ship at Ashdod for his leave, so Kenny and I get to work and we are soon back in the old routine. At 19:00 the news is interrupted by an alert. I continue relaying Israel radio and step upstairs to see what is happening. A few minutes later I can see four Patriot missiles being launched out to sea. I follow the direction and see a Scud falling out of the sky. It looks like it will be coming close to us. One after another the Patriots hit it and knock it to the north. It falls in the sea, but close to Herzliya and this is why it breaks a few windows. The noise of the missiles rolls over us like something solid and, believe it or not, I can actually smell them. Israel Radio reports that the Scud has landed in an uninhabited area. If they say so. But we live there! At 21:20 there is another alert but this time it is a false alarm. I wonder if Daryl is enjoying his shore leave.
Next February 12th-15th, 1991. The night's action is not yet over as the alert sounds again at 01:25. I hear this one on the radio, so off I go upstairs and this time a Scud is coming down in the middle of Tel Aviv. One Patriot goes after it and partially destroys it. The remains fall on the east end of town. A few more people are injured but none seriously. Back to sleep and it is business as normal for the rest of the day. There are no more alerts. After this some more quiet days follow. Kenny and I have our photos taken in gas masks in the studio for publication in a radio magazine. On February 13th, the bombing of the Shelter/Command and Control centre takes place and on the 15th, Iraq announces it is prepared to leave Kuwait but with preconditions. The war continues.
Next February 16th, 1991. I am writing letters in my cabin and listening to two radio stations, the BBC World Service and Israel Radio, when at about 20:15 the alert sounds. Kenny wants to get some pictures so we go upstairs but this time it is the south of the country that gets attacked. Just for once our area is first to get the all-clear. Reports say that two missiles were fired tonight. As I bring tonight's diary to a close, Israel radio announces that they fell in uninhabited areas. We figure it is the Negev desert.
Next February 17th, 1991. Our FM transmitter has gone done and we will have to wait for spare fuses to come from the USA before it can be fixed. They were due to arrive today but although the invoice came, the goods themselves did not. Claim and counterclaim about civilian casualties continue to be broadcast from both Baghdad and Washington. It is probably worth while stating the Voice of Peace's position on the Gulf war:
  1. We are against action from either side that causes civilian casualties.
  2. We are against the naked aggression of Saddam Hussein and wish to see him loose power in Iraq and be held to account for his actions. Comments on the war are only broadcast by the owner however. Our job continues to be music presentation.
Next February 18th, 1991. Daryl comes back from shore leave today and we are able to extend our broadcasting hours. The alert sounds again minutes before 20:00 and as we watch Tel Aviv a Patriot missile launches to intercept a Scud falling on north Tel Aviv. It is successfully hit and the Scud breaks up in the air causing no damage or casualties. Loud noises can be heard, but the debris is too small for us to see. Again we have a few days of quiet. The FM transmitter comes back on the air on the 20th of February. I am now broadcasting from 09:00 to 12:00 and from 21:00 to 01:00 with oldies in the mornings and a mixture of love songs and adult contemporary music at night. On the ship I like to work this hard as the time really flies past.
Next February 22nd, 1991. The 24-hour ultimatum is given while Tariq Aziz continues shuttling between Baghdad, Tehran and Moscow.
Next Right: The MV Peace in calmer days

February 23rd, 1991. I was busily following the Scottish F.A. cup on the BBC World service, when at 18:54 the alert sounded. The all-clear was given at 19:12. We did not see anything, but later we found out that a Scud was seen over Jerusalem falling into the hills to the west of the city. TV pictures from France Cinq shown on Israel TV later showed Isaac Stern performing a Bach solo in Jerusalem while the audience watched with gas masks on. No casualties or damage reported but as it arrived just before the end of the 24-hour deadline I think we have Iraq's answer. A ground offensive now seems inevitable.

Next February 24th, 1991. Sleeping with the radio on, I wake at 04:00 to hear that the ground offensive has started. At last the end is in sight. The news blackout seems to be holding as I write this at 08:00. This embargo on news could last hours or days. I do not believe it will last weeks. Our broadcast day is continuing normally. General Schwartskopf holds a short press conference in the evening. This obviously means that things are going well for the allies. If the General can take time off from the war to do this it could be over very quickly indeed.
Next February 25th, 1991. At 04:00 there is a Scud attack in the south of Israel. The all-clear sounds at 04:30. There is another alert at 05:30 and another Scud to the same place. No casualties or damage are reported and TV pictures show a hole in the desert. There is real worry here that we will have a chemical or biological attack if Saddam gets pushed into a corner. Allied troops are reported to be in Iraq and approaching Kuwait City. It is a time of great tension in Israel.
Next February 26th, 1991. No alerts overnight and we get a new presenter today. Israelis are notorious for being seasick, but Aric sets a new record by heaving over the side after only three minutes aboard. Allied troops are now reported to be on the outskirts of Kuwait City and fighting around the international airport. Tonight sees the Scud attack on Dharan which kills twenty-seven American soldiers. Something very inflammable must have been in that building. There was never an inferno like that in Israel.
Next February 27th, 1991. Kuwait City is liberated. The Iraq foreign minister is still trying for a ceasefire outside the United Nations sanctions. So the fighting continues. General Schwartskopf gives one of the most amazing press conferences I have ever seen. There is no need for secrecy anymore. Iraq claim to have left Kuwait. TV pictures from inside the city show a real mess. Talk of war crimes abounds and it appears there will be accounts to settle after the war. Hopefully this will happen in some kind of international court. I hope it finishes soon.
Next February 28th, 1991. At 04:15 local time, President Bush announces that hostilities will end at 07:00. It appears to be over at last. We have been living under pressure for seven months and under emergency regulations for six weeks. As the day goes on the emergency is ended and the ceasefire seems to be holding. Today is the Purim holiday in Israel, a time of silliness and wine drinking. There will be a hot time in the old town tonight.
  So this diary comes to a close. Just a few reflections. Reading it again I realise I have done what I set out to do — reflect my view of the war. I have avoided such things as politics, diplomacy and atrocities. Other more qualified commentators will no doubt have much to say on these subjects. As I review my feelings over the past six weeks I can see from reading this that I had some times of nervousness but not of fear. I thought I would be really frightened when the missiles fell. I was not. I have learned a great deal about myself over the past six weeks. Now it is time to look to the future. I hope you have enjoyed reading this diary. I know you will feel that it could never happen where you are. But remember it is less than fifty years since it did.
  This diary was published before in serialized form in Offshore Echoes Magazine (OEM)
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