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Cold War US Tactics

1989 US Invasion of Panama

USA vs Panama

The construction of a short cut from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans was a pipe dream for much of the 19th century for both the British and Americans. If a canal existed, then trade would be substantially easier and the United States would be the prime beneficiary. Thus, the US took a keen political, economic, and military interest in the isthmus of Panama, with construction of the canal finally taking place before the First World War.

To protect its vital national interests, the United States maintained a large military presence there throughout the 20th century and should anything threaten that, they would be primed to respond. When, in the 1980s, with political arguments about the future control over the canal at their zenith and a new political leader in Panama in the form of Manuel Noriega, the scene was set for a confrontation between Panama and the USA. This culminated in an invasion of Panama by the US at the end of 1989 – an invasion which deposed Noriega and ensured US control over the canal until 1999, when it was handed over to the people of Panama. The invasion would see a series of combined aerial assaults on key facilities and special forces operations. Other than a few BTRs encountered during the invasion of Grenada 1983, the US potentially faced the prospect of using armored vehicles against enemy armored vehicles in combat for the first time since Vietnam.

The Canal

The construction of the Panama Canal was a political minefield too dangerous to cross for decades, but it was the dream of both the nascent United States and also British financial trading interests in the 19th century.

In 1850, Great Britain and the US agreed in principle to a canal, albeit through the isthmus in Nicaragua, in what was known as the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. The project never got further than the treaty but it did at least allay a rivalry between the two countries over who would build a canal and control trade between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Such a canal would potentially shorten the route between the east and west coasts of the USA by 15,000 km.

In 1880, the French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man behind the construction of the Suez Canal, began excavation through what is now Panama. At the time, it was a province of Colombia. After 9 years of failure, Jessops’ program went bankrupt and, a decade later, in 1901, a new treaty was made. This Hay-Pauncefote Treaty replaced the earlier Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and, in 1902, the US Senate agreed to the plan for a canal. The site of the proposed canal was, however, the problem, with it being on Colombian territory and the financial offer made by the US to Colombia was rejected.

The result was a shameless act of imperialism from the allegedly anti-imperialist United States. Having not got their own way with negotiation with Colombia, President Theodore Roosevelt simply sent US warships, including the USS Dixie and USS Nashville, with a combined Naval and USMC landing party to Panama City to ‘support Panamanian independence’. Even if this move was really some modest effort at really supporting an independence movement, the timing was pure opportunism and, with Colombian troops unable to cross the Darien Strait (a heavily forested and mountainous area which, to this day, has no major highway through it) to come and contest the American move, Panamanian independence was established on 3rd November 1903.

It was not without risk, for Colombia was not happy with the theft of a province that was theirs. They landed 400 men at Colon and one ship shelled the city briefly, killing one person. It was only the quick action of the Commander of the USS Nashville, Cmdr. Hubbard, who warned the Colombians that a direct attack on US citizens now in Panama would be a very bad decision and be the start of a war with the USA. The Colombian troops re-embarked and left.

US Marine at the Colon rail depot, Panama, 1903.
Source: fixbayonetsusmc.blog

With a new and some may say ‘puppet’ government in the brand new country, it very kindly agreed to the Nay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty signed just 15 days after independence. The terms of this treaty were incredibly one-sided, with the US getting everything it could possibly want to allow it to build a canal and have a complete monopoly not only over the canal, lakes, and islands on its route but also to a strip of land 10 miles (16.1 km) wide in which the canal would be constructed. All the Panamanians got for this ransom payment was ‘independence’, albeit completely on US terms, a single payment of US$10 million (just under US$300 million in 2020 values) and an annual payment (starting in year 10) of US$250,000 (US$7.4 million is 2020 values).

President Roosevelt in a white suit standing on a giant steam excavator in 1908 during the construction of the canal. Source: US Library of Congress

If Roosevelt was ebullient about what he could see as a foreign policy coup of bullying a far weaker South American nation and obtaining what he wanted for the canal, then he had underestimated how hard it would be to build. Just 80.4 km long, the canal cost a phenomenal US$375 million (US$11.1 billion in 2020 values), along with an additional US$40 million (US$1.1 billion in 2020 values) to buy out remaining French interests (purchases began in 1902 with the Spooner Act), as Roosevelt could not simply bully or steal those as easily as he had done with the Colombians. With around 5,600 deaths from disease and the conditions, along with the construction costs, the US had made an incredible investment in the canal on the basis of the Nay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, granting it control in perpetuity over the canal zone.

Construction was finished in 1913 and the canal officially opened on 15th August 1914, but the Nay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty forced on the new Panamanian nation proved a continual irritant poisoning relations between the two countries. The 16.1 km strip of what was effectively US sovereign territory, governed much as a colony would be, with a Presidentially-appointed Governor, effectively bisected Panama. The Governor was also a director and President of the Panama Canal Company, a company registered in the United States, and also could, if required, direct the US armed forces stationed in this colony as required to protect the canal.

The continual political problems caused by the Nay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty led to a loosening of it in 1936 and again in 1955 when the US gave up its ‘right’ to take any additional land it needed and handed control of the ports at Colon and Panama City over to the Panamanians.

Civil strife in 1964 led to a March 1973 UN resolution (UNSC Resolution 330) on creating a new canal treaty between the USA and Panama, but the USA was unwilling to cede any control. Three nations abstained from voting on the resolution, the UK, France, and the United States.

With international pressure to do so, the USA finally conceded to Panama and, with the signing of a new treaty in September 1977 between the nations led by US President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian President Omar Torrijos. Under the terms of the treaty, the US received (for the duration of the treaty) the rights to transit the canal and also to defend it, but “The Republic of Panama shall participate increasingly in the management and protection and defense of the Canal…” (Article I.3). More importantly, this treaty laid out a timeline for the handover of the canal to full Panamanian control, with a Panamanian national to be appointed as the Deputy Administrator (the Administrator was to remain a US citizen) until 31st December 1999, when both Administrator and Deputy Administrator roles were to be fully ceded, with Panamanian citizens taking both positions.

The Rise of Noriega and the Collapse in Relations

In 1983, Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega was made commander-in-chief of the military by Colonel Ruben Paredes. Paredes had to resign as commander in chief himself so he could run for the Presidency. Thus, Noriega replaced Parades and then contrived to persuade Parades to withdraw from the race for the Presidency, leading to the election of Eric Devalle as President. With a new President as a figurehead, it was actually Noriega who, as head of the Panamanian military, was the de facto leader of the country. Noriega was no newcomer to political intrigue or even the military. Even at the time of the last free election in Panama, in 1968, when a military coup had toppled President Arnulfo Arias, Noriega was on the scene. In 1968, he was still a young and rather capable intelligence officer who spent his time fostering contacts within the upper echelons of the Panamanian government. He sealed this by creating a close working partnership with the American Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) in supporting covert and often illegal operations against Nicaraguan and Salvadoran leftist groups. Add to this mix his penchant for corruption, intimidation, blackmail, and bribery, and he was destined for the government.

He had also cooperated with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on providing information on the shipment of cocaine from states like Colombia to the USA, but it was perhaps his helping of President Reagan’s and the CIA’s support for the Contras, a Nicaraguan rebel group based in Costa Rica, which is the most notorious. In this period, Noriega assisted in the flow of illegal arms supplies to the Contras via the Islamic Republic of Iran, in violation of the dispositions of the US Congress, as well as Reagan’s own promise to never deal with terrorists.

A pair of Panamanian Cadillac-Gage V-150 Commandos on the beach during a training exercise in 1987. Source Jamurillo_photo via the Armed Forces of Panama on Facebook

Noriega was playing both sides and was actually involved in the smuggling of cocaine into the USA. In February 1988, he was charged in US courts, indicted on drug-related charges in Florida. Following his indictment on drug offenses, the actual President of Panama, Eric Arturo Delvalle, attempted to fire Noriega and failed, as Noriega simply ignored him. In violation of Article V of the 1977 Treaty, which prohibited any intervention in the internal affairs of the Panamanian Republic, the US then encouraged the Panamanian military to overthrow Noriega, culminating in a failed coup attempt to remove him on 16th March 1988.

Faced with a deterioration in the security in the canal zone, it was clear that the existing US forces present, primarily the 193rd Infantry Brigade, were inadequate. President Reagan, therefore, sent an additional 1,300 troops from both the Army and Marines to bolster the 193rd. It was not until 5th April 1988 that this additional force arrived. This defense plan was known as ‘Elaborate Maze’.

The US Forces deployed to Panama in April 1988 for Operation Elaborate Maze were

  • 16th Military Police Brigade
  • 59th Military Police Battalion
  • 118th Military Police Battalion
  • A Marine rifle company from 6th Marine Expeditionary Force
  • Aviation Task Force Hawk consisting of the 23rd Aviation and an attack helicopter company.
  • 7th Infantry Division (light), including 3rd Battalion

Presidential elections in Panama followed in May 1989. During these, despite the best efforts of Noriega to intimidate voters in favor of his own Presidential candidate, Carlos Duque, the winner was Guillermo Endara, as a candidate for the Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition (ADOC). Noriega simply ignored this result and tried to nullify the outcome, appointing Duque as President. The USA, again, despite it being a violation of Article V of the 1977 treaty, criticized Noriega. For his part, Noriega was clearly frustrated with the US criticism and was unsubtle in his refusal to accept his own electoral defeat, even going so far as to have one of his Dignity Battalions assault a protest led by Endara and his running mate Guillermo Ford, leaving them both injured. Despite these events against Endara and Ford, it is important to note that they never requested US intervention. Even so, Noriega’s actions were destabilizing the region. The Organisation of American States (OAS), not often a friendly voice in favor of US regional hegemony, joined in with the criticism of Noriega and requested he step down. Despite this OAS request, only the USA recognized Endara as the legitimate head of government.

Panamanian Defense Forces (P.D.F.) troops during a training exercise sometime in the late 1980s. The vehicle in the back is a Cadillac-Gage V-300 fitted with the CM-90 turret. Source: Pinterest

President Reagan had left office in January 1989 and his Vice-President, George H. Bush, took over as President having won the 1988 elections in the US. Bush was equally as hawkish as Reagan and, in April 1989, he too deployed additional forces to Panama during Operation Nimrod Dancer.

US Forces deployed to Panama in April 1989 for Operation Nimrod Dancer

  • Brigade Headquarters
  • a Light Infantry Battalion from 7th Infantry Division
  • a mechanized infantry battalion from 5th Mechanized Infantry Division equipped with M113 Armored Personnel Carriers
  • a Marine light armored company equipped with LAV-25 Light Armoured Vehicles
An M113 belonging to 5th Mechanised Infantry Division on patrol in Panama City during the invasion and occupation. Source: US Army.

Along with this troop deployment came Operation Blade Jewel – the evacuation of all unnecessary personnel along with military families to the United States. This not only included soldiers’ families, but also those troops whose deployment was the longest too, which obviously served to actually reduce the potential security force in situ in Panama. This particular decision to evacuate some military personnel was later identified as a critical mistake which served only to reduce the operational readiness of aviation resources.

In an escalating war of words and diplomatic slapping, in August 1989, the USA announced that it will not accept a candidate from Panama as Administrator of the Canal appointed by the Panamanian Government. This was even though the 1977 treaty provided that a Panamanian was to replace the US national as Administrator on 1st January 1990.

Noriega retaliated by doubling down and, on 1st September 1989, he appointed a government of loyalists. The US response was simply to refuse to recognise it. As tensions increased through September, more incidents of harassment of US troops and civilians around the Canal Zone were reported in what amounted to a policy of taunting by Noriega.

Despite this obvious destabilization in Panama, a second round of US troop withdrawals known as Operation Blade Jewel II took place, removing more service personnel and their dependents. Once more, the CIA was to try and interfere in internal Panamanian politics (in violation of the 1977 Treaty) by encouraging and helping to organise a Panamanian military coup out of neighbouring Costa Rica. About 200 junior officers led by Major Moises Giroldi were involved in a series of skirmishes around Panama City on 3rd October 1989, but they were quickly quashed by troops from Battalion 2000.

Noriega loyalist forces seen outside the Panamanian Defense Force headquarters the morning after the failed coup, during a curfew.
Source: The Topic Times 4th October 1989 via Joint Audiovisual Detachment.

Seemingly having failed to get a candidate they liked elected fairly (the US-supported Endara with around US$10 million of financial assistance in his campaign), and having failed twice to oust Noriega by means of the CIA instigating a coup, there was now little the US could do short of a full-scale invasion.

Planning for Invasion

As of November, the choice of invasion as the means to remove Noriega was the only one left on the menu. Thus, contingency plans for the invasion were already underway under the code name ‘Blue-Spoon’ by General Maxwell Thurman (US Southern Command). This was to take the form of helicopter assaults on various key local locations. On 15th November, a group of M551 Sheridans (slightly more than a platoon’s worth) from 3-73 Armor was loaded onto a C5A Galaxy transport aircraft for deployment to Panama. This contingent was made up of 4 tanks and a command and control unit. These tanks arrived on the 16th at Howard Air Force Base and were kept undercover to conceal their presence from any prying eyes. When they were seen out, they were seen displaying a repainted bumper, removing the logo of the 82nd Airborne and replacing it with the unit identification for the 5th Infantry Division instead. As this was routine in Panama for jungle training, it was felt, would be less suspicious.

Seen at Howard Air Force Base. Zero armor but plenty of mobility characterized the experimental use of 250 cc Kawasaki KXT off-road bikes and quad bikes (background). Painted matt black, these vehicles were used for scouting purposes. Source: Rottman via DoD.

The plan for their use was for the four tanks to work with a platoon of Marines equipped with the LAV-25 to conduct reconnaissance operations under the unsubtle name ‘Team Armor’.

On top of those tanks in situ in Panama, an ‘armor ready company’ size element was prepared at Fort Bragg, North Carolina to accompany and support the deployment of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. As such, four of the M551 were fitted for low-velocity air delivery (LVAD), whilst other vehicles were prepared for air delivery for a rollout from an aircraft that had landed. This would be the first time the M551 was ever dropped outside of a training environment.

In late November, intelligence reports came in that Noriega and Colombian Drug Cartels were plotting car-bomb attacks on US facilities, which ramped up US security concerns for their forces in Panama. On 30th November, the US upped the ante with the imposition of economic sanctions on Panamanian ships, which prevented them from landing at US ports. This might not seem significant given how small Panama is, but Panama is actually used widely as a flag on convenience. For example, as of 1989, there were 11,440 vessels flying the Panamanian flag and none of these or the 65.6 million gross tonnes of cargo they would carry globally could land at a US port.

A pair of M113s belonging to 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanised) providing security near to the Gorgas Army Community Hospital complex prior to the invasion. Probably November 1989. Source: US National Archives
M113 belonging to the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanised) outside the entrance to Gorgas Army Community Hospital complex. Source: US National Archives

It’s War – Sort Of

On 15th December 1989, Noriega finally jumped the shark in his intimidation game of brinksmanship with the US and declared that a state of war existed with the USA in retaliation for the banning of Panamanian ships from US harbors. This was clearly not a serious or credible declaration of war in the sense of an actual direct conflict due to the gross mismatch in nations’ military capacities but an effort to make sure that Noriega was granted the official titular position as “chief of government”. It was also clearly a response to the shipping blockage which was taken for what it was, a blatant act of aggression against Panama. Such an action could cripple it financially. The Panamanian Assembly, full of Noriega’s loyalists, declared him to be the “maximum leader of the struggle for national liberation”, which perhaps shows the motivation all along – getting the US out of Panama.

Whilst some commentators have post-script, taken this declaration as the justification for the invasion, this is countered by the statements of President Bush’s White House Spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, who declared this ‘war’ as “another hollow step in [Noriega’s] attempt to force his rule on the Panamanian people”. Despite the raised tensions, no additional special precautions were put in place in Panama.

A day is a long time in politics and just a day after this hollow and rather pointless declaration of frustration by the Panamanians, the situation changed dramatically. This was when four off-duty US Officers drove past a Panamanian Defense Forces (P.D.F.) checkpoint and were fired upon. A passenger in that car, US Marine Lt. Paz was killed. Another passenger was wounded by the P.D.F. This shooting death marked the culmination of months of harassment by P.D.F. forces against US troops. For example, in August 1989, the US cited some 900 incidents of harassment (since February 1986) against US military personnel in Panama although it is notable that this was also the month that the US decided to detain 9 men of the P.D.F. and 20 Panamanian civilians who were ‘interfering’ with US military maneuvers in Panama, showing there was at least some tit for tat behavior taking place. Nonetheless, it was the killing of Lt. Paz which persuaded the US it needed to intervene and not the declaration the day before.

“Last Friday, Noriega declared a state of war with the United States. The next day, the P.D.F. shot to death an unarmed American serviceman, wounded another, seized and beat another serviceman, and sexually threatened his wife. Under these circumstances, the President decided he must act to prevent further violence.”
George H. W. Bush, 16th December 1989

Following the death of Lt. Paz, the US initiated its development phase of the invasion plan, making sure its forces were in place and, by 18th December 1989, this was complete.

For the M551s delivered in November, this entailed the fitting of 0.5” caliber heavy machine guns onto the mounts on the turrets and loading Shillelagh missiles. It is noteworthy that rules of engagement given to crews of the M551s were that approval for firing the main gun had to be sought from, and given by, the task force commander due to the high risk of hitting friendly troops or civilians or of causing collateral damage.

It is notable that, under the terms of the Charter of the Organization of American States, Article 18, “[n]o state or group of states has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state.” Article 20 states that no state may militarily occupy another under any situation and, on top of this, the UN Charter says that nations must settle disputes by peaceful means. Both Panama and the USA were signatories to the two treaties. The only real substantive justification for the US invasion was for self-defense in response to an armed attack (Article 51 UN Charter), for which the incident with Lt. Paz was perhaps inflated to be an indicator of a larger and more widespread assault than perhaps an unfortunate accident or action of a few individuals. Had Noriega chosen to condemn the shooting of Lt. Paz publicly, he might have stymied the US justification, but it seems he was as overconfident as always and perhaps never imagined that the US might actually take direct action. Certainly, the poor state of readiness of the P.D.F. on the day of the actual invasion shows that little preparation had actually been made. US intelligence had found out that Noriega’s plan in the event of an invasion was the somewhat casual idea of sending his forces into the wilderness to wage some sort of insurgency. Given that zero effort seems to have been made, even after the ‘declaration’ of war, this seems less of a plan and more of an ill-conceived idea. This is even more surprising given that the Panamanians knew of a plan for the invasion. Extensive activity out of the normal could be easily seen in the Canal Zone, and the news media ensconced in the Marriott Hotel in Panama City had been alerted to mobilize. On top of that, the departure of the 82nd Airborne from Fort Bragg was even broadcast on US news the night before. For a former intelligence officer like Noriega, his actions can only be described as so blissfully self-confident. He seems to have thought it was never going to happen or was simply asleep at the wheel. A US Army account of these first hours details that Noriega was busy visiting a sex worker when the attack happened, so he may not have been asleep but was certainly otherwise engaged.

Later analysis of intercepted Panamanian radio traffic and phone calls actually showed that whilst Noriega might have been absent in the decision-making process, the men were not. Roadblocks had been set up leading to La Comandancia (the P.D.F. headquarters building) and individual units and installation commanders of the P.D.F. were notified of an impending attack.

Nonetheless, the fact that American planners for Blue Spoon (known later and more boringly as ‘OPLAN 90’) were concerned over possible dispersal of Panamanian forces into the interior (a concern which may stem in part from the debacle of Vietnam) added impetus for a rapid and multipronged strike to remove all Panamanian forces in one fell swoop.

The wranglings over the legal justification of the invasion amounted to a little bit of this being America’s Suez Canal crisis. The somewhat flimsy legal justifications offered by the US for its actions were perhaps a prelude to a little over a decade later when the next President Bush would have his own invasion of a sovereign nation on spurious grounds to contend with.

20th December 1989

With the background of steadily escalating tensions between Panama and the US, Bush’s hawkishness, and Noriega’s naivety and overconfidence, the stage was set for the invasion. Blue Spoon (OPLAN 90) was officially Operation Just Cause, as military planners felt it more fitting than ‘Operation Blue Spoon’ although perhaps this ignores the whole point of a code name. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the change in the operation’s name, it was put into action on 20th December 1989.

That day, President Bush ordered 12,000 extra troops to Panama to supplement the 13,600 already there with four publicly stated objectives:

1 – Safeguard American lives
2 – Protect the democratic election process
3 – To arrest Noriega for drug trafficking and bring him to the USA for trials
4 – Protect the Panama Canal Treaty

The invasion began at 0100 hours on 20th December 1989, a time selected by General Stiner as being the most likely to achieve total surprise and also ensure no commercial traffic at Torrijos airport (Torrijos was a civilian airport next to Tocumen airfield, which was a military airbase) which might get in the way. Led by aircraft from Task Force HAWK, 160th Special Operations Aviation Group, 1st Battalion 228th Aviation Regiment (based out of Fort Kobbe) along with 1st Battalion of the 82 Airborne Division deployed across Panama.

US troops deployed included Rangers / Paratroopers, light infantry, and Navy Marines and Seals, totaling some 26,000 soldiers involved in a complex scenario involving a simultaneous attack on 27 targets.

Arranged against this US force was the Panamanian Defense Force, with just two infantry battalions and ten independent infantry companies. Armor-wise, the Panamanians had 38 Cadillac Gage armored cars purchased from the USA. The first of those vehicles arrived in Panama from the USA in 1973, consisting of 12 of the V-150 APC variant, and four V-150(90) variants. In 1983, a further delivery arrived in the form of three V-300 Mk.2 IFV variants, and 9 of the V-300 APCs, including a Command Post vehicle and an ARV vehicle.

The three V-300 Mk.2 IFV vehicles were to be fitted with the Cockerill CM-90 turret and gun imported from Belgium in 1983 and meant that, at least on paper, Panama had a significant anti-tank threat that had to be contended with.

P.D.F. V-300 armored car with 90 mm gun. Seen circa 1985.
Source: tobi_2362 via Fuerzas Armada de Panama.

The Cadillac Gage ‘Commando’ was first produced in the early 1960s and was available in a wide range of options. The V-150 was an upgrade to the original V-100 and was actually based on the V-200 and fitted with either a diesel or petrol engine. The vehicles use a drive system similar to the popular M34-series of trucks and capable of up to 100 km/h on the road. Protected by a monocoque welded steel shell made from Cadaloy*, the vehicle (4 wheeled version) weighed just 7 tonnes and yet was tough enough to resist 7.62 mm ammunition at 90 degrees and 0.50” caliber ammunition at 45 degrees. The standard 10-tonne V-150 APC was a four-wheel drive vehicle with no turret, a single-roof-mounted machine gun, a crew of two, and space in the back for up to 6 men. The ‘90’ version of the V-150 was the same basic vehicle but fitted with a small turret containing a single 20 mm cannon.

[* A type of high hardness steel plate (~500 Brinell)]

The later V-300s were longer (6.4 m instead of 5.7 m), as the chassis had been extended so that a third axle for two more wheels could be added. This allowed for greater internal space for troops in the APC version and also for a greater load capacity. The IFV version came with firing ports cut into the upper hull sides in the troop compartment and could carry 8 men in reasonable comfort in the back. It was onto this V-300 IFV variant that the Cockerill CM-90 was mounted. Panama bought the 15-tonne Mk.II version of the V-300, which featured a larger fuel tank and an improved power train over the earlier Mk.I.

P.D.F. roadblock using a Cadillac-Gage V-300 armored recovery vehicle (ARV) of P.D.F. Battalion 2000.
Source: Still image from news on Channel TV-13, Panama

The Cadillac-Gage armored cars were robust, cheap, and mechanically simple enough that these vehicles were ideal for a military with a modest budget but who needed some armored firepower. Modified with the addition of the 90 mm Cockerill turret, Panama effectively had wheeled tanks and, if they could be deployed properly, could constitute a genuine threat to US ground forces and their own armored elements.

Panama also had its own special forces units, including 11 Battalions de la Dignidad paramilitary battalions and some nondescript ‘leftist’ units. Membership of such units was somewhat informal with a total of between 2,500 and 5,000 active members in total. Their value as a combat force was extremely marginal.


Highly mobile thanks to the off-road motorbikes and well-armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, this member of the 7th Infantry Company P.D.F. known as ‘Macho de Monte’ is barely in uniform, with just a black tee-shirt and blue jeans. The ability of such forces to move rapidly and possibly harass US forces meant that it was vital for US forces to control as far as possible the movement of Panamanian forces. Source: Armed Forces of Panama

The Panamanian police, known as the Fuerza de Policia (F.P.), was also armed and consisted of around 5,000 personnel with small arms, although two public order or ‘civil disturbances’ units were within this Police force, known officially as the 1st and 2nd Companias de Antimotines (English: 1st and 2nd Anti Riot Companies) and more casually as the ‘Doberman’ and ‘Centurion’ companies.

There was also the less visible Departamento de Nacional de Investigaciones (D.E.N.I.) (English: National Department of Investigation). This innocuous-sounding organization was made up of around 1,500 personnel and was little more than a barely disguised secret police force. Other smaller units available and armed within Panama included the Guardia Presidencial (English: Presidential Guard), Guardia Penitenciaria (English: Penitentiary Guard), Fuerza de Police Portuario (English: Port Guard Police), and the Guardia Forestal (English: Forest Guard).

Panamanian troops of 2nd Battalion ‘Paz’ take part in an exercise in civil clothes to pretend to be a guerillas force. The vehicle is an ex-US military M151 Jeep and is fitted with a Czechoslovak 7.92 mm ZB-53 machine gun – a weapon a British tanker of WW2 might recognize as a BESA machine gun. Source: Rottman via P.D.F.

The Panamanian Navy, or ‘Fuerza da Marina Nacional’ (FMN) (English: National Naval Force), was headquartered at Fort Amador, with vessels berthed at Balboa and Colon. It was a small force of just 500 or so troops and operated 8 landing craft and 2 logistics support ships made from converted landing craft, as well as a single troop transport.

Heavy machine gun-armed Panamanian patrol craft P-201 seen with the Bridge of the Americas in the background circa 1988. Source: Jamurillo photo

There was also a single Naval Infantry company, the ‘1st Compania de Infanteria de Marina) (English: 1st Naval Infantry Company), based at Coco Solo, and a small force of Naval Commandos (Peloton Comandos de Marina) based out of Fort Amador.

One of the FMN landing craft offloading its cargo of Fuerza de Marina Nacional de la Infantería de Marina (English: National Marine Infantry Force) at Punta Culebra Calzada de Amador, circa 1987. Source: Jamurillo

The Fuerza Aérea Panameña (FAP) (English: Panamanian Air Force) was a tiny force of just 500 personnel. It operated 21 Bell UH-1 helicopters (2nd Airborne Infantry Company) as well as some training, VIP, and transport aircraft. This force amounted, across all aircraft including trainers, to just 38 fixed-wing aircraft on top of those helicopters. It did, however, also control a series of ZPU-4 anti-aircraft systems.

Captured Panamanian ZPU-4 air defense system being examined by forces from 5th US Infantry Division after the invasion. Source: Armed Forces of Panama.
Panamanian Army, East-German made truck fitted out for air defense with a single ZPU-1 14.5 mm heavy machine gun.Source: Ken Sabin

The US, on the other hand, had a substantial military with an enormous budget and huge technical and vehicle resources at its disposal. American forces had a stock of the venerable M113 armored personnel carrier which had been in service since the 1960s. Looking like a tracked shoebox, with 50 mm of aluminum armor, the M113 was an ideal transport for moving goods or men from A to B, on or off-road whilst being protected from small arms fire.

The wheeled LAV (1983) series was a relatively new vehicle in the US inventory. Delivered to units from 1983 to 1984, the LAV had a crew of 3 with seats for an additional 4 to 6 troops in the back. At just over 11 tonnes, the 8 x 8 platform, built under license in Canada by GM Canada, was a license-built vehicle originally designed by the Swiss firm of MOWAG. Featuring a basic hull made from 12.7 mm thick aluminum, the vehicle was fitted as standard with a steel-applique armor kit providing protection from small arms fire and shell splinters. Ballistic protection was rated up to that of the Soviet 14.5 mm AP bullet at 300 m. Powered by a General Motors 6v53T V6 diesel engine delivering 275 hp powered the LAV. It could reach speeds of up to 100 km/h on the road and 10 km/h in the water when used amphibiously. Various armament options existed for the LAV as a platform, including mortar, TOW anti-tank missiles, command and control, recovery, air defense, or a general-purpose APC with a 25 mm M242 cannon and 7.62 mm machine gun in a small turret. Of note is that, although the gun-version was fully stabilized, no vehicle was issued to units fitted with a thermal sight until 1996 – after the Panamanian invasion.

USMC LAV-25 during exercises in Panama before the invasion.
Source: US Army

Four US battalions were issued with the LAVs, including one reserve battalion. These four were designated as LAV battalions until 1988. In 1988, the LAV designation for the battalion was changed to ‘Light Armored Infantry’ (LAI), a term which stayed in use until they were rebranded once more in 1993 as ‘Light Armored Reconnaissance’ (LAR). The first operational use of the LAV by US forces would be in the 1989 invasion of Panama.

Later to form part of Task Force Semper Fidelis, Marine Force Panama (MFP) included 2nd Light Armored Infantry Battalion made up of four companies, A, B, C, and D. A and B Companies were used as part of Operation Nimrod Dancer, C Company in Operation Promote Liberty for the post-invasion nation-building, and D Company in Operation Just Cause – the actual invasion itself.

Prior to the invasion, A Company 2nd LAI arrived in Panama and used its complement of LAVs to provide escort duty for convoys, reconnaissance, and patrolling, but also served as a rapid reaction force if required. B Company 2nd LAI arrived next and, like A Company, conducted reconnaissance and security operations. D Company 2nd LAI was the third company to be deployed from 2nd LAI in Panama. This company was deployed as a show of force against the Panamanian ‘Dignity’ Battalions (a form of irregular militia which liked to set up ad-hoc roadblocks and carry out general intimidation of US forces and citizens). Prior to the invasion, D Company managed to achieve success in this work by accident. A crowd, whipped up to create disorder and possibly attack American interests, was held at a roadblock by a LAV on D Co. 2nd LAI. When the gunner negligently discharged a high explosive round from the 25 mm cannon and decapitated a telegraph pole, this crowd suddenly decided that courage in the face of armored fighting vehicles was not something it had and quickly dispersed.

On other occasions, they were not so lucky, and, multiple times, Marines had to retreat to the safety of their LAVs as hostile crowds beat on the vehicles with sticks and stones. In one encounter, a LAV was actually deliberately rammed by a pickup truck, damaging the front right wheel. These incidents continued to get worse right up to the death of Lt. Paz.

The Go

The go order for operations was given by President Bush on 17th December, with the invasion set for 0100 hours, 20th December. Efforts at secrecy seem to have been somewhat half-hearted as, the night before the invasion, there were certainly rumors abound. Some P.D.F. forces were already responding, although it has to be said that this appears to have been totally uncoordinated from the top. With invasion set for 0100 hours, some P.D.F. forces actually infiltrated the US airbase at Albrook and attacked US special forces as they were boarding helicopters destined for the attack on the Pacora River Bridge. Wounding two US troops, the Panamanians withdrew.

A second preemptive action took place at Fort Cimarron, where a column of vehicles was seen heading towards the city. Other troops were seen moving towards Pacora Bridge and the actual 0100 hours ‘H’ hour was advanced by 15 minutes to try and prevent these small P.D.F. forces creating a lot of problems for the great invasion plan.

Overall operations map for the invasion of Panama, 20th December 1989.
Source: US Army

US Invasion Forces

The US strikes on Panama would be multiple and coordinated using various task forces. Joint Task Force South, responsible for command and control of tactical operations, created four ground task forces; Atlantic, Pacific, Bayonet, and Semper Fidelis. These names very much indicated the source and type of the task force. Other smaller task forces were created for specific targets, such as Black Devil for Fort Amador (operating under Task Force Bayonet).

Special forces assigned to TFSF were color-coded, with Black being 3rd Battalion 7th Special Forces, Green being Army Delta Force, Red (Rangers), and Blue and White (SEALs). For some of these, the incursion was performed with little more than crossing the road, such was the proximity of the US forces to the invasion targets assigned.

Task Force Atlantic (TFA) in Action – Madden Dam, Gamboa, Renacer Prison and Cerro Tigre

TFA, under the command of Colonel Keith Kellogg and consisting of 3rd Battalion of the 504th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, would be carried in OH-58A helicopters rather than the usual UH-1, as those were already allocated for other duties.

Area of operations for Task Force Atlantic. Source: US Army

Madden Dam (TFA)

Tasked with the seizure of strategic locations, the first destination was the Madden Dam. Retaining the Chagres River and forming the 75 m deep Lake Alajuela, the dam was a key element in balancing the water system of the Panama Canal. It was also a road bridge for the highway connecting both sides of Panama and a hydro-electric generating plant, so the loss of this facility could potentially cripple both the canal and the country. A Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Infantry moved overnight 32 km to seize the dam. They arrived to find the few P.D.F. guards ineffective and they quickly gave up with no casualties. TFA’s first key goal was taken.

View of the Madden Dam from a US helicopter around the time of the invasion. Source: US Army

Of note at Madden Dam is that, although it was one of the first locations seized during the invasion, it was also the last. Late afternoon on the 23rd, around 30 men believed to be from a Dignity Battalion and still armed, but carrying a white flag, approached the US forces still guarding the dam. When the US paratroopers approached them to collect their weapons they were fired upon and had to fire back. In this last exchange of fire, 10 American soldiers were wounded and 5 Panamanians were dead.

Next on 20th December, after Madden Dam, was the town of Gamboa, where 160 US citizens who worked for the Canal Commission lived. A Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, was landed nearby at McGrath Field by a single UH-1C with 11 men and a pair of CH-47s with 25 men each. These troops quickly moved to disarm a small P.D.F. detachment and take over the barracks of the Fuerzas Femininas (FUFEM) (English: Female counter-intelligence soldiers). Most of the women of the FUFEM fled into the jungle. By 0300 hours, just 2 hours into the invasion, the town of Gamboa and its US citizens were secured. Fire had been directed against the helicopters as they came in, but as they were blacked out, none were hit and there were no casualties.

Renacer Prison (TFA)

The next target was the Renacer Prison, a relatively small facility on the other side of the Chagres River guarded by around 20 to 25 Panamanians. At least two American citizens and a number of Panamanian political prisoners were known to be housed there. Attacking it was C Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division along with elements of 307th Engineer Battalion (Demolition), 1097th Transportation Company (landing craft), and three military police. The prison was the site where political opponents to Manuel Noriega were held, ranging from civilians who protested, to political opponents, all the way up to some of those who had taken part in the failed coup the previous year.

It was felt imperative to the US that these prisoners be freed, so an assault had to be actioned. Using helicopters from the landing ship Fort Sherman, two UH-1s from B Company, 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment would land inside the prison compound (each with 11 men of 2nd platoon), with a third UH-1 along with an OH-58C remaining airborne, circling around outside as support.

The remainder of 2nd Platoon (armed with M60 machine guns and AT-4 anti-tank weapons), along with 3rd Platoon, were then landed by Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) on the banks of the canal next to the prison. The OH-58C and UH-1 flying support outside the compound provided fire support from their 20 mm cannons and 2.75” unguided rockets. A company sniper located on the OH-58C provided additional security.

The sniper subdued the guard in the prison’s tower, followed by suppressive fire courtesy of the 20 mm cannon from an AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunship. The company moved in and resistance was intense but undirected and uncoordinated, even as the infantry entered the prison and released 64 prisoners. In a virtually perfect operation, the complex was fully captured within minutes with no US or prisoner fatalities. Five Panamanian guards were dead and 17 more were taken prisoner. Other than minor injuries for four US troops, six of the prisoners being hit, a single Cobra helicopter receiving a single bullet strike, and an incident with a 3 m high fence which was not on the plans and had to be cut with bayonets, the plan was a success.

Cerro Tigre (TFA)

The final objective for TFA was Cerro Tigre, where a major P.D.F. logistics hub was co-located with an electrical distribution centre. After all the previous successes, it was perhaps a pity for TFA that Cero Tigre was a mess. The helicopters to be used in the landing, CH-47s and UH-1s, had problems that delayed the landing. The two UH-1s had arrived on time at 0100 hours, but the pair of CH-47s were delayed. The 0100 ‘surprise’ was generally over anyway, but this extra 5-minute delay further alerted forces on the ground to the approach of the US troops (B Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division). The result was that P.D.F. forces were firing at the US forces as the helicopters dropped them off on the golf course. Luckily for the Americans, no one was killed and no helicopters were shot down. Nonetheless, the element of surprise was gone and the guardhouse stubbornly resisted the US approach. It is perhaps fortunate that this assault counted with an AH-1 Cobra gunship which supported their operations by engaging multiple suspected P.D.F. positions with 2.75” rocket fire.

Two US soldiers were wounded in the action, possibly by shell fragments from friendly fire, and the P.D.F. forces eventually relented and melted away into the jungle. This was not the end of the resistance around Cerro Tigre. Having taken the outer buildings, the American forces still had to occupy the main compound and yet more gunfire was exchanged. Here, the fire and manoeuver skills of the infantry proved their worth and no one was killed, with the P.D.F. forces deciding discretion was needed and again disappeared into the jungle. An operation which had started rather messily had worked out well despite the flirtation with disaster.

Coco Solo (TFA)

Operations for TFA in the south were equally successful. The military police detachment assigned to TFA quickly closed off the entrance to Coco Solo Naval Station at Colon 30 minutes prior to H hour, shooting one Panamanian guard in the process. Unfortunately, this gunshot alerted the 1st Compania de Infanteria de Marina (English: 1st Naval Infantry Company), the troops of which moved to leave their barracks and head towards their motorboats (armed with machine guns and 20 mm cannons). A company from 4th Battalion, 17th Infantry had to rush to their positions around Coco Solo as gunfire began in the area.

The Caribbean coast of Panama into the Atlantic Ocean showing the key locations and main attacks of the invasion. Source: US Army

Two boats belonging to the Naval Infantry managed to get out of the harbor and, despite US gunfire, managed to get to sea. By the time the US forces had cleared out the Coco Solo station, 2 Panamanian troops were dead and another 27 captured. The rest were presumed to have escaped in the boats or into town.

During the security phase of the seizure of the station just outside the City of Colon, one soldier was killed by Panamanian gunfire. Nonetheless, the routes in and out of Colon were secure by 0115 hours. In total, 12 Panamanian troops had been killed. The city, however, was a problem. There was significant lawlessness, with looting meaning a lot of civilians were present on the streets. This was a heavily populated area and, although P.D.F. forces were known to still be in the city, two operations to clear the city had to be cancelled for fear of civilian casualties.

The situation was stabilised by a phone call from a former P.D.F. officer to troops still in Colon to encourage them to give up. On the morning of the 22nd, those 200 did exactly that. With the risk of a gun battle in the city over, US forces entered the city from the seaward and landward sides and restored order, with the notable exception of the city’s Customs Police HQ building.

A US infantry company, supported by artillery, shot at the building until, seeing the futility of holding out, these forces also saw sense and gave themselves up. The result, however, was that Colon was not officially under US control until the end of the 22nd.

Fort Espinar (TFA)

The P.D.F. forces at Fort Espinar were likewise problematic. Even though the commander of the P.D.F.’s 8th Company, based there, had fled when he found out about the attack, his men were far more stoic. This force refused to surrender even after US forces liberally sprayed their barracks with 20 mm M61 Vulcan gun-fire. It was not until an offer of surrender was made that 40 P.D.F. troops surrendered, leaving one US soldier wounded. A second attack on a P.D.F. training facility nearby left another 40 P.D.F. soldiers in custody and 2 wounded, although 6 US troops were injured by a misthrown hand grenade.

Close up map of Colon to Fort Espinar showing TFA area of operations. Source: US Army

The resistance at Coco Solo and Fort Espinar was, however, an exception. The other targets for TFA fell quickly without much incident, meaning that, within just a couple hours, the naval station, fort, France Airfield (Colon’s small airport), and Coco Solo hospital were all secure.

Task Force Pacific in Action – Torrijos/Tocumen Airport, Panama Viejo, Fort Cimarron, and Tinajitas

Torrijos/Tocumen Airfields (TFP and TFR)

The airports would be seized by Task Force Red and then serve as a base from which to launch Task Force Pacific to their targets. Troops from C Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment with 1st Battalion, 75th Rangers found little opposition at the large commercial Torrijos Airport. At 0100 hours, two AH-6 gunships supported by a single AC-130 gunship began firing at targets, taking out the control tower and guard towers in a barrage lasting 3 minutes. At 0103 hours, four companies of Rangers parachuted in from 150 m with the goal of securing the airport within 45 minutes so that elements of the 82nd Airborne could arrive. There was a relatively brief and inconsequential exchange of fire and, on schedule, within an hour of landing, the airport was in the Rangers’ hands, having suffered just two wounded, but having killed 5 and captured 21 more.

The two airfields at Tocumen and Torrijos showing US objectives for Task Force Red.
Source: US Army
Objectives for Task Force Pacific. Source: US Army
Aerial view of the buildings at Tocumen Airfield, including the air force barracks. The aircraft on the right appears to be a CASA C-212 Aviocar, as used by the Panamanian forces for delivering troops by parachute. Source: US Army

The arrival of the 82nd Airborne was a problem. Bad weather in the US had caused delays in their arrival and, instead of dropping in one giant wave at 0145 hours, they were in fact dropped in five different waves from 0200 to 0500 hours, providing a tempting target for the Panamanians. Thankfully for the planners, the problem did not result in any casualties.

Aerial view of the barracks of 2nd Company PDF at Tocumen Airport. Source: US Army

There, the close proximity of parachute drops over an area in which helicopters were in use meant there was a risk of unpleasant accidents involving helicopter blades and slowly descending troops. Somewhat thankfully, no one was hurt. A bigger problem was the desire to airdrop in their heavy equipment consisting of the M551 Sheridans and M998 HMMWVs, which went wrong. For a start, these vehicles had to be dropped away from the troops for fear of the obvious consequences of dropping both in the same place. This led to a delay in recovery of the equipment, which was not finished until 0900 hours, with some of it found outside the airport in the long grass. Second was damage from the drop. One M551 was utterly wrecked when it landed far too hard and a second was damaged. Of the M998 HMMWVs dropped, which were to haul light artillery, four of them were damaged in the drop. By 0900 hours, when the equipment had been found and recovered, this force was seriously diminished, with 2 tanks down, 4 HMMWVs damaged, and just two of the M102 howitzers operational. One vehicle was not recovered until 29th December (9 days after the attack), as it had been dropped in a marsh.

This M551 recovered to the airport is in a sorry state, having landed far too hard, smashing the suspension.
Source: Pinterest

The delay in the landings of troops and equipment meant that the planned ‘hop’ by helicopter to their next operational goal was also seriously delayed. Helicopters clearly could not start moving even after the first wave of troops arrived, as more might be dropped on top of them. It was not until 4 hours after the attack should have happened, at 0615 hours, that troops from the 82nd got to Panama Viejo.

Despite the problems and delays, by the end of 20th, the primary international and military airfields at Torrijos and Tocumen were firmly in US hands. Overnight, into the 21st, another brigade of the 7th Infantry Division was landed at Torrijos to reinforce the US presence and then shipped to Rio Hato airfield to support and relieve the Rangers who had seized it. The rest of the 7th Infantry Division (along with various other military support elements, like communications and logistics forces) was landed at Howard Air Force Base by the 24th to provide additional security required by what was now an Army of occupation in Panama.

Panama Viejo (TFP)

The P.D.F. barracks at Panama Viejo stood on a promontory sticking out into the Bay of Panama. They housed around 250 troops, along with around 70 of their special forces related to counter-terrorist (UESAT) and commando units, and 180 men from 1st Cavalry Squadron, with a number armored vehicles.

Panama Viejo was to be seized in a simultaneous attack in conjunction with the attack on Tinajitas and Fort Cimarron. Thanks to delays, the attack on Panama Viejo did not start until 0650 hours, by which time it was daylight and there was zero element of surprise on the side of the Americans.

Aerial view of Panama Viejo barracks next to the ruins which would later be used as an operational HQ by 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division. Source: US Army

Straddling Panama Viejo were to be two rather small landing zones named Bobcat (north) and Lion (south) for the 2nd Battalion, 504th Airborne Infantry (Parachute Infantry Regiment), 82nd Airborne Division. These troops arrived in 18 UH-60 Blackhawks, supported by 4 AH-1 Cobras and a pair of AH-64 Apaches from Team Wolf Apache. The troops were fired upon by P.D.F. forces as they were being delivered, but the fire was mostly ineffectual.

They were to be delivered into these landing zones in two equal halves from 9 UH-60s at each location, starting at 0650 hours. The lack of effective opposition encountered was fortunate, as the first approach of troops at the landing zone closest to the Bay of Panama managed to land the paratroopers into the mudflats (LZ Lion) live on CNN. It was not until the helicopters were leaving that some small arms were directed at the helicopters. However, unable to identify the source, they did not return fire.

The UH-60 helicopters from 7th Infantry Division (Light) and 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, which had dropped them off, had to come to rescue the troops stranded in the mud whilst some more were saved by Panamanian civilians forming human chains to stop them drowning in the morass. The presence of these civilians was obviously welcome for the stranded and somewhat helpless soldiers, who were sitting ducks for any P.D.F. forces who might want to shoot them. They also hampered the operation, as helicopter gunships could no longer fire on P.D.F. forces for fear of hitting the civilians.

The second landing zone went slightly better. They did not trap their men in an impassable bog, which was good, but did manage to deliver them into elephant grass over 2 meters high meaning they could not see a thing and were effectively lost. Just as with the first landings, some small arms fire was received on the way back. This fire did not bring any aircraft down but three helicopters were so badly damaged they could not be reused without repair.

It was not until 1040 hours that day that Panama Viejo had been seized and firing from P.D.F. forces ceased. In total, only around 20 P.D.F. forces had even been at Panama Viejo and the rest had left hours earlier with their commander. Had some semblance of resistance at this location been mounted and led on the ground, then instead of three damaged helicopters, it could have been a slaughter. US planners got very lucky. Seemingly, many P.D.F. troops did not even know that an invasion had even started, as some were arrested by US forces the next morning as they arrived for work in their cars.

Tinajitas Barracks (TFP)

The barracks at Tinajitas was home to the P.D.F. 1st Infantry Company, known as the ‘Tigers’, who had both 81 and 120 mm mortars. Located on a strategic hill (Tinajitas Hill), there were numerous electrical lines running nearby. This meant a very hazardous approach route for any helicopter, which would not only have to land forces on the edge of the sloping hillside, but under the observation of the forces in their elevated position on the hill.

Aerial view of Tinajitas barracks, home of 1st Company P.D.F. Source: US Army

A single UH-60 landed on a hill to the west of the barracks, near to a Baha’i temple, where it dropped a mortar squad to support the attack and also to deny the use of that high ground to the P.D.F. Six UH-60s were to go to the other landing zone near to the barracks, supported by three AH-1s.

Even prior to landing, these helicopters were seen and the defenders made sure of a hot reception with heavy fire from the ground. They had taken positions within a shanty town near to the barracks. The presence of so many civilians meant that the US crews were reluctant to return fire unless the target was clearly hampering the landing. Nonetheless, and despite this heavy fire, the paratroopers were landed, although two helicopter crewmen were hit by small arms fire and lightly wounded, along with 3 infantrymen who were seriously wounded.

A second mission was even more hazardous, using just 5 UH-60s, as 1 had to be diverted to Howard Air Force Base as a medevac for the wounded. Every helicopter was hit multiple times by ground fire during this second lift. More through luck than anything else, none were lost.

A combat team of AH-64 Apaches from Team Wolf Apache, along with a single OH-58C, supported these landings at Tinajitas and all three helicopters received hits from the ground.

Relieved by a second helicopter combat team, the source of the ground fire was identified, with 11 P.D.F. troops killed by 30 mm AWS fire at a range of 2,833 meters (ranged by laser). The stiff resistance put up at Tinajitas barracks in what was a confusing and somewhat messy attack had not lasted long. The barracks had been taken at a loss of 2 American forces killed and numerous wounded.

Fort Cimarron (TFP)

The final target of operations for TFP was Fort Cimarron. The fort was home to P.D.F. Battalion 2000, with around 200 men and which was equipped with Cadillac-Gage armored cars (V-150 and V-300), ZPU-4 air defense weapons, and heavy weapons, like 81 and 120 mm mortars. The ZPU-4 was a 14.5 mm heavy machine gun system, using four weapons on a common mount. This was a devastatingly dangerous weapon deployed both for support fire on the ground and also for shooting down helicopters. Despite the loss of some vehicles from this Battalion at Pacora Bridge, there was still a substantial military force there and also an unknown number of these armored vehicles.

Cadillac Gage armored cars of Battalion 2000 on parade at Fort Cimarron in 1988. At least 7 vehicles can be seen and the two closest to the camera are a V-300 (left) and V-150 (right), both armed with a heavy machine gun in a small turret. Source: todo por la patria

Assaulting Fort Cimarron would be soldiers from 4th Battalion, 325th Infantry delivered by eleven UH-60s. 6 of them headed to the road to the south of Fort Cimarron and the other 6 landed to the west, forming a classic pincer maneuver. Having dropped off the troops, all 12 helicopters would then leave and come back with a second wave. Little resistance was met during these landings, but there were some P.D.F. forces there who continued to shoot at and harass US forces. However, the majority of forces had simply left, either in the attack at Pacora Bridge or simply left the Fort prior to the American attack. It was to take all day on 20th December to clear the Fort building by building, as this was not completed until midnight on 21st December.

Knocked out Recovery version of the Cadillac Gage V-300 armored car, probably pictured at Fort Cimarron. Source: Edward McCrane

Task Force Gator/Task Force Bayonet (TFG/TFB) – La Comandancia

La Comandancia was, in many ways, the heart of the P.D.F., as both the seat of power of Noriega and also a base for 7th Company P.D.F., known as the Macho del Monte. They were staunchly loyal to Noriega.

Things started poorly for TFG, with Panamanian police forces seeing their movements in preparation for the H hour attack and opening fire on the US forces at 0021 hours. The exchange of fire hit no one, but the attack was not going to be a surprise.

During the attack on La Comandancia, Task Force Gator, consisting of 4th Battalion, 6th Mechanized Infantry was under the operational control of Task Force Green, the same task force which was running the operation against Carcel Modelo Prison. Task Force Gator would therefore also be supported in its actions against La Comandancia by Special Mission Units, with 4th Psychological Operations Group, 1st Special Operations Wing and 160th Special Operations Aviation Detachment.

The proximity of the Carcel Modelo prison to La Comandancia is clear in this map of operations for Task Force Gator. Source: US Army

The P.D.F. forces defending La Comandancia had already started some preparation in the hours before the invasion, with roadblocks including one to the north, which was made from two dump trucks placed across the road. With H hour pulled forward by 15 minutes, the attack was led by Team Wolf Apache using their AH-64 helicopters. They took out several 2 ½ ton trucks with 30 mm cannon fire and a pair of V-300 armored cars with Hellfire missiles. An AC-130 gunship used its 105 mm gun to aid in the suppression of La Comandancia, along with further helicopter-launched Hellfire missiles.

As the helicopters of Team Wolf Apache attacked La Comandancia, the troops of the 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry set off from their side of the canal zone, less than a mile away. Using the M113 APC, they immediately encountered small roadblocks and small arms fire, although the direction of the fire could often not be established. In such a heavily built-up area and reluctant to randomly fire into civilian buildings, little US return fire was forthcoming. Either way, the small arms fire was of little consequence to the bulletproof M113s and their cargo of soldiers.

Despite the loss of the element of surprise, things did go better than may have been expected. While there was fire from P.D.F. troops, the armor of the M113 prevented any injuries and the roadblock P.D.F. troops had thrown up with cars was simply crushed and driven over. The same was not true to the north, where the M113s, at high speed, turned sharply onto Avenue B to find the dump truck roadblock. Traveling too fast to stop, the lead M113 careened into the side of one truck. The following M113 likewise saw the obstacle too late but it managed to swerve to the side to avoid crashing into the back of vehicle 1. The third vehicle then plowed straight into the back of vehicle 2. The result was a large mess, an even larger roadblock, and one crippled M113 with an injured soldier inside.

The P.D.F. plan was an ambush at this site and their roadblock worked too well. The US soldiers had an abundance of cover they would otherwise not have had approaching the roadblock in a more conventional manner. In the gun battle which followed, the roof gunner on one M113 was hit by P.D.F. forces and killed.

The second TFG M113 column also found their route blocked with a pair of dump trucks but managed to just drive around them, They also ran into fierce resistance from P.D.F. forces in a moving firefight. One soldier was struck and wounded and an RPG fired by P.D.F. forces struck one of the M113s but caused no injuries. The column was also engaged by a pair of P.D.F. 75 mm recoilless rifles but also evaded any injuries. The route to La Comandancia was open and these US forces would be able to fire on that compound.

The M113 proved just as valuable when they came to the rescue of the Delta Force troops who had been shot down with Kurt Muse from the raid on Carcel Modelo Prison. The same ability to ignore small arms fire was not true of the helicopters and an OH-58C was hit and crashed. Only the pilot survived the incident.

Crashed OH-58 at Fort Amador Source: czbrats.com

As American forces closed in on La Comandancia, resistance became more fierce and a column of three M113s moving up to the wall in order to plant charges to force an entry was repeatedly hit by around 20 rounds of what was believed to be enemy fire. The lead vehicle suffered such damage that it was disabled and the second one was knocked out by being set on fire. The infantry platoons of 3 M113s now all had to pile into a single vehicle with several men wounded in order to evacuate the scene.

It was not until later that it became clear they had been hit by 40 mm cannon fire from the AC-130 overhead, which had taken the M113s for enemy armored vehicles. This was compounded by smoke from fires from the compound and, rather than risk further blue-on-blue incidents, it fell to fire support delivered from Quarry Heights around 450 m away to try to crush the defense. This fire support came in the form of LAV’s of the USMC using 25 mm cannons, and also from the 152 mm guns of the two M551 Sheridans (C Company, 3rd Battalion (Airborne), 73rd Armor) positioned on Ancon Hill. There, these M551s fired 13 rounds. Just like with the AC-130 and helicopter gunships, however, the smoke obscured the target to such an extent that even these had to cease fire for risk of collateral damage or deaths. Airstrikes by helicopter and AC-130 gunships finally stopped the attack, as by now the building was well ablaze.

M113 armored personnel carriers seen 20th December 1989 in Panama.
Source: South Carolina National Guard.

It was not until a deadline to surrender, given in Spanish, had expired that the Americans fired again. This time it was a ‘show of force’ using a 105 mm howitzer in direct fire mode against an empty building nearby. This did the trick and, by sunset on 20th December, the defense of La Comandancia had effectively ceased. Most of the remaining P.D.F. troops in the barracks very sensibly gave up. There were, however, still some isolated P.D.F. forces resisting in the base across various buildings and these had to be cleared carefully to avoid hurting any civilians who may have been trapped. To aid in this task, the battalion commander brought in a pair of M113 APCs (attached to the 5th Infantry Division) to deal with any sniper positions with their 0.50” caliber machine guns. These would support a Ranger company brought over from Torrijos Airport, which went in and cleared the smoldering building to be sure P.D.F. opposition was over.

American troops during the assault on the burning La Comandancia building. Note that both soldiers can be seen using the M16AS1 rifle, one with a bayonet affixed and the other with the M203 grenade launcher sung underneath.
Source: US Army

Although no UH-60s were hit by ground fire during the operation, one OH-58C was hit by automatic weapons fire from the ground and crashed near La Comandancia. Ground fire against aircraft was found to be generally ineffective, as the helicopters were flying at night, with the pilots using night-vision goggles and the ground forces firing at them having none – they simply fired blindly, as all the helicopters were flying blacked out.

A pair of Mercedes Benz internal security vehicles, known as ‘Smurfs’ or ‘Pitufo’, originally belonging to the 1st Company Public Order Unit of the Police, also known as the ‘Dobermans’. Here, they are seen burned out at the Central Barracks (La Comandancia), in Panama City after the American attack on 20th December 1989. Source: Armed Forces of Panama


The ‘Smurfs’ burned out at Central Barracks, showing the original blue paint below the burned-out upper portions. The central barracks where these were located was transferred from the 1st Company Police Public Order unit to the 7th Infantry Company P.D.F. known as ‘Macho de Monte’. The scorching from the fire is obvious. Source: Armed Forces of Panama

Task Force Black Devil/Task Force Bayonet (TFBD/TFB) – Fort Amador

Fort Amador was a bit of an oddity during the entirety of the hostilities between the two countries before the invasion, and this continued on the first day as well. This was because American forces from 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry (Airborne), and P.D.F. forces in the form of 5th Infantry Company shared the base all along. The primary goal of Task Force Black Devil was the security of the base and the safety of US civilians in it.

Two companies from 1st Battalion, A and B, would be used for Task Force Black Devil (C Company was already part of Task Force Gator), along with a squad from 193rd Infantry Brigade’s 59th Engineer Company, D Battery, 320th Field Artillery, and a military police platoon. They would be equipped with all of the usual infantry equipment, but also a detachment of 8 M113 APCs, with two of them fitted with TOW missiles and a single 105 mm towed field gun from the Field Artillery unit. Aerial support came in the form of 3 AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships and a single OH-58. An AC-130 gunship was also available if required.

In the days running up to the invasion, the M113s used by TFBD were hidden on the base amongst the golf carts, which apparently was sufficient to disguise them.

With the onset of the invasion and gunfire and explosions rocking the city, the P.D.F. forces in Fort Amador made their move. Some of the P.D.F. forces took a bus and a car and tried to leave whilst, at the same time, two P.D.F. guards tried to arrest two American guards. The P.D.F. guards were killed and, as the bus and car headed towards the gate, where these men were, it was shot at, killing the driver. It cleared the gate but crashed outside the Fort. The car was fired upon and crashed within the base, killing 3 of the 7 occupants and wounding the others. With that, the gate to Fort Amador was left in US hands and blockaded.

The front gate at Fort Amador. Source: US Army

Other US forces were landed via UH-60 Blackhawks on the golf course at Fort Amador, as P.D.F. forces that were still inside the barracks did not give up. Further exchanges of gunfire took place. With concerns over a pair of P.D.F. V-300s on the base, fire support from the AC-130 was requested. The AC-130 on this occasion was a failure. Three buildings were meant to be hit but it missed all three. By the evening, the base was still not completely in US hands and, in order to clear the buildings, a policy of spraying them liberally with heavy machine-gun fire was adopted. These were accompanied by firing from a pair of AT4 anti-tank missiles and a single shell from the 105 mm gun used in direct-fire mode. This did the trick and the few defenders at the base gave up, although this was not the end of the incident.

The AC-130 had failed to damage the V-300s on the base and, with them captured, the task force commander wanted to see them. As he was doing so, an unidentified US soldier decided they were a threat and fired an AT-4 missile at the vehicles, narrowly avoiding injury to the commander. The entire base was declared cleared and secure at 1800 hours on 20th December.

Building No.5 at Fort Amador after the fighting. Source: US Army

Task Force Wildcat / Task Force Bayonet (TFW / TFB) – Ancon Hill, Ancon DENI Station, Balboa DENI Station, and DNTT

Dominating the area of Panama City was Ancon Hill. Rising nearly 200 meters above the surrounding land, the hill provided views over the city and this was a location of strategic importance. On the reverse slope of the hill lay Quarry Heights, the headquarters for US Southern Command, although most of the hill and portions of Quarry Heights had already been ceded back to Panama in 1979 from US control.

Ancon Hill provided a clear view down into the city, including over La Comandancia and Gorgas Hospital. Although US Command was based there, there was only a token US military presence guarding it. The hill, surrounded as it was by P.D.F. facilities and very much undermanned, was clearly at risk of a preemptive P.D.F. attack. Tasked with securing the hill would be a small force known as Task Force Wildcat within Task Force Bayonet.

Objectives for Task Force Wildcat. Source: US Army

Consisting of A, B, and C Companies, 5th Battalion, 87th Infantry, 193rd Infantry Brigade, as well as A Company from 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry, and a military police unit, the targets were divided. B Company 5-87th would go for the DENI Station at Balboa in the south, which was along the route used by TFG to get to La Comandancia. C Company 5-87th would attack the DNTT building and the Ancon DENI Station to the north.

The attached Mechanised Company from 1-508th would set up roadblocks at key intersections to block any P.D.F. movements, whilst the military police would secure Gorgas hospital.

With operations starting before H hour, TFW likewise was in action, sending out its patrol. In a common story for the invasion, opposition gunfire was fierce but ineffective. The roadblocks were all in place within an hour. One US soldier was hit and killed and another two wounded at one of the roadblocks, but overall P.D.F. resistance had crumbled. Where a building was found to have a sniper, it was peppered vigorously with rifle and machine-gun fire from the 0.50 caliber machine guns carried on the M113. The gates of Ancon DENI station were blown apart with 90 mm recoilless rifle fire in a show of force and, by 0445 hours, Ancon DENI station was in US hands.

A similar story followed at Balboa DENI station and at the DNTT building, with the latter secure by 0800 hours 21st December and Balboa DENI Station following by 1240 hours.

Task Force RED (TFR) in Action

With Torrijos and Tocumen airfield in US hands thanks to TFR, there was also the large strategic airfield at Rio Hato to consider. Over 80 km from US forces based in the Canal Zone, this airfield served as the base for the 6th and 7th Companies of the P.D.F. Under the command of Colonel William Kernan, TFR was to conduct parachute-based assaults on Rio Hato Airfield. This site would be attacked by US forces predominantly from 2nd and 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, totaling 837 soldiers. They were to be supported by the overly macho sounding ‘Team Wolf Apache’ as part of TFR.

Rio Hato Airfield circa 1989. Source: Pinterest
Three Cadillac Gage V-150 armored cars at Rio Hato Airfield in 1989. Source: Antonio Castillo

The operation was timed so that 2nd and 3rd Battalions would attack Rio Hato as the 1st Battalion took Torrijos and Tocumen airports. Both attacks were supported by the 4th Psychological Operations Group, 1st Special Operations Wing, and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, including the use of UH-1C Apache helicopter gunships and F-117s (this would be the operational combat debut of the F-117).

P.D.F. Cadillac-Gage V-150 on exercise at Rio Hato in 1987. This particular vehicle belonged to the 6th Expeditionary Infantry Company of the P.D.F. Source: Jamurillo

Team Wolf Apache, operating Apache helicopters, made sure that the Rangers were not shot down by neutralizing the P.D.F.’s ZPU-4 air defense systems with their own 30 mm Area Weapons System (AWS). Attacking under the cover of darkness with infrared night sights, these helicopters were virtually invisible and the P.D.F. forces had nothing they could see to shoot at.

The assault on Rio Hato Airfield, Source: US Army
Close-up of Rio Hato airfield, showing it was bisected by the vital inter-American highway and also the locations of P.D.F. troops to the south. Source: US Army

Airborne fire support from the AH-6 successfully suppressed the air defense at Rio Hato for the TFR assault. A pair of F-117s (out of Tonapah Test Range, Nevada and refueled in flight) were to deliver a 2,000 lb. (1 US ton, 907 kg) GBU-27 laser-guided bomb each near to the garrison to create confusion and to disorientate the P.D.F. Unfortunately, they missed by several hundred meters due to poor targeting data and hit neither the garrison building nor landed close enough to cause confusion. Instead they succeeded in scaring a lot of local wildlife and waking the defenders. It would not have mattered anyway, as the initial strike for 0100 hours had already started early due to poor security and the Panamanian forces had already evacuated the building. More successful in subduing P.D.F. forces was the gunfire from the AC-130 circling overhead and the AH-1 and AH-64 helicopter gunships. Five minutes after these bombs had landed and strafing started, 2nd and 3rd Battalion, 75th Rangers arrived. Carried on 13 C-130 Hercules transport aircraft which had flown nonstop from the USA, they were dropped from just 150 meters, right into the sights of the P.D.F. troops, leading to a fierce gunfight which lasted for 5 hours. The results were that two Rangers were killed and four wounded, although this was not the result of the P.D.F. fire, which was fierce but largely ineffective. Instead, this was a tragic blue-on-blue incident when a helicopter gunship fired on their position in error. By the end of the battle, the airfield was in the Rangers’ hands and they moved quickly to cut the highway. The US Army claims to have killed some 34 Panamanians in the attack on Rio Hato, capturing 250 more, as well as numerous weapons. The US casualty toll is officially 4 dead, 18 wounded, and 26 injured in the jump. (Of note is that the 150 m parachute jump caused 5.2% friendly casualties according to US figures)

US Army Rangers with a modified M151A2 jeep fitted with roll bars and a pair of M60 machine guns. Source: Rottman via DoD.
Another V-150 of the 6th Mechanised a parade. The raised superstructure is the fitting for the command and control version. A single 0.50” caliber heavy machine gun is mounted on top. Source: todo por la patria
Task Force Red and Black areas of operation. Source: US Army

Task Force Black (TFB) in Action

Charged with reconnaissance and surveillance missions at Tinajitas, Fort Cimarron, and Cerro Azul (TV-2), TFB was under the command of Colonel Jake Jacobelly. Troops came from 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces and were supported by 4th Psychological Operations Group, 1st Special Operations Wing, and 617th Special Operations Aviation Detachment along with aircraft from 1-228th Aviation.

Cerro Azul was the home for the main television station – a key strategic target. Source: US Army

Fort Cimarron and Pacora River Bridge (TFB)

The Pacora River Bridge was a key strategic location on the road to Panama City. It was vital that the US seized this bridge in order to cut and control the highway, as this would prevent the Panamanian V-300s from P.D.F. Battalion 2000 from heading along the highway from their base at Fort Cimarron.

This task fell to Task Force Black (TFB) to support TFP. TFB’s troops came from A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), along with 24 Green Berets, with fire support provided by an AC-130 gunship from 7th Special Operations Wing. The surveillance TFB had been conducting on Fort Cimarron revealed that at least 10 P.D.F. vehicles left Fort Cimarron in response to the US invasion and this convoy would be intercepted at the Pacora Bridge.

Aerial view of the Pacora River Bridge. Source: US Army
Seen before the invasion, this V-150 Command version on parade is sporting an unusual paint scheme which, with the headlamps, forms a face. The ‘horns’ on the front appear to have been fitted for the purposes of the parade only. Source: Armed Forces of Panama

This operation flirted with disaster right from the outset when the troops being delivered by Blackhawk managed to get lost and flew right over the very convoy they were going to ambush. No chance of surprise remained after that and only by good fortune were the P.D.F. forces not awake enough to shoot down these rather fat, juicy, and easy targets right above them.

Having dodged an ignominious death, at 0045 hours, the Blackhawks, miraculously unmolested, deposited the 24 Green Berets troops on the western approaches to the bridge, on a steep slope, making movement more difficult but providing a dominant fire position over the bridge approaches. By the time the American special forces got to the bridge, the P.D.F. vehicles were there too and lighted up the American forces with their headlamps.

A classic ambush layout for the US forces at Pacora Bridge. Source: US Army
Two trucks belonging to Battalion 2000 of the P.D.F. stopped and shot up in the region of Pacora Bridge. An American Green Beret poses next to them. Source: Julio Diffilipo

The first two vehicles in the convoy were quickly stopped with well-aimed fire from AT-4 anti-tank missiles and then a hazardously close-air-support mission delivered from an AC-130 Spectre gunship. The AC-130 also provided infra-red illumination of the convoy so that the special forces with night vision equipment had a view of the enemy. The P.D.F. forces broke and retreated or fled. This allowed the US forces at the bridge, who had snatched a victory from a potentially embarrassing defeat, to meet up at around 0600 hours the next day with the M551s from 82nd Airborne, creating a solid link to the airport and cementing US control.

Three Cadillac-Gage armored cars were abandoned in the region of Pacora Bridge. A V-300 Mk.II with the Cockerill CM-90 turret sits on the left. A V-150 Command version is further away from the camera and a standard V-150 sits on the right. Some sources state these vehicles were taken out after crossing the river and others than they were returning from the bridge when they were abandoned. Source: Armed Forces of Panama on Facebook

A count of the losses from this critical action left 4 of the P.D.F. 2 ½ ton trucks, a pickup truck, and at least 3 armored cars behind, along with 4 P.D.F. dead.

Cerro Azul television station. Source: US Army

Task Force Green (TFG) in Action
Carcel Modelo Prison (TFG)

H Hour was set for 0100 hours on 20th December, but minutes before the official start of the invasion, a special forces mission codenamed ‘Acid Gambit’ was initiated at Carcel Modelo prison. Located near La Comandancia, the prison was housing an American citizen called Kurt Muse. Muse was reportedly a CIA operative and, whether he was or not, he was detained due to his activities running a covert anti-Noriega radio station in May 1989.

Carcel Modelo Prison.
Source: US Army

Elements from TFG supported 23 troops from the Army’s Delta Force, who successfully landed on the roof and entered the prison to free Muse. There, they loaded him onto an AH-6 ‘Little Bird’. The aircraft usually carried a crew of two but was now ferrying four members of Delta Force, the pilot, and Muse, overloading it. This otherwise successful raid could have ended in disaster, as the slow and low flying helicopter he was on was hit by gunfire and shot down, creating additional problems for the whole operation. Fortunately for the planners, Muse and the pilot of the AH-6 survived and were rescued by troops from the 5th Infantry Division with an M113 APC. All four of the Delta Force on the AN-6 were wounded during this action.

This AH-6 was shot down after the rescue of Kurt Muse. Note the American M113 APC of the 5th Infantry Division on the right of the picture. Source: sofrep.com

Task Force Semper Fidelis in Action

The task of TFSF was the security of the Bridge of the Americas (a 1.65 km long road link over the canal), Arraijan Tank Farm (a major fuel depot), US Naval Air Station Panama, and Howard Air Force Base, as well as to control movement along the Inter-American Highway from the west. As a result, they ended up with responsibility for the security of around 15 km2 of Panama City.

TFSF had probably the most complex job in the whole operation, covering both a large area but also known hostile enemy forces and a variety of high-value sites to seize and protect.

Howard Air Force Base, for example, was the hub of helicopter operations but was seriously vulnerable to possible mortar fire and, with hills overlooking it, to sniper fire. The Arraijan Tank Farm was a major fuel depot and the loss of this would have been an unpleasant visual site for the evening news, with large black clouds from burning fuel a potential backdrop to an operation.

Add to this the problems the loss of a large fuel depot would pose for both ground and air operations and that it was occupied by hostile P.D.F. forces and this was a substantial problem. Other P.D.F. forces were dotted around the TFSF area of operations with various roadblocks as well, including one outside Howard Air Force Base, at the Department of Traffic and Transportation (D.N.T.T.) station. Unarmored forces mounted in HMMWVs or trucks could not drive on the roads or through urban areas with risk of being shot at, so the LAVs of 2nd LAI would lead all of those operations, relying on their armor to protect from small arms fire and using their firepower to clear up any opposing forces in the way. TFG also benefited from the use of a number of M113 armored personnel carriers, meaning that they could at least move troops protected from small arms fire.

Panama City at the time of the invasion, December 1989. Source: US Army.

With H hour set for 0100 hours on 20th December, TFSF assets were in place and ready at Rodman Naval Station. Shortly before H hour, a warning was received of Panamanian V300 armored cars in the city. Concerned that these might move on their assigned targets, blocking forces were sent out. Within 10 minutes, 13 LAV-25s belonging to 1st and 3d Platoons, along with 17 Marines and a single unarmored HMMWV belonging to a US Army Psyops team were heading for Ajjaijan Tank Farm.

As the column moved towards DNTT Station 2, their first target, they started to receive incoming small arms fire. The lead element of the column (tasked with this target), using 3 LAV-25s, broke off, plowed through the gates in their LAV-25, and opened fire on any points of enemy resistance, although the 25 mm cannons were not used for fear of unnecessary casualties. This restraint continued as the Marines began clearing the buildings one at a time until a Marine was shot multiple times and killed. With that, such restraint was dropped and room clearance was done via fragmentation grenade and automatic fire. This was the only Marine killed in the whole of the invasion and one other was wounded at the DNTT Station. One member of the DNTT was killed, 3 more wounded, and 3 taken into custody. The whole operation took less than 10 minutes and the station was secured. The 3 LAV-25s then left the station to catch back up with the rest of the column moving on to Arraijan.

The P.D.F. had set a large roadblock on the highway (Thatcher Highway) to the farm, consisting of a pair of fuel tracks guarded by 10-20 P.D.F. troops. Not wishing to assault the location or drive into an ambush, the task force leaders authorized the trucks destroyed by 25 mm cannon fire. With this show of force and no chance of an ambush, the P.D.F. forces withdrew and the column moved on to Arraijan to secure it.

TFSF operations had not been affected by delays like the operations at Torrijos/Tocumen, and the four Marine companies, supported by infantry, struck their objectives right on time, rolling right through what harassing fire they encountered. In a very short time, all of TFSF objectives were secured, roadblocks set up as required, and the rifle companies were scouring the hills overlooking the area for any P.D.F. snipers.

LAV-25 of the USMC at a roadblock on the highway.
Source: Cole

With all of TFSF’s objectives for H hour complete, they were then assigned additional tasks in the afternoon. One of these was to take the P.D.F. headquarters (HQ for P.D.F. 10th Military Zone) building at La Chorrera. The task was allocated to the Marines attached to the Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team (FAST) platoon and troops from D Company. The operation was underway by 1530 hours. Once more, a P.D.F. roadblock in the form of buses was blocking the Inter-American Highway at 1545 hours.

Rather than stop, the column simply plowed straight through it, with the LAV-25s firing as a show of force. Faced with an armored force they could not stop and which was not stopping either, the P.D.F. option was to stand, fight and lose or to leave. They chose the latter option and the column closed in on the La Chorrera HQ building. Reconnaissance showed that the building was more substantial than first thought and that there was a potential for a bloody engagement between the Marines and the defenders in an area surrounded by civilian housing.

There followed a series of back and forth orders relating to aerial fire missions, which took over an hour until, finally, a mission was ordered. Using a pair of A-7 Corsairs to strafe the target with 20 mm cannon fire and guided by an OA-37 Dragonfly, the mission was a success. No civilian homes were hit and the convoy entered the compound. Little resistance was encountered other than sniping from the few defenders who had stayed and this was dealt with robustly via the 25 mm cannon on the LAVs. Having cleared the compound and seized the weapons, the building was on fire and the Marines pulled out to return to Arraijan.

US Marines during the attack at P.D.F. HQ in La Chorrera.
Source: US Army
USMC LAV-25 of D Company outside the ruined and smoldering P.D.F. headquarters building at La Chorrera.
Source: US Army

Task Force White in Action (TFW) – Paitilla Airfield, Pote Porras

TFW was a special operations mission from the US Navy SEALS, consisting of 5 platoons along with 3 patrol boats, 4 river patrol craft, and 2 light patrol boats. This task force was divided into 4 task units; Charlie (TUC), Foxtrot (TUF), Whiskey (TUW), and Papa (TUP).

TUC was to ensure the safety of the entrance to the Panama Canal from the Atlantic side, whilst TUF did the same for the Pacific side. TUW was tasked with sinking the Pote Porras and TUP was to attack and occupy Paitilla airfield.

Task Unit Papa (TUP) – Paitilla Airfield

Half an hour prior to H Hour (0100 hours), 48 SEALs (3 x 16 man teams) from SEAL Team 4 landed south of the Paitilla airfield with orders to destroy Noriega’s aircraft to prevent him from escaping.

Noriega used a C-21A Learjet. With a pair of turbofan engines, the jet could carry 8 passengers in comfort with a range of over 5,000 km – certainly enough to escape to Havana (1,574 km), Caracas (1,370 km), or pretty much anywhere from northern Mexico to the northern half of South America as far as Rio de Janeiro (5,286 km). With that much ground to choose from, if he escaped, he would be hard to find.

The initial phase of the SEAL team operation went off without a hitch, with infiltration carried out on the southern side of the airstrip. This continued right up until about 5 minutes past H Hour when the simultaneous US invasion strikes across the country alerted the Panamanians to what was going on. Three V-300 armored cars were reported to be approaching the airfield (they were to actually drive past the airport and take no part) and a group of SEALs moved to intercept them at the hangers on the northwestern side of the airstrip, alerting them to their presence and resulting in a firefight. In this gun battle, the nine SEALs at the hangers were caught in the open and fired upon. Many of them were hit and wounded.

The rest of the SEALs who were there came to their assistance, continuing a fierce gunfight in which two SEALs were killed and 4 more wounded. In total, the airport operation left 4 SEALs dead and at least 8 wounded. Even so, the mission had been accomplished in a little over 7 minutes. The personal jet of Manuel Noriega was notably taken out during this action by means of an AT-4 anti-tank missile and the runway was blocked with another aircraft. In the morning of the 20th, they were relieved by the arrival of the 1st Battalion, 75th Rangers. Three P.D.F. troops had been killed and another 7 wounded. By 0330 hours, Paitilla airfield was considered to be secure.

Manuel Noriega’s private jet (a C-21A Learjet) was taken out by means of an AT-4 anti-tank missile, 20th December 1989. Source: Rottman via Major B. Kilgraff

Sinking the Pote Porras

With one SEAL team off to the airport to cripple Noriega’s aircraft and prevent his escape, another was dispatched to ensure he would not try to escape by sea. Known as the ‘Pote Porras‘ (recorded in the US military accounts mistakenly as the ‘Presidente Porras’, which was actually a ferry boat), the vessel was a Customs patrol craft and the largest vessel in the Panamanian Navy (registration P-202). This ship was to be mined with C4-filled haversacks by 4 SEALs from SEAL Team 2 in order to blow it up whilst it was berthed at Pier 18 in Balboa Harbor. During this operation, they were to get to the ship by swimming underwater using rebreather apparatus. However, they were spotted by Panamanian guards who shot at them and dropped grenades into the water. Other than being detected by the guards, however, the operation was a complete success and the boat was blown up.

Patrol craft P-202 Pote Porras seen in Rodman Naval Station in 1986. It was mined and sunk by SEALs.
Source: US National Archives

Second Act

The attack on the 20th had, in the main, been successful. Mistakes are inevitable in a large operation and forgivable, although little things, like potentially trapping your landing force in a bog for the enemy to shoot at, are less so. American forces had been successful despite those mistakes and also despite the inability to keep the operation secret. They achieved surprise perhaps not in the exact timing, but certainly in the scale of the attack striking everywhere at once and totally overwhelming the resistance.

The P.D.F. resistance had often been fierce and sporadic, but with daylight on the 20th and the invasion appearing a fait-accompli, the Panamanians did not give up. Some P.D.F. and irregular forces had managed to disappear into civilian areas or the jungles. On the evening of the 20th, P.D.F. soldiers were reported as going into the Marriott Hotel looking for US civilians.

Marriott Hotel airport catering truck commandeered by US forces as a somewhat conspicuous personnel carrier. Another vehicle – a white civilian van, was also repurposed for use as an ambulance by US forces.
Source: Pinterest

Fearing that some Noriega loyalists might seek retribution either by killing US civilians or by taking them hostage, US forces were dispatched to secure this location as well. A reinforced company of paratroopers was quickly sent and on route. In this somewhat last-minute operation along a relatively short route to the hotel, which was only about 3 km south of Panama Viejo, there was continual fire exchange between P.D.F. and Dignity Battalion forces in the area and the passing US troops. Sniper fire against American forces wounded two men and, in exchange, around a dozen Panamanian troops were killed. The US forces reached the hotel around 2130 hours that night and held it secure overnight, as there was no means by which to evacuate the guests staying there. Some hostages had been taken from the hotel prior to their arrival, although they were all released later. The remaining guests were evacuated on the 21st. In another hostage incident, a team from the Smithsonian Institute was abducted by a group of P.D.F. troops, only to be abandoned on the 21st in a remote area.

In the heightened tensions of those two days, two American civilians were killed. One was shot by P.D.F. forces shortly after H hour at a P.D.F. roadblock he tried to flee from, and US forces killed the other, who had tried to run through a US roadblock at around the same time.

Task Force Hawk (TFH) in Action – Cuartels

TFH helicopters of the 7th Infantry Division and 617th Aviation Company had one of the least known parts of the Panamanian invasion. It was headed by Major Gilberto Perez, commanding A Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), supported by 2nd Brigade, 7th Infantry Division (Light). The plan was for the insertion of special forces to the airfields at the towns of Santiago, Chitre, and Las Tables to make contact with the small garrisons (known as ‘cuartels’) in those towns. An AC-130 gunship was on hand to provide a show of force should there be any hesitation. Having surrendered and put down their arms, the cuartels and towns would be occupied by the infantry to assure law and order. This was not one of the initial operational phases of the plan to start at H hour on 20th December. Instead, this was a follow-up as part of the pacification and normalization of the interior of Panama. The task started at 1400 hours, on 23rd December, at Santiago. With that success, next was Chitre at 0630 hours, 24th December, followed by Las Tables at 0900, 25th December. Even though this was not the most dramatic or action-filled mission of the Panamanian invasion, it was perhaps one of the most important, showing that US forces could be magnanimous in victory and were only occupying as long as they needed to.

Aftermath

Noriega was finally captured 14 days after the mission, after taking refuge in the Vatican City’s embassy for 10 days. After that, the somewhat ironically named ‘Operation Promote Liberty’ began by the occupying force which had just invaded the country.

During this time, there were no active combat operations undertaken, but the LAVs of D and then C Company 2nd LAI assisted Panamanian security forces in the quelling of some elements of local drug traffickers.

US Marine Corps LAV-25 belonging to D Company, 2nd Battalion in Arrijan, 20th December.
Source: Rottman via DoD.

The LAVs later served a useful ‘hearts and minds’ approach, whereby they could be used to engage with local children, and then their families who would go and see these vehicles parked in prominent public places. The local populace grew to know these vehicles as the ‘tanquita’ (English: little tank).

Numerous other patrols by various US forces were conducted, often at the behest of local Panamanians or following reports of lingering Panamanian forces. These were aimed either to recover arms or to pick up the PDF soldiers. They were successful although there were isolated incidents of people shooting at US forces over the next few days.

Four AH-6 helicopters had been lost in total, with two shot down by gunfire around La Comandancia in the opening hours of the operations and a third shot down at Colon later in the day (both crewmen were killed). The fourth was lost 10 days after the invasion, on 30th December, when a parachute was blown into the rotor blades whilst it was hovering at Tocumen Airport.

In total, some 26 American troops died during the operation, with a further 322 (another US Army document gives a figure of 325) wounded. Civilian deaths are hard to count, but the US Army estimated around 200 died between the cross-fire and acts of disorder which took place in the collapse of law and order in places like Colon. Of the approximately 15,000 troops in the Panamanian military, US Army figures give the number of Panamanian dead as 314, with 124 wounded and over 5,000 taken prisoner. The one notable exception to this was, of course, Noriega himself. Huge efforts had been made to take out every possible escape route for him from the country. Yet, on the 20th, other than perhaps still being with that sex worker held up somewhere, the US had no idea where he was.

They had, in fact, narrowly avoided capturing him when the car he was in went past a US roadblock on the 20th. His capture, or rather the lack of it, was a serious embarrassment to the whole operation. Where was Noriega?

Where’s Noriega?

Lacking a distinctive striped scarf to make him stand out like a Where’s Wally cartoon book, finding Noriega was like trying to find a piece of hay in multiple stacks of needles. He knew the country backwards and had numerous loyalists and opportunities to create hideouts for bolt holes either in the city, the jungle, or simply to be smuggled out of the country. Operation Just Cause could not claim success, and Panama could not move towards a post-Noriega era whilst he still remained on the run.

M551 at a roadblock outside the Vatican Embassy.
Source: Bob Pearson/ AFP
M551 outside the Vatican Embassy, providing a good view of the unusual ‘box’ added to the rear of the turret to protect the crew.
Source: US Army

Fearing he may take refuge in the embassy of an ‘awkward’ nation, like Nicaragua, Cuba, or Libya, where US forces could not recover him, those areas were tightly cordoned off by US forces. A massive manhunt was underway, so it was perhaps surprising that the diplomatic envoy (Papal Nuncio) of Pope John Paul II acting for the Vatican City, Monsignor Laboa, gave Noriega refuge in their embassy on Christmas Day 1989. For a man used to a bawdy lifestyle free with guns, violence, drugs, and prostitution, a stay at the embassy of the Vatican might have been a little disappointing for Noriega. It also underscores how desperate he was to not be captured and how little support he really had in the country. On the plus side, it also likely meant a more rapid end to military actions and troops on the streets.

M113 armored personnel carrier behind concertina wire at a roadblock outside the Vatican Embassy.
Source: czbrats.com

He Fought the Law – the Law Won

As soon as General Thurman learned of the situation with Noriega and where he was hiding, there was obviously relief of ‘where’s Wally’, but also the question appeared of ‘now what?’. The ‘now what’ was to seal off the embassy so that no one could go in or out and then to solve the problem diplomatically. With crowds chanting outside against him, and in possibly one of the most unusual military moves ever, it was decided to force him out with Rock and Roll. Very loud rock and roll was blasted through speakers courtesy of broadcasting US Military Radio for Central America (Southern Command Network), with song selections coming inventively from many of the service personnel in the area.

US Army HMMWV and an M113. Note the loudspeaker fitted to the roof of the HMMWV.
Source: Pinterest

Perhaps the first time most of the Papal Nuncio had heard the lyrical compositions of Guns ‘n’ Roses, Jethro Tull, The Clash, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Bon Jovi, The Doors, and AC/DC, they likely would not have enjoyed the deafening volumes at which it was blasted at the embassy. No one inside would be able to talk or sleep for this appalling racket blasted outside.

After two days of this din, operations were handed off to the 4th Psychological Operations Group but shortly thereafter, after the absurdity of it all, the music stopped. Noriega had nowhere to go and the Vatican, embarrassed as well by the whole affair, wanted the situation over. On 3rd January, Noriega walked out to the gate with 3 priests, where he surrendered to US forces.

Noriega on 3rd January 1990, after his arrest. He is taken onto a US aircraft for travel back to the United States for trial.
Source: US Air Force

Noriega was later put on trial in the US and sentenced to 30 years. Incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami, he enjoyed accommodation far better than the other inmates thanks to his official status as a Prisoner of War, until his sentence expired in 2007. He stayed in US custody thanks to extradition requests until 2010 when he was sent to France for trial, where his status was reduced to that of a common inmate, and received a 7-year sentence for money laundering. He was later extradited back to Panama in 2011 and sent to El Renacer Prison. He died in custody on 29th May 2017.

Follow-up on the Invasion

The post-invasion analysis is complicated. The arguments over the legal (or lack of) justification for the invasion and the incredible complexity of trying to comprehend so many operations across a whole country at the same time are not helping factors. Just 8 months after the conclusion of Operation Just Cause came the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and military attention very much shifted to a much bigger and more complex conflict on the other side of the planet.

Several lessons were, however, starkly clear. Medevac by helicopter was crucial, with 25 US troops medevaced during the invasion operations on 20th December alone. In total, 470 people were medevaced by aircraft from 1-228 Aviation alone (although not all were US personnel).

Air support was obviously a crucial element in the win but had not been without incident. Too much confusion, too many friendly fire incidents, and near misses, were the result of inadequate training. However, aerial combat assets, particularly those for ground support*, were absolutely invaluable, whether helicopter gunships or the AC-130 gunship and despite their age as aircraft, the UH-1 and AH-1 performed well. Even such a relatively small invasion across just a couple of days involved 948 separate aerial combat missions totaling 3,741 flying hours. These missions were on the whole successful, more than in Grenada, because they happened in the dark thanks to advances in night vision technology. In fact, 742 of those 948 missions (78%) were carried out using night vision goggles. With combat and non-combat air missions counted together, there were a total of 1,117 air missions and 5,762 flying hours logged. Airpower, particularly the ability to move forces rapidly by helicopter, simply overwhelmed the Panamanians.

[* Ammunition wise, aircraft alone fired 1 TOW missile, 7 Hellfires, 29 CRV-7 Multi-Purpose Sub-Munitions (cluster bombs), 90 PD6, 3,300 rounds of 30 mm ammunition, 180 2.75” rockets (flare and HE types), 3,866 rounds of 20 mm ammunition, and 9,290 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition.]

On the ground, the ancient M113 rolled through the events very well, often exceeding expectations. The tracked box was a versatile machine capable of moving men or the wounded in and out of hot areas very ably. The roof-mounted .50 caliber heavy machine gun, whilst not as capable as the 20 mm turret-mounted weapon on the M2 Bradley (replacing the M113 as the Army’s armored personnel carrier), was found to be incredibly useful, as it could elevate to strike very high targets in buildings which the otherwise excellent cannon in the Bradley could not. It was recorded, however, that more perhaps out of luck than anything else, an RPG did not take out one of the M113 columns in the advance on La Comandancia. Had it done so, the entire advance could have faltered and the additional protection offered by the M2 Bradley over the M113 would have been seen as being of substantial value.

One other note on the use of the M113 was the lack of capability as a mechanized unit for clearing obstructions. Cars could be driven over, but the dump trucks used by the P.D.F. to block routes to La Comandancia had crippled one M113 which rammed them and they had no good way of clearing them. A Combat Engineering Vehicle (CEV), particularly one with a large caliber (165 mm) gun for delivering a breaching charge, was strongly recommended. This could have both cleared the roadblock and also smashed through the compound walls and avoided the US troops having to get so close under the enemy guns.

The new HMMWV light trucks, replacing the M151 Jeep, were likewise well received and the Marine Corps LAVs likewise proved themselves to be capable and robust machines.

USMC LAV-25 at a roadblock in Panama City 1st January 1990.
Source: Weijon Din

“the Light Armored Vehicle’s (LAV’s) firepower, mobility, and armor coupled with the Fleet Antiterrorist Security Team’s highly trained Close Quarters Combat Team (CQBT) provided a versatile and potent force, particularly for offensive operations and as a quick reaction force. The Loudspeaker teams (psychological operations) provided the means to offer an opportunity and in some cases persuade the enemy to surrender without a fight.”
MCLLS# 12559-16914 quoted in DeForest, 2001

A Marine Corps LAV-25 providing fire support.
Source Pinterest

The story of the M551 is more complex. They had been invaluable in delivering fire support against structures when their 152 mm ammunition delivered a nice and robust blast. There had, after all, been zero need for an armor-defeating action, so high explosive was much more useful. The M551 had been selected as most bridges in the country were not able to take the weight of heavier tanks, like the M60. The tank was considered by many as being basically obsolete by this point at the end of the Cold War and this was, after all, the first operational combat airdrop of one (which did not go well). The reality, however, was that any tank is better than no tank and, with enough armor to render any small arms useless, it was a substantial presence in the invasion. It had all the capability to take on any of the possible armor it could meet and the 152 mm was substantially more useful as a lobber of high explosive than it probably ever was going to be as a missile-firing system.

M551 at a roadblock in Panama City, 1st January 1990.
Source: Weijon Din

Financially, the cost of the invasion ran to US$163.6 m, with the bulk (US$155 million) of costs allocated to the Army, with substantially smaller costs (US$5.7 million and US$2.9 million) for the Air Force and Navy, respectively. The costs of US Marine Corps operations fall into the expenditure of the Navy and not the Army. Overall, this was a cheap operation in military terms and casualties had been light. There had also been a good display on the whole of restraint by US forces and this is shown in the relatively low civilian casualty figures, despite the density of population in the areas in which much of the operations took place. That is not to say that there were no incidents of excess by US forces because there were. US Army records show that 19 US personnel were court-martialed for offenses committed during Operation Just Cause and 17 of them convicted:

Two were from 82nd Airborne for the murder of a civilian and assault on another soldier (not guilty); 2 from 5th Infantry Division for Absent Without Leave (AWOL) and Assault x 2 (guilty); 2 from US Army South for theft (larceny) and AWOL/drunk (guilty), 76 from 7th Infantry Division for disobeying orders, the accidental shooting of another soldier, killing a civilian, losing a weapon x 3, conspiracy to smuggle x 4, negligent discharge and injury of a civilian x 2, and theft (all guilty).

M113 seen during Operation Just Cause. Note the coils of razor wire and that the soldier is posing with children by the vehicle. Despite the often fierce resistance of some units, many Panamanians welcomed the stability brought by US troops.
Source: Ken Sabin

The USA finally transferred control of the canal to Panama, as had been originally agreed, on 31st December 1999.

https://www.c-span.org/video/?323379-1/operation-invasion-panama-scenes
7:38 minute CSPAN Video the invasion of Panama including Pentagon footage inside Panama City after the invasion.

A LAV-25 of the USMC during the invasion of Panama.
An M551A1 Sheridan from the 82nd Airborne Division.

Sources

Cole, R. (1998). Joint Operational Reform. JFQ Magazine Autumn/Winter 1998-99.
DeForest, R. (2001). Light armored vehicles in operations other than war. Masters’ Thesis. US Marine Corps Command and Staff College.
Fix Bayonets USMC blog: https://fixbayonetsusmc.blog/2019/04/19/marines-in-panama-1903-04-part-i/
GAO Report NSAID-01-174FS. (April, 1991). Panama: Issues Relating to the U.S. Invasion. US Government Accounting Office, USA.
GAO Report NSAID-90-279FS. (September 1990). Panama: Cost of the US Invasion of Panama. Government Accounting Office, USA.
Hammond, K., & Sherman F. (1990). Sheridans in Panama. Armor Magazine March April 1990
Kuehn, J. TR?s Plan to Invade Columbia. US Naval Institute https://www.usni.org/trs-plan-invade-colombia
Lathrop, R., McDonald, J. (2002). Cadillac Gage V-100 Commando 1960-1971. New Vanguard, Osprey Publishing, UK
Luxner, L. (1991). Shipping registry of Panama shrank in ‘90, but revenue grew. Joc.com https://www.joc.com/maritime-news/shipping-registry-panama-shrank-90-revenue-grew_19910130.html
Margolis, D. (1994). The invasion of Panama: an analysis of Operation Just Cause under international law. Towson State Journal of International Affairs. Vol. XXX. No.1.
Philips, R. on behalf of the United States Army. (1990). The incursion into Panama. CMH Publication 70-85-1, USA Army, USA
Quigley, J. The Legality of the United States Invasion of Panama. https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1561&context=yjil
Rottman, G. (1991). Panama 1989-90. Osprey Elite Series No.37. Osprey Publishing, UK
SIPRI Trade Register – Arms Imports to Panama 1950-1995.
Smith, D. (1992). Army Aviation in Operation Just Cause. US Army War College.
Soldiers in Panama: Stories of Operation Just Cause. US Army https://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00022183/00001/6j
Special Operations https://sofrep.com/specialoperations/special-operations-highlighted-early-hours-operation-just-cause/
United Nations Digital Library: USSCR 330: https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/93493?ln=en
United States Department of State Archive: Panama Canal Treaty of 1977: https://2001-2009.state.gov/p/wha/rlnks/11936.htm
US Navy SEAL Museum https://www.navysealmuseum.org/about-navy-seals/seal-history-the-naval-special-warfare-storyseal-history-the-naval-special-warfare-story/operation-just-cause-navy-seals-panama
Yates, L. (2014). The US military intervention in Panama: Operation Just Cause. Center of Military history, US Army, Washington DC, USA

Categories
Cold War US Tactics

1983 Invasion of Grenada

USA vs Grenada

Grenada, the southernmost island nation in the Grenadines in the Caribbean, is a tropic island known as the spice island thanks to the harvesting of nutmeg. It had been a British colony since 1763, but in 1967, it was granted home rule on the road to independence. Grenada became a fully independent nation in 1974. Following a coup in 1979 and the new pro-Cuban government, relationships with the West began to fall apart. This was exacerbated by the construction of a large new airport facility with Cuban support at the capital, as it started to assert its political and military influence. This became a crisis at the end of 1983, which resulted in a military invasion by the United States with some support from other Caribbean islands. The invasion, expected to be quick and simple and under the justification of rescuing American citizens and restoring order, became a symbol of both the power of a newly assertive US military, just a few years after the failures of Vietnam, and also of its weaknesses in terms of organization, preparation, and coordination. The invasion is notable for both the use and lack of use of armor in support of operations.

Background and Political Crisis

This tiny island – just 349 km2 (135 sq. miles) – with a population of 110,000, had been a British colony from 1763 until it gained home rule in 1967 and full independence in 1974. The new nation and member of the British Commonwealth, under the leadership of Sir Eric Gairy, began a decline in economic terms straight afterward. Following this decline becoming a full economic crisis, Maurice Bishop seized power in an armed coup in 1979. This action and seizure of power marked a political shift to the left and closer ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union, with the new party in power: the New Joint Endeavour for Welfare, Education, and Liberation (JEWEL), which had been formed by Bishop back in March 1973 but with the coup came the end of US aid and a collision course between the USA and Grenada was set.

Map of the nation of Grenada, with the main island and several smaller islands lying to the North East in the Grenadines island chain.
Source: worldatlas.com

Progressively, the party, renamed as the ‘New Jewel Movement’ (NJM), removed democratic limitations and replaced them with a more Marxist-leaning government. This included removing the influence of the Governor-General, Sir Paul Scoon. Seeking to change the direction of the island nation, Bishop sought ties outside of the nation’s traditional influencers, like the United States and the United Kingdom, and instead moved to embrace Cuba, the Soviet Union, and even to a lesser extent, pariah states like Libya and North Korea.

Maurice Bishop in the white shirt on the left, stood next to President Fidel Castro of Cuba in the army uniform on the right.
Source: repeatingislands.com

Construction of the airport with two runways, each measuring 2,743 m long and 45 m wide, at Port Salinas began in the late 1970s, with around 600 Cuban construction workers being sent to help with the building, which was in two phases. Phase 1 was an initial 1,700 m foot long segment which, due to delays, was not going to be finished until the end of January 1982. This would be followed by the extension phase to make it a full 2,743 m long and could take an additional couple of years.

According to Grenada, this runway was for tourism and economic development purposes. This would be backed up by the funding sources, which, contrary to media reports at the time of the investigation, was not solely a Cuban venture. The Cubans, in fact, were to supply just US$10 m worth of labor and material (22% of the total cost) over a 3 year initial construction period for the runway and the terminal resort which was planned. Venezuela (about 160 km to the southwest) was funding the project to the tune of US$500,000 worth of labor and was also to supply the diesel fuel for construction, as well as petrol and asphalt. Financing from the Middle East was also speculated as a source of loans, as attempts to obtain money for it from Europe and Canada had failed. It is known that the PRC had managed to obtain US$20 m in loans from the IMF. Certainly, this was no clandestine project, especially when you consider the British agreed to underwrite a loan to Grenada totaling GBP£6 m for the purchase of electronic systems from Plessey for the airport. This would also be the second major landing strip on the island, as there was an existing one at Pearls, measuring some 1,524 m long. Pearls was about 25 km to the northeast of St. George’s, so the development of a new runway for the capital was clearly going to be useful for the economic development of the island, as well as whatever military use it might be seen as offering. It would also be much larger than the one at Pearls – long enough to allow landings by planes such as the Boeing 747-400, which needed around 1,880 m to land and stop safely.

American military analysts were less inclined to the tourism explanation and determined that it would also potentially allow MiG 23s fighters to operate from there, as well as extending the range of Cuban fighter-bombers across the whole Caribbean. Geo-politically, it could also potentially serve as a base for supporting Soviet influence in Central America and Cuban influence in Africa, as it was some 2,575 km closer to Angola than Havana. In 1980, Bishop signed a mutual aid assistance agreement with the Soviets, which did indeed give them landing rights at this airfield for their long-range surveillance aircraft.

The ‘gotcha’ moment – One of the satellite photographs of the runway being built on Grenada unveiled by President Reagen to a credulous US public on 23rd March 1983. The use of the photo supported the false narrative that this was a clandestine construction. If the US military had really wanted better photos of the runway, they may have been better served in getting them from the Miami-based contractor who was helping build it or from one of the hundreds of US students who lived next door and went jogging around it every morning.
Source: US Department of Defense

It is not hard to imagine that, regardless of the original purpose of the runway, it could be used by larger aircraft and potentially changed the balance of power in the region. Cuban ulterior motives would not be hard to justify, given the influence of the Cuban regime on Bishop’s Government, although it would be wrong to suggest that Bishop was a stooge planted by Cuba. The Cubans did not even recognize Bishop’s leadership for a month after he took power (14th April) by which time the UK and the United States had already done so (20th March 1979).

Funding and technical assistance for the radio were not, however, Cuban – it was Soviet in the form of two technical advisors and funding, on top of the very modest financial gift of US$1.1 m in agricultural and construction equipment and vehicles. The Soviets were no doubt pleased with the leftist drift of Grenada, but let Cuba exercise its own sphere of influence rather than become directly embroiled.

Despite this leftist shift and the engagement with Cuba, Grenada was, however, no Marxist or isolationist state. Indeed, the foreign ownership of property was still permitted and many US citizens, in particular, had houses or land there. The Medical School at Saint George’s University was specifically run for and paid for by US citizens. Thus the Grenadian revolution can be seen as more ‘anti-imperialism’ than ‘anti-American’ or ‘anti-western’.

The south-western end of Grenada, with the capital city of St. Georges. The runway and location of St. George’s University lie at the southern end of the city. To the north is Grand Anse Beach and to the east is Lance aux Epines.
Source: Google Earth

Probably the most obvious example of Cuban influence was the construction of a new 75 kW AM radio transmitter and mediumwave tower capable of broadcasting across the whole island as well as to neighboring islands, under the name Radio Free Grenada (15.104 and 15.945 kHz). This replaced the old Windward Islands Broadcasting Service (WIBS). This was seen as a counter to the Americans building a broadcasting station for Voice of America on the island of Antigua, some 550 km away to the north.

Radio Free Grenada.
Source: cawarstudies via Raines

Radio Free Grenada had the range to be able to be detected all across the Caribbean and there survives a 6-minute 36-second recording from them made in January 1980 which was picked up in Louisville, Kentucky – a distance of 3,758 km.
https://shortwavearchive.com/archive/radio-free-grenada-january-1980

This is not to say that the USA was openly hostile to Grenada either, far from it – Bishop had actually been personally received in Washington D.C. in June that year and met by the US National Security Advisor William Clark. The situation was, however, awkward and a hawkish vehemently anti-communist President Reagan meant that the situation could easily cross a tipping point into a less cordial relationship. Grenada was a problem and was being monitored but there was no clear course of action to follow.

This tense geopolitical balancing act started to fall apart through the summer of 1983, resulting in a power-sharing agreement between Bishop and the more radical former Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard. It fell to pieces on 12th October, when Coard deposed Bishop and placed him under house arrest, only for Bishop to be freed by his own supporters a week later and take up residence at Fort George (renamed Fort Rupert in 1979 and now renamed, once more, as Fort George).

Bernard Coard, one of those behind the coup in Grenada and the murder of Maurice Bishop.
Source: GrenadaConnection.com

General Hudson Austin, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Grenada and a backer of Coard, sent at least 3 BTR-60PB armored personnel carriers to Fort Rupert on the 19th. There, Austin’s troops recaptured Bishop, and summarily executed him along with several of his cabinet ministers for good measure, removing a major potential challenge to leadership on the island. Perhaps buoyed by the newfound power, Austin sought to consolidate it for himself rather than Coard. Both Coard and Austin marked a shift towards Marxism and further into the sphere of influence of Cuba in the minds of the Americans. Whilst Coard and Austin may also have sought this attention and closer relationship, the Cubans were at best unhappy with this state of affairs, as they could clearly see it might provoke a US response and leave them in a difficult political position.

Poor quality photograph of the attack on Fort Rupert (Fort George), showing a column of at least 3 BTR-60 PB armored personnel carriers.
Source: airspacehistorian via Seabury and McDougall

General Austin proceeded to dissolve the civilian government and implement a Revolutionary Military Council, with himself as spokesman and de facto head of state. With the airport closed to all departures and arrivals, and a 24-hour curfew put in place for a 4 day period, Austin had managed to impose not only a coup but also martial law in very little time and with little difficulty. He was to rule Grenada for just 6 days.

“Let it be clearly understood that the Revolutionary Armed Forces will govern with absolute strictness. Anyone who seeks to demonstrate or disturb the peace will be shot. An all-day and all-night curfew will be established for the next four days. From now until next Monday at 6:00 p.m. No one is to leave their house. Anyone violating this curfew will be shot on sight. All schools are closed and all workplaces except for the essential services until further notice.”
Curfew broadcast from Radio Free Grenada by
General Hudson Austin, 2110 hours 19th October 1983

General Hudson Austin
Source: airspacehistorian.wordpress.com via AP Newsarchive
https://airspacehistorian.wordpress.com/2018/07/

In doing so, he made a fundamental error and managed to ‘trap’ around 600 US medical students who were attending St. George’s School of Medicine, as well as around 400 US citizens on the island. This lockdown was therefore used as a convenient casus belli by the Reagan administration to invade, remove the Marxist government and restore a democratic one that would be friendly and receptive to the interests of the United States. All this was to be done with none of the legal hurdles of an embargo or UN Resolution. As a matter of political convenience then, this ‘rescue’ would also establish the dominance of American, and to a lesser extent, other Caribbean-nation interests’ in the area. It should also be noted that the lockdown was not in place for long and was lifted at 0600 hours on 24th October, with flights out of Pearls resuming. It was also brought to the attention of the US Embassy in Barbados that only around half of the students in Grenada wanted to leave and, as far as can be ascertained, no efforts or approaches whatsoever were made to evacuate them peacefully.

It was not, however, despite the alleged threats towards these US citizens, enough impetus to actually plan for military intervention for several more days, with the initiation of the plan of 17th October followed by a Warning Order from the Joint Chiefs on 19th October. Planning for a military operation to evacuate citizens was specifically ordered by President Reagan on the 21st but may have started earlier with some preliminary ideas of a military resolution.

It has to be noted that this sudden urgency and the seemingly disorganized response was in contrast to the fact that, just two years prior (August 1981), USLANTCOM (United States Atlantic Command) had conducted large-scale joint operations exercises on exactly this scenario, with Marines and Rangers leading an invasion of a Caribbean island to rescue US citizens. Yet, as will be seen, few, if any, lessons had been drawn from that major exercise and the actual deployment to Grenada was a mess marred with accidents and confusion.

Intelligence Failure, Legal Legitimacy, and the Prelude to Invasion

Post-1979, military and intelligence cooperation with the USA or its allies, like Great Britain, by Grenada had effectively ended, leaving a vacuum in which the island’s invasion had to be planned at short notice. Even so, as previously noted, this was as much through a lack of effort and foresight as it was just a matter of a short time span in which to do it. The construction of the airfield at Point Salinas was hardly a surprise or even a secret and the islands were close enough and had been Allied under the British for long enough there was no excuse for a lack of maps of the place.

In fact, when the US military invaded, the best available map was on the USS Gaum and was itself based on an even more ancient 1896 nautical chart. As bad as going to war on the back of a century old map was, there was not even the opportunity to make good copies of it, as the only copier onboard the USS Gaum was not good enough to copy it. Thus, the invasion took place with grossly inadequate maps, such was the rush and shambles in which the operation was cobbled together. Delta forces were slightly better off, as they had some Michelin tourist maps of the Windward Islands at hand – ideal maybe for knowing where to get a good lobster en croûte, but not so much for a military assault or a reconnaissance by special forces.

On top of that inadequacy, there was not even to be a joint on-ground command. Vice Admiral Metcalf would command the operation from the safety of the USS Gaum, with the separate Army (Ranger) and Navy (Marine) forces reporting directly to him. Neither force was to support the other logistically and neither would share supplies without confirmation of reimbursement for the cost of the supplies shared because service boundaries were more important in a pointless turf-war between services than a shared objective. Vice Admiral Metcalf’s suggestion on the 24th (the day before the invasion) of placing General Schwarzkopf on the ground to command forces was overruled by Admiral McDonald back in Virginia, on the basis that Major General Ed Trobaugh of the 82nd Airborne was senior. This decision guaranteed that, at least for the opening stages, there would be no single dedicated commander on the ground.

As well as the lack of geographic information, there was also an unclear idea of the armed forces against which they may have to fight. Estimates of Grenadian opposition put the number at around 1,000 to 1,200 regular troops of the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) under General Hudson Austin. On top of this were up to 2,400 members of the People’s Revolutionary Militia (PRM) under Winston Bullen (who was also the manager of the Grenada Electricity Company, known as Grenlec) although this was believed to have been largely disarmed and disbanded by the PRA, with Bullen executed when Austin seized control. The bulk of weapons were in those two forces, including modern small arms, like AK 47s, and the BTR-60 and BRDM-2 armored vehicles, although the militia, in particular, were a loose and irregular force which could also be seen using .303 caliber WW2-era bolt action British Enfield rifles.

A female member of the People’s Revolutionary Militia armed with an AK-47.
Source: Revolutionary Govt. of Grenada.

A 300-500 strong Grenada Police service (GPS) was also available, under Major Ian St. Bernard, although these were not combat troops and included the Coast Guard, Immigration, and Prison Services. Total naval forces were minimal, with just four torpedo boats and there was no combat air force or even a radar on the island. The armored vehicle assets available to the PRA were tiny – just 6* Soviet BTR-60 armored personnel carriers, a pair of BRDM-2 armored cars delivered from the Soviet Union in 1981-1982, and no tanks at all.
(* A US intelligence survey post-war says 7, but only 6 can be accounted for)

The BTR-60PB was an 8 wheeled armored personnel carrier with distinctive pointed front and sloping sides. Amphibious, simple, and cheap, the vehicle has been widely exported and used since it was first designed in the 1950s. At just 10 tonnes, the vehicle could carry up to 12 men (2 crew and 10 troops) to battle and then support them by use of a single 14.5 mm KPVT machine gun and a 7.62 mm machine gun. The vehicle was proof against small arms fire up to heavy machine gun caliber thanks to between 5 mm (floor) and 10 mm (turret front) of fully welded steel armor. Powered by a pair of GAZ-40P 6-cylinder petrol engines delivering 90 hp each (180 hp total), the vehicle could attain a speed of up to 80 km/h on a road, meaning it could rapidly deploy from one place to another, providing flexibility for a relatively lightly equipped force.

The BRDM-2 was another amphibious, light, and highly mobile armored vehicle from the Soviet Union. Designed back in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, the vehicle was still, despite its age, a serious threat to troops, especially those without anti-armor weapons. Armed with the same 14.5 mm KPTV machine gun and a 7.62 mm machine gun in a small frustoconical turret like the BTR-60PB, the BRDM was a smaller vehicle with just four wheels and a crew of 4. With armor up to 14 mm thick, the BRDM-2 was also fully protected against small arms up to heavy machine gun fire and shared the same major benefits of the BTR-60PB – namely, it was cheap, simple, and effective. It was also highly mobile courtesy of a single V8 petrol engine delivering 140 hp, allowing the vehicle to reach a somewhat dangerous 95 km/h on a road.

Of note in the assessment of the strength of Grenadian forces is that, although the US Joint Chiefs’ report mentioned 6 BTR-60s, SIPRI records deliveries of 12 such vehicles, and the CIA say in one report 6, and in another 8 BTR-60s, along with two BRDM armored cars. The CIA also notes that an agreement signed in 1981 included deliveries scheduled between 1982 to 1985 that would bring an additional 50 APCs. Their analysis of captured documents after the 1983 invasion revealed eventual plans to have sufficient small arms for theoretically arming up to 10,000 men, although, in practice, this would only be adequate to field a force of around 5,000 and 60 APCs and patrol vehicles. As far as aircraft went, just one plane was known and this was to be a Soviet AN-26 to haul up to 39 paratroopers, although the AN-26 found after the invasion was in the civilian colors of a Cuban airline.

Men of the Peoples’ Revolutionary Militia of Grenada carrying rifles and making use of a Series I or II Land Rover as a transport. Source: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

As far as heavy weapons or air defense were concerned, the forces were primarily the Soviet-supplied ZU-23-2 mm anti-aircraft guns. All of these vehicles and weapons were believed at the time of invasion to be centered around the airfield at Port Salinas.

With a range of up to 2.5 km and capable of delivering 400 rounds per minute, these were not to be underestimated, especially as a threat to low flying aircraft. Admiral McDonald, in what was to be a demonstration of hubris on the part of American planners, described the forces on Grenada as a “third rate, lightly armed and poorly trained adversary”, a comment which contradicted his own claim of “well trained professional” Cuban troops being present, and thereby underscoring that his claim was without evidence or merit.

Soviet-supplied and Czechoslovakian-built M-53 quadruple 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine gun seen in use by the PRA during exercises before the invasion. Source: USMC
Another low-resolution image of PRA forces using an M-53 anti-aircraft gun. This image was reproduced on a poster encouraging people to join the militia (PRM) to resist ‘Imperialist Aggression’. Source: psywarrior.org

The status of Cubans on the island was unclear, with two vessels, including the freighter Vietnam Heroica (which had delivered 500 tonnes of cement for the airport project), around 600 workers, and an unknown quantity of arms. The other ‘Cuban’ ship was the Kranaos, which was actually a Panamanian vessel chartered by the Cuban Government. It is clear from the intelligence analysis that, whilst the presence of these 600 workers and some arms of an unknown type was known, these were not the Cuban ‘threat’. Instead, the intelligence analysis provides for a threat of up to 250 armed Cubans who might have been possibly delivered by the Vietnam Heroica, although there was no evidence to support this rather tenuous supposition other than that this ship had been implicated in bringing Cuban forces to Angola in late 1975.

A CIA analysis of Grenadian opposition forces clearly lists some 350 construction workers, 25 medical personnel, 15 diplomats, and just 10-12 military advisors, for a total of just 400 Cubans, although this did not include the unknown numbers of the Vietnam Heroica, which was estimated at just an additional 200.

Either way, fewer than 2,000 enemy regular forces, and a few more irregular forces, effectively no navy, no air force, and some miscellaneous armored vehicles was hardly a military of par with the vast array of forces at the disposal of the United States. Admiral McDonald’s assertion of 1,100 ”well-trained professional” Cuban soldiers on the island was just utterly false. Later, US intelligence based on interviews with prisoners would show just 43 of them were even members of the Cuban armed forces, but that a dozen or more may have been ‘advisors’. The intelligence added that up to 50 Cuban military advisors might have been present too. In a taste of just how little Cuban opposition there really was, the most senior Cuban present was Colonel Pedro Comas who would only arrive on 24th October and begin plans to defend southern Grenada from the incoming American forces. He had achieved little more than some sandbagging by the time the Rangers confronted him the next day.

Even by this time, with active military planning for an invasion based on not much more than speculation and grand political machinations underway, the United States was still engaging with this military government. On 21st October, in fact, Donald Cruz, the US Consular Officer for Barbados, went to Grenada to meet with Major Leon Cornwall, the Head of the Revolutionary Military Council and President Reagan signed National Security Directive 110 ordering the US military to explore options for evacuating US citizens from the island.

At Bridgetown, Barbados, there was an emergency session of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) convened to try and bring stability to Grenada and the first substantial legal justification for going beyond the rescue of US citizens was established in the form of a vote on Article 8 of the OECS Collective Security Treaty 1981. Grenada was actually a member state of the OECS. The OECS were now looking at the island as being ruled by an ‘outlaw regime’ that needed to be removed calling for the restoration of order and democracy. The actual request, was, despite being drafted not by the OECS but by the American State Department, open to some questions about its validity, especially as it violated the principle of OECS members not taking action without unanimous consent – something unlikely to be agreed to by Grenada. Here, the members asked Barbados, Jamaica, and the United States (not members of OECS) to send a peacekeeping expedition to Grenada. This was followed a few hours later, in the early hours of 22nd October, by Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon asking for help in the form of a peacekeeping force to restore order and security. Implicit within that request would be the removal of the Revolutionary Military Council in Grenada although this was made clear in a TV interview aired on 31st October that year (after the invasion) Sir Paul Scoon clarified that whilst he specifically felt that only an invasion could remove the government that he asked not for an invasion but for outside help from OECS and the USA as well.

Members of the Eastern Caribbean Defence Force armed with 7.62 mm L1A1 Self-Loading Rifles (SLR) being loaded on US Helicopters prior to being ferried to Grenada after the US invasion. Source: US Army.

These two elements were not the end of the legality issue for the invasion. Grenada was part of the British Commonwealth, meaning any military incursion should at a minimum take place with the approval of the British. Further, under Article 51 of the UN Charter and Article 5 of the Rio Treaty, the United States would have to inform the UN Security Council of the reasons for the operation to justify it. The consultation with the British did take place, sort of. On 22nd October, a phone call was made between President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher, no doubt with an eye on the successful British recapture of the Falklands after an Argentinian invasion, was well versed in just how complex an invasion was going to be and the potential for a great loss of civilian and military lives. From a political perspective too, had it gone horribly wrong, it would have caused serious damage to Western prestige as well as both political and military deterrence against the ongoing Soviet threat in Western Europe and beyond. On the other hand – a well-executed and swift American intervention with little loss of life would show the world America’s military prowess and capabilities, building not only confidence in US political decision making but also the ability of the military as a counter-force to the Soviets. Unknown to Thatcher was that, well before their phone call, Reagan had already given permission for the invasion to commence, rendering Thatcher’s concerns roundly ignored as even at this late stage military intervention could have been canceled.

Preparations of an Invasion Force

Two basic plans were developed for how to take Grenada, based on limited information, whilst further intelligence operations were being prepared hastily in the form of reconnaissance flights from SR-71 Blackbird and the TR-1 (U2) spy planes, as the CIA had no assets on the island. As it turned out, no data from those surveillance flights found its way to the assault force in time for the opening of hostilities. Planning was left to Combined Joint Task Force 120 (CJTF 120) under the command of Vice-Admiral Metcalf and he had been given less than 2 days to make his plans and initiate them. His deputy was Major General Herman Norman Schwarzkopf, later to be famous as the leader of Coalition Forces during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.


Vice-Admiral Joseph Metcalf (left) and General Schwarzkopf (right). Source: wiki

The first of the two plans, ‘Plan A’, called for five C-130 Hercules aircraft to parachute drop JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) teams during the hours of darkness at Point Salinas and at Pearls. Fire support for the landing would come in the form of 4 AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships.

After capturing Point Salinas airfield, the plan was to move 6.5 km up the coast to St. George’s and capture the radio station and police headquarters. After that, another 6.5 km hop to capture the barracks at Calivigny. With the airfield, radio station, police HQ, and army barracks taken, 16 C-130 Hercules would then deliver the 1st and 2nd Ranger battalions at Point Salinas and Pearl to consolidate the ground and disperse any remaining enemy forces. This whole plan was somewhat optimistically estimated to take just 4 ½ hours.

The second option, ‘Plan B’, relied upon an amphibious assault combined with helicopter incursion of US Marines, followed by Rangers on beaches by Point Salinas and Pearl, which had already been scouted by teams of SEALs several hours earlier. This would be followed by a battalion of troops being landed either at the beach or at Point Salinas airfield, from where they could move to St. George’s School of Medicine and Grand Anse beach. From the beach, the Marines would then seize Calivigny Barracks. After these first two phases, a further force of Rangers would then be landed at Point Salinas and advance on the police HQ and Army HQ.

Plan A would take longer to put into place than plan B by several hours, but both plans came with the risk that, once they began, the students might be killed or taken hostage in retaliation.

Support for American forces would be provided in the form of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), which would provide small contingents from Jamaica and Barbados. OECS had only been around for two years (formed 1981) and was a partnership of Dominica, St. Lucia, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, Barbados, St. Vincent, and the Grenadines as a bulwark against the spread of Marxism in the Caribbean.

The Jamaican Defence Force (JDF) contribution consisted of a single rifle company, an 81 mm mortar section, and a medical section, amounting to a total of around 150 troops. The Barbados Defence Force (BDF) contribution consisted of a single rifle platoon of around 50 men.

Members of OECS arriving at Port Salinas airfield after the invasion. The mix of Army and police uniforms is a clear indication as to the variety of roles this force was expected to fulfill. The soldiers carry the 7.62 mm L1A1 SLR and the Police carry the .303 caliber Enfield rifle.
Source: wiki

As well as those local forces, an additional force of 100 constabularies (police) was to be sent by the OECS Regional Security Unit to help establish law and order. These three forces were to be used in their entirety in the securing of Richmond Hill Prison, Radio Free Grenada, the police headquarters, and Government House after US forces had secured them from Grenadian forces.

Secrecy

An invasion with such little preparation time and information was reliant on absolute secrecy. This need for secrecy utterly failed, as not only did the Cubans and Grenadians anticipate that some US action might be considered, but also the movement of US warships into the region was also reported in the media. This was despite the Joint Chiefs of Staff imposing a ‘SPECAT’ order (a special category of secrecy to avoid alerting the Grenadians to the plan). While the Americans immediately failed to keep this a secret, the exact nature of what they were planning would not be known – nonetheless, this put the locals on alert and this would later result in US casualties.

The Go

As forces started to move towards the region and plans were being finalized, the provisional order to initiate the invasion came on 22nd October 1983. This was to deploy a force of Marines, Rangers, and Airborne Troops, with the date set as 25th October, although it is important to note that this does not mean that an invasion was certain. Those three days were necessary to get the logistics and coordination in place for the operation to be conducted and at any time until then, the whole thing could be called off.

Plan A was the method selected for the invasion, with the battlegroup led by the USS Independence (out of Virginia) and Marine Amphibious Ready Group 1-84 (MARG 1-84) out of North Carolina. MARG 1-84 had been on its way by sea to Lebanon to replace the Marines of MARG 2-83 in Beirut when it was diverted to Grenada.

These two groups would launch their forces from 102 km (55 nautical miles) NW and 74 km (40 nautical miles) north off the coast of Grenada, respectively. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) teams and Rangers would leave from Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina and Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia six hours beforehand. Before dawn on 25th October, these JSOC troops would attack the Grenadan police and military buildings around St. George’s and then advance quickly upon the Governor’s Residence to protect him.

Rangers and Marines would then be landed at Point Salinas and Pearl respectively. Men from 82nd Airborne Division would remain on alert at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in case they were needed. The whole island was effectively bifurcated into operational zones, with the north being allocated to the Marines and the south to the Army.

After achieving their goals and evacuating the citizens, a peacekeeping force of 300 men from Jamaica and Barbados would be airlifted to Grenada to work with the Governor-General on a new interim government. That was the plan.

Air support for the operation would be provided by the US Air Force in the form of 8 F-15s from 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing and 4 E-3A Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft from 552nd Airborne Warning and Control System detachment. These air forces would be protection for the task force on the remote chance of some outside interference being attempted by air.

23rd October

The order was on the 22nd, with the invasion set for the 25th. However, the next day, the 23rd, there was a disaster for the US Marines, not in the Caribbean, but in Beirut. The US Marine Corps barracks at Beirut Airport was targeted by a suicide bomber driving a truck, who plowed through the gate of the barracks and detonated a huge bomb that killed 241 American troops. Political analysis of this time connects the terrible events in Beirut as a bloody nose for America to the ‘distraction’ offered by success in Grenada for the forthcoming US Presidential elections in 1984. Certainly, the Grenada crisis provided some political relief for Reagan and was used to downplay the deaths in Lebanon during the subsequent elections.

In the immediate aftermath of this bombing, Secretary of State for Defense, Casper Weinberger, gave full power to General Vessey (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to invade Grenada. Gen. Vessey was a highly regarded and experienced officer who had seen combat both in World War II and in Vietnam.

General John Vessey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1982-1985. Source: wiki

24th October

With the go-order setting an invasion to start on the 25th, two C-130s dropped four-man US Navy SEAL teams off Point Salinas and Pearls to prepare for the landings. This was not a success. Firstly, the beach at Pearls was found to be unsuitable for an amphibious landing by the Marines, meaning they would have to come in by helicopter instead. Second, the first casualties for the US took place when four men of the 11-man SEAL team were lost in the rough seas off Port Salinas.

Initiation – 25th October 1983

The early hours of 25th October 1983 were to begin with a coordinated assault on the airstrips at Point Salinas and at Pearls. Before dawn that day, a 35-man Delta-force team had been landed at Point Salinas with a plan to clear the runway for the Rangers – it had been blocked with vehicles and boulders. This Delta force team was discovered due to the alertness of the Cubans and immediately pinned down by them. The result was that there would be no easy opportunity to land C-130’s. It would be four hours before the Rangers arrival turned this situation around.

C-130’s from Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, were to drop the lead elements of the invasion force from the sky. However, this plan started with the failure of the onboard navigation system, meaning the following aircraft had to have their course adjusted, delaying deployment by parachute of the Rangers at Point Salinas by 36 minutes.

No joint invasion could therefore happen, as the Marines at Pearls arrived first, hitting Pearls from helicopters at 0500 hours. Thus, the loss of tactical and strategic surprise had been achieved. The famous maxim attributed to Helmuth von Moltke the Edler (1800-1891) is phrased as ‘no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force’ – the plan was going wrong already.

Key points in the fight for the south of Grenada, 1983.
Source: USMC

With the delayed arrival of forces at Point Salinas, the first combat contact by other than special forces was made by the Marines at Pearls. The opposition, however, was token at best, in the form of ineffective fire from 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns, which were quickly eliminated by the supporting AH-1 Cobra gunships. With that out of the way, the Marines moved unhindered to Grenville, where they occupied the town.

Soviet-made Antonov AN-26 transport aircraft belonging to Cuban airlines captured at Pearls airfield by the US Marines.
Source: US National Archives.
Soviet-made Antonov AN-2 Colt belonging to the Soviet national civilian airline Аэрофлот captured at Pearls airfield by US Marines. The tail of the AN-26 can be seen behind it.
Source: US National Archives

The Marines spent a total of just two hours achieving a total initial success for their part in the opening phase. The only small wrinkles in the whole affair for the Marines had been two Marines injured and a Jeep fitted with a TOW anti-tank guided missile system damaged during the unloading from the CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters rather than enemy action.

M151 fitted with a TOW ATGM system belonging to US Marines landed at Pearls in front of what is recorded as captured members of the PRA, although these are likely just locals, as umbrellas or parasols are infrequent items on military issue. Source: US National Archives
CH-53 Sea Stallion dropping off Marines at Pearls airfield 25th October 1983. Source: airspacehistorian via Raines
US Marines moving through the town of Grenville. The first Marine is still wearing an M1 Steel Helmet and carries both an M72 66 mm LAW and an M16A1 rifle fitted with an M203 Grenade Launcher. The second Marine is carrying an M16A1. Only the second Marine appears to be wearing body armor in the form of a PASGT( Personal Armor System Ground Troops) vest. Source: US National Archives
USMC foot patrol through the town of Grenville. Note that the second Marine back has the enjoyment of carrying an M47 Dragon ATGM. The lead Marine is notably wearing both an M1 Steel Helmet and the PASGT Kevlar vest and carries an M16A1 rifle.
Source: US National Archives

The Marines were fine, the Rangers were delayed and special operations were not going according to plan. Another SEAL-team raid, this time to capture the key location of the transmitter of Radio Free Grenada, also skirted with disaster. Two 6-man SEAL teams inserted by MH-60 Pavehawk helicopters, which landed in a nearby field, managed to capture the radio station, only to find that the local forces wanted it back. The PRA sent at least one BRDM-2 armored car and a number of men to recapture the transmitter. The result was a lengthy firefight in which the SEALs held off the Grenadian forces despite many of them being injured. They had to withdraw, as they lacked ammunition and any anti-tank weapons.

Aerial view of Radio Free Grenada taken by US Forces. The isolation of the building made it an easy target for a nearby landing in the field but also meant that, once inside, the team would be trapped or have to risk crossing open ground to escape to the sea. Source: Gettyimages
Soviet-made BRDM-2 of the PRA abandoned on Grenada. Source: M. Creen via Pintrest

Unable to communicate with their own support due to their radios not working, they escaped to the ocean and tried to steal a boat before finally managing to be rescued to the USS Caron.

Once more, a special forces operation had nearly lost the Americans a significant number of men and could have handed a media or political victory to the Grenadians and Cubans. The radio station had been crippled by the SEALs cutting the wires when they left, but also now had to be destroyed by naval and helicopter gunfire, meaning that it could not now be used, as per the original plan, to broadcast the good news of the ‘liberation’. As it was, there was damage caused to the building, but it was not leveled by bombing, although it had been rendered unserviceable. This meant that a new broadcast system would have to be employed.

The crippled Radio Free Grenada with the wires cut by the SEALs. Source: psywarrior.org
‘Naval personnel’ (4th Psychological Operations Group and 193rd Electronic Communication Group) setting up an AN/TRT-22 50 kW AM radio transmitter (535 to 1,620 kHz) for ‘Spice Island Radio’, as it was called, to broadcast to the people of Grenada via a 76 m telescoping antenna tower. The original plan of using the transmitter of Radio Free Grenada had to be abandoned after the botched SEAL team raid. This new station was set up only after the capture of St. Georges, meaning a gap in any terrestrial radio broadcasting across the island. A 10 kW radio broadcast was, however, provided from a US Navy ship in the meantime. Source: US National Archives.

The special forces attack on the strategic location at Richmond Hill Prison was even worse. Five Black Hawk helicopters moving on the hill carrying troops from B Squadron Delta force and C Company Rangers from 1st Battalion came under fire from machine guns and 23 mm anti-aircraft guns based at Fort Frederick. The result was numerous hits on the aircraft and numerous injuries, although, incredibly, on the way in, no one was killed. Dropped at the prison, the special forces found it had been abandoned and the raid was aborted. Having watched the helicopters come in and now leave, the anti-aircraft gunners at Fort Frederick continued to fire on them and the luck of the men ran out when one helicopter was hit in the cockpit by a 23 mm shell, killing the pilot and leaving the helicopter to have to crash land. The other four helicopters made it back to the fleet with damage, which meant, in one case, an emergency landing. The crashed Black Hawk needed a rescue mission to recover the men stranded when it went down.

With the parachute drop at Point Salinas delayed, the drop ended up being carried out in the light of the dawn, with delivery at 0536 hours. Anti-aircraft and automatic weapons fire greeted them and the Joint Chief’s report also claims that there was anti-aircraft fire against C-130s approaching Point Salinas from Cuban forces on the ground. Quite how this could be identified between Grenadians and Cubans on the ground at the time by a C-130 crew is unclear and seems to fall prey to the ‘need’ to identify as much opposition as possible as being ‘Cubans’ rather than any practical or effective military determination. Regardless of whether it was a Cuban-fired bullet or a Grenadian-fired one, the fire was equally deadly and the loss of even a single C-130 could have resulted in a total disaster for the American forces.

However, the result of that fire from the ground was that some of the Rangers were deployed by parachutes at just 500 feet (152 m). Whilst dangerously low, this decision did prevent the loss of a C-130, as it put them below the anti-aircraft guns which had been positioned on the hills around the airport. With Rangers on the ground, a firefight now ensued between them and the Cubans and Grenadians at the airfield.

As more troops were being dropped or attempted to drop, they were now out of sequence and those who did land, did so all over each other, leading to total disarray on the ground. Here, where they were most vulnerable, and a total shambles thanks to the initial confusion being compounded, they could have been overrun or shot to pieces strung out on open ground. Just 40 men were on the ground instead of the hundreds intended. C-130s were having to turn away to avoid fire and unable to amass the force required, those few men were in a difficult position.

One of the culprits in what could have been a disaster at Port Salinas is this Czechoslovakian-made M-53 quad 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun on a trailer. Source: latinamericastudies.org

The salvage of this debacle was only due to the judicious use of AC-130 gunships (1st Special Operations Wing USAF) providing fire support from above and a charge by the men almost at bayonet point to overwhelm the defenders narrowly averted a disaster. Instead of that disaster, the result was the capture of the airport, the end of opposition there, and the taking of around 150 prisoners, a number of arms, and a single BTR-60PB.

Trophies taken at Port Salinas airport include the fearsome M-53 quadruple 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine gun mount and a BTR-60PB. This vehicle was later recovered back to the United States for examination. Source: US National Archives
One of the parachute drops of Rangers in progress at Point Salinas, 25th October 1983. This one is clearly higher up but it is also, just as clearly, being carried out in broad daylight. This is likely men from the 2nd Battalion being dropped just after 0700 hours.
Source: airspacehistorian via Trujilo

With the airport finally in their hands, the Rangers set about trying to clear some of the debris, commandeering one of the bulldozers on what was still a building site. This incident was later conflated in the movie ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ (1986) to be where the bulldozer was turned into a ‘tank’ to run down Cuban positions.


Soviet-supplied construction equipment found at Port Salinas airport.
Source: US National Archives

Despite being primarily construction workers and not regular forces, the resistance these Cubans put up was actually taken by the US Joint Chiefs as a sign that a significant Cuban combat force was actually present on the island – a lie later to be reinforced by the rather cheesy 1986 Clint Eastwood movie ‘Heartbreak Ridge’. Photographic evidence shows at least a few Cubans in military uniform and the CIA post-invasion assessment of actual ‘troops’ put the total at less than 50 – about what you could expect as a security force for the construction project. Later searches of the airfield found a warehouse with a stock of arms and ammunition. A lot of press attention was directed at these supplies as the ‘evidence’ of a significant build-up of Cubans to help justify the invasion post-fact. Given the huge political interest by the US administration taken in photographing these supplies, it is noteworthy how few photographs exist of uniformed Cuban troops.

A US soldier, presumably a Ranger, escorts two Cuban prisoners at Point Salinas airfield. Notable for this soldier is the lack of a camouflage uniform, the old M1 Steel Helmet, as the US was in the process of transitioning to the Kevlar PASGT helmet, and the 66 mm LAW (Light Anti-tank Weapon) strapped to his back. He is also not wearing any body armor This is one of the few images of uniformed Cubans. Source: usmilitariaforum.com

As 2nd Battalion arrived after 0700 hours, two men were killed in the jump, another seriously injured, and a fourth tangled up in the harness and stuck on the plane. With reinforcements, the Rangers moved out from the airport towards Calliste, where strong resistance was met. After yet another lengthy gunfight, one Ranger was dead and 75 more prisoners were taken.

Soviet-built dump truck captured at Point Salinas airport and being used as a transport by troops from the 82nd Airborne, driving past a CH-46 Sea Knight. Note the number ‘190’ on the rear of the truck and a serial number on the door.
Source: US National Archives.
Another Soviet-built dump truck captured at Point Salinas airfield, repurposed by US forces. Note that this one carries the number 181. This vehicle appears to have been painted in a plain olive green color.
Source: US National Archives

By 0730 hours, the first Rangers of A Company, 1st Battalion reached the True Blue Campus next to the airfield and had another firefight with the PRA. Using M151 Jeeps fitted with M60 machine guns as their reconnaissance vehicle, the Rangers were ambushed by PRA forces, leaving three Rangers dead.

M151 Jeep belonging to the 2nd Ranger Battalion with a pintle-mounted M60 machine gun and a second machine gun at the passenger station. Note the addition of the wire cutter on the front of the Jeep. The soldiers appear to be wearing plain olive drab uniforms, M1 Helmets, and no body armor. The rifle used by the soldier at the back is an M16A1.
Source: US National Archives
US M151 Jeep belonging to 2nd Platoon 1/75 Rangers, Point Salinas, with a pintle-mounted M60 machine gun fitted with a night sight during a briefing in a break in the fighting. Note the lack of camouflage uniforms and the M1 Helmets.
Source: Surfacezero.com on Pintrest

It was not until 0900 hours that True Blue Campus was cleared and 138 of the American students located and secured. At this time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were digesting the stubbornness of the Cubans at Port Salinas and had decided they needed more men. Thus, two battalions of the 82nd Airborne, amounting to 1,500 men, who had been on standby, were ordered to the island. They embarked on their airlift at 1000 hours.

This was the correct decision, as it was rapidly becoming clear that the Grenadian and Cuban forces present were putting up a far stiffer resistance across the board than first thought during the planning stage. This decision would be reinforced by the fact that Rangers from B Company, who were to be landed at Fort Rupert to take and hold that location, had to turn back due to the ferocity of enemy anti-aircraft fire.

It would be surprising perhaps to the American planners that their caution after initial over-confidence was well justified. The men from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne had started to arrive just after 1400 hours and, just over an hour later, at 1530 hours, they were sorely needed to support the Rangers.


Two views of the same motorcycle and sidecar combination found at Port Salinas airfield and serving as a photo backdrop for two US Air Force Photographers to pose in front of members of the 82nd Airborne

American troops from an unidentified unit standing next to a small off-road motorcycle brought with them for reconnaissance work on an island about which they knew very little. Note the absence of camouflage uniforms and body armor, as well as the M1 Steel Helmet still in use. Source: US National Archives.

Here, a PRA counterattack had to be repulsed as they attempted to reclaim the airport. Supported by an unknown number of soldiers, three BTR-60PBs engaged the perimeter, which was being held by Rangers of 2nd Platoon, A Company. The value of bringing anti-tank equipment was made self-evident, as the Rangers engaged these vehicles with Dragon ATGMs, 66 mm LAWs, small arms, and grenades.


Two of the three BTR-60PBs stopped by the Rangers. Hits from the 66 mm LAW and a 90 mm recoilless rifle on these vehicles were reported, although the location of the hits cannot be determined nor is there evidence of burning.
Source: US National Archives

The ferocity of the resistance by the Rangers and concentration of fire on those BTR-60PBs is evidenced by the number of bullet strikes made on the front of the vehicle and that all of the tires have been shot out on both of them. There appears to be a penetration mark, possibly for a 66 mm LAW, on the upper section, near the roofline. Source: US National Archives
Two of the three BTR-60PBs taken by the Rangers after the PRA counterattack at 1530 hours, 25th October. Source: BBC News
A dead soldier of the PRA lies at the back of the second vehicle. Source: Pintrest

With two of the PRA vehicles knocked out or otherwise crippled and casualties taken as they unsuccessfully tried to break the American line, the PRA forces withdrew. The third BTR was then caught in the open by an AC-130 gunship and taken out by 105 mm gunfire.


The third BTR-60 PB caught in the open and preyed on by the 105 mm gun on the AC-130. The vehicle moved slightly between these shots, possibly as the result of the attempted recovery. Source: airandspacehistorian.com and Pintrest respectively.

After repulsing that attack, the airport was finally under the complete control of US forces. Whilst it had not been an easy task, it had been completed as a result primarily of the fighting abilities of the US troops, rather than the original plan for that location, which had exposed them to so much risk. Whilst that had finally worked out, things were not going so well elsewhere.

The SEALs who were part of the rescue team for Sir Paul Scoon had got to Government House, where he was being held under house arrest, and their mission nearly ended. One of the Black Hawk helicopters hovering whilst the SEALs rappelled down was struck by ground fire, which hit the pilot. He was seriously wounded but the helicopter did not crash. Once more, the loss of a helicopter at a critical juncture in the operation was narrowly averted. On the ground, the 15-man SEAL team managed to overcome the guards, but then could not leave with Sir Paul Scoon, as their presence had been detected and BTR-60 APCs had arrived and opened fire on them.

Unable to tackle even this light enemy armor, the SEALS became trapped and were in serious danger of being overwhelmed. With the Rangers unable to rescue them, combat air sorties by AH-1 Sea Cobra helicopter gunships and an AC-130 Spectre gunship were used to support the SEALs until help could arrive. Outside Government House, one BTR-60PB was taken out by 40 mm fire from an AC-130 gunship, which set the vehicle on fire.


Two views of the BTR-60PB knocked out by Government House due to fire from an AC-130. Source: Mike Stelzel and Pintrest respectively.

Grenadian resistance was continuing and heavy anti-aircraft fire was being received from Fort Frederick and Fort Rupert. One of the AH-1 helicopters conducting fire support over St. George’s was struck by this fire and crashed into a football field near the shore, causing the death of the copilot and seriously injuring the pilot. A helicopter rescue was then initiated using a CH-46, with an AH-1 gunship as protection, AA fire struck that second AH-1, sending it crashing into the harbor, killing both the pilot and copilot.

Fort Frederick, an old British Fort overlooking the harbor, was well situated and dominated the area. Further helicopter air operations were just far too dangerous and an airstrike against the anti-aircraft positions was ordered by Vice-Admiral Metcalf. There was a known risk of civilian casualties in doing so, but it was deemed necessary and carried out by Navy A-7 Corsairs launched from the USS Independence.

The goal was to reduce the anti-aircraft fire and also take out what was believed to be a military command post. Lacking maps and any ground indication of the target, those Corsairs managed to bomb a mental hospital at Fort Frederick at 1535 hours. Eighteen patients died in the attack.

A wrecked truck belonging to the PRA which had been outfitted with a search lamp is examined by US troops. Judging by the relaxed attire, this would appear to have been taken after the fighting had stopped. Source: US National Archives.

The American plan was going horribly wrong, as the ‘third rate’ military force in Grenada was proving stubborn and the Cuban construction workers were being diagnosed as being a battalion in strength, such was their resistance. Resistance was fierce and sporadic and casualties, both Americans and civilians, were now rising. On top of that, only 138 medical students had been found. It was realized that 200 more were on the campus at Grand Anse. By noon that day, troops had reached the True Blue Campus but not located the students.

The Marines, having been a victim of their own success, were thus retasked with a landing at Grand Mal Bay north of St. George’s to outflank the Grenadian forces and to draw them out of the city, in an effort to bring the invasion to an end and also to rescue the trapped SEALs.

The USMC obliged and, at 1900 hours that day, landed a force from G Company, consisting of 5 M60A1 tanks, 13 amphibious vehicles (LVTP-7s), Jeep fitted with TOW ATGMs, along with 250 men, at Grand Mal Bay. This landing began at 1750 hours and was complete by 1910 hours. It is important to note that the Marines were the only US force to bring tanks with them – the Army brought none. In fact, the Army brought no armored combat vehicles of any kind, and, perhaps for this reason, the Marines found their life substantially easier. By 0400 hours, 26th October, F Company began to arrive as well by helicopter and G Company moved south and east to trap the Grenadians and any Cuban support and also to try and rescue the SEALS at Government House. With their armor advantage, resistance was light, as there were few weapons available to the militia with which they could put up any defiance. It was not until 0712 hours that this Marine force finally reached Government House.

The M60 was a 1950s design for a new main battle tank and is distinguished by a large cast steel turret and hull with a large flat glacis plate. With armor 109 mm and 254 mm thick on the front of the hull and turret, respectively, and side armor 36 – 76 mm thick, the tank was completely impervious to small arms and machine gunfire. Nothing short of a rocket-propelled grenade or dedicated anti-tank weapon, like a recoilless rifle, was going to have any effect.

Armed with an American version of the British L7 105 mm gun known as the M68 in US service, the tank carried probably the finest tank gun ever made at the time and one which remains in service to this day. Coaxial armament was a 7.62 mm M73 machine gun and, on top of the primary turret, was a small cast turret for the commander with a .50 caliber M2 machine gun. Production of the original M60 ceased in 1962, with the adoption of the improved model known as the M60A1. Powered by a Continental AVDS-1790-2A petrol engine delivering 750 hp, the 47.6 tonne M60A1 was capable of 48 km/h (30 mph) on a road.

From 1977, the M60A1 was receiving a new major upgrade in the form of new sights and a deep wading kit, as part of the M60A1(Rise)(Passive) modification. The most noticeable part of the deep wading kit is the exhaust extension which attached to the rear right grille on the engine bay. This wading kit allowed the tank to cross waterways up to 4.6 m (15 feet) deep at a speed of up to 14.5 km/h (9 mph).

M60 prototype No.4 showing the deep wading kit in place and supported by stays to the engine deck.
Source: Hunnicutt
Deep wading parts for the M60.
Source: Hunnicutt
USMC M60A1 seen at Beirut, Lebanon, showing the deep fording exhaust in the fully erect position.
Source: US National Archives
M60A1 tanks belonging to the USMC. The use of heavy armor in the invasion was a significant intimidation factor for any opposition forces, which had few options to try and counter. Source: Pinterest
An M60A1 belonging to the USMC provides a backdrop for three detained men. Note the bottom part of the raised exhaust stack from the rear of the tank and the other part of it stowed on the right side of the turret.
Source: Toronto Public Library
USMC M60A1 in Grenada. The crew relaxes, although they wear their body armor just in case. Note the exhaust modification on the right exhaust grille even though the upper part of the stack has been removed.
Source: Toronto Public Library
USMC M60A1 seen in Grenada. It is hard to tell who is least interested in the invasion – the boy playing football or the tank crew. The raised exhaust stack is still in place.
Source: Pintrest
With little to do, the crew of this USMC M60A1 relaxes with the locals. The absence of body armor suggests this is after hostilities have ceased.
Source: Christian Sungit on Pinterest
An even more relaxed crew in tee-shirts and ambivalent about the civilians wandering around, sat atop their M60A1 providing a good view of the camouflage pattern employed on USMC vehicles.
Source: Bettmann via Getty
Blurry shot of a USMC M60A1 with a relaxed but fully dressed crew as a TV cameraman wanders past. This would date the image to not earlier than 27th October, when the press were finally allowed onto the Island by the US military. The man in the cap closest to the camera is General Vessey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Source: US National Archives.
Very unusual aerial view of a USMC M60A1 on Grenada at a road junction by the beach. Three M151 Jeeps can also be seen.
Source: Christian Sungit on Pinterest

The LVTP-7, or Landing Vehicle Tracked Personnel 7, was often just known as an Amtrack or just ‘Track’. It was the primary means of getting Marines to shore during an assault. Known officially as the Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV), it was exactly that, a tracked fully amphibious armored personnel carrier. Entering service in the early 1970s, the LVTP-7 was a hefty 29 tonne in weight, but could manage up to 72 km/h (45 mph) on a road and up to 13.2 km/h (8.2 mph) in the water courtesy of a Detroit Diesel 8V-53T 400 hp diesel engine.

Protection for the men inside, 3 crew and up to 20 troops, was provided by 45 mm of aluminum, meaning that it too was proof against small arms fire. The armament was modest, with just a single .50 calibre M2 heavy machine gun.

Captured Soviet-supplied BRDM-2 of the PRA with a USMC LVTP-7 seen behind it.
Source: US National Archives.
USMC LVTP-7 landed on Grenada at the Queen’s Racecourse landing ground, with a somewhat unexcited crew. Despite some appearance to the contrary, US and Caribbean forces arriving on Grenada were mostly a welcome sight and marked the end of months of chaos. Note the pintle-mounted M60 machine gun.
Source: US National Archives.
US forces rounded up PRA and suspected members of the PRA around the Queen’s Racecourse, St. Georges. Two M151 Jeeps can be seen, with one mounting a .50 caliber machine gun and the other with the canvas tilt in place. Unusually, the soldier closest to the camera is not wearing a helmet.
Source: Christopher Grey, USMC via USMC

At 1000 hours, the Governor-General, his wife and 22 special operations personnel (all but one of whom had been wounded) were evacuated by helicopter from Government House to the USS Gaum. Two hours later, Sir Paul Scoon was returned to Point Salinas at his request until St. George’s could be liberated and he could start to assist in the transition from the anarchy of the invasion to a semblance of law and order. By this time, those Marines of G Company were in a lengthy firefight with the troops defending Fort Frederick. Realizing they were going to be surrounded and annihilated, the PRA commander and men wisely fled, leaving the Marines another victory to their tally for operations on the island.

Sir Paul Scoon, Governor-General of Grenada. Source: spiceislander.com

With the success of the Marines at Fort Frederick and recovery of the Governor, the end was in sight, but there were still a large number of students unaccounted for more than 24 hours into the invasion. They were believed to be held at the campus at Grand Anse. In the advance on Grand Anse Campus, the force encountered fierce resistance from Cubans at Frequente, just one mile north of True Blue Campus. More enemy forces were detected at Grand Anse Campus and the advance halted for a rethink by Gen. Schwarzkopf.

The result of this rethink was a helicopter landing by Rangers using Marine helicopters to drop the men at Grand Anse and a redrawing of the tactical boundaries between the Marines and Rangers to reflect this new area of operations. Troops from the 82nd Airborne were now to be used to take the beach at Grand Anse, supported by a helicopter assault by Rangers carried in CH-46s.

Finally, there had been a realization that the assumption that this tiny island, with its ‘third rate’ force, would just give up and go home was a false one. It was tougher than it looked and, finally, with a ground commander in the form of General Schwarzkopf accepting that inadequate preparations were costly in time and lives, a proper operation was going to happen at Grand Anse. Rangers would come in via CH-46s to seize the campus following an extensive bombardment of PRA positions from A-7 Corsairs, AH-1C helicopters, an AC-130 gunship, and naval gunfire.

At 1600 hours, 26th October, after a suitable pummelling of PRA positions, the Rangers were dropped at the campus at Grand Anse by 6 Marine Corps Sea Knight helicopters and into a 30-minute firefight. Resistance was continuous but relatively light and, although some minor injuries were suffered amongst the Rangers and Marines, no one was killed. Some 224 medical students were then evacuated by CH-53 helicopters and US forces now learned of yet another campus with students to rescue – this time at Lance aux Epines, east of Point Salinas. The only casualty of the entire operation on the American side was a single CH-46 Sea Knight which had been hit by small arms fire. It had to be abandoned when the rotor clipped a tree and the crew evacuated by sea. All told, a properly planned operation with adequate resources had proven a success, with all of the students evacuated and no casualties.


Photographed a few days after the assault, the CH-46 Sea Knight of HMM-261 on the beach at Grand Anse. It had been hit by small arms fire but was lost when the rotors clipped a tree, making it unflyable. Abandoned, the crew escaped offshore in a liferaft unhurt.
Source: Pintrest and airandspacehistorian.com respectively

By this time, the Rangers and Marines were utterly exhausted, after nearly two days of continuing operations and unexpectedly fierce resistance from the Grenadians and Cubans. This exhaustion was compounded by a logistics failure where they had been landed without enough food and water, as soldiers discarded rations for ammunition and misunderstood the need for water in combat on a tropical island. This only got worse when prisoners were taken and had to be fed and watered as well, meaning supplies had to be flown in. It was not much better for the Marines. They might not have had to carry as many supplies as the Army did, but the vehicles needed fuel and, between them and the fuel needed for aircraft, there was a distinct shortage.

This was not helped by the inability to refuel Army helicopters on Naval craft because the nozzles would allegedly not fit and fuel had to be flown in and landed in collapsible bladders. This was not even the acme of inter-service issues and, in one example, when Army helicopters of 160th Aviation Battalion did land on the USS Gaum, the Naval Comptroller in Washington ordered the ship not to refuel them due to the costs coming out of the Naval budget. Such a petty and pointless bureaucratic hurdle could have crippled helicopter operations and, perhaps thankfully for the whole venture, General Schwarzkopf broke out the common sense cane and ordered them to be refueled despite the orders to the contrary.

Two more battalions of men from the 82nd Airborne were requested to bolster US forces and provide enough for some break from operations for both Rangers and Marines. These men arrived at 2217 hours at Point Salinas, meaning, by now, more than 5,000 US airborne troops were in Grenada on top of the Marines and SEALs.

Despite having lost the capital, the airfield, and the strongholds at Forts Frederick and Rupert, resistance was still in effect through the night of the 26th and into the 27th. Marines from G Company in St. George’ patrolling in a Jeep that night managed to locate another PRA BTR-60PB. They engaged the vehicle with 66 mm LAWs and knocked it out. This marked the fifth and final BTR-60PB to be knocked out or otherwise abandoned under fire from American forces.

A combined Army and Marine Corps patrol in St. Georges. Whilst the Marines get to patrol in the kitted-out M151 Jeep they brought with them, the Army (background) are left to use a captured Soviet UAZ-469B Staff Car. Source: US National Archives
A slightly damaged Soviet-made UAZ-469B captured in Grenada.
Source: US National Archives.

The Marines had continued to move out from St. George’s, suppressing any sniper activity, as had the Airborne troops in the south as they moved to the east across the tip of the island. They were slowed both by anticipation of strong resistance from Grenadian and Cuban forces, but also by two problems of their own making. The first was damage to Point Salinas airfield slowing down the supply deliveries and the second was the failure of radio communications between the Army and Navy. This latter issue meant that no fire support could be delivered by Naval gunfire, as the Army could not talk to them, so instead had to call Fort Bragg and ask them to convey the fire mission for them.

As resistance was progressively squashed, it was apparent that the barracks at Calivigny was still not in American hands, despite being a priority in both of the original plans. The attack on the barracks was conducted at 1750 hours on the 27th by Rangers landed via UH-160 Black Hawk helicopters and preceded by naval gunfire. Opposing them were just 8-10 men who had actually moved from the barracks to a ridgeline overlooking it.

A captured Soviet-built GAZ-66 truck. Despite looking rather clean, it appears to have had a lot of use judging by the tire wear and that it has had to be wheel-chocked in place.
Source: US National Archives.

The fight which followed lasted until 2100 hours and left one helicopter pilot shot and wounded and three helicopters damaged (two from crashing into each other, and a third which crashed trying to avoid the other two) but the barracks in the hands of the Rangers.

In yet another incident of poor interoperable communications between the Army and Navy, there was a serious blue-on-blue incident just east of Frequente. This had been the scene of fierce fighting on the 25th and sniping was still being experienced by US forces on the 27th in the area of a small sugar mill. An Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company team called in an airstrike to deal with this sniper, but was unable to coordinate this strike with the 2nd Brigade Fire Support Element on the ground and it was 2nd Brigade Command Post which was nearby. The A-7 Corsairs delivered their fire support but, due to this error, managed to deliver it on the command post rather than on the sniper location. The result was 17 men wounded, 3 of whom seriously. Major combat operations ceased by the end of the 27th, but there was now a very real concern of an insurgency taking place to oust the American invaders.

Indeed, the priority targets of the government, men like General Austin and Bernard Coard, were nowhere to be found and it was necessary to continue a search into the interior of Grenada to locate them and ensure no resistance was being organized by up to ‘500 Cubans’. The 28th of October marked, finally, the purported original goal being accomplished – the final rescue of American students. The campus at Lance aux Epines was reached by men of the 82nd Airborne and 202 US students were located. The 28th, was, however, not the end of combat operations, as concerns over the insurgency meant that a Marine battalion was now to be landed at Tyrrel Bay, Carriacou on 1st November. Scouted beforehand by a SEAL team, this was known as Operation Duke and involved men from G Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines USMC, Task Force 124 from the USS Saipan. F Company was brought into Carriacou Island via helicopter at Hillsborough Bay to seize Lauriston Point airstrip.

The landing was conducted at 0530 hours, supported by ground-attack aircraft in the form of 8 A-10 Thunderbolts. The landings, both amphibious and by helicopter, were, however, unopposed and the complete objective was achieved in just 3 hours, leaving 17 PRA troops and some equipment captured, but none of the rumored Cubans organizing an insurgency.

A Marine Corps LVTP-7 driving through Carriacou Island after landing at Tyrrel Bay. Source: Christopher Grey, USMC via USMC
USMC LVTP-7s after landing at Tyrrel Bay, Carriacou Island, Grenada, and during a halt. Note the camouflage tarpaulin loosely fastened to the front and that all the men are wearing a mix of the PASGT vest and M1 Steel Helmet rather than the PASGT helmet.
Source: US National Archives
A pair of USMC LVTP-7s in a rather relaxed situation with civilians, possibly journalists, wandering around, suggesting this was taken after the end of hostilities. The photo is likely taken on the island of Carriacou.
Source: Peter Leabo.

All combat operations for the original operation were completed at 1500 hours, 2nd November, and US forces were progressively withdrawn as stability was put in the hands of the OECS forces. The last US forces left on 12th December. On 10th November, all military troops who took part in Operation Urgent Fury were made eligible to receive the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.

Abandoned Soviet-built truck at Point Salinas airfield. The aircraft in the background is a C-151B Starlifter.
Source: US National Archives
A captured truck in use by members of the Eastern Caribbean Defence Force moves a number of PRA prisoners on the island during the final phases of stabilisation after the invasion.
Source: US National Archives


This Soviet-made BTR-60PB was recovered intact at Port Salinas airport. It was shipped back to the United States for examination.
Source: US National Archives

Interior of the BTR-60PB showing the almost new condition inside. This was to be the first BTR-60PB obtained by the USA and provided valuable intelligence.
Source: US National Archives
The same BTR-60PB being hoisted onto a US ship for transit back to the United States.
Source: Pinterest

The Costs

In terms of combat-related casualties, the US suffered 19 dead, 116 wounded, and 28 non-combat-related injuries. Of the Cubans on the island, 25 were dead, 59 wounded and 638 taken into custody. A number of other nationals of ‘unfriendly’ nations were also detained, including some East Germans, Bulgarians, Soviets, and North Koreans.

For the Grenadian forces, both PRA and any PRM forces, some 45 had been killed and another 358 wounded. Twenty-four civilians also perished in the invasion between stray bullets and the mistaken airstrike on the mental hospital.

There was a political price for the invasion too. The Soviet Union was generally uninterested in the whole affair and happily recognized the established government under Sir Paul Scoon without issue, but it was the Allies that had been more irked. Canada had already arranged a peaceful evacuation of its own citizens from Grenada and was more than a little concerned that what was seen as a reckless endeavor by the Americans putting them at risk.

The British Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, was in an even worse position. Just a year after the successful British operation, supported by Reagan, to retake their own islands from an Argentine invasion, the good will had been destroyed in the eyes of many. Thatcher was described in unflattering terms as being a poodle to Reagan and there were calls in the House of Commons for the British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe to resign. Of both domestic and strategic importance for the UK was how that somewhat unilateral American action might affect Thatcher’s decision about allowing British soil to be a base for US cruise missiles. It also had put a large number of British citizens at risk of being killed, as well as being the invasion of a member of the British Commonwealth.

In the aftermath of the invasion, CIA translations of captured documents showed no less than five agreements between the Bishop Government and the Soviets and Cuba about providing military aid. Much was made of this for political reasons to post-fact justify the invasion as a ‘we told you so’, but the total of the aid involved was just US$30.5 m and covered relatively minor military supplies, like rifles and uniforms, with the most serious items being anti-aircraft guns.

“There is no getting around the fact that the United States and its Caribbean allies have committed an act of aggression against Grenada. They are in breach of international law and the Charter of the United Nations”
Dennis Healey MP (Deputy Leader of the Labour Party –
the opposition) to Parliament 26th October 1983

In an accounting post-war provided to the US Congress by General George Crist (USMC), the totality of arms captured on Grenda was 158 sub-machine guns, 68 grenade launchers, 1,241 AK47 rifles, 1,339 Mod.52 rifles, 1,935 Mosin Nagant carbines, 506 Enfield rifles, and a few hundred miscellaneous pistols, flare guns, air weapons, and shotguns. Heavy-weapon wise, there were just 5 M-53 quadruple 12.7 mm AA guns, 16 ZSU-23-2 AA guns, 3 PKT tank machine guns, 23 PLK heavy machine guns, 20 82 mm mortars, 7 RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades, and 9 M20-type (Chinese copies) 75 mm recoilless rifles.

Lots of attention was paid to these stocks of Soviet and Cuban supplied arms found in the warehouse.
Source: Pinterest
Some of the Cuban and Soviet-supplied ammunition along with a Chinese copy of the American M20 75 mm recoilless rifle known as the Type 52, exported from China to Cuba and then on to Grenada, recovered at Point Salinas.
Source: Pinterest

That was smoke and mirrors to deflect from a poorly planned and poorly executed operation. Notwithstanding some rapid and innovative command decisions on the ground, the whole thing was a mess. Reagan was also to pay a price, as no concession had been made to allow reporters to see what was going on and the first members of the press did not get to arrive until the 28th. This gap did, however, manage to serve a couple of purposes – firstly, it allowed a false narrative of ‘battalions’ of Cuban regular forces to be propagated to allay in some way the problems of command and control. Secondly, it ensured that only ‘the good bits’ would be seen and that, should things go horribly wrong with numerous civilian casualties, it would not reach the public.

One of the towed 23 mm ZSU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns that proved so deadly for US helicopters during the invasion. Note the mix of clothing on the soldiers, including the Colt M1991 sidearm, M16A1 rifles, and that one man is even wearing Jungle boots. The man nearest the camera is wearing his PASGT vest but does not have it fastened and the man on the far right is not even wearing a combat jacket, let alone body armor, although he does wear the PASGT helmet – the first combat deployment of that item of equipment was during the invasion.
Source: Pinterest

The military operation on Grenada was a success in the sense that it recovered the students and restored a government on the island. It was also a success in that it highlighted serious shortcoming in US military preparedness and joint operations. Reagan got his win in his tropical adventure on the island, but for sure he did not assert the prowess of US military might he may have wished to do. Notwithstanding the efforts of Clint Eastward to portray this as some fight against heavily armed Cuban regular troops, the real story was a mess compounded by shambles and wrapped in disorganization.

In the long run, the arguments over the justification for the invasion faded and the people of Grenada were happy with the outcome in terms of the restoration of law and order and a return to the per-1979 coup state where new democratic elections could be held.

The ‘up-gunned’ BTR-60 PB mock-up seen in action with ‘Cuban’ troops, helpfully in full uniform for the benefit of the audience, no doubt in a scene from Heartbreak Ridge 1986. The vehicle can be clearly identified in another view as only having 4 wheels, making it closer to a BRDM-2 than a BTR-60 PB. The use of scrub and low time it spends on the screen helps to disguise the vehicle from the audience too. Source: Internet Movie Firearms Database
Another view of the vehicle from Heartbreak Ridge 1986. Source: Warner Bros.
Another view of the vehicle, now ‘knocked out’, from Heartbreak Ridge 1986. Source: Warner Bros.
Another of the movie prop vehicle from Heartbreak Ridge 1986. This one is pretending to be a BRDM-2, as it only has 4 wheels rather than 8 on the BTR-60PB.The mock-up appears to have been made using the body from a Cadillac-Gage Commando V-100. Source: Internet Movie Firearms Database

Conclusion

Review

The invasion was put together at short notice, despite the fact that plans should already have been in place. Likewise, the grossly ill-prepared force in terms of things like maps should never have happened. The fact that more American personnel were not killed in the operation is more due to luck than anything else and the hubris of assuming the ‘third rate’ enemy would somehow melt away when the US military showed up can be highlighted as arrogance which cost lives. The real winners of Grenada were the American troops who proved themselves rugged, capable, and flexible when they needed to be, both as regular forces, Marines, and special forces. The US military itself would also benefit in general from a review of the problems and on 22nd May 1984, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Army and Air Force to work on 31 identified warfighting deficiencies. Specific in those were air surveillance, the identification of friendly forces to reduce the chance of friendly fire, and tactical missile systems amongst others. The wider Goldwater Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 was also created in part to learn from the failures identified in the invasion.

In taking the island from this “third rate, lightly armed and poorly trained adversary”, the US had had to bring to bear some 8,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines and had taken over a week in the midst of an uncoordinated attack with inconsistent and often unhelpful air support. Resistance, and in particular the air defense from what was just manually laid ground batteries, had proven particularly effective. The loss of several aircraft damaged and destroyed pay testament to how effective a well-situated anti-aircraft gun could be and how vulnerable an assault overly reliant on delivery of forces by helicopter could be. It was only by luck that none of those C-130 delivering Rangers had been hit or a full helicopter of special forces did not go down. Indeed, the only force to have little trouble was the one that bothered to bring armor in the form of LVTP-7s and tanks. With little they could do to counter these vehicles, the opposition often simply melted away. The lesson should have been that bringing armor on your operation and not relying on light vehicles or helicopters was the way forward, especially for work in an urban area, yet, 10 years later in Mogadishu, Somalia, the US had to relearn that particular lesson again.

The bigger US lesson was a political one. The invasion served as a perfect operation if a distraction was needed from the disaster in Lebanon. It also laid the groundwork for a new and more assertive US foreign policy in the form of the ‘Reagan Doctrine’ in February 1985 which directly impacted other US interventions in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the invasion of Panama.

Souvenir

The BTR-60 which had been captured intact on Grenada was recovered to the United States for a technical evaluation. At this time, the BTR-60PB was still a potential front-line adversary vehicle used by the Soviet Union, so capturing a complete one was a rare opportunity to examine it technically. With this intelligence objective achieved, the vehicle was sent to Fort Barret at Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia as a training aide.

Long-Term

The runway at the heart of the American concerns was finished and eventually opened and known as Point Salinas International Airport and also Grenada International Airport. In 2009, the airport was renamed Maurice Bishop International. Bernard Coard survived the invasion and, along with 16 others, was sentenced to death for their part in the coup and murders – sentences later commuted to life in prison. They were released from custody in 2009.

A BTR-60PB, such as the ones used by the Grenadian forces in engaging the American invaders. Note that the Grenadian vehicles did not have a camouflage scheme and were in the standard Soviet green.
The Soviets supplied the Grenadians with just two BRDM-2 reconnaissance vehicles (seen in here in Soviet markings). While the parade white outlines and insignias were missing on the Grenadian vehicles, they would have been finished in a similar green color.
A USMC M60A1 tank, such as the ones that participated in the Invasion of Grenada.
An LVTP-7 of the USMC in an interesting color scheme. This was not far from the ones used on Grenada.

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