On 20 February 1991 the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau (LHA4) launched four AV-8B Harriers of Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 331, flight call sign ‘Magic’ just before dawn. This flight was the first combat strike by fixed-wing aircraft from the flight deck of an amphibious assault ship, and was directed at Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries and surface to air missile (SAM) sites at Az Zwar on the western end of Faylakah Island. Bad weather diverted the flight, however, and they instead hit targets near Iraq’s IJmm Qasr Naval Base on the Iraq-Kuwait border. The strike was successful, despite Iraqi opposition including at least one surface to air missile launched at the four Harriers.
The Nassau carried the 19 Harriers of Marine Attack Squadron 331, nicknamed the ‘Bumblebees’ rather than its normal mix of Harriers and helicopters in order to provide dedicated fixed-wing air support for the Marine forces floating in the Gulf as an amphibious threat during Operation Desert Storm. This use of the Nassau was not without controversy, as the relatively short range of the Harriers required the Nassau to stand in closer to shore and the danger of mines. In addition, the Nassau’s munitions storage was limited to approximately three days of strikes.
Despite these issues, the Nassau and Marine Attack Squadron 331 launched 242 combat strikes and expended 300 tons of ordnance against Iraqi targets from 20 and 27 February 1991. The strikes hit Iraqi defensive positions, anti-aircraft batteries, artillery, and armor throughout Kuwait despite bad weather and thick clouds of smoke from oil wells the Iraqis had lit on fire. On 26 February the Iraqi retreat shifted the squadron’s targets to the fleeing Iraqi columns, especially around Al-Jahrah in Kuwait.
On 27 February, while engaged in strikes against these Iraqi convoys, Captain Reginald C. Underwood was killed when his AV-8B Harrier was struck by a surface to air missile. Captain Underwood’s aircraft was the only one the ‘Bumblebees’ lost to enemy action during this first combat deployment of Harriers aboard a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship.