Desert adventure - Marine trains as radar technician, later escapes from Iraq-occupied Kuwait
Inspired by his father and two uncles who served in the Marine Corps, Steve Diemler enlisted in the delayed entry program during his senior year at Helias Catholic High School. The week following his graduation in May 1973, the recruit headed to basic training to begin an adventure that years later culminated in a daring escape from Kuwait during the opening stages of the Persian Gulf War.
“Once I finished my basic training at MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) in San Diego in August (1973), they sent me to the Marine Communications and Electronics School at Twentynine Palms, California,” he said.
For the next few weeks, he was introduced to basic electronics followed by the fundamentals of digital logic. The class was then divided into separate training groups—several Marines were sent to radio training while Diemler and others were sent to radar school.
“It was during the radar fundamentals course that we learned to work on the ANTPS-32,” he explained. “It was a long-range, air search, three-dimensional radar system. It had the capabilities of identifying the range, direction and height of aircraft,” he added.
When the training was completed, he transferred to the Marine Corps Air Station at Tustin, California, which was a sub-unit of the Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity (MCTSSA) at Camp Pendleton, California. While there, his 20-man unit tested new defensive radar equipment being introduced into the Marine Corps.
Additionally, the crews used the radar to track aircraft on training missions originating from the former Naval Air Station Point Mugu, while Diemler helped troubleshoot any problems that arose, performing the necessary repairs. While assigned to the station, the young Marine met Rita, whom he married in January 1975. The following May, the couple welcomed their first son, Sean. In April 1976, Diemler left Tustin when his sub-unit was sent to Camp Pendleton to rejoin the Tactical Systems Support Activity. It was from here that he finished out his enlistment and received his discharge from the Marine Corps on May 30, 1977.
“My wife, son and I returned to Jefferson City and I began attending Lincoln University full-time while also working full-time as a repair technician for a local office supply company,” Diemler said. “After finishing my junior year in the summer of 1980, we went on a trip to California to visit my wife’s family and I stopped by Camp Pendleton to visit some of the guys I had worked with in the Marines.”
During his visit to the base, Diemler was advised of a contract position with ITT Corporation—the company that built the radars he had worked with in the past. They were in need of instructors to teach the systems to foreign nations who purchased such equipment through foreign military sales contracts. He was soon hired by the company and sent to Kuwait in the fall of 1980. The day after his arrival, Iran began bombing oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in what became known as the Iran-Iraq War. From that point forward, Diemler explained, the Kuwait Air Defense, which would normally shut down around 2 p.m., began operating on a 24-hour cycle.
Briefly returning to the ITT plant in California in the fall of 1981, he traveled back to Kuwait in 1982. His second son, Joshua, was born in Lancaster, California, in September 1982, shortly before his family joined him in Kuwait City.
“Although I first helped teach the radar system to Kuwaiti nationals, I later became one of the tech reps that helped maintain the two radar sites,” he said. “Our third son, A.J., was born while we were living in Kuwait in 1985,” he added.
During the summer months, his family returned to United States while Diemler remained in Kuwait. Fortunately, his family was back in the states in August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait and Diemler and other westerners became trapped; they were ordered to remain in Kuwait City and denied permission to leave the country by the Iraqi military.
“I didn’t want to go to the America Embassy because the Iraqi military was watching it and if they wanted to capture you, then you’re already caught if you were there,” he said. “I ended up connecting with other contractors and, through their connections, plans were made for us to escape into Saudi Arabia.”
Diemler, American contractors and other Arabic locals formed a convoy of 13 military vehicles that escaped watch by the Iraqi military and began the “70-something-mile” trek across the desert. Eventually, Diemler observed dots on the horizon that soon formed into a fearful reality as they approached.
“I realized they were Iraqi tanks,” he said. “I thought for sure the Iraqi’s would open fire on us but the guide kept going and drove us right between them. As we passed by, there were soldiers sitting around and our guide stopped everyone after we got a mile or so past them.”
The guide informed the group to wait there because he had to go back and find a vehicle that had been lost from the group.
“When the guide returned with the vehicle,” Diemler explained, “he said that it had been stuck in the sand and the Iraqi soldiers helped push it out. He also said the soldiers told him, ‘That Saddam Hussein is crazy and we don’t want to be here.’”
The group finally made it to the safety of the Saudi Arabian border and, with the help of a member of the Associated Press in their group, were provided airline tickets back to the United States to reunite with their families. Diemler eventually settled in his native Jefferson City and spent several years in law enforcement. Earlier this year, he retired from the Missouri Department of Social Service where he was employed as an investigator for Medicaid fraud.
The greatest danger of his past career, the veteran noted, came with his service as a contractor in the years after his discharge; however, Diemler affirms that both his own military service and that of his children helps highlight what has been the greatest source of his professional pride.
“All three of my sons have gone on to become Marines just as I followed in my own father’s footsteps,” he said. “That certainly makes me one proud father,” he grinned. “And the old saying ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine’ is the reason that I chose to be a member of the Marine Corps League—it doesn’t matter what you did while you were in the service because it was a title that you had to earn.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
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Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.