Skip to main content

Red Sky At Morning

June 2024
2min read

When it All Began in Iraq

On July 14, 1958, I was startled awake at 5:00 A.M. in my room in Baghdad by the sound of gunfire. I became a little uneasy. as the noise was too close for normal army maneuvers.

I was working as an administrative assistant for an engineering firm—Tibbets, Abbott, McCarthy & Stratton. We began our day at 7:00 A.M. and worked through until 2:00 in the afternoon. I lived in a brand-new house on the bank of the Tigris River, about four blocks away from the office. Pampered as we were in those days, we always got picked up by a car each morning. However, on this particular day, it didn’t arrive, so I made the short walk up the dusty road to the office, only to be met by the point of a bayonet that was attached to a rifle that was attached to an Iraqi soldier. He motioned me to go back to my house, so I did, without having conversation of any kind with anyone. I soon learned from the local radio station that the army had taken over the palace and killed every living thing from the king and the regent, his cousin, down to the cooks and teachers. One man who escaped, the prime minister, Gen. Nuri al-Said, tried to leave Baghdad dressed as a woman. Too tall to get away with the disguise, he was seized by soldiers and shot. The crowd got hold of his corpse and dragged it through the streets behind a motorcycle.

At the same time that I was listening to my radio and trying to figure out what was happening, a truck arrived at the Baghdad Hotel and collected a dozen foreigners, who were told they were being taken to the airport. A mob killed all but three Jordanians. One lady who had been put into the truck insisted on going to get her husband, and the mob let her. Her life was spared by her wits.

As the crowd paraded with Nuri alSaid’s body through the section of town where most of us foreigners lived, a loudspeaker cautioned all non-Iraqis to stay in their houses until further notice, which turned out to be three weeks. At that time Iraq was so remote from the United States that the violence received very little press. My family didn’t know what had taken place until after the immediate danger was over. We had no phones, no mail —no communication whatsoever with the outside world. Every foreign family had a houseboy who was permitted to do the shopping and other necessary tasks.

Thus began the succession of assassinations and military coups that eventually put Saddam Hussein in power. I was devastated by the news of the death of the 23-year-old King Faisal, whom I had met only a few weeks before. He had attended a play that had been put on for some visiting dignitaries, in which I had the lead, and he asked that I meet him.

We spent half an hour together, discussing the future of Iraq and how he hoped that he would be able to bring some Westernization to his country. He had a thorough command of English, having been educated in England, and was an altogether charming young man.

When we were at last free to go, all the women and children were evacuated to Rome, with the sole exception of myself. I was allowed to stay with my company and help clean up the mountainous paperwork involved in our company’s eventually leaving the country. The new regime would not honor the contract we had made with the previous administrative board, so we were never paid. They owed us millions.

When I finally did leave, having been given 24 hours to do so (I had kept a trunk packed for almost a year), I discovered that I was the only passenger on the plane. As we flew out of Iraq, the captain came on the intercom to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have now crossed into Turkish airspace.” I was far more relieved than I had expected.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.

Donate