FreightWaves Flashback 1991: War and peace in Kuwait

The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each Friday, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

The following is an excerpt from the July 1991 edition of Southern Shipper Magazine.

In 24 years in the stevedoring and agency business, John A. Coakley has seen a lot. But nothing had prepared him for a recent trip to war-torn Kuwait.

“I didn’t see anything that was not broken at least a little bit and most things were damaged extensively,” Coakley said. “Every building seemed to have at least a window broken.”

Coakley, president of Carolina Stevedoring Co. Inc., recounted his experiences after assessing trade opportunities in Kuwait with John Hemingway, president of SSA International; Andy McLaughlan, vice president of SSA; and Lee Tigner, executive vice president of Carolina Stevedoring.

The first shock, he said, was when they arrived at the Kuwait airport from Bahrain.

The terminal’s windows had been shot out and all of the concessions were closed. Without computers, airline clerks had to process tickets by hand. The hangars and passenger terminal, once a source of national pride, now are just shells of buildings, Coakley said.

The drive from the airport also brought revelations. There was no traffic in the city. All along the route, vehicles were stripped and abandoned.

Coakley said that in areas that he traveled, highways had suffered only superficial damage. Except for the occasional bomb crater, the highway infrastructure is still in good shape, he said.


A tour of the port of Shuwaikh revealed how badly it suffered during the war.

Before the war, the port’s cargo handling equipment included two large container gantry cranes and 25 small cranes.

Coakley said both gantry cranes were destroyed, eight of the smaller cranes were in the water and only 15 were still standing. None of the cranes he saw appeared to be in working order.

“The fallen cranes looked like a broken erector set,” he said.

All of the port’s cargo handling equipment and buildings are badly damaged or destroyed, he said.

The channel was impassable, with many tugs and workboats submerged, Coakley said. Among the wreckage, Coakley saw several water craft along the berths and in the channel. A grain conveyor was collapsed in the water as well as a cement conveyor ship that sank atop a work boat.


The port of Shuaiba fared far better. Before the war the port had a number of track cranes and four container gantry cranes. Three of the port’s four new Sumitomo container gantry cranes are still operational.

The fourth crane had one of its four main supports cut by explosive charges, leaving it unusable.

“At the port of Shuaiba I didn’t see any of the port’s shoreside cargo handling equipment working. All of the equipment had been cannibalized for parts or taken,” Coakley said.

All of the cargo he saw being unloaded was going from the ship straight to trucks. 

Unlike at Shuwaikh, the channel at Shuaiba was clear of obstructions. While he was there, the Saudi Hofuf, a National Shipping Co. of Saudi Arabia roll-on/roll-off container ship, was loading Egyptian military equipment, while a Kuwaiti ship was discharging lamb on the hoof from New Zealand. A United Arab Shipping Co. breakbulk ship was also in the port.

At both of the ports, most of the buildings had been destroyed. Those buildings that had survived were either gutted by fire or damaged by looting and vandalism.

The 3rd Iraqi Regiment had occupied the port of Shuaiba’s computer building. Dangling from one of the supports for the roof in the main room were nooses. Coakley said executions apparently had been performed by throwing the condemned through the open skylights.

Soot and sand

Plumes of smoke from distant oil well fires “blotted out the sun,” casting an odd light on the nearly vacant Kuwait City.

“The sun was just a glow in the sky in the smoke,” Coakley said. “When the wind was blowing away from the city, the sky would be clear and sunny. When the wind blew the smoke from the burning oil fields over the city, it was as dark as at 9:00 or 10:00 at night.”

Though he never saw it rain, Coakley was told that during a shower, the pollution caused soot to rain down with the water.

The dust storms that hit the city while the group was there created smog-like conditions that, in some ways, were worse than the oil smoke in the upper atmosphere. The storms carried a fine dust that made it difficult to breathe.

A Kuwaiti native told Coakley that he thought the dust in the sandstorms was made worse by the activity in the desert and the hastily erected earthworks.


The only hotels open in the city were the Holiday Inn and the Hilton International. The lack of communication has left them in complete isolation from their reservation networks. When Coakley finally got a room at the Hilton International, he was fortunate to have the only room on the second floor with a lock on the door. All of the other rooms had been broken into by Iraqi troops. The building had electricity and sometimes water, but no hot water.

Buildings facing the sea had their windows bricked up to create firing positions for defense against the expected marine attack on the city. In many of the quarters the Iraqi troops had used, there were computer screens that had apparently been mistaken for televisions and destroyed when they could not pick up a broadcast.

In their retreat, the Iraqi soldiers showed their hatred for the Kuwaiti government. All of the ministries pointed out to Coakley were destroyed, as well as the prince’s palace.

“The government infrastructure seemed to be the primary target,” Coakley said.