OPERATION JUST CAUSE 1989-1990
The invasion of Panama, known as Operation JUST CAUSE, was an unusually delicate, violent, and complex operation. Its key objectives were the capture of Manuel Noriega and the establishment of a democratic government. America applied overwhelming combat power during the invasion, seeking to minimize loss of life and destruction of property, and to speed the transition to friendly relations. The U.S. had bases located there, and U.S. troops had a long-standing relationship with the Panama Defense Forces (PDF). American SOF personnel, having been based in Panama, were acutely aware of the delicate nature of the mission and were instrumental in achieving U.S. objectives. During Operation JUST CAUSE, the special operations component of Joint Task Force South (the overall invasion force) was the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF). The JSOTF, commanded by Major General Wayne A. Downing, was organized into smaller task forces: TF RED (the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment), TF BLACK (Army Special Forces), and TF WHITE (SEALs and Special Boat Unit assets). These task forces were supported by Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs units, Army Special Operations helicopters, and USAF air commando units.
THE OPENING MISSION
The JSOTF’s principal H-Hour missions were the capture of Noriega and the destruction of the PDF’s ability to fight. As it turned out, the U.S. forces did not know Noriega’s location at H-Hour; accordingly, the JSOTF focused on the H-Hour missions against the PDF. The attack on the Comandancia (the PDF’s headquarters in Panama City) and the rescue of an American citizen from the adjoining prison (the Carcel Modelo) were the responsibility of a joint task force that included Special Forces ground elements, SOF helicopters and AC-130 gunships, and TF GATOR [M-113 armored personnel carriers and soldiers from the 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry (Mechanized)]. Because of indications that H-Hour had been compromised, the attack on the Comandancia began 15 minutes early, at 0045 on 20 December 1989.
TF GATOR was responsible for moving M-113s to blocking positions around the Comandancia and the prison, and then, in conjunction with the AC-130 and AH-6 gunships, attacking and leveling the PDF headquarters. Maneuvering to the blocking positions, they came under increasingly heavy sniper fire from PDF soldiers in buildings (including a 16-story high rise) on the west side of the Comandancia and prison complex. TF GATOR suffered some wounded and one killed while moving to their blocking positions. Near the target, TF GATOR encountered roadblocks; the M-113s squashed some roadblocks and went around others. The heavy enemy fire, coming from various directions, continued as the armored personnel carriers began their assault on the Comandancia.
At 0045, the revised H-Hour, AC-130s and AH-6s started firing upon the Comandancia area. The PDF shot down the lead AH-6, but its crew managed a controlled crash in the Comandancia courtyard. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time as the AC-130s were pounding the Comandancia. By keeping their wits about them, they evaded both enemy and friendly fire for over two hours, made it to the back wall (where they captured a PDF soldier), climbed the wall, and linked up with a TF GATOR blocking position. By now buildings in the compound were ablaze, and the smoke obscured the area for the AC-130 firing. One TF GATOR element was fired upon by an AC-130, wounding 12 soldiers. A second AC-130 volley about an hour later wounded nine more. At first, the soldiers believed that they had been attacked by PDF mortars, but during the second volley, they realized it was coming from the AC-130 and called through the fire support network to end the shooting.
During the attack on the Comandancia, a rescue force had entered the prison and freed the American citizen. The helicopter carrying part of the rescue force and the former prisoner was shot down and crashed in an alley to the north of the prison. Everyone on board, except the former prisoner, was injured to one degree or another, but the rescue force reacted as they had trained, formed a defensive position, contacted a TF GATOR blocking element, and were evacuated by M-113s.
TF GATOR kept the Comandancia isolated during the day of 20 December and continued to receive sporadic sniper fire. That afternoon, Company C. 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment arrived from Omar Torrijos International Airport to clear the Comandancia. All of these forces then engaged in follow-on missions.
Task Force RED
Task Force RED was the largest component of the Joint Special Operations Task Force. It consisted of the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment reinforced by contingents from the 4th Psychological Operations Group (PSYOP) and 96th Civil Affairs (CA) Battalion, and included Air Force Special Tactics teams and Marine Corps/Naval Gunfire liaison troops. Close air support aircraft included AH-6 attack helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, AC-130H gunships from the 1st Special Operations Wing, and from the conventional forces, AH-64 Apaches and F-117A fighter-bombers. The task force was to perform two simultaneous airborne assaults at H-Hour (0100 on 20 December 1989). One contingent would parachute onto the Omar Torrijos International Airport/Tocumen military airport complex, while another would drop onto Rio Hato airfield. Upon securing these objectives, TF RED would then link-up with conventional forces for follow-on combat operations.
THE ASSAULT ON TORRIJOS/TOCUMEN AIRFIELD
Omar Torrijos International Airport was the main international airport serving Panama, and the adjoining Tocumen military airfield was the home base of the Panamanian Air Force. Capturing Torrijos/Tocumen was crucial to the JUST CAUSE campaign plan because it would enable the 82nd Airborne Division to come into the country, while preventing the 2nd Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) Company and the Panamanian Air Force from interfering with American operations. The Torrijos/Tocumen complex formed a target area approximately six kilometers long and two kilometers wide.
The TF RED commander, Colonel William F. “Buck” Kernan, gave the mission of capturing Torrijos/Tocumen to 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, commanded by LTC Robert W. Wagner. The Rangers had a tight schedule to seize this complex – an 82nd Airborne Division brigade was supposed to jump onto the complex only 45 minutes after H-Hour to start follow-on missions. First Battalion’s three companies were augmented by Company C, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, PSYOP teams, a Civil Affairs team, two AH-6 attack helicopters, Air Force Special Tactics teams (combat controllers and pararescuemen), and an AC-130H gunship.
LTC Wagner’s plan called for the helicopters and AC-130H to attack the PDF positions at H-Hour, just prior to the Ranger parachute assault. After parachuting in, Company A would seize the Panamanian Air Force compound and destroy the aircraft. Company C, reinforced with a platoon from Company B, would seize the 2nd PDF compound and destroy the PDF Company. The rest of Company B, reinforced with 12 gun jeeps and 10 motorcycles, would clear both runways and establish blocking positions to prevent other PDF forces from interfering with the battalion’s operations. Finally, Company 3rd Battalion would clear the smaller building near the Torrijos terminal, isolate the terminal building, and then enter the terminal building and destroy PDF resistance there.
Prior to the attack, three combat controllers and one pararescueman placed navigation beacons near the end of the runway. The attack began at 0100, with the AC-130H and AH-6s opening fire on PDF positions on the airfield. The AH-6s eliminated three targets while the AC-130H fired on the 2nd Rifle Company’s barracks and headquarters building. It should be remembered that TF GATOR and other units had attacked the Comandancia in Panama City 15 minutes early, at 0045, which meant the PDF at Torrijos/Tocumen knew of the invasion prior to the Rangers’ airdrop. At 0103, the first jumpers left their company A received only sporadic fire and secured all of its objectives within two hours after capturing virtually the entire Panamanian Air Force on the ground. The company captured about 20 Panamanian Air Force personnel hiding in one of the hangars. Company B also landed on target and quickly secured its blocking positions. Like Company A, it received only sporadic enemy fire and took some prisoners. The biggest problem Company B had was with Panamanian vehicles ignoring its warning signs and barricades and trying to run its blocking positions. Generally these vehicles turned around and fled after the Rangers fired warning shots, but one vehicle had to be disabled by shooting out its tires. One of the vehicles that fled from warning shots contained Manuel Noriega who had been visiting the Cereme Military Recreation Center. Company C assaulted the barracks of the PDF’s 2nd Company and received only ineffective enemy fire; they quickly cleared the area killing one PDF soldier who had refused to surrender. Company C, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment was to secure the international air terminal, and this proved to be the only portion of the assault on Torrijos/Tocumen that was significantly more difficult than expected. First, one-fourth of the company landed in ten-foot tall cunna grass to the west of the runway and took two hours to join the main body. The depleted Company C had no trouble securing its objectives outside the terminal building, however, and the troops were impressed with how completely the AH-6s had destroyed the guardhouse outside the terminal and killed the two guards there. The 3rd platoon seized the fire station on the north side of the terminal and then received fire from the second floor of the terminal.
These Rangers entered the terminal from the north, where they encountered two surprises. First, two civilian flights had arrived just prior to H-Hour, and about 400 civilians were in the terminal. The other surprise was that the PDF troops defended the terminal more determinedly than anywhere else in the Torrijos/Tocumen complex. When two Rangers searched one of the airport’s huge men’s rooms on the second floor, two PDF soldiers jumped out of a stall and shot one of the Rangers several times with a pistol. The other Ranger returned fire and, with the assistance of two more Rangers, dragged his wounded buddy out of the men’s room. In the process, the Ranger pulling the wounded man was himself shot twice in the back of the head, but his Kevlar helmet stopped both rounds. From outside the men’s room door, the unhurt Rangers threw in grenades, but the men’s room stalls protected the PDF soldiers. The Rangers then re-entered the men’s room and waited for the PDF to show themselves. The Rangers got the better of the ensuing hand-to-hand struggle. One of the PDF soldiers was killed in the men’s room while the other was knocked out of the window; he fell two stories and almost landed on a Ranger patrolling outside. When the PDF soldier tried to draw his pistol, the Ranger killed him.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Platoon entered the terminal from the south and started clearing the building, with one squad on each of the three main floors. Enemy soldiers opened fire on the third floor, but the Rangers’ counterattack drove them from the terminal, and they cleared the rest of the third floor without incident.
The situation on the first floor was more difficult; about ten PDF troopers had taken two American girls hostage. When their escape route led them right into the Ranger security detail stationed outside the terminal, they fled back inside, where 2nd Platoon Rangers cornered them after several exchanges of fire. At 0500, after a tense two-and-a-half-hour standoff, the Rangers announced they were going to come in shooting. Rather than face an all-out assault, the holdouts then released their hostages and surrendered. Later that morning, at about 1100, the 82nd Airborne Division assumed operational control of 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment and began operations out of Torrijos/Tocumen. Likewise, Company C, 3rd Battalion was put under the operational control of TF BAYONET to clear La Comandancia at 1500 on 20 December. The Ranger’s extensive training in airfield seizure and building clearing, along with their detailed mission plan, were key factors in their successful seizure of the Torrijos/Tocumen complex with minimal collateral damage and casualties.
THE ATTACK ON RIO HATO AIRFIELD
The Panamanian military base near the small village of Rio Hato was located 65 miles west of Panama City. It contained a large airfield and was home to two PDF companies: the 6th Rifle Company (Mechanized), equipped with 19 armored cars, and the 7th Rifle Company, an elite counterinsurgency force known to be loyal to Noriega. In addition, the base housed a PDF engineer platoon and PDF training schools. TF RED’S mission was to destroy PDF forces and seize the airfield for follow on missions. The total number of PDF forces was estimated to exceed 500 men; these units, particularly the 7th Rifle Company, were expected to offer stiff opposition to the TF RED forces.
The Rio Hato military base ranged along the coastline of the Gulf of Panama, with the airfield runway nearly perpendicular to the shoreline. The barracks for the 6th and 7th Companies were on the runway’s southwest side. There were a number of beach houses along a dirt lane to the south of the runway; Manuel Noriega owned (and occasionally used) one of them. To the west of the runway, and above the 6th and 7th Companies’ barracks, was the PDF school complex. The Pan American highway bisected the airfield. The TF RED commander, Colonel Kernan, led the forces assaulting Rio Hato, which included the 2nd Ranger Battalion, the 3rd Ranger Battalion (minus one company, used in the Torrijos/Tocumen assault), and elements of the 4th Psychological Operations Group, Civil Affairs assets, Air Force Special Tactics teams, and Marine Corps Air/Naval Gunfire liaison troops. Aerial fire support was provided by two F-l 17A fighters, two AH-64 and four AH-6 helicopters, and one AC-130H gunship. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions split the responsibility for taking and holding ground: the 2nd was to parachute into the area along the southern edge of the runway and around the PDF Barracks and engage the enemy, while the 3rd was to jump farther north, securing the area from counterattacks and clearing the runway.
Thirteen C-130 transports were cross loaded with Rangers from both battalions. The aircraft were to approach from the south, with the 2nd Battalion soldiers parachuting first and the 3rd Battalion troops jumping second. The 2nd Battalion’s Company A would assault and clear the PDF school complex. Company B, 2nd Battalion would assault the 7th Company from the east, and if it was still effective after destroying that unit (planners had anticipated 30 percent casualties), it would push westward and clear the 6th Company area. If Company B suffered excessive casualties, Company C would take over the assault. If Company B did not need reinforcement, then Company C would seize Noriega’s beach house.
Though the Rangers wanted the F – 117As to hit the PDF barracks, the bombing targets had been changed to an area near the barracks in the hope of frightening, rather than killing, the PDF. The bombs landed on schedule, at H-Hour, although one missed its target and exploded harmlessly near the beach. The AH-6s and AC-130H aircraft immediately followed with attacks on their designated targets. Of particular importance, the AC-130H destroyed two anti-aircraft positions before the Rangers jumped.
In spite of the three minute air attack, the Rangers jumped into effective anti-aircraft machine-gun fire.Eleven of the aircraft carrying Rangers were hit, and one Ranger was hit by anti-aircraft fire while still in the aircraft. The jump, however, went on as scheduled at 0103. Those Rangers who had jumped into Grenada in 1983 for Operation URGENT FURY judged the enemy fire to have been heavier at Rio Hato.
Once on the ground, the 2nd Battalion Rangers saw a lot of tracers, but were able to return fire and assemble without too much trouble. The PDF troops apparently had left their barracks upon learning that the U.S. troops were coming and had either set up defenses on and around the airfield, or fled. As planned, Company A assembled before the other units and moved up to clear the school complex.
As Company A was advancing on the school complex, Company B began its assault on the 7th Company area. After using demolition charges to blow holes in the wall surrounding the compound. Company B moved in and set about clearing each building, room by room. Having cleared the 7th’s area without serious losses, Company B continued to push west and had begun clearing the 6th Company area by dawn on 21 December. Company B’s success freed Company C to assault Noriega’s beach house area two hours after H-Hour, and the Rangers cleared the house by morning.
Company B finished clearing the 6th Company barracks area that morning as well and, with all of its initial assault objectives secured, continued to advance west into the small village inhabited by the families of the PDF troops. The Rangers detained all the adult males found there for questioning, assuming the vast majority were PDF troops in hiding. The 3rd Battalion Rangers, who were loaded first in each of the 13 C-130s, jumped after the 2nd Battalion. By the time they jumped into the warm. humid night, the PDF knew they were coming. The 3rd’s airborne assault included heavy “drops” of four jeeps and six motorcycles. Company A’s motorcycles were to race north along the runway and screen the Americans from possible counterattacks, while the Company B jeep teams were to establish blocking positions and watch for possible PDF activities.
When the Company A Rangers jumped, they scattered from south of the Pan American Highway to well north of it. This company’s primary mission was to neutralize the .50 caliber machine gun positioned on the concrete and stone entryway leading to the Rio Hato airfield. By happenstance, the company’s executive officer and a few other Rangers landed within 30 feet of the entryway: they killed the PDF gunner as he was firing at the other Rangers parachuting to the ground and took possession of the fortified position. Other Company A elements had begun to clear the NCO academy headquarters and classroom areas. The Rangers encountered more PDF soldiers than expected, and in the words of LTC Joseph Hunt. 3rd battalion commander, these PDF soldiers “gave them a good run for their money for about 30 minutes.” As the Rangers aggressively cleared the NCO academy buildings, the Panamanian soldiers abandoned their resistance and fled from the advancing Rangers. Company A Rangers did capture about 167 cadets. Without their superior fire discipline and training, the Rangers could have easily attacked these cadets before learning that they were unarmed, frightened, and eager to surrender. Within an hour of H-Hour. Company A had secured its objectives.
Company B, 3rd Battalion severed the Pan American Highway on the east side of the airfield. There was more traffic on the Pan American Highway than expected, and the blocking element fired warning shots at a few vehicles to force them to turn around. The largest Company B element concentrated on clearing the runway south of the highway so that aircraft could begin landing, and this proved more time-consuming than anticipated. The Rangers quickly removed such obstacles as barrels, barbed wire, and trucks, but needed extra time to pick up the hundreds of parachutes left behind by the airborne assault. Company B Rangers also took control of the air traffic control tower.
Approximately 1.5 hours into the operation, the Rangers finished clearing the runway, and C-130s began landing with more people and additional supplies.
The Rangers who were assigned to end PDF resistance north of the Pan American Highway encountered a surprising amount of PDF opposition. Here, as night turned to dawn, some PDF soldiers conducted a deliberate withdrawal, fighting from building to building through a small built-up area. A Ranger element engaged the PDF and called for fire support from two AH-6 helicopter gunships. The gunships fired on the buildings, but unbeknownst to the pilots, an element of Rangers moved into a tree line to flank the PDF. As the gunships came around for a second pass, one pilot saw movement in the trees and, believing they were PDF soldiers, fired upon the Rangers, killing 2 and wounding 4. The movement of the Rangers into the tree line had not been radioed to the AH-6 pilots.
Having secured the military complex on 20 December, the Rangers conducted follow on missions out of Rio Hato for the next three days. At 2200 on 20 December. Company A, 2nd Battalion left Rio Hato aboard special operations helicopters and, at 0230 on the 21st, took over security for the American embassy in Panama City. That same day, the Rangers participated in one of the early surrender missions – what became known as the “Ma Bell” Campaign – when COL Kernan brought the PDF leaders of the Penonome Prison and 6th Military Zone Headquarters to Rio Hato to discuss their forces’ surrender. Later, with an AC-130H circling overhead, the 3rd Battalion’s Company A accepted the surrender of the town’s garrison; then, the Rangers demonstrated a “dry run” assault on the prison, showing the Panamanians what would have happened to them if they had resisted. Word of this display of force and surrender quickly spread throughout the remaining cuartels in the countryside. After relocating to Howard AFB, the Rangers, in conjunction with Special Forces soldiers, conducted the “Ma Bell” surrender of David, a major city in western Panama.
The Rangers also performed stability operations in areas around Panama City. In response to civil disturbances and continued PDF and Dignity Battalion (Noriega’s paramilitary supporters) activities, the 2nd Battalion, 75th Rangers set up operations in Area of Operation (AO) Diaz, an area containing the towns of Alcalde Diaz and Las Cumbres, on 27 December. With the assistance of PSYOP forces, they created a visible American presence by establishing checkpoints and blocking positions, and running “saturation” patrols and night ambushes. While in AO Diaz, the Rangers rounded up former PDF and Dignity Battalion members and seized several caches of weapons. The American presence of Rangers, PSYOP, and Civil Affairs soldiers stabilized the area and allowed the new government to reestablish control.
The Rangers came out of Panama with a number of lessons learned. The tactical plan was well prepared, coordinated, and rehearsed, enabling the successful completion of their missions. JUST CAUSE validated the Rangers’ mission essential procedures and techniques, and their responsiveness to contingencies. Lessons learned included recognizing the importance of intelligence gathering and management; planning logistical support for follow-on missions; emphasizing training and equipping the regiment for military operations in urban areas; and enhancing the regiment’s interaction with conventional and joint forces through the use of liaison elements.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS:
On December 20, 1989, the United States of America invaded the sovereign republic of Panama. There were four reasons the United States felt that validated the invasion, and according to polls taken during the time, the American public supported them (Downing, 1990).
Many people in the United States are probably not familiar with all of the reasons that were used to legitimize the United States invasion of this small country. If you asked them why we invaded, most would probably say that it was because of Manuel Noriega and his involvement with the CIA. Actually, they would not be entirely wrong. It has been well documented the Noriega was in fact on the payroll of the CIA. However, it is not the fact of his involvement with the CIA that is the major issue. It is more that he was becoming more increasingly involved with Cuba and Fidel Castro that became a problem for the United States. The United States felt that since Noriega had been involved with the CIA, and since he was now becoming more involved with Cuba, he was becoming a threat to the national security of the U.S.
In February of 1988, a federal grand jury had indicted Noriega for drug trafficking. This seriously soured relations between Panama and the United States. So for the first time, the Pentagon had to consider Panama as a threat. On February 22, 1988, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a planning order for SOUTHCOM to write an operational contingency plan for the defense of the Panama canal and the American lives and property in Panama, taking into consideration a hostile Panamanian Defense Force (PDF). The command received approval in July of 1988, and Operation Blue Spoon was entered into a family of other contingency plans known as the Prayer Book. This plan covered everything from mass evacuation of American civilian and military dependents in case of the event of local terrorism, to the forcible recapture of the canal. This was all done legally under the terms of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties (McConnell, 1991).
A second reason for the invasion was that American lives were being placed in danger. After Noriega declared the Panama election invalid and he declared himself president, many American soldiers and their dependents began to be harassed (Towel & Felton, 1989). In May of 1989, elections were held in Panama, and President Guillermo Endara and Vice Presidents Calderon and Ford were elected. However, Noriega had troops from his PDF Battalions physically beat these elected officials and declared himself the new leader of Panama (Downing,1990). The United States refused to recognize Noriega as the leader of Panama and instead condemned him for his actions. It was shortly after this that the harassment of U.S. citizens living in Panama began. Some examples of this include a Navy officer being shot and killed for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another incident involved an officer being physically beaten and his wife sexually assaulted (Towell & Felton, 1989). Both of these actions were conducted by the PDF and fully condoned by Noriega himself.
The third component of the invasion of Panama had to do with the Monroe doctrine. The Monroe doctrine states that the United States will not allow the spread of communism into any other country in which communism does not already exist. After the fall of Cuba to the communists, the United States felt that it could not allow that to happen to any other countries in its Southern Hemisphere. Not only would the spread of communism to another Latin American country place the national security of the United States at risk, but it would also call into question the United States’ prestige and credibility. The United States did not want to appear weak in the eyes of the world by allowing Noriega, a one-time CIA informant, to draw close ties with Cuba and not do anything about it. In order to save face in the eyes of the world, the United States had to do something. They could not just sit idly by while Noriega snubbed his nose at them; especially after Noriega had declared war on the United States on the 15th of December 1989 ( Bush, George, 1989). Even more so than declaring war on the U.S., troops from Noriega’s own PDF Battalions shot and killed a U.S. serviceman the very next day. By these actions it was quite clear that the United States had to do something in Panama or risk being the laughing stock of the world.
The fourth and final component of the invasion of Panama has to do with the accessibility and free flow of trade through the Panama Canal. Although the canal is not as important as it once was, it still reserves its place as a symbol of U.S. interest and presence in Latin America. This symbolic value has often caused its security to be offered as a justification for intervention in the Southern Hemisphere when the real causes lay elsewhere. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaties with the country of Panama in which the United Sates agreed to give sole custody of the Canal to the country of Panama (Kemp, 1990). However, there is a clause in this treaty which allows the United States to intervene in the affairs of Panama if the free flow of trade is ever restricted or cut off or if its security is ever placed in danger (Nanda, 1990). The clause further states that the United States can use whatever force is necessary to reestablish a smooth flow of trade through the Canal. It is through the use of this clause that Bush was able to use this as another reason for the U.S. to invade. Since it is the President’s responsibility to safeguard the lives of American citizens against foreign threats, and since Noriega was beginning to show more interest in Fidel Castro and the left, there was reason to believe that the Canal’s peaceful mission might be compromised.
Due to everything that has been stated previously, it is quite obvious that the United States had no other course of action other than to invade Panama. President Bush’s quick and decisive decision to invade clearly shows that he would not tolerate this outrage from one single man who claimed himself to be in control of power over a country. Furthermore, the United States could not recognize him as the leader of Panama, simply because the power that he claimed over the country of Panama came from strong-arming the citizens of Panama, and terrorizing them into submission. According to a poll conducted by Newsweek in January of 1990, “80 percent of Americans polled showed that they felt justified in the U.S. invasion of Panama.” This poll clearly demonstrates that not only did President Bush make the right decision, but that 80 percent of the American public would have done the same thing.
On January 3rd, 1990, Noriega surrendered from the Vatican and was finally captured and arrested. He was then transported to a federal prison in Miami. In total, 23 American soldiers were killed and 347 were wounded.
James Erickson, 3/75 Ranger
1. Bush, George (1989). Panama: The Decision to Use Force. Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. LVI, p194 – 195.
2. Downing, Larry (1990, January). The Panama Invasion. Newsweek, p14 – 23
3. Kemp, Frederick (1990, January). The Noriega Files. Newsweek, p19 -28
4. McConnell, Malcolm (1991). Just Cause. New York: St. Martin’s Press
5. Nanda, V. P. (1990). The Validity of United States Intervention in Panama Under International Law. American Journal of International Law, Vol 84, p494 -503
6. Towell, P & Felton, J (1989, December). Invasion, Noriega Ouster Win Support on Capital Hill. Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, p3532 – 3535
LTG William F. “Buck” Kernan
6th Colonel of the Regiment
RGMT CDR, Rio Hato
Enroute to the 10-Year Anniversary Ceremony, I (LTG Kernan) reflected with John Scroggins, the RS3, about Operation “Just Cause.”
* The compartmented planning that began in August 1987 called “Blue Spoon” which provided the framework for “Just Cause.”
* The fortuitous validation exercise in Florida two days prior to getting the execute order.
* The calm, methodical final preparation at Lawson AAF. Cold and wet. Forced hydration in anticipation of the hot temperatures and humidity we were going to encounter.
* The opportunity to address all the Rangers prior to boarding the aircraft. It was a strange sight … Hardened, combat laden, steely-eyed Rangers, draped in Army blankets, bracing against the wet, cold night. What was evident in all was a determined commitment and a willingness to test themselves for their Nation.
* 64 Combat Equipped Rangers in each C-130 confronted with a 7 1/2 hour flight. The passing of a 5-gallon water can with fully rigged Rangers struggling to relieve the forced hydration.
* Jumpmasters leading their chalk in the ranger creed at the 3-minute warning.
* I remember the enemy fire in the air, the discipline of the Rangers in eliminating the enemy on the DZ. How elated we were to see the AH-6 ‘little birds’ and AC-130 in action.
* The precision in which assault objectives were seized and subsequent operations were conducted. NCO’s taking charge and ensuring mission success.
* I also remember the pain and anguish we experienced when informed of our losses.
* But most of all, I remember how proud I was to be in the company of Rangers … Special people … National Heroes.
10th Anniversary Ceremony
* Ten years ago this coming Monday our Nation called on Rangers to “Lead The Way” and help root out a corrupt, evil presence that had for years kept the Nation of Panama and its people from taking their rightful place among the democracies of the world.
* On that cold, wet December night the 75th Ranger Regiment, more than two-thousand strong, boarded C-130 and C141 aircraft… By daybreak we would all know the bitter taste of combat … Many for the first time. But every Ranger was committed … To the Nation … To his fellow Rangers.
All gave some …. some gave all: SSG Larry Barnard, B-3/75, Rifle Squad Leader; PFC James Markwell, C-1/75, Medic; PFC John Price, A-2/75, Rifleman; PFC Roy Brown, A-3/75, Rifleman; And SPC Phillip Lear, B-2/75, Rifleman.
* This was the first operational deployment of the Regiment since its activation in October 1984. It was a privilege and an honor to participate …. Particularly as the Regimental Commander. It was also a sacred duty.
* Our targets — the Torrijos-Tocumen International Airport and Rio Hato…..Each critical to the overall success of the operation.
*We had to take down the airport to pave the way for the 82nd to get in there, expand the airhead and move out to follow-on targets and objectives.
* We had to neutralize the PDF 6th and 7th Infantry Companies at Rio Hato, Noriega’s only real counterattack threat to the invasion force.
* We carried with us the inspiration of fighting men who have led the way since the birth of our Nation….Roger’s Rangers, Darby’s Rangers and Rangers who climbed the sheer cliffs at Ponte du Hoc, Merrill’s Marauders whose operations in Burma captured the interests of the Nation, Rangers who served in the Korean War, and those who bled and died in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Rangers who participated in Desert One and led the assault on the Island of Grenada in 1983. Many of you remember the feel of the blowing sand and grit of Saudi Arabia and Iraq…And the smell of burning oil wells in Kuwait-and some of you remember a day known in another part of the world as “The Day of the Rangers”.
* A common thread runs through all …Wherever America was confronted with a tough mission, Rangers led the way. It has always been so, it always will be.
* So we gather today to commemorate this, the Tenth Anniversary of Operation Just Cause…and to honor five brave young men — Rangers who went willingly to do their Nation’s bidding…And made the ultimate sacrifice… Gave the last full measure of devotion.
* Staff Sergeant Larry Barnard; Specialist Philip Lear; and Three Privates First Class … Roy Brown, Jr., John Price, and James Markwell (Whose Parents are here today). * Five of the best America had to offer in the cause of freedom…The oldest 29, the youngest just 19.
* As their aircraft took off in the darkness from Lawson Field on Hunter Army Airfield the evening of December 19th, mortality was probably the last thing on their minds. They were, like all Rangers, narrowly focused on the task at hand. They were confident in their training, their leaders, and above all – their Ranger buddies. The first stanza of the ranger creed burning in their minds —-
“RECOGNIZING THAT I VOLUNTEERED AS A RANGER FULLY KNOWING THE HAZARD OF MY CHOSEN PROFESSION . . . . ”
* So from the bitter cold rain in Georgia to the drenching humidity of Panama this Regiment went. A parachute jump from 500 feet is tough…Doing it into combat, well that’s an order of magnitude tougher. But we did it and we accomplished our objectives the only way we know how-
“AT THE CUTTING EDGE OF BATTLE….MOVING FURTHER, FASTER, AND FIGHTING HARDER THAN ANY OTHER SOLDIER”
* Ranger Barnard, Ranger Lear, Ranger Brown, Ranger Price and Ranger Markwell– These five we honor today — are with me always…They are with us always. As it should be, as it must be.
* So as we lay this wreath on this sacred ground let’s look at this ceremony as an opportunity to greet them once again… For they will go on forever in honored glory…As long as there is even one ranger left to remember their courage and selfless service to our nation. Let’s rededicate ourselves in their honor . . . We must commit ourselves to a higher standard.
* As I look to the future of our Nation, our Army, and our Regiment I see many more young men who like these five will serve selflessly and with honor…And will embody the last paragraph of the Ranger Creed-
“READILY WILL I DISPLAY THE INTESTINAL FORTITUDE REQUIRED TO FIGHT ON TO THE RANGER OBJECTIVE AND COMPLETE THE MISSION, THOUGH I BE THE LONE SURVIVOR.”
— RANGERS LEAD THE WAY! —
War Stories Rio Hato
Personal Accounts Rio Hato Combat Parachute Assault:
2/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
December 20th, 1989 will always be a day that I reflect on my life and the things I’ve done. Although Panama wasn’t Vietnam or any other war of significance, it still had all the violence and death that others had.
The vast misconception of most civilians was that Operation Just Cause was a spur of the moment reaction of President Bush. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, we, I mean most of us in the Ranger Regiment knew months in advance that we were going to go there sooner or later. All the signs were there, we were down to a 2-hour recall and had been that way since March of that year (no more than an hour from home and always carrying the beeper).
We started prepping just after the 2d Battalion’s first rotation at JRTC in Ft Chaffee AR. We had just returned from Ft Chaffee and were getting ready to relax when we were recalled for a no-notice deployment to Hunter AAF. This was just after Noriega had nullified the elections and the elected President Guillermo Endara and many other opposition leaders were beaten by the “Dignity Battalions” or DIGBATS as we called them. Something was going on down there and the 1st Battalion was on RRF but they were headed to a politically sensitive deployment to Jordan. So we were called to be the stand in just in case it came to blows down there. Well, we ended up spending 3 weeks at Saber Hall going to all kinds of ranges and doing any and all kinds of training that we could think of. Living in the Tent City wasn’t the greatest but I can say that spending part of the spring in the warm Georgia sun was nice.
When we finally did get back to Ft Lewis, the Battalion went into a training cycle that was unlike any I had seen in my almost 4 years in the battalion at that time. Constant jumps into rough drop zones. Live fire exercises that had all the intensity of the real thing against target arrays that were emplaced just for that range’s particular training objective. The increased training only sharpened the razor’s edge that all Rangers have at all times This training culminated in early December with a force on force exercise against a battalion of the 101st airborne as OPFOR on an auxiliary airfield somewhere on Eglin Air Force base. During this exercise we did something that I had never seen before; each of the 13 chalks of C-130s came from a different direction as to confuse the enemy, and hopefully negate the known ADA threat. Well, from my point of view, this didn’t work very well because it added more chaos to the already difficult task of assembly. If you don’t know where you are on the airfield its hard to find your assembly area. At the conclusion of this exercise we packed up all our stuff and headed back to our home under the shadow of Mt Rainer.
After the ordinary quick recovery we were released at about 2pm on Saturday the 16th of December for a little time off with the family. It was normal for my wife and I to go out to dinner on my return from a deployment. So on that evening my wife, a friend of mine, SGT Chris Fitzpatrick, and I headed out to dinner. The dinner was subdued because Chris and I were thinking about a little bit of scuttlebutt we had heard. It was to the effect of; don’t plan on Christmas at home. Little did we know how accurate that was.
When we returned home the answering machine was going nuts. I started playing the messages and instantly turned white, we had been gone 2 and a half-hours and we had been recalled an hour ago. My beeper had not picked up the signal in the restaurant. Chris, who was renting a room from us, and I began to rush around the house and get our gear ready to go. We knew it was the real thing.
The drive to Ft Lewis from Lacey was quick and quiet. Chris and I knew that we were headed into harms’ way VERY quickly. After four years of being in the Ranger Regiment it was still hard to believe we were actually going to go. We had been on so many “Real World” missions only to be called back once things had cooled politically. This one, however, had a different feeling. The news all that day had been filled with images of Americans being harassed by the PDF (Panamanian Defense Forces).
Once I got to the compound I noticed how tense it was. Everyone was in that quiet calm before the storm. When I reported to my squad leader, SSG Robert Shalala, I explained what had happened with the beeper and he settled down to give me the latest poop so I could brief my fire team. 2/75 was alerted to conduct an EDRE to Ft Bliss Texas. We were to conduct another airfield takedown and recover to Ft Lewis by the 22d. The S-2 had even gone so far as to issue maps to Ft Bliss.
I went into the room where my team members were prepping their rucksacks and double-checking their RRF packing list. I briefed them on what I had just heard and told them that it was the official word and would remain so until I briefed them otherwise. I didn’t want my guys to be the ones who started or perpetuated rumors. I had to laugh inside because I knew it was a ruse dreamed up to keep the guys who weren’t going or those guys who were on the way out of the battalion from accidentally letting the word out on what we were really up to.
I spent that night in the barracks but didn’t sleep well. I had a fight with my wife just as I was leaving the house and she was in hysterics as I headed out the door, fully knowing that I wasn’t going to be back any time soon. I had some other news that others didn’t have, my buddy Chris who worked in the S-4 Shop told me that the UBL was on the way to McChord AFB. That doesn’t happen every day. When the ammo that we kept stored on pallets in the ASP on Ft Lewis starts to move, it’s a MAJOR deal. Not something that would happen for just an ordinary EDRE.
We woke up the next morning at about 0330 for the IMC (Initial Manifest Call) out on the Quad. It was a typical cold and rainy morning for Ft Lewis but I didn’t really feel it. As usual we mulled around 30 or 40 minutes prior BS-ing with buddies. Then suddenly from my Company’s windows someone had set up the ultimate going away message. With about 1000 watts of stereo power you could hear Van Halen ripping out the tune from their album “1984” David Lee Roth belting out “PANAMA”! Everyone cheered and things began to move quicker from Sunday, the 17th, was spent with us flying from McChord AFB to Lawson AAF on Ft Benning. There we were put up in a Tent City for the night. Lawson was going to be our ISB. When we arrived at Lawson it seemed that the rain from Ft Lewis had followed us. Something else told us that this wasn’t an ordinary EDRE. When we entered the hangar at Lawson there was a 3rd Battalion jeep all rigged for operation with live ammo aboard. This alone wasn’t out of the ordinary except that it carried live M21 AT mines. Those aren’t used for training.
Once on the ground and settled into the tents, the Battalion (2nd Battalion) Commander called us all together and put out the poop as he had it at that time. All of 2/75 and along with 2 companies from the 3rd Battalion would conduct an airborne assault onto RIO HATO Airfield in Panama. We were going in there to neutralize 2 companies of the PDF, the 6th and 7th Infantry Companies. The 6th Company was a motorized infantry company out-fitted with Cadillac Gage V150 and V300 Armored Personnel Carriers and the 7th Infantry Company was one of Noriega’s favorite units, the “Macho De Montes”. Once we were released from that formation we all headed back to the cold wet tents to try and get some sleep. The OPORD and ammo issue were going to start in about 5 hours. I didn’t sleep much and was up early to get my guys up and moving. It was raining still and getting colder. Little did we know that this was the weather system that would delay the 82d Airborne force that would follow 1st Battalion (+) into Torrillios Tocumen Airport in Panama City.
Our OPORD outlined the plan like this. At 0052, 20 DEC, 1989, two F-117A Stealth Fighters would drop two 2000lb bombs on the compound at Rio Hato. Eight minutes later 2/75 and 3/75 (-) would jump at 500 feet over the airfield and secure it. A company would be responsible for clearing an NCO and Officers Academy on the western edge of the airfield. B Company would move to and secure the barracks area of the 6th & 7th Infantry companies. C company (My unit) would be the battalion reserve for B Company’s main effort. Once the airfield and main objectives were secured we were to take up defensive positions and prepare for follow on operations. 3/75 (-) would be responsible for targets on the northern end of the airfield.
The ammo issue was a strange event all in its own, it was like an ammo super store, everything you could want to kill and more. I remember taking along with my basic load of 210 rounds of M16 ammo, M67 FRAG Grenades, 1 M72A3 LAW, and M18A1 Claymore, I took along 2 more bandoleers of M16 Ammo, 3 Mortar rounds (to drop off to Weapons Platoon) 2 Flash Bang Grenades, 1 CS Grenade and 3ea 1 1*4 lbs. blocks of C4. My Rucksack was heavy but not as heavy as others’.
After all the OPORDs and rehearsals were over we all moved over to the marshaling areas for our chalks. I was in chalk 1 along with the rest of my squad. We drew our chutes and began to rig up in the rain, there just wasn’t enough room for all of us in the pax shed there that the airborne school uses. In order to free all of our personnel to jump, we had airborne school Jumpmasters perform the duties as non-jumping safeties. I remember waddling over to McCarthy Hall on Lawson for a quick church service and communion before finally hopping on the “bomb carts” that would carry us out to the waiting C-130s. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remember thinking that this was it. I had trained for this for years and it was actually going to happen.
Once we were airborne in typical Ranger Fashion I think we all fell asleep for part of the 6-7 hour flight down to Panama. I think it was the familiar drone of the turbo props and finally having some heat after 2 days in the cold rain, that put me at ease enough to sleep. At about 2 hours out the jumpmasters woke us up and we all hung our rucksacks. A quick JMPI and we were all ready to go.
Camouflaged in Ranger SOP cammy and wearing the “Rasta Man” mop on our Kevlar helmets was a surreal scene under the red lights of the C-130. And when the Jumpmasters started giving out time warnings I felt my heart race as if it were going to jump out of my chest. Preparations for the jump went just as in training and it was kind of reassuring until we saw the flash of the explosions from the 2000 lb bombs. A quiet cheer went up as the Jumpmaster came back inside and said he saw the bombs go off. It wasn’t going to be long now.
At the 3-minute mark all the lights in the aircraft went out and all you could see was the glowing red jump lights. I watched and listened for any sign of ground fire but I didn’t notice any. Then the light went green. The anchor line cable began to jerk as the Rangers ahead of me began piling out the door and into the melee. I began to move forward but my M1951 Weapons container got caught on something on the side of the aircraft and I remember the guy from 3rd Battalion yelled something at me just as I pulled it free from what ever it was caught on and I ran to catch up with the guys in front of me. I hit the door and jumped out.
I looked briefly at the C-130 flying away into the dark and then down to the ground. I was about halfway down the drop zone and off to the right side of the runway. “Good”, I thought, I was coming down into some cover and I wasn’t going to hit the runway. I came down into a small depression along a small stream and got my M16 out and ready for action. I cut off my rucksack H Harness and began to move toward the runway. Stopping only every 10-15 meters to listen and try to get my bearings.
I was about 75 meters north of the Pan-American Highway, an east-west running road that bisects the runway that was arrayed north-south. Just about that time I saw a large vehicle through the trees moving from my left toward the runway. I reached for the LAW but realized that I had 75 meters of trees between the target and me and I couldn’t get a good shot at it. I began moving toward it when fire erupted from the other side of the road and stopped the vehicle. A SAW Gunner was engaging and eliminated the driver and stopped the tanker truck. I hit the ground as the rounds were headed in my direction and when they ceased, I began to move again towards the runway and a little shack I saw on my way down.
When I got closer to the runway the trees cleared a little and I saw some movement ahead and whispered the running password “BULLDOG” and was answered back to come in. I had run into a couple of guys from 3/75. They had a PDF soldier hog tied in the shack and were getting ready to move out to their assembly area. One of the voices sounded familiar so I asked his name, it was SGT Tom Gray, one of my Ranger buddies from Ranger school, small world huh?
From there I found several other guys from C Company so I moved out with my ad hoc fire team towards the assembly area. As we got closer I could hear fire coming from the wood-line but I had no clear direction so we just moved on to the assembly area. On the way we came across Doc Miller and PFC Patrick McElrath. Doc Miller was treating McElrath for a back injury sustained on the jump. Pat couldn’t feel his legs and the Doc suspected a broken back. Pat had actually severed his spinal cord and is now confined to a wheel chair. I stopped and told Pat he was going to be OK, and then we headed off again toward the assembly area.
When we reached the rest of the company only a few from my squad had made it there. My squad leader, SSG Shalala, the other team leader, SGT Westbrook was there. My two privates had been moved to the air land package and wouldn’t be in until the morning. I was missing SPC Sal Ditusa and nobody had heard anything about him. He had hit his head on the jump and was knocked unconscious. Sal woke up later and made his way to the assembly area about an hour and 45 minutes after the jump. We sat at the assembly area for an hour or so listening to the battle that was going on at the Bravo company objective as Attack helicopters flew racetracks overhead. You could hear the Ranger in the Sky, AC-130 Spectre, dealing death and destruction.
After a while we got orders to move down towards the beach and secure the houses down there. Noriega had several mansions down there and we were to move in and clear them. 3rd Platoon C-2/75 got to clear the nicest of all the mansions. Our objective was the guest mansion that was up hill from his mansion down closer to the beach. We approached the mansion just as dawn was breaking and encountered no PDF in the area. The next morning was spent improving our positions around that mansion and consolidating ammo.
The next few nights were spent in those shallow holes we had tried to dig in the rocky soil with less and less harassing fire from the PDF and the subsequent AC-130 return fire. After 3 days of holding these positions we were relieved in place by elements of the 7th Infantry Division (Light Fighters) and we recovered to Howard AFB and Ft Kobbe where we prepped for some follow on operations.
2/75 Ranger, Airland at Howard AFB
My new mission was to keep communications between aircraft for the troops in the back. They didn’t have enough parachutes to go around. One person in each C-130, 13 in all had to air land. I was one of them. That morning we loaded up and took off. The plane ride was an unbearable nap of the earth. Plenty of turbulence. I slept most of the way, but for others they could not. I tried not to look deep into anyone’s eyes. Our nerves were apparent.
As we received the 15-minute time warning I started getting weak in the stomach. There was a foul stench for a Ranger had puked.
By six minutes everyone was standing hooked up and ready to go. I was told to warn jumpers of a door bundle in the plane ahead and also the drop zone was very active. A hot DZ. I yelled it to everyone; they didn’t seem to care. I passed it on to the guys in front of me. They passed it on.
At 1 minute, I lifted a window cover slightly and peeked out. I saw city lights blacken by two white flashes (the Then 30 seconds, I peeked again, there were green tracers from antiaircraft fire coming up at us. A lot of it. I looked down as it lit up the drop zone. I could see treetops. We were only at about 450 feet.
GO! The jumpmaster screamed the green light was a moment of truth. I watched as everyone left me piling out of the jump doors. There was loud cracking and pinging as the aircraft was struck by gunfire. The last jumper fell down. It took him 10 seconds to get up. The red lights were on but he still ran for the door and jumped. He must have landed a couple of miles off course.
The jump was at 0100 hrs and we landed at Howard AFB around 0120. The air force crew chiefs didn’t like the fact Rangers had littered their aircraft with munitions. They had me secure it all. My ruck-sack was now getting closer to 200 pounds. I guarded the plane watching the wood line.
I watched as a fire engine was putting out an engine fire one plane had. There was also an ambulance there to pick up a crew chief and a jumper who were hit by gunfire. The crew were walking around counting out bullet holes on our plane. At least two dozen. The true “ah” was the tracer fire you could see filling the air over Panama City. Soon a truck took me to the hangar where they were treating the injured. I had to wait a few hours before an MH53 finally picked us up. We took the coast to Rio Hato. The dawn was coming. We started to receive gunfire from the tree line. The door gunner said we were out of their range but he started firing back anyway. Hot brass was bouncing off my leg. He was firing an M60. I wonder how John is?
As we landed I saw parachutes everywhere. There was plenty of damage. Cars were charred and anti aircraft guns lay blown apart. I sat at the base of a tree where SGT Debaere landed. There was an enemy soldier spraying him with an Uzi. He was stuck in the tree but managed to frag the enemy without getting hit. The airfield looked as though the smoke had just cleared.
A commandeered truck drove around the airstrip. A Ranger was in the back throwing refreshments and snacks seized from the local PX to all the Rangers walking around. I met up with my platoon. That’s when I first heard the news. PFC Price died on the jump. They found him with a broken static line and his reserve parachute open on his lap. A victim of the low jump altitude. There is no time for a reserve parachute when people were landing Bodies, Bodies, everywhere. I felt empty coping with the loss. Suddenly we heard gunshots within the perimeter. We went to check it out. In the tree line we found SGT Olivera who was still missing. I assisted the medics who started working on him. He had two sucking chest wounds, and I could see about one inch into his skull. A bullet had penetrated his helmet and stopped in his forehead. He was barely alive. We put him on a jeep heading straight for surgery. He had walked into an enemy ambush. They shot him in the back, then came up and shot him point blank in the head. He lived.
Next job, to pick up enemy soldiers’ bodies. We drove around on a beat up jeep with the chaplain and body bags. He would give their last rights and we would bag them. We loaded the bodies on the hood of the jeep and transport them to a consolidation point. Some of them were apparently mutilated*.
* Editor’s Note: Unconfirmed
MISSION 2: THE AMERICAN EMBASSY
It wasn’t over yet. We received orders to secure the American embassy. PDF were driving by shooting RPG’s at the embassy. The 3 marines guarding the ambassador and guests had only small arms and CS gas to defend it. We boarded four MH53’s and headed out. This was only an Alpha company mission.
We landed in the middle of Panama City among the towering buildings that looked tattered by aircraft fire. After I got down off the bird lying in the prone position, the bird began to take off, hesitated, and began to set down again. I felt the wind of the rear prop behind me and quickly rolled to the side in time to avoid being hit. The bird then took off. It was now silent.
We noticed in the tall buildings there were lights flashing in some rooms a sort of Morse code. We were aware sniper fire was possible. Then a rumbling sound only a tank could make. LAW’s were extended and ready. We saw an armored transport up ahead coming toward us. It was our ride. We loaded up and took it to the embassy. When we jumped off it stirred up the CS gas the marines had been using. My eyes began to burn. The perimeter was secured by morning and roadblocks set. I was in front of the building next to the embassy, using a 3-foot cinder block wall for cover.
The main road was open and cars were passing by. The worst was when a suspicious van up ahead suddenly slowed down, the side door opened and what liked like a rocket launcher stuck out. I warned others and we all focused our attention. As the van approached I yelled, “ITS O.K.” It was a news crew with a camera. They just drove by and filmed us.
The first three days sniper fire became a usual thing. I had a couple rounds crack over my head when I was resupplying a few positions. Our snipers cleared a few buildings and used the roof, mostly for sunbathing.
We are relieved and move to Howard AFB on Dec 27. There we receive a little R&R. We are allowed to call home for the first time. All calls are being screened for content. We are given a paper, which tells us what we can say about the operation. After letting my parents know everything was fine, and easing their nerves we had two more missions to do. Agua Buena, and Cheppo were close to the same. Mainly clearing small villages of radicals and weapons.
They took some of Noriega’s loot and paid people for munitions and weapons turn-ins. We had to search some houses but found nothing.
Most of the villagers loved us even before we handed out American propaganda. New Years came fast. The locals were partying it up.
On Jan 3 we all cheered as we heard of Noriega’s capture. With only a few old shotguns turned in and no real radical threat, we returned to Howard AFB on Jan 7.
On Jan 9 after debriefings and customs inspections we boarded a commercial aircraft to return home to a modified mini heroes welcome. We honored our fallen comrades with a funeral ceremony. PFC John Mark Price, and SPC Phillip S. Lear.
2/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
I was 22 at the time of the invasion. I enlisted in the military because my home area was economically depressed. I was a PFC with Weapons Squad, 1st Platoon, C/Co, 2/75. The funny thing was that I was having dinner with my in-laws when we got alerted. I remember saying something like this had better be a war or else I’ll start one. The dry runs we had in Florida benefited Head Quarters and the brass more then it did the platoons or squads.
I carried 500-600 M-60 rounds, 30 9mm with 2 mags and 2 frags in my ruck. Ammunition issue was like a big candy store. Rippies (RIP students) were in charge of distribution. Our rucks weighed around 100 lbs each, maybe 70 lbs. I left some stuff behind. My LBE had 6 quarts of water, 4 frags, 3 mags for the 9mm, 100 loose 9mm rounds, 6 mags of 5.56, some C-4 and a claymore.
The operations order before the ammo draw is still a blur. Rumor was that we expected 70% casualties. The enemy force was around 300 or so plus ZSUs.
I pretty much convinced myself that I would not be coming back. The events were so much greater then me. Bird 7 was mine and I heard a private say to the PL: “Hey sir, I hear this combat stuff is pretty dangerous.” My biggest fear was getting shot in the air – being helpless. It was a standard jump except for the tracers.
I landed in the top right hand quadrant on the map. I broke my right ankle in an unfinished posthole near some kind of small stockyard. I felt this painful snap but my adrenaline and visions of being shot while in harness kept me going. There was, at this time, no real fire fight going on. I spotted a parachute in a powerline about 30-40 feet away but saw no one around. I took off my gear, chambered a round and cut off the H-harness. I wanted to find another Ranger and eventually ended up with the Regimental Commander, Buck Kernan. We eventually split up.
Charlie Company was in reserve during the initial attack. It took me about 40-50 minutes to reach the assembly area. Enroute we formed a small cripple brigade to the collection points. There were little fire fights all over the airfield.
Eventually we moved toward Noriega’s beach-house. Sergeant Garcia threw a VCR through one of the windows so that I could have an unobstructed field of fire from the building. We set up a perimeter on the high ground later on. There was no significant resistance.
Wpns Sqd, 1st Plt, C/Co, 2/75
2/75 Ranger Medic, Rio Hato
I am writing this as seen and lived by a Ranger medic. My name is SFC Frank Morales and I made my second combat jump in Panama with the 2/75th Ranger Bn (Ft. Lewis, Wa.), I was SGT Morales back in 1989. My MOS is 91B (Combat Medic), while assigned to 2/75th Rangers my job was to perform as the Bn senior medic. Our Platoon Sergeant was SSG Jeffers. My job was to go wherever the PA (Physician’s Assistant) was called to work – I was to assist. SSG Jeffers would travel with the Bn doctor and assist him as needed. SSG Jeffers and I decided that we could be more Hooah by working as two units. As we went on deployments this worked better than we expected.
The events taking us to the Panama mission were like any other deployments we did. We deployed to one special location and rehearsed for the mission. Panama was not like Grenada; we didn’t know we were going to Grenada until we got recalled to Bn. Panama was a big plan and rehearsals (lots of them). We all knew our jobs and positions. I was one of only 12 soldiers in 2/75th that was about to make Ranger history, because this was going to be my second combat jump. I was a little afraid, because I knew what could happen! We loaded up at McChord AFB and headed to link up with the Regiment at Ft. Benning, Ga. It was good to see old friends, The doctor and PA talked to us and reviewed as much as we could from minor injuries to minor surgery. As Ranger medics, we had to be the best in the Army. Medics prepared with their companies and platoons. The PA and I talked as we prepared our equipment; the PA and I were recycled Rangers from the early 1980’s. We made a promise to cover each others’ back and to make it home alive! We got manifested onto a plane and waited for the word to load up.
Waiting is sometimes the worst time of any deployment.
Our mission was to jump into Rio Hato and help to secure the airfield so the follow-on planes with Rangers could land. As we got closer to the jump, everyone on board was saying the Ranger Creed and getting all fired up. When the loadmaster opened the doors it was dark and we could hear the bombs and see flashes. The time was here and we were making Ranger history again with our 500-foot jump. When I exited the door, all I could hear were the small arms firing and see flashes. I was thinking to myself “I hope I can land without getting hit!” When I jumped in to Grenada, my ruck was hit and I still have the two-quart with the bullet hole. 500 hundred feet is not high enough to check your main and drop your ruck, so I rode in my ruck again.
As soon as I hit the ground, I could hear a Ranger yelling for help, he rode in his M60 and had broken his right hip and leg. I pulled him off the runway and cut away his M60. There was also an Air Force Combat Control Team guy that broke his ankle, so the PA and I helped both of them. Once we had them stable, we moved on to check for more patients. We walked from one end of the runway to the other and it was a fast trip! We had to get to our position and help secure the runway.
I lost track of time because everything was moving so fast. By morning we had the airfield secured and were moving on to our next objective. Noriega’s beach-house was our objective and to secure anyone inside. We had to use a LAW to open the steel front doors of the house. Once inside we did our thing of clearing the rooms. In the kitchen there was food still hot on the stove and beer that was just opened. The conference room had shelves of movies and documentaries. It was a big room, the kind you would find in a big business. Once we cleared the house it was our job to look for any clues to Noriega’s location. There were pictures of him and leaders from different countries. The next day I went to help recover some of the bodies and to secure the EPW’s (Enemy Prisoners of War). While doing the recovery there were wild dogs eating some of the bodies. We had to chase them away by throwing things at them. As the days went on we (medics) were setting up to do medical treatment for the Rangers and the locals. The PA and I would drive to each platoon and check with the medic and soldiers. For the medics it was good on the job training.
One Ranger from A company got shot in the chest and was then shot in the head, but the bullet circled in his Kevlar. He was lucky! The Panamanians left him for dead, but when he saw there were Rangers close to his position he let it be known that he was alive. Once we had him in our aid station, SSG Jeffers put in a chest tube so he could breathe easier. At one location where B company had a blocking position they encountered some locals that had been drinking. The locals would drive up to their position and drive off and they continued this for a while. The Rangers asked to stop them if they continued and were given the okay. The locals continued to play this game until they got too close to the position, and the LAW was taken out. The only way to stop the truck was to use the LAW. Some of the guys from the SEAL team and Air Force Para rescue came up with a picture that said, “Don’t drink and drive around B company”. The cartoon had a picture of truck and a round from the LAW going in the front window and coming out the back window.
I was called to recover the bodies and remove the truck. There were only pieces of their bodies and most of the heads were gone. In Panama I did a lot of body recoveries and treated more locals for sick call then Grenada.
I’m maybe the only soldier with two combat jumps with novice wings and no Ranger Tab! I was known as the “tabless two”. I am very proud of my time with the Rangers and proud to be part of Ranger History.
SFC Frank Morales,
2/75th Ranger Bn 1980-1984 (Grenada) and 1988-1990 (Panama)
571st Medical Company (AA)
Fort Carson, CO
2/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
My girlfriend and I were on our way to Seattle when my pager went off. We were on RRF1 (No further than two hours away from battalion), so I turned around and headed back to the barracks not knowing what to expect. Maybe just a formation, 12 mile roadmarch, and hopefully not a deployment.
When I arrived at battalion everyone else was starting to come in, and, of course, a couple of the boys were a bit loaded (per standard). We were told we were going on a 3 week deployment to Ft. Bliss, Texas. We all got our gear together and headed to McChord AFB to load the planes. After about a 4 hour flight, we arrived at the airfield in Benning and noticed the hangers were full of ammo and the spec-op jeeps were ready for war. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were not going to Ft. Bliss.
Within a couple hours of being at Benning, our P.L. held up a picture of Manuel Noriega and informed us that within the next 18 hours we hope to have this man in our custody. Over the next few hours the op-orders and preparation had begun for us to go to combat. The fact that we were going to war was slowly starting to sink in.
We had all definitely trained for this moment and it was time to find out if we had trained hard enough. It was a very strange feeling watching some of the guys writing letters to their wives or significant others telling them their feelings in case they never saw each other again. One thing kept coming to my mind, and that was the fact that I was going to another country where people were going to do their best to kill me and all my fellow soldiers. That is a very strange feeling and I can still remember it very well to this day. We all loaded our standard gear and ammo for our positions and they told us to come back for seconds if we wanted more ammo, grenades, laws, etc… I took full advantage of this. We then loaded the planes and took off. It was about a 7 hour flight, which meant in-flight rigging. We were receiving intel during the flight regarding the condition of the DZ.
About a half an hour out our plane began to recite the Ranger Creed to get everyone mentally focused on the mission. At about one minute out I had to take a knee, because my ruck weighed so much I could barely stand. With a few seconds before the green light I looked out the door into the night and noticed the tracer filled sky and realized this is no training mission. All the sudden a round penetrated the skin of the aircraft and hit a jumper in the ass a few behind me. They cut his static line and pushed him off to the side. The green light came on and out we went. I had a great exit and found some grass to land on the leading edge of Rio Hato airfield for a surprisingly soft landing. From that point on we just executed everything as planned.
My A.G. landed right next to me and we took off our chutes and went to the prone. I immediately noticed a fellow Ranger (Solewin) who was flying down the runway towards the Panamanians, because he could not get either one of his risers undone. I immediately chased him down and dove on top of him. I then took my took out my knife and slashed his risers so his chute could lose wind.
From that point we began to hook up with fellow rangers and formed wedges on the way to our positions. Once at our positions, It felt like it was just another live fire training mission. I know that sounds strange, but when you train as if you¹re in combat all the time, the actual thing almost feels second hand. I guess that’s a credit to all of our hard training.
We completely dominated the PDF and the Macho de Monte (Panama’s version of special forces) with our superior trained soldiers and firepower. We had Rio Hato secured a lot sooner than expected to bring on the ground troops.
The next morning our C.O. volunteered our company to guard the American Embassy. We flew into Panama City via helicopters and loaded ourselves into APC’s. They then dropped us off near the Embassy where we established a perimeter. We spent the next couple days there with a few heavy fire fights, but eventually secured the area. One thing that sticks in my mind during our stay around the Embassy is the sermon that the chaplain gave on Christmas morning. He compared our invasion to Santa delivering gifts on Christmas. The C-130’s flew over the country dropping us into the sky as Santa would do dropping presents from the sky. We were the presents to the citizens of Panama.
We conducted a few other missions, but the first five days were the real meat of the mission. I know some critics might say “was the invasion necessary?” For those critics I will say this – if they could see the faces of those citizens of Panama and see how happy they were to see us, they would have no doubt in their minds that this was a “Just Cause.”
3/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
Our squad, Weapons Squad, 2nd Platoon, A Co., 3/75 Ranger Regiment, stood in a loose semi-circle, hanging on every word that our acting Squad Leader Specialist J.M. said. Had a new mission, our first after the jump into Rio Hato. M. took over the squad when our regular squad leader was seriously injured on the jump in. As he went over the mission and I took notes, two things stood out. One, that the op order called for us to do a fast-rope insertion under fire and two, if anything happened to the SL, I would be the man on the hot seat — responsible for 10 other Rangers since I was the next senior E-4 M-60 gunner.
The mission was simple. It seems like they always say that when things are about to go to shit. Elements of A Co, 3/75th and Delta were to assault the Penonome Prison, secure selected political prisoners and exfil. A Co would set up blocking positions and secure the perimeter, while the D-Boys kicked in doors, blew shit up, exfilled first and covered themselves in glory, while we laid in some Panamanian farmer’s shit-filled goat pen covering their asses.
Penonome Prison had high stone walls in a square configuration with large guard towers at each corner. Picture a French Foreign Legion fort in the middle of the desert and that’s Penonome. According to Intel the prison contained 35-50 guards with small arms, pistols, M-16’s, AK-47’s. Each tower mounted an M-60 GPM and two guards. This was particularly worrisome since our Black Hawk was going to insert us roughly 200 meters from the prison walls between two of the guard towers. I wondered if the chain of command knew what the word cross-fire meant. Oh, that’s right, they wouldn’t be riding on my bird. The plan said that TF 160 gunners on the Black Hawks would use their Mini-guns to neutralize the towers. We also would have Spectre to support us. My specific mission was to take my gun-team, myself and my AG PFC S.M., down a road running up to the prison and set up the gun.
Let’s get back to this fast-roping thing again. Have you ever watched Discovery Channel’s weekly SEAL Team documentary when they fast rope? It’s about a 60-footer. There is one guy at a time on the rope and each one lands daintily on his feet and jogs off before the next man slides down. At 3rd Batt things were done a bit differently. A 60 foot fast-rope usually had 5 or 6 guys on the rope at a time and 5 or 6 guys in a dogpile at the bottom of the rope. At this time I had done probably 10 fast-ropes and I don’t recall ever landing on my feet and running off. Crawling more like it.
About an hour prior to our lead-time word was passed down that the SOUTHCOM Commander had called the prison Commandant and told him that his BOYS were going to kick his ass tonight if he didn’t release the political prisoners. These were guys who were the heart and soul of a future democratic government of Panama. What a load of crap — more likely they were stupid and wanted more of Noriega’s piece of the pie and got busted. To this day I don’t know if that call was actually made or was rumor control in action?
Lead-time. Oh shit, this is the real deal. Here comes that strange mix of fear, adrenaline and sick excitement that sits in the pit of your stomach. I can’t remember if I volunteered to go down the rope first or if I was told to. We had about a 45 minute flight. I sat with my M-60 and feet hanging out of the bird. Hauling ass at low-level with my knees in the breeze was probably my favorite thing to do in the Army. Tonight it wasn’t. We flew over the town of Penonome. “Two minutes”, came the shouted warning. I looked over to M., got a thumbs-up, checked the gun one last time, and slid my ass a few more inches out of the bird. I tried to look forward to see if any fireworks were appearing at the prison. Couldn’t see crap. Suddenly everyone is shouting, “Cold LZ, air-land, air-land, the prison’s empty.”
The bird landed, we bailed out and did a quick huddle with the Boss. He pointed down the road and off we went. We approached a bend in the road and decided to set up the gun. I looked around and realized that we were probably about 30 meters out in front of the rest of the platoon. Oh shit, maybe we should pull back? So we backed up, set the gun up in a nice little 3 inch ditch next to the road. Cut a hole in some poor farmer’s goat corral fence, so if trouble came down the road we could boogie off into the jungle. After around 30 minutes we picked up and headed inside the prison. A beautiful third world prison shit-hole. We hung out in the court yard for awhile, awaiting the exfil aircraft. Finally the birds arrived. We loaded and flew off into the sunrise.
Today as I write this it’s been 10 years since this mission happened. Parts of it remain quite vivid to this day, other parts have faded to gray. Maybe it’s my selective memory, I don’t know. I remember back at Benning sitting around bull-shitting with the Boys — everyone talked about wishing that Penonome was a hot target. A combat fast-rope under fire, you could talk some serious shit after that. But I know secretly everyone was glad Penonome was a dry hole. I know I was.
Weapons Squad, 2nd Platoon, A Co., 3/75 Ranger Regiment
2/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
Everyone remember, this is how I remember the events of OPERATION JUST CAUSE. If anything appears incorrect, it is not intentional. It is how I remember it. Time and “The older I get, the better I was” syndrome may have skewed some memories.
The battalion had just returned from what would turn out to be JC rehearsals at Eglin AFB, and I don’t think we had been back but a couple, maybe a few hours when beepers started going off and telephones started ringing off the hook. It almost seemed surreal as it was hard to imagine we were finally going to get to do something. There was all the usual alert activity in the platoon AO, and I think we were told something about “Panama had taken an American serviceman” and roughed up his frau, and Bush had “Had all he could stands and he couldn’t stands no more”. Within hours pallets were built and the battalion was out in the quad for manifest call and trucking over to McChord AFB for a return trip to Ft. Benning.
Back at the army airfield at Benning, (the name escapes me right now), we occupied the same tents we had just left hours ago. I can’t remember the date. I guess this must have been the 18th. We were just kind of hanging out, filling each other with BS about how whooa we were, when the company orderly came around to all the tents saying the CO wanted fire team leaders and above in the company HQ tent. It was standing room only in the briefing tent, and LTC (then CPT) Okita was standing in front of some kind of whooa briefing board with maps and pictures on it.
I guess that was our warning/op order all rolled into one. I don’t remember getting any other briefings. When we went back to our tents we tried to get some shut eye, but I don’t think anyone got any real sleep. Dawn broke and we went to chow, the usual fare of bad eggs, cold flapjacks and grits for the Southerners. Mmm. Good eatin’.
We knew this was a no shitter because during chow the company XO handed out the cards and sandbags. Charlies real brave when he’s got cards and sandbags. No, I mean how this worked was if you were a SAW gunner, you got a 3×5 card or some shit with your basic load listed on it, 203 gunner, rifleman, whatever, same thing. Then you went to all the ammo stations and got your ammo from that point, bullets, frags, C4, whatever. Well, the cards were incomplete, like no HEDP for 203’s, etc.
It wasn’t long before someone figured out that the guys at the ammo points were just dumbass guys from RIP, and not only did they not know or care what we took, they barely knew what they were handing out, so DEC 19 was close enough to Christmas. Oh my god, it was a free for all. Guys were taking all they could carry plus 10 pounds. I personally had like 30 full M16 mags, a dozen frags, 6 pounds of C4, non-electric blasting caps, a couple of LAWs and God only knows what other BS. All I remember is my LBE was so heavy, on one patrol we were walking down a creek because the selva was so thick, and I fell in a hole and damn near didn’t come out. I was just ready to go into the shuck everything mode, when my slack man, Joe Straul, grabbed my LBE and hoisted me out. So much for the combat water survival test.
Anyway, I guess we just kind of milled around the airfield, Lawson, I think that’s it, and just waited until dark. I remember LTG (then COL) Kernan giving some kind of whooa speech, I think the RGMT Chaplain mumbled something, and then I guess we broke into chalks and did sustained. Tom Braaten from B co was our JM. I think we were Aircraft 6 or 7. Sustained went something like this: “If you don’t know what you are doing by now, sorry ’bout that”. I don’t think we did much more than that.
It was cold as hell and raining when we loaded the AC. They gave us wool blankets to wrap around ourselves while we waited to load. We had dumped pretty much all the RRF packing list out of our rucks and loaded all the ammo and crap we thought we would need. I don’t even remember guys taking extra uniforms. I think we were sure we would be back home in a few days. I don’t even remember having chow. Probably did though. It was a long flight from Benning in a C-130. We tried to sleep and just kind of chill. We used a 5 gallon water jug to pee in. Some time enroute, 1LT Bill Cross got on the PA and said they knew we were coming and we would have to fight our way off the DZ, probably take 70% casualties. Well whooa sir.
We in flight rigged and again Cross came over the PA and led us in the Ranger creed. When the door opened, Braaten did his door check and since I was #2 out the door, I stuck my gourd out the door to have a look around. We knew it was going to be a 500 ft drop. Contrary to whooa stories, I think everyone on my bird had a reserve, I know I did. With the raggedy old chutes we had I wasn’t taking any chances. Anyway, looking out the door, I remember seeing the white caps on the waves below, I remember looking forward towards Rio Hato and thinking how normal it looked. It looked just like if you were flying over Anytown, Anywhere at night. Then I saw an explosion in the distance ( I guess it was the stealth bombers war debut), then the whole area went dark.
What happened next always reminded me of those pictures from the gulf war of Baghdad. The whole sky filled with tracers. I watched the ocean give way to land as I could see the birds ahead of us draw fire. The planes that flew us down there were awesome. They were AFNG birds from West Virginia. Our pilot was a full bird NG guy. They never strayed off their course, even when the birds were taking a pounding. Awesome flying, sir.
As we were standing there getting ready to hit the breeze, the plane was taking a lot of hits, you could hear rounds hitting and feel stuff hitting your legs. I guess it was secondary frag or something from the rounds hitting, I don’t know, I just can’t believe more guys weren’t hit in the bird. It was funny, because the Air Force loadies, who on normal jumps seemed like they were in the way, were now cowering all the way in the tail sitting on a kevlar mat.
Anyway, we jumped out, everything was cool, except you could see PDF V-150’s cruising up and down the runway shooting up at the planes. I think I remember seeing about 4. I was in 2nd PLT, Aco, and I left the plane south of the Pan-Am highway, dang near right where the company assembly area was. It was a short drop to the ground and a quick harness jettison, ruck up and move out. A lot of guys threw ALOT of their shit on the ground, but I actually kept all mine. We jumped with our P- masks minus hoods in our cargo pockets. I know a lot of guys “lost those on the jump”. Several LAWs, AT-4’s and mortar rounds found their way into the jungle too. Whatever. Do what you think is best, guys.
We all had the 7th ID “rag top” on our kevlars, so ID was pretty easy, even at night. I just moved out up the runway, stopping to pull cover for Ranger buddies as they got out of their harness. I remember seeing one shadow come across the runway towards us as I was covering a guy. He didn’t have a “ragtop”. I yelled the password, I think it was “Bulldog”,(maybe that was a John Wayne movie, I can’t remember), at the shadow and did the whole “halt” thing, but he chose to keep advancing. “Sorry ’bout that, amigo”.
The thing that to this day impresses me most about JC, was that it was a total fire teamleader/squadleader fight. It was just Rangers linking up and moving out. Chances are the guys you linked up with and became a temporary fire team with weren’t even in your company, let alone platoon, yet everyone did their job and got where they were supposed to be without a lot of anal yelling by officers and senior NCO’s. Funny that some guys can think for themselves and do what is right.
At the A co assembly area, my squad linked up and headed to our OBJ. I was in 3rd squad of 2nd PLT, “The Blacksheep”. The squad consisted of SSG Randy Inman, squad leader. Joe Straul and I were fire team leaders, and then we had Brett Hilke, Curt Lovito, Bill Rose, and Victor Vicente. We had one more guy, Joe Jankouskas, but I was tasked back at Benning with choosing one of my guys to be scratched from the jump to make room for someone else. To this day I regret not telling the other guy to “F O”. I am sorry, Jag. We had part of our squads M60 team, Mike Gomez and Bill Rohac, but we were still missing the AG, Mark Price.
Believe it or not, I don’t remember much of the rest of the night. Our companies OBJ was an NCO academy, and we took that with no problem. I just remember seeing some cool stuff. I remember watching 2nd squad bounding up, illuminated by the flames of a burning car. “Pretty cool”, I thought. I remember as we were getting ready to clear a building and I was the number 1 man, when Inman said “Go, Fuhrman”, I pictured the entire PDF waiting behind the door for my dumb ass. Weird.
The night burned out, the sun came up, we were at Rio Hato and now we were tired. We were in a perimeter some where when we heard a shot. Turns out it was Lou Olivera, who had been ambushed the night before, trying to get Inman’s attention, as he was out doing a perimeter patrol. Randy said when he saw Lou, it just looked like he was chilling out on his ruck. I think Randy even said “what’s up Lou?”. If some of you guys never heard the Olivera story, you will have to find that yourself. I won’t contribute to, or tarnish the legend.
That taken care of, we got the word they found Price. I think they said his static line had been shot, or broke or something. I don’t think his chute even opened. When you read stories and someone dies, inevitably it is always followed up with what a grand fellow he was. Well guess what? Price was indeed. I knew him fairly well. Probably better than an E-5 should know an E-3 in the Rangers. One leave it was just pretty much him and I left in the barracks and we spent a lot of time down at the Goldfish and Stu’s quaffing ale and shooting pool. He could shoot pool like fish swim, and it was a good thing, cuz I really sucked. Even with me dragging him down, we could pretty much take all comers. Price really was a good Joe.
We hung around Rio Hato all day doing this and that, collecting war booty or what have you, and that night word came down we were getting on 47’s and flying to Panama City to guard the embassy. OK. When the birds let us off in PC, we didn’t know whether to shit or wind our watches. No one had told us anything. We were all in the prone in an open field in the middle of downtown, with all kinds of people standing on high rise balconies watching us, and we were all waiting for “snipers” to start shooting us, when the eerie sound of tread on blacktop could be heard.
We had been told the PDF had M113’s. When someone yelled “TRACKS!”, everyone broke out with LAWs and AT4’s. There was no place you could get where you wouldn’t be in someone’s back blast. I remember looking at the ass end of an AT4 thinking “this is really gonna suck”. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t shooting the tracks and I couldn’t understand why the tracks weren’t shooting us when the tracks pulled up right in front of us. I thought, “Man, it ain’t enough they’re gonna kill us, they’re gonna run us over too.” When a hatch popped and this black kid calmly pops up from the hatch and asked “Are y’all the Rangers?”. Whew. Talk about a rambling sentence. So I guess the tracks took us to the embassy where we set up a company perimeter over a couple block area. We set up checkpoints and would harass the Cubans as they were coming and going to and from their embassy. We would sing songs with some wino who hung out near us. We entertained some local kids. The ambassador from Uruguay or Paraguay had Christmas dinner in a parking garage for us. We stood up and stood down and stood up again every time some “source” told intel the DigBats were gonna attack. I think we spent 8 years doing that 1 week.
For some reason, someone decided we needed to see the country side, so we were airlifted to our new home. A paper plant near the village of Agua Bueno. We ran patrols there for awhile, winning hearts and minds, looking for bad guys and working on our Spanish. Some guy who probably came back to the states and became a politician decided that, “You know, If we pay these savages enough, and in real greenbacks, not Blebs, they will probably just bring us their guns”. I don’t know about implements of death, but I saw a few antiques pass through. Maybe a couple of CS grenades that some Joe decided was too heavy.
The cool part about this whole trip so far was we didn’t have any officer pestering us. Bill Cross was hurt on the jump in, so the PSG, Sherman Fuller, took over as PL, and “Diamond Dave” Debaere took over as PSG. That Fuller was a pretty funny muldoon. I remember when we were at the embassy, the press would always come and want to get through the perimeter. Of course we would tell them to go pound sand, and then they would start whining 1st amendment this, stifling the press that. Whatever. All I know is they were annoying, and no one told us how to deal with them. Well, this one hippie press dude tried this around Fuller and ole’ Sarge wasn’t having any of it. Fuller turned to Rueben Meraz and said, “Meraz, arrest that man!” Meraz’ eyes get real wide and he says, “Sergeant?????” Fuller spits some Copenhagen and says, “You heard me, arrest that man.” Well… they did. As the hippie was getting drug to the holding area, hands flexed cuffed behind his back, screaming at ole’ Sherm, Fuller, who had been in Grenada with the 82nd, pointed to the AA patch on his right shoulder and says to the hippie, ” Remember who did this to you”. That’s funny.
Well, we left Agua Bueno and flew to Chepo, where for some reason we were supposed to arrest all males of military age. Some one knew why I guess. We arrested one guy who had a horse, a poor miserable third world horse, but a horse none the less. I tied the horse up near our position and went back to watching for the French and Indians. By now it was pretty far into it, maybe 3 weeks, and in fact I think they had even made us turn our frags in and roll down our sleeves and “…get rid of those damn drive-on rags from around your neck!”
As I was sitting there scouring my hatchet, three Julio’s came around the corner on a tractor, saw our road block and turned down another road away from us. Someone yelled “get those guys”, so some fire team took off after them. I have never been one for running when I didn’t have to, but I like riding a broke horse every now and then. Spying ole’ paint leisurely grazing in the shade, I strode on over, swung a leg over this cabello, and moved out to head ’em off at the pass. If I thought what I was carrying was heavy, I think it was killing ole’ hoss. 180 lbs of whitey, plus 50-60 pounds of kit was dang near a little much for him. None the less, my posse caught the desperado campasinos, and we took them and tractor back to the pokey, which was a circle of concertina guarded by some dumb ass privates. I say dumb ass, because later in the day when someone decided, “oh, these are the wrong guys of military age”, and we let them go, one of the Pvt.’s damn near lopped off his hand trying to cut flex cuffs. The vicious Panamanians we had captured thought it was pretty funny when I came riding Jose’s horse back in with 3 of their pards, my chain of command thought it was less funny. Still, I knew I HAD to have looked like Clint.
Well, I guess the fun was about over. I think that was the last patrol or whatever we did. We were supposed to be in Chepo awhile, but were only there a few hours. From there we flew back to Howard AFB and stood down. We stayed in GP mediums on the football field, stole us some new uniforms as most of us had been wearing the same set for 3 or 4 weeks, went to see free movies at the post theater, “Damned River” I believe it was called. Yeah, they spared no expense entertain’ the troops. GEN. Downing gave us some whooa speech. When someone asked him why in the hell we were still there, Wayne A. said, “Look, over here I have the 82nd shooting each other. Over here I have the 7th ID shooting each other while cleaning their weapons. Who do you think I am gonna keep here?” Enough said I guess. We had fun watching those twits, 82nd and 7th ID that is. No, I am sure they did whatever they were supposed to do just fine. When we would get a crowd of Panamanian children around, we would draw a scroll in the dirt and go “WHOOA”. When they had mastered that Pavlov experiment, we would draw an 82nd and 7th ID patch and go “LEG”‘. Kids learn so quick.
Well, that is about all I remember of Just Cause. Other stuff might have happened, but I don’t remember. The last thing that sticks out in my mind is when we got back to Lewis and to the barracks, how annoying it was that all the guys families were there in the dayroom and platoon AO. This was my home, and all I wanted to do was crack a cool one, listen to some Zevon and shower, but all these people kept making noise and bugging me. Oh well, I guess they were just glad to see their Dads and husbands.
A Co, 2/75 86-90
2/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
I was a Marine prior to joining the Rangers. I was with Charlie Company, 3rd Platoon, during the assault on Rio Hato.
I participated in the Florida exercises prior to our deployment to Panama. I landed near a building and formed up with First Sergeant Arden’s mini-assembly area. We received some ground fire and it took about 15-20 minutes to pull into our company assembly area. We captured one EPW in skivvies and dog-tags.
The AA was manned by Sergeant Van Arsdale and his mortars. I informed him of our injured personnel. From there I moved to the platoon aa — total time elapsed around 30 minutes from the drop. My fire team, however, was missing.
On the way to our objective the lead platoon got lost in a ravine but we had no problems by-passing it with 3rd Platoon in the lead now. Everything seemed to be lit up and we expected serious resistance. We set up on high ground in the peninsula which provided us with a good view and cover to Noriega’s house on the beach. Some gear was found, it belonged to the Montes de Macho infantry unit. We secured everything to the east of Noriega’s house.
The two-story beach-house itself was taken down by 3rd Platoon, order of entrance was 2nd, 3rd and 1st squads. The steel reinforced wood gate was taken out by a LAW and we secured the floors. We took no prisoners.
The initial mission was good but once we were in-country we were just used like any other asset.
7th ID was firing at everything. They must have had the biggest fire fight ever.
McGuiness, C/Co, 2/75
3/75 Ranger, Rio Hato & Follow on Missions
1) Rio Hato: 2nd Platoon, A/Co, 3/75 was tasked to attack and occupy the PDF Cadet Academy at Rio Hato. The jump was a fucking madhouse. I am still not sure where I landed. I think it was above the lake. It took me 3 hours to link up with my platoon. They had already taken the objective and were moving the EPWs to a collection point. The cadets pretty much gave up and the cadre split for the woods. The next morning we still had about 10 guys from our Platoon who hadn’t linked up. We got mortared that morning by about 2 or 3 rounds about 100 yards behind our position (could have been 203 rounds and not 60mm).
2) Penonome Prison: 2nd Platoon mission was to provide security for a Delta force assault on the prison. My task was to set up a blocking position with an M-60 on a road leading up to the shit hole. This place was a fucking trip. Big stone walls about 15 feet high and a stone tower 20 feet high in each corner. The PDF were holding some political prisoners here that our government wanted free. AC-130 was to provide air cover. TF 160 flew us in. We were to fast-rope in and move to our position. Each tower had an M-60 GPMG and 3-5 PDF. TF 160 door gunners were supposed to take out the towers. Since I was the only one with a real weapon I was going down the rope first. The bird was going to hover between two towers with M-60s about 100 yards apart and I’m supposed to slide down that stupid fucking rope with two guns shooting at me? I was more scared thinking about that then the Rio Hato jump. And the icing on the cake — the SOUTHCOM Commander actually called the PDF prison commander and told him my BOYS are coming to kick your ass if you don’t surrender in 1 hour. Can you believe that stupid cocksucker? My platoon sergeant told us this as we were loading our birds – greatly increasing the pucker factor. About 1 minute from the target we learned they had surrendered and we were air-landing. I move to my blocking position, set up for about 30 minutes then reconsolidated. We got to spend the night lying on the floor of a cell in the prison. Fucking wonderful. (see detailed account)
3) David: Company sized airfield seizure. 2nd Platoon was to secure the fire station and set up blocking positions near airfield gate. The mission also called to locate and possibly capture Del Cid, the second man in Noriega’s government. Inserted by TF 160 Chinooks to a crowd of cheering Panamanians, about 2000 mudfuckers (I wonder if the SOUTHCOM CDR placed another call?). I set up our post and hung out. Two local chicks started bullshitting with 1st Squad to whom I was attached. We also had a local Civil Affairs interpreter with us. The highlight of our glorious mission was when a moped cruised by us real slow with two hard-asses aboard, checking us out. The chicks started yelling UESAT, UESAT (the PDF Delta force – see info image). They put the gas down and hauled, never did catch them. 7th SFGA was seriously wired into this town. They had done a lot of snooping and asset building. Another stroll in the park for the mighty 3/75. Boring.
4) Isla de Coiba: The fantasy island mission. This was another PDF prison. Our objective was to secure the prison and free about 30 politicos who had participated in the recent coup against Noriega. TF 160 Chinooks and AF MH-53 (they must have been bored) inserted us. No action. The Shark Platoon all swam away. Another snoozer.
3/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
I was on the pay phone when the alert came. It was Sunday night, December 17, 1989 and I was talking to my parents. Using the pay phones was always a pain, you had to wait in line, and it gets cold in Georgia, even southern Georgia, in December. I finished my conversation and hung up. That’s when I knew we had gotten alerted. There wasn’t anyone left at the bank of phones.
Not many of the memories seem as if they were yesterday to me. I find it really hard to recall most of the nuances of feeling that I know I was experiencing as we spent the next three days preparing to go to war. I know I wrote a letter to my family (all of us did) in case I didn’t make it back. Most of us spent the time alone inside ourselves. I do remember some of us sneaking out of the compound to our little PX branch to buy some tobacco. We bought all they had, but others had beaten us to most of it. There aren’t too many original ideas in a Ranger Battalion.
The day finally came and we went to the airfield. It was some kind of cold, maybe in the high 20’s and sleeting off and on. They had so much ammo laid on for us, it was almost beyond belief. They gave us a basic load list (much more than what the books call for) and then came back later and told us other things to add to the list. Then they came back a third time and told us to take anything else we thought we might need or want. We moved from the pack tray shed where the ammo was to a hanger sometime around dusk. We were given wool army blankets and served some thin lukewarm soup. Quite a far cry from the hearty meals they gave to the WWII GI’s before D-Day.
It was finally time to load up. I was my platoon sergeant’s RTO (technically the PL’s RTO, but we didn’t have a lieutenant) so I followed him around. We shook a few hands and wished them good luck. I remember the last guy we stopped and talked to was SSG Barnard. It was the last time I would see him and I may be the last person he ever shook hands with. “64 Rangers on a one-way trip” may be a cool cadence, but in reality sixty-four guys jammed in the back of a C-130, who are all fear sweating and farting, doesn’t even resemble the same universe that has me sitting in my La-Z-Boy watching TV.
Once on the plane and alone in the noise with my thoughts, I started to feel pretty nervous. I was next to the last man on the outboard side of my stick. The man sitting next to me was a Grenada Raider vet. He was the current 3rd Battalion XO, who later came back as Battalion CO. He was one of (I believe) 9 people who made the jump in ’83 and again in Panama. I guess he could tell I was nervous, because he started talking to me. I felt a lot better afterward and slept for the next three hours.
Every aircraft did things differently, it was up to the jumpmasters and crew chiefs. Some put their chutes and rucks on before boarding. We, however, chuted up and carried our rucks onboard. About thirty minutes out, we hooked up our rucks and equipment. Everybody tried to help everyone else but there wasn’t any room. The guy in front of me in the chalk was our platoon medic and in front of him was my platoon sergeant. The medic was pretty new and a small guy to bat. He was about 5’7″ and weighed about 140lbs. For some reason or other he was carrying his mountain ruck instead of the regular one. For obvious reasons he was never able to get his ruck hooked up correctly and it was dragging the floor between his feet.
We stood waiting to jump for what seemed to be an eternity. Almost everyone around me was eventually bending over at the waist trying to rest his ruck on the deck of the bird (static line control be damned.) Everybody’s ruck was a lot heavier than what we carried in training. This is one of the few times when it was truly good to be a mortar maggot. We were used to carrying weight (although not quite that much) and I believe some of the line doggies really suffered.
The plane was bobbing and weaving pretty good and then I was sure we must be really close to the DZ. There was a big thump that felt like it came from right underneath my right foot. I knew right away we were taking fire. We had been standing for so long with the weight that both my legs were numb, and I wasn’t real sure if I was hit or not (funny the things that go through your mind.) I managed to get a look at my boot somehow and it was still there. That and the fact that I didn’t fall left me pretty sure that I was okay. The stick started to move pretty quickly after that, or at least everyone in front of the medic was moving. His ruck somehow managed to get through his legs and was dragging the deck behind him. We made it up to the wheel well with me pushing him and then he fell down. Adrenaline took over at that point, with my First Sergeant behind me trying to drop kick him out the door, I reached down, grabbed him up and threw him at the door. He hit the edge and bounced off and fell down again. So we did an instant replay, First Sergeant kicking and me throwing. This time he was out the door and then I was too.
There were red tracers arcing up at me all the way down. I wasn’t too keyed up about that, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Hoping that they missed was a much better alternative than cutting away, at least that’s how I saw it. I wasn’t in the air all that long but I did have time to lower my rack. I did not want to land with that thing on my lap. I’d done far too many feet-ass-head PLF’s. It was still a very hard landing with me doing my usual impression of a bag of shit. My weapons case was underneath me and I couldn’t get to it right at that moment due to a string of tracers cracking over my head at about two feet off the ground. I can remember thinking that if I put my hand up I could touch them, but reason won out. It turns out my chute had hung up in a small tree behind me giving them a great reference point to fire at. I continued to stay low as I cut out of my harness. I learned that lesson very quickly and cheaply.
I gathered up all my equipment and moved away from the spot in front of my chute. I was a little disoriented at the time and there wasn’t anyone near by. I finally linked up with several people I knew (one was our medic) and we started moving toward the Rio Hato airfield. We were somewhere between three and five klicks out. I guess just because some knucklehead falls down doesn’t mean the bird stops flying. Somehow all of us together in our little group of about five or so were B/3/75. One of the guys, he was in second platoon and from north Georgia, eyes as big as twin mortar baseplates and with a smile to match, put his nose about an inch from mine and in his cracker drawl uttered the truest words I’ve ever heard. “HOOO-FUCKIN-WAH” he said. I just grinned back at him.
As we moved out, we all realized just how heavy our rucks really were. We’d be at a distinct disadvantage if we ran into a large group and had to run and fight. The alternative was to throw some shit away, but the thought never crossed my mind. I wanted all I had, just in case. Better to have and not need than to need and not have. I found out much later that one guy had indeed gotten rid of his after he hit the ground. He was a staff sergeant and a section leader. He left for other climes after we made it back to the battalion AO.
There’s no way to describe what carrying 125lbs is like when its 85 degrees at 0200 with about 85% humidity. Let’s just say it kicks your ass, muy pronto, without even factoring in the fear and excitement.
All of us in our little squad are doing it though, all the way, taking a knee at our frequent stops, pulling security, noise and light discipline, everything we were trained to do. Everybody was doing what they were supposed to do, everybody but one guy (two if you count the SSG, but I didn’t know that then.) The medic was flopping every time we stopped. He wouldn’t pull security and would either fall asleep or sit there and cry or whine. Being the high speed, low drag Ranger PFC that I was and since we were both in the same platoon, I felt responsible for his young ass. I told him three or four times to tighten it up and get his shit together. That’s when he started whining about not being able to carry his aid bag any longer and said he was going to throw it away. That’s when my patience with him ran out. I butt stroked him as hard as I could on his K-pot (too bad I was carrying a Car-15 or I might could have done some damage. I jerked him up off the ground and put my mouth to his ear and whispered to him, if you don’t get your shit together I’m going to leave you here and if you even mention dumping your aid bag again I’ll kill you. He was a model soldier from then on out, at least until I lost him later at the airfield. He got sent to the battalion aid station to help with the wounded. I don’t know how he did then, but he wasn’t my responsibility any more.
We linked up with our heavy drop about a klick from the airfield and caught a ride on the gun jeeps the rest of the way in. That’s when I saw a scene that looked as if it came from a movie. Our battalion chaplain had jumped in with us, only he jumped without a weapon. In my book, that made him more than crazy enough to be a Ranger. He had jumped in an American flag and he was on top of the large stone arch entrance to the airfield planting the flag. There weren’t just tons and tons of tracers flying past him as he did it, but it was still something that gives me goose bumps every time I think about it. The gun jeeps dropped us off near the company CP (this is when I lost the medic.) By now the moon had set and it was pitch black. There was another guy from mortars that showed up about the same time and we asked directions to the guns. We could barely see twenty feet in the direction he pointed, but we started moving that direction. I was pretty paranoid about getting popped by our guys so we ended up stopping right away. I figured if I couldn’t see they probably couldn’t either. We flopped down next to each other facing in different directions and pulled security in opposite directions for the rest of the night. When it was light enough to see we found the guns and some of the other guys, the rest struggled in pretty soon after us.
The Rangers really kicked ass down there and for the most part everyone performed as we were trained to. It wasn’t the hottest place anyone’s ever been, but we started landing aircraft just after it was full daylight. That means that we had occupied every objective and had every blocking position in place within about five hours. I feel pretty lucky about the whole experience. I jumped in under direct (although ineffective) fire, and survived it intact. I didn’t have to battle never ending human wave attacks, i.e., fire my weapon until I was out of ammo, use it like a club until it was useless, grab my e-tool, swing it until I bled out and then wake up dead the next day with my cock and balls stuffed in my mouth. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Name withheld by request, B/Co, 3/75
3/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
I was recently approached by the 75th Ranger Regiment Association and was asked if I would be willing to put on paper some of my thoughts and memories on the Panama experience. I explained that I was somewhat hesitant to put anything down on paper for the general viewing public. I am, as my good friend Ken Pitts (Aco 3-75) likes to call me, a “tab-less bitch” and didn’t feel as though I had the right to tell the stories.
Later, an interesting thing happened to me not so long ago while I was attending Pathfinder school at Ft. Benning for the Massachusetts National Guard. I was talking with SSG Davis from HHC 1st Batt and he strongly encouraged me to put my story on paper and that despite not having a tab I was still a Ranger and had lived the Life. And then another interesting thing happened. We were out rehearsing setting up a VIRS drop zone and we had some downtime so everyone naturally began telling their war stories that they had compiled up over the years. When much to my shock and amazement one of the students in my section began telling a story about what had happened to him when he was in Panama. His name is SSG______ and he is currently assigned as an instructor over at the School of America’s on Ft. Benning, and he began to tell a story of how the U.S. blocking positions were supposed to stop all vehicles to include emergency and support vehicles. And so he goes on to tell us that he was a part of a blocking position at Rio Hato and that a fire truck came up over the Pan-American Highway and he and some others tried to stop it but it wouldn’t stop and so they lit it up and killed all of the people in the vehicle. He then goes on to say that they went up there and cut off ears and took the emergency I.D. badges off of these dead people and were showing them off as trophy’s. Well, I finally asked him where this was again, wanting to make sure that we were thinking of the same place. And he reassured me that it was at Rio Hato and that it was a real fire truck. Well that was about all I could take. I advised him that I was there and that I was a part of the actual fire-fight that he was talking about and that I certainly didn’t recall his being there or even that the fact’s of his story were even remotely close to the truth. Well, you should have seen his face. It was priceless. So, I then went on to explain the real story.
What I have written below is exactly as I remember it. This story is incomplete as I started it while I was in college at UMass and I haven’t picked it up and worked on it in a while. To some, this re-telling may seem a little simple; lacking many details and intricacies that make the event so vivid in our minds. Please keep in mind that this started off simply as a rough draft and wasn’t meant for public viewing. Some of the things that I re-call may seem a bit unrealistic and extreme. Don’t forget, Rangers can be a bit unrealistic and extreme people. I hope that you all enjoy it.
It was on a Sunday in December back in 1989. We had just returned from Florida on routine training on JCT. We were on alert status four (RRF1), which meant that we could not leave a fifty-mile radius from base.
My friend and I had just returned from Blockbuster video after renting the movie “Apocalypse Now”. Since it was Sunday, we were of course drinking water and dipping Copenhagen, which was our usual routine on Sunday’s. Another of our routines was to get our hair cut to a high and tight, which was Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in a Ranger Battalion.
I suppose it was around eight o’clock when we were alerted. Of course nobody took it seriously at first, since like I said, we had just returned from Florida and it was not routine to alert us so soon after being redeployed. However, we would soon find out that this was the real thing.
When we were at first alerted, everybody came out into the halls and started yelling at the Charge of Quarters (CQ) to shut up; that this was a bad joke and nobody thought that it was very funny. But after a couple of minutes, when the Noncommissioned Officers (NCO’s) started coming out into the halls, then everyone started to take it seriously. I still hadn’t gotten my hair cut yet. I was going to wait until after the movie and then have my friend cut it. So, my team leader, Sergeant Bob Curtin, came down to my room and told us to get ready and he would cut my hair if I would cut his. After the haircuts were all taken care of, we then started to get our gear together and ready to go. Nobody was sure yet if this was the real thing or not. There was a lot of speculation on what was going on. If this was the real thing we did not know how to take it. Of course, as you can probably guess, there were those that assumed the posture of the bad asses. How, when they got into combat, they would kick ass and nobody would fuck with them. They were going to cut off the enemy’s ears and bring them back home as souvenirs. And then there were those, like myself, who were just scared. We were only 19, so it was logical that we were all scared. They locked us in the barracks for three days without anyone coming or going. We were not allowed to get much sleep due to the fact that there was just so much to do. People were constantly being detailed out to go load ammunition for our resupply later on. I think that they were planning on this lasting a lot longer than it actually did. After three days of little sleep and since nobody could leave, we were dead tired and almost out of Copenhagen. I swear, if we were ever in that situation again, somehow we would find a way to get someone out to get some Copenhagen. You really need it to calm the nerves and to keep you awake.
On the third day, they finally took us down to Lawson Army Airfield where they had twenty C-130 airplanes waiting for us. It was the most impressive sight that I’ve ever seen.
When we got there, we were issued our parachutes and then later we were issued two basic loads of ammunition. Of course after that, we were allowed to take whatever we wanted. So of course in fear, we loaded up with whatever and as much as we could. (I would later realize that we didn’t need all that we took. However, that would go against one of my laws to live by, which says, “Better to have and not need, than to need and not have.” So after we had all the ammunition that we wanted, I would guess that our rucksacks probably weighed about 110 pounds. Which was not a lot more than we were used to carrying, but it was a lot.
Since it was almost Christmas, most of us wrote “Merry X-mass motherfucker” on our grenades and 203 rounds. I guess it was a way for us to relieve some of our anxiety about going to war. Let alone, it was only a couple of days before Christmas, since on that day it was December 19th, 1989.
While we were waiting to load up on the birds, the chaplain of course held a couple of small sermons and prayer meetings. Everyone was religious on that day. It was almost hypocritical I think, but at least it did finally bring some people closer to God. Better that way than not at all. Sergeant Major Guererro then gave a speech as well. He called the battalions together in one mass formation and from the top of one of those mobile staircases that civilians use to exit the planes, he made one of the most profound speeches that I have ever heard. I just remember being such amazement of this man up there above me talking in such a powerful and booming voice. It were as if God himself were talking to us and telling us how great we are and how we would valiantly defeat the enemy and that we were a part of a great Ranger history and lineage. It was absolutely amazing. Around five o’clock we finally loaded the birds. It was a cold and dismal day on Fort Benning. It had been raining most of the day, and when it did let up, it always drizzled. Since our rucksacks were so heavy and since the birds were so far away, they loaded us onto those civilian baggage carts that you see in the airports taking luggage to the civilian planes. I was happy because it really would have been a long walk with a lot of weight. I remember one kid trying to get on the bird and he could barely walk due to the weight on his back. My squad leader, Staff Sergeant Wentland, asked him his name and who his squad leader was so that he could go and tell him that this soldier had too much weight in his rucksack. However, my squad leader couldn’t find him.
Finally we were all on the planes. The flight was going to last for at least six hours, so they told us to get some sleep. It seemed like most people had no trouble going to sleep, but there was no way that I could. When I eventually did, we were only about three hours from our destination, and when they woke us up, I had the hardest time staying awake. We finally put camouflage on our faces. Usually I tried to slack on this, but this time I caked it on like there was no tomorrow. More or less because if I didn’t, I felt like there definitely would be no tomorrow.
Doing small things like that helps a lot. It helped to take your mind off of what was just about to take place and it also helped to keep you alive. Everyone was still scared when we were about to jump, so someone started reciting the Ranger creed (which is a lot like saying the Lords prayer). It seemed to help a lot because I certainly felt much better than I had before.
Now C-130’s are only prepared to handle sixty-four jumpers, and if I’m not mistaken, we had loaded many more than that. Even if we didn’t, it sure seemed like it. When we finally all stood up to jump, I got pushed into the little hallway that leads to the cockpit upstairs. Needless to say, I got stuck and couldn’t get out. After about thirty seconds of fighting with my gear and the benches, I finally freed myself from the trap. I say that it only took thirty seconds, but I’ll tell you that it felt like an eternity. Words cannot express the frustration and anger that I felt by not being able to remove myself from the hallway. When I finally did get loose, everyone had already jumped except for the two guys in front of me. So I ran to the door with my static line fully extended and rammed into the guy in front of me who pushed the guy in front of him out the door of the plane. Then he jumped, and I followed right behind him. Like I said, my static line was fully extended, so I had no control over where it was. When I jumped it ended up being under my arm. It was a good thing that I was in a loose body position or otherwise I would have lost an arm or worse than that, I would have been a towed jumper; and we don’t want that. We only jumped from five hundred feet, whereas, we normally jumped from twelve hundred. However, it still seemed like forever to hit the ground. Especially with all those tracers coming up towards you while you were in the air, defenseless. I would later find out that some people got shot in the plane and my friend, Jay Foxe, was grazed in the neck while he was coming down.
When I finally landed, I was way off course. I had landed way out in the jungle, and not even close to where I was supposed to be. Fortunately, we had been trained for such contingencies, so this was only a minor problem. I was still very scared however, and when I landed, I immediately began to cut my way out of my parachute. It should be noted that this was the wrong course of action, I should have gotten my weapon into action first, and then worry about my parachute. Considering the circumstances, I felt that my weapon would do me no good if I couldn’t move to use it.
When I finally got out of my chute and went to put on my rucksack, it was so heavy that every little bump that I hit I fell over. I just had a hard time keeping my balance. After moving for only about one hundred meters, I made contact with the enemy. I had just reached an area that was covered with straw huts, which I thought was somewhat ironic, since when we were in training I had asked about the types of buildings that we would be encountering. They assured us that all of the buildings were somewhat modern and made of concrete. So I had just reached these huts when I began to take fire. I immediately hit the dirt and began to low crawl behind the huts. I really didn’t have any other choice due to the extreme weight of my rucksack. When I reached the corner of one of the huts, I returned fire and then waited for about five minutes. When no fire was returned back, I got up and again started to move out. I assumed that I either shot the enemy or he left, due to the fact that no return fire was received.
Two hundred meters later, I made contact with an element from the 2nd Ranger Battalion. They told me exactly where I was and which was the best direction that I should take in order to get where I was going. After leaving them, I linked up with Command Sergeant Major Leon Guererro. He was the Sergeant Major of the Ranger Regiment at the time. I felt much safer being with him since he was a chiseled old fuck who had been around the block more than once and he was an NCO. While we were moving, we saw in the distance many fire fights being waged. One of which was around, what we thought at the time, was fuel tanker/truck. I told him that I would have no problem placing a 203 round on the target, but he told me to hold off since the situation seemed to be well in control of the Ranger’s who were already engaging the target. After observing the fight for some time, we continued to move out in the same direction. Once we reached the Pan American Highway, which was no larger than your average back road, I told him that I had to go link up with my platoon.
I was part of the runway clearing team for the mission and it was vital that I got there as soon as possible in order to clear the runway fast. The faster that we cleared the runway, the sooner that our C-130’s could land to resupply us and bring in more men. Of these resupplies and men included, the jeeps and bikes required to set up blocking positions. These blocking positions were set up on the perimeter of the airfield to establish security. He bid me good luck and I moved out. No sooner than I had left that I was in the headlights of an enemy car and I was fully exposed. I ran immediately from the road and hit the dirt where about ten other Rangers greeted me.
We had just settled in behind our rucks when a car came into full view and began to shoot small arms fire at us from the vehicle. I believe that it was SGT Shipley who engaged it first with a LAW. We could hear him yell out, “Back blast area clear” and people scrambled out from behind him. The rocket hit the front of the car in the grill and I’m not quite sure if it actually went off since there was no explosion. I assume that since there was none that quite possibly the car was to close for the rocket to arm itself. Either that or I guess that he just plain missed. At any rate, the car came to a complete stop and we immediately engaged the vehicle and basically disposed of it within thirty seconds. One of the NCO’s there called a cease-fire and he and two other men went to check it out. Once they were there, they called back to us for some help and at once I got up and ran to them. I had already dropped my ruck when we had engaged the vehicle so it was no problem to run.
When I got to the car what I saw it was a mess. There were six people in the car. Two men about eighteen years old in the back with a woman who was also about eighteen. In the front there was an older man driving whom was maybe in his early thirty’s and a woman in the passenger seat who was about the same age as the driver. She had a little girl sitting in her lap who was probably younger than five. Now begins the mess that I saw. The girl in the back seat of the car was shot up the worse. There was no way to help her at that point. Even if she was in the hospital right then it would probably still have been too late. She was trying to moan I guess you might say. Except that the only thing that came out were quiet whispers. One of the men in the back kept screaming “Mi novia, Mi novia”. Which in Spanish means “My girlfriend”. The man in the front had already gotten out of the car and so had the woman with the little girl. The little girl kept crying even though we tried to talk to her in calm voices. The driver, who also understood some English, also was trying to calm her down but it wouldn’t do any good. The little girl, from what I saw, only had blood on her hands. But I later found out that she had sustained enough injuries to cause her death. This did not set well with me for sometime since I was part of the group that had caused her death. However, they did begin to shoot at us first.
I spoke with my father sometime after that and told him of the incident. He reassured me that it was O.K.. He too had been in a similar incident where someone had died due to a serious mistake in judgment. In his case however, the death was a result of a lack in communication.
My father was a medic in Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group where it was common for the medics to treat many of the people from the civilian sector. He was treating a young girl who had come in because somehow she had contracted malaria and was in some serious need of treatment. When she came in, she was seen by one of the military doctors and admitted for observation and treatment. However, the treatment that she was receiving was not acceptable to her body and as a result she had an allergic reaction. When my father noticed this he immediately reported it to the doctor that was assigned to take care of the girl. The doctor, in all of his self proclaimed glory, responded by saying that my father was to young to be questioning the treatment that was prescribed by him and that what my father thought was an allergic reaction was actually the malaria acting in response to the treatment. Needless to say, my father was ordered to continue administering the treatment no matter what the symptoms looked like. My father did as he was ordered and as a result, the girl was found dead the following morning. So much for officers.
Immediately after the people began to get out of the car and the area was secured, some of the CCT guys from the Air Force came onto the scene. They were quite helpful in that they could translate the Spanish and we could remove the civilians from the area. It turned out that the driver of the car claimed to be a fireman and that he was just trying to go and assist in a fire that was nearby. That story would have been plausible except for the fact that there were three RPG’s found within the trunk of his car.
From there I continued on to link up with the rest of my platoon so that we could complete the mission that we were supposed to do. It turns out that I was one of the very first guys there, which was somewhat unusual due to the fact that my squad leader always came in first and I was usually one of the last guys to arrive. At any rate, since I was one of the first to link up with the platoon, I was sent over to assist at the battalion aid station with any of the casualties that might have been sustained during and after the jump. As it turned out there was one soldier from 2nd Battalion who had broken his leg during the jump and was in dire need of attention since he couldn’t walk and he was still on the runway. We had no sooner reached him and began giving assistance than the first birds began to arrive. In fact, while we were carrying him off of the runway the first bird landed and its wing went directly over us. Finally we got him to the aid station where he could be given more extensive while crude care.
My next assignment after that was to guard some of the POW’s we had taken during the fight. Even though they were tied up and flex cuffed it was still somewhat of a scary experience. I had to move them and they wouldn’t move so I began to swear and yell at them for no other reason than that I was just scared. It is simply amazing to me now and then exactly how scared I was.
With the prisoners taken care of and all of the immediate casualties out of the way, I was told to return to my platoon so that I could assist them in their mission. However, once I arrived back at the rally point I was told that we had completed our mission and that we would be moving out to establish a blocking position. I would like to also add here that it was my platoon sergeant that told me to go and assist with the casualties and he was the same one who asked me were the hell had I been while they were conducting the mission. (Just a personal note for later.)
(I want to back up here for just a moment. A couple of other things that I found both interesting and funny happened in the Assembly Area. For one, Doc Smith finally arrived at the AA covered in both chemlight juice and dirt. As it turns out, somehow when he landed his chemlights exploded and covered him with the glowing juice. He of course was panicked by being a huge green and red glow monster moving through a hot DZ. So, in an attempt to re-camouflage himself, he tried to cover and wipe off the juice with dirt. It was such a riot to look back and think about him freaking out because he was glowing. The other interesting thing here was Jay Foxe who had been grazed in the neck.. He came into the AA and had blood coming down the side of his neck and so somebody asked him what had happened and his response was, “What are you taking about?” Jay didn’t realize that he had blood all over his neck and thought that the burning on his neck was riser burns from the parachute opening. Needless to say, the medics applied a dressing and Jay continued on, never once complaining about it. He was somehow looked over when they awarded the Purple Hearts back at Benning but our Platoon Sergeant got that squared away real quick although I don’t know if his name was ever added to the plaque that hangs in the 3rd Batt. chow hall of the Purple Heart awardees.)
Once we began to move out, the rest of the mission was easy. We had completed our primary mission of clearing the runway and now we would begin doing follow-on missions. They always seemed to be easier than our primary missions. When we got into place, I realized exactly how tired that I was. We had only gotten about twelve hours of sleep in the last four days and then the sleep that we got during the flight over.
Everything considered, it wasn’t much. I kicked myself and will continue to do so, for not going out and getting some Copenhagen before hand. At any rate, I realized how tired I was when my eyes began to play tricks on me. I thought that I had just seen one of our Little Birds get shot out of the sky, when in actuality, it had only dropped its rocket pods and flew away. I must have blanked out for a matter of seconds because what I saw the chopper being there one minute, then the explosion, and then the chopper was gone. During the course of all this, our platoon leader, Lt. Mullaly, was on the radio reporting our progress. In the background of the radio you could hear some of the casualties screaming in pain. One in particular still rings out in my mind. It was Sergeant Bernard screaming for someone to shoot him in order for him to be put out of his misery. What had happened was that, while he was leading an element forward to establish a different blocking position they were calling in for rounds to be fired from the little birds in order to gain fire superiority over the objective. Well as it turned out, some of the rounds fell short and initially killed one of the guys (Roy Brown), and wounded at least two others (PFC Killgallen and SSG Barnard). Later we would find out that SSG Bernard died as a result of his wounds as well.
So, here we are in our blocking position, holding down the fort and waiting for additional follow-ons to come. What I am about to write is going to sound extreme and almost uncivilized. But keep in mind, these are not normal people that we are talking about here when discussing the Ranger’s. It takes a different type of person with a slightly altered sense of humor and mentality to make it in Battalion. So as I was saying, here we are when we begin to hear this rustling sound not far from where my squad was employed. It wasn’t the rustling like you hear when moving through the brush or tall grass. It was the type of rustling you hear when you take off your BDU jacket. It was early morning and the sun was just beginning to break the horizon and my squad leader was scanning around with the NODs and he turns to me and says, “Hey, do you hear that noise? What the hell is it?” I gave him the “I have no fuckin’ clue look” and so he looks towards the direction of the noise. Suddenly he breaks out in a hysterically muffled laugh and says that “PFC H.” is over there fuckin’ jerkin’ off. I couldn’t believe it!!! Here we are in the middle of nowhere and here “H.” is rubbing one out in the blocking position!!! Unbelievable!!!
When we asked him about it later he simply replied, “Hey, I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to get the chance again so I figured why not?” Point well taken I suppose. It wasn’t long after that that B Co began moving in to clear the small village located at the far end of the runway furthest from the beach. That was where we found a Ranger from 2nd Bat. still rigged in his harness and his static line frayed. I’ve never found out exactly what happened to him. My friend Ed Hayes was tasked to de-rig him and I didn’t envy him in that regard. It was a tough detail to handle, especially since he was one of ours and it brought the pain of war close to home.
2/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
2nd Battalion’s morale was pretty low prior to our deployment to Panama for Operation Just Cause — I know mine was. Switiching from the OG 107’s to the leg BDU’s and giving up the black Pt sweats for the regular Army gray ones were just part of the overall malaise. Our Battalion Commander and Sergeant Major certainly did not make things any better.
I remember drawing my ammo based on position specific cards. So if you were a machine-gunner you’d get a card with a specific load for your weapon — my ruck weighed a ton.
Anyhow, I was in the bird with the BC and had about 15 guys in front of me. The thing that was interesting was that a number of Rangers were pulled off the birds to make room for the BC’s security element — cooks with sniper rifles — instead of having front-line troops. And to top that one, one line-doggie (Ranger) had to make room for an officer from the Regiment. I could only shake my head at that.
The chalk was cross-loaded but my whole squad was on board. We all wore the “Bob Marley” camouflage on our kevlars to help id the bad guys who did not have them. We expected stiff resistance from at least 1 rifle and 1 mechanized companies at Rio Hato — around 400 or so Panamanians. Our expected assembly time was 30 minutes — it turned out to be 90 minutes. I was the eleventh at my AA (assembly area) after 60 minutes. We also expected a 2000 lb bomb to lay waste on one of our objectives.
The C-130 had interior red lights and I heard someone reciting the Ranger Creed and all I could think was what a cheese-eating bastard that guy was. Once I jumped, I looked over my shoulder looking for the enemy barracks which should have been on fire or destroyed or something — nothing. Did not see tracers — too busy looking for damage I suppose. It felt more like a training jump then a combat one. I felt religious. When I realized the barracks were still there I thought the plan had gone awry, after all they (Intell) told us that we should expect these elite Panamanians to fight. I have all these thoughts and nothing seems in proper order so bear with me. I remember being in tent city, drawing my ammo, thinking which one of these cock-suckers is gonna die? Maybe me? I thought we’d get massacred. I attempted at that time to prepare myself mentally for the upcoming nightmare.
I was glad to jump — to get off the plane — to stop thinking about fear to nothing at all to I know my shit. The funny thing is that you become super paranoid — you thought the Panamanians could see you in particular — just waiting for you — kinda like that scene from the Longest Day with the 101st guy in the church-tower.
Nothing prepares you for war.
In retrospect I think that if they had dropped the bomb on the barracks Lear would not have gotten killed. It pisses me off to this day.
While I was on the plane I was thinking about being a Christian, about killing another human being. Once on the ground a sense of self-preservation took over and I knew I could do it — no animosity to the Panamanians — just doing my job.
My ruck weighed about 100 lbs and since I had dislocated my shoulder about 3 weeks prior to the invasion it was very painful to put that weight on my body. When the chute jarred open I was in some pain, and I had a twisted chute. I was pissed — only armchair quarterbacks would make you jump with an M1950 (weapons carrying case). I was worried about getting to my weapon but once I was on the ground there were lots of things to worry about.
I landed in elephant grass somewhere and something strange happened. I just laid on the ground for about 30 seconds. I didn’t even move to get my weapon.
The tracers overhead reminded me of BASIC training low crawling — it was quite exciting. The grass was high but I could see yellow lights on vehicles — they reminded me of street sweepers back home. I yanked open a LAW, heard SPECTRE hit the APC (armored personnel carrier) which ended up crashing into a ditch. I threw my LAW away for some reason and moved on. I had 2 LAWS and 20lbs of C-4.
I hooked up with Lear who was getting out of his shit. I called to him — he pulled out his gun. He said:” Is that you Sgt. G.?” I said no, it’s the Panamanians and they know my name. We both moved down the runway — other Rangers were around moving toward their AAs. We encountered a PSYOPS E-6 who was yelling the running password at us and then waited for a counter sign. I told him that it was a running password and that he was a dumbfuck.
To the West I noticed some anti-aircraft fire — at ground level! Why was it firing that low? I turned around and there were about 40 or so Rangers from C/Co behind us. Trucks were parked across the runways obviously intended to prevent us from air-landing.
Hooked up with Sgt Braaten and mortars and followed a path of chemlights to our AA (I found out later that the chemlights were laid out by our PL, Lieutenant Andrews.) I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing, the PDF could follow those lights as well. I thought everyone had already moved out and that I would be dx’d but like I said earlier I was the eleventh Ranger there. So we waited and checked our equipment repeatedly.
AA to Objective 1:
After about 90 minutes from the drop we moved out. 3rd squad was in the lead, breached fences, cleared building — we leap-frogged by squads. You know the 40mm HE round needs some yards to arm, so we had a few duds. To the south of the objective there was some kind of NCO type club building. To the left a latrine or some sort of shack. I threw a stun grenade to clear the building — nothing. SSG Howard yelled: “Are you sure you threw a grenade?” The LT shouted — sounded scared. Well what can you do? I was pissed.
At objective 1 there was no sign of the enemy. We were led to believe that over 400 elite Panamanians would be here — that’s what Regimental Intel said. Now I was really pissed because they had scared the shit out of me earlier. Well, we established a defensive perimeter. Later on I thought I heard something but didn’t engage since I wasn’t sure — no target acquisition — and if you engage and miss, they might engage you.
Objective 1 to Objective 2:
My squad took the lead. I was wearing NODS (7) which give a hazy green view. At this time I was concerned that we may have by-passed the PDF. Maybe they’re behind us? I fell down a 30 foot ravine with a PFC. I told Lear to continue on until I could get the two of us out of the hole. Malecha, Jr. pulled us out while the other squads (1st Platoon) moved forward.
We caught up to the platoon a little while later in a tree line. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I spotted 2 guys (PDF?) running out of one of the buildings due to a fire on the 2nd floor (The 1st floor of the barracks was about 100 feet long, the 2nd floor had half of it as an open bay).
I called out to a Ranger from 2nd Platoon who was part of the aid and litter teams. He did not respond to my calls. Finally I walked over and kicked him in the head. He responded finally, he was an E-6.
Rangers were screaming for people to get down. Six feet away I saw SSG Howard on the ground, shot through the chest, and Lear dead. It didn’t really hit me right away but then — damn — tunnel vision — this can’t be happening!?
We continued to clear buildings via stairs, fired over walls, tossed grenades and so on. I saw a kevlar helmet on fire on the west side of a building. Training does not prepare you for such destruction. Somebody lived here — it could have been our barracks.
The next day I received Lear’s M-203 vest and Kevlar. They were full of dried thick syrupy stuff — blood, his blood. It is hard to know what to feel. Was I a good leader? Had I not fallen into that ravine… The squad started to look awfully young to me — kids.
Eventually the 7th ID came to replace us — they were all fucked up.
I won’t forget the BC, with a cocked-back Kevlar, driving in an air-conditioned car, yelling at Rangers to buckle their LBEs. Maybe it was time to get out?
Name withheld by request,
B/Co. 2/75, Rio Hato
2/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
I enlisted for the college money. RIP (Ranger Indoctrination program) was very good and I graduated August 28, 1987.
Some odd things still stand out: 2nd Bn had a high dx rate versus Rangers ets’ing, something like 3 Rangers got canned for every one who finished his contract. Training needed to be more realistic, especially with hand grenades. A Ranger from 3rd Platoon injured himself seriously in Rio Hato. But I am getting ahead of myself. Pre-Ranger is possibly the best program I ever attended whereas Ranger School tended to be far too arbitrary and the instructors not always the best, nonetheless, you learn a lot about people and yourself.
Battalion was micro-managed at the time but training picked up around August or so of 1989, possibly in preparation for Just Cause. I returned from PLDC (Primary Leadership Development Course) and alert was in effect for one day already. Although Lt. Andrews, our PL, tried to convince everyone that the unit would deploy to Fort Bliss, we knew better. Air Force personnel were running around with side arms.
At Benning we received our warning order which was rather brief and very little was said about the political situation in Panama. It was difficult to believe that we were to go to Panama during Christmas.
I felt very comfortable at the platoon and company level. Even if Battalion screwed up I was confident with 1st Platoon and Bravo Company. We were the best company in the Battalion.
The Mission at Rio Hato:
* B Co was to take out 2 companies (Infantry, Mechanized). 1st and 3rd Platoons were the assault elements and 2nd Platoon was the aid and litter unit.
* C Co’s objective was Noriega’s beach-house.
* A Co was tasked with securing the Cadet School at Rio Hato.
1st Platoon, B Co, had about 35 Rangers deploy. Weapons Squad was relatively inexperienced and I think Ranger Kendall (Gun 3) burned in with a partial parachute malfunction.
In general, I found the operations order and other information to be somewhat misleading and not as good as I would liked to have had it. By the way, I was the third Ranger at the assembly area after about 20 minutes from the time of the drop. We had about 60 Rangers (1st and 3rd) who were supposed to take out 2 companies of maybe 300-400 soldiers. Would the Panamanians fight? The super-secret bomb drop via the Stealth plane was bullshit. The crater looked too small for a supposed 2000 lb bomb. That’s at least what the AF liaison said when we used it for a defensive perimeter. Back to the story. We jumped at about 0100 ours, red tracers were everywhere. Spectre and little birds were used. I think I saw about 3 APCs on the dropzone, driving and shooting at everything. Oddly enough, lights were flashing on the APCs. My ruck weighed 100 pounds and I landed on the tarmac and hit my elbow pretty hard on the asphalt. I got out my gun, laid behind the ruck which was full of 10 lbs of C-4. 4 grenades, 400 rounds or so of 5.56mm and a claymore. Why am I using this for cover? Am I stupid or what?
The first objective:
It was pretty easy to find our AA and at about 0230 we moved out, but not at 100% strength. The “Bob Marley” was a great idea for identification purposes. The terrain to our first objective was supposed to be good, a little bit of grass with few trees. But it turned out to be heavy. It was very dark and it took us about 30 minutes to navigate to our objective.
Once we got out of the “jungle” we spotted the two lane road running parallel and just past it we saw the fence. Now this fence had 2-3 feet of concrete at the bottom with an 8 foot chain-link fence on top of it. 10 yards past this fence the compounds started. 1st Platoon took the left side and 3rd the right side of the barracks. There was no real covering fire, no M-60’s. They either burned in or did not work. Little birds prepped the back of the compounds. 2nd Squad cleared the first building. Two-storied, day-room or recreation room with bad equipment and cokes.
MOUT training was no good. In training you are supposed to enter from the top. How do you do that? Also the manual was based on European building structures. You are not supposed to use doors but the windows are full of glass. Entering through the door you would take your chances that they may be booby trapped. But the enemy, in this case, may not have had enough time to do that. We used frags or concussion grenades and then 3 round bursts to clear the rooms.
3rd Squad took the next building. Long, with a kitchen, hot food on the table, ice in drinks, no lights, very dark. We entered another building with a long row of double beds, sheets hanging from the bunks for privacy. We lined up our fire team and fired rounds into them. By the way, the concussion grenades looked like smoke grenades but were black. Some failed to go off but the frags worked well.
From the last building, off at a half-right, there was a roofed shed which housed either boats or 75mm recoilless rifles. The distance was about 20 or so yards. A-team covered B-team. We took fire, ricochets chipping granite off blocks. A-team leader, Sergeant B., fired a 203 round HE (high explosive, dual purpose) at the building but it did not arm because of the short distance. I moved forward again with a private and kicked in the door to the shed. The private to the side yelled that something was there. I did not shoot because I knew 3rd Platoon was off to our right. On the left side I heard another shout and that private fired a short burst from his SAW. I joined him and saw a Panamanian with an AK-47, barrel in hand. I yelled at him several times to drop his weapon and finally walked up to him and knocked the weapon out of his hand. We crawled back. I noticed that the Panamanian was bleeding from the nose and ears, deaf and in shock. I took him to Lieutenant Andrews at the end of the compound fence and the EPW ended up with the RIP Detachment who were guarding prisoners.
The second objective:
We moved 50 meters or so through the jungle to our second objective. This was around 0400. It took us one hour or maybe one and a half hours to clear the first objective. 1st Squad in front. The lead Ranger fell into a ravine. He told us to move off toward the right to avoid the ravine. We came out of the jungle into an open area and saw a two-story building on fire, possibly Spectre or little bird damage. We formed up as we did on the first objective. 1st Squad left, then 2nd and 3rd on the right. 1st Squad received fire. 2nd and 3rd cleared the buildings. We stopped and formed a wagon wheel defensive perimeter. It is here that our Medic, Ranger P., told us about Sergeant Howard getting shot and that Lear was dead. I could not believe it. Damn, damn, damn. I passed the word along to Malecha Jr.
Daylight and we moved toward the ocean. A big building with a Red Cross symbol, roads – nothing. We went to the city of Rio Hato and rounded up all males between 14-80, kicked in doors, flex-cuffed individuals and took them to Bn HQ or Regimental HQ – they were handling all EPWs.
We set up another perimeter in a crater near the mechanized company area, our second objective. Spectre was on station all night. We did not account for over 300 enemy personnel. I was worried and confused but yet I went to sleep.
Squads patrolled the next day. One set up an ambush between the airfield and our first objective. Sniper fire had been reported. Nothing happened but we did find a parachute in the trees. Nobody knew nothing and no information was passed down the line. We moved back to our first objective area and spent our third night there. At dusk the intel was that the Panamanians might counter-attack. Spent a bad night, worried. We got some reinforcements from privates who had air-landed. Spent another night.
In the morning the 7th ID showed up. We didn’t know that we were supposed to be relieved. The soldiers were pointing their weapons everywhere. An E-6 had his weapon off safe and was pointing it in our direction. Finally a Ranger got up and put the weapon on safe.
We moved to the airfield, loaded onto a C-130 and flew to Howard AFB and from there to an elementary school. Lots of rumors were floating around and nobody was allowed to call home for 1 or 2 days. Our platoon had an after action review.
Subsequently, we flew in Chinooks to Alcade Diaz, did some road blocking, patrolled streets to be visible, moved elsewhere and did the same all over again. Our platoon set up a CP at a paper factory and we had a 2 jeep reaction teams ready, just in case. Whereas our Battalion Commander was driving around in an air conditioned car, barely cracking the window, to jack us up, the Regimental Commander Buck Kernan and Regimental Sergeant-Major Guerrero walked all over the perimeters and talked with us. That was great for morale! Our BC even fired a Platoon Leader for purchasing food and drink for the troops. Procurement was not officially sanctioned, yet, everybody bought food stuffs from the locals. Eventually, I think the PL was reinstated by Kernan — HOOAH!
Name withheld by request,
Bravo Company, 2/75, Rio Hato
Ranger, Rio Hato
My name is Dean Hohl. I was in 1st Plt. A Co. 3/75 – Just Cause Vet.
My first memory is of my CO, Cpt. Thomas, addressing A Co. at Lawson. He said, “now when you hit the ground the first thing I want you to do is breathe.” At first, I thought to myself, “No Shit!” As he continued, the meaning of his words sunk in. He told us about being a PL in Grenada when he was with 2nd Batt. and of the adrenaline factor. He wanted us to get our heads on straight once we landed and he knew the DZ was going to be hot (not to mention full of 700 Rangers going to God only knows how many different link up points in every possible direction). His advice helped.
I remember sitting in the sheds at Lawson waiting to be “carted” out to our birds. We were so loaded down we couldn’t walk that far on our own. I remember getting chewed out when a few of us decided to be high speed and cammo before we got on the birds. Some other Ranger that out ranked us didn’t think that was too high speed….oops that’s a Ranger for you…always taking initiative.
I was on bird 2 going into Rio Hato. We had to stand on the inside seats to let 2nd Bat. get out first. Just before we headed out the door my gunner, Snyder, reached behind and wished me luck, “meet you on the ground Hohl” he yelled. You could hear the plane taking hits from ground fire, and away we went. I had a perfect exit, no twists.
When I got out of the bird there were all these “red” tracers flying up at us. I remember thinking “I thought they had “green” tracers” and, “how did all those other Rangers get down and into action so quickly?”…so much for good intel.
Once I hit the ground my chute landed in a tree like a neon sign “come and get me.” After getting out of my chute I linked up with and FO officer and we worked our way towards the international highway that crossed Rio Hato. I landed in the northeast corner of the airfield near some huts and my rally point was basically on the east side of the airfield just south of center field.
One of the most amazing things was when I linked up with 5 to 6 other Rangers and we instinctively formed into a fire-team. Hell I don’t know which company or what battalion they were with but it didn’t matter. We moved right into wedge formation and helped each other get to where we had to go. We would pick up and drop off Rangers with fluid motion; shoot, move, and communicate.
My first stop after crossing the runway was at the CP. There I linked up with my gunner, Snyder and the RTO – Powell. Cpt. Thomas told us to take a seat while he got in touch with our PL. Shit was pretty chaotic by that time and Cpt. Thomas was never one to lack clear direction or communication. He always looked out for his Rangers and wanted to make sure our Plt. knew we were coming and from what direction.
My last vision of Cpt. Thomas on the battlefield that night was when he had two radios, one in each ear, and was standing up watching the airfield seizure go down right in front of him. He was providing some serious purpose, direction, and motivation. I think anyone in A Co. 3rd Batt. would have followed him anywhere.
I finally linked up with my Plt. at the motor pool which became the POW collection point. On our 2nd night as we pulled security SSG Anta instructed PFC Kania to kill a bunch of chickens in a pen near our position as they were making too much noise. I think Kania had the first 8 confirmed kills at Rio Hato and with a bayonet none the less. On the third night we got word that the LBG’s (little brown guys) had gotten into the perimeter. Turns out they copied our uniform even down to the glint tape and walked right in. Once the call came down we had to keep 2 men up at all times. One facing out and one facing in. Thank God for the number combo!
Once Specter got on station that night a fire mission came in over the radio. Turns out the LBG’s didn’t really know what glint tape was for and they began to run once they heard Specter. So, these LBG’s go running out of the perimeter and jump under a tree thinking they’re safe. Specter flipped on the thermal and smoked em like cheap cigars. I guess there motto holds true: “You can run but you just die tired.”
Then there’s the case of the reporters coming to Rio Hato in a Huey. I guess they rented one from some place and wanted to get the scoop on what we were up to. This was about day 2 or 3. Everyone heard it come in and everyone was briefed that we wouldn’t use any Huey’s because that’s what Noriega had. So in comes the Huey with it’s whop-whop sound, a bunch of stupid f-ing reporters (never get the story right) hanging out waving, taking pictures and shit. Little did they know that PFC Zepp upon hearing the Huey, jumped off his jeep, engaged his Stinger and was a split second from lighting their ass up. His squad leader, SSG Jordon, was standing next to him and they maintained tight fire discipline knowing that there must be some sort of mistake. I bet if 7th ID had that Stinger they would have shot regardless. I think I was more scared with them on the perimeter than anything else.
I remember some of our guys trading them frags for Copenhagen as their privates were only issued 10rds 556. What a joke!
After Rio Hato we had a couple of follow on missions as well. What an experience and what pride I have for being a part of the Regiment. Not many people know what we experienced as Ranger brothers and as friends and there aren’t many places in life where you’ll find others you can be so confident in. It’s the power of the Creed and of the Ranger Regiment Culture.
God Bless the Rangers of the Regiment!
A Company, 3/75 Ranger
3/75 Ranger, Rio Hato; Casualty Collection Point
I was signed into 3rd Batt on October 3, 1989. There were six of us standing in parade rest in front of the PAC NCOIC as he went down the line asking what our GT scores were on our ASVAB and whether or not we had any college. We didn’t know it at the time, but he was assessing how well we would do working as desk-jockeys for the S-1 office. Two others, plus myself, passed muster and were invited to play PAC-rat for the next year or so. The NCOIC really laid it on pretty thick and said we would go to Ranger School faster, in HHC, and that we wouldn’t get fucked with as much. Everything he said was true, but he left out a few details about how much MOS training (I was 11B) that we would not get while playing REMF. So I, along with two others, stayed in PAC and learned a new trade. In the end, the joke was on PAC. You see, I made more typos than a drunk monkey dancing on a typewriter.
My first quasi-real experience with Rangering happened during the MODS in December of 1989. I was assigned as Security and Aid/Litter for the Casualty Collection Point (CCP). We did the rehearsal thing down in Florida- basically just ran off the back of the C-130, laid on the ground, and froze for the next few hours while the real Rangers dispatched the 101st OPFOR. We got back on a Saturday, cleaned our gear, and turned in our weapons. When we were released for the weekend, we were told that Noriega had declared that a state of war exists between the U.S. and Panama. Fuck him- I’m going to the Hidden Door.
I had bought a pager when I first got assigned to 3rd Batt, and when I signed out on RRF, I just left the number with the CQ. Turns out, those batteries only lasted about two months and sixteen days. I came in on Sunday night only to find out they had tried paging me three times, but I didn’t call back because my pager had died. Just by chance, I walked in the door within the two-hour time limit from N-hour. Still got my ass smoked.
During the three days in which the Battalion prepared for the invasion, I spent most of my time in PAC helping out with the administrative requirements for combat deployment. Last Wills of testament, SIDPERS, Next of Kin Info, and other shit I can’t remember. I stayed pretty busy.
In one office meeting, probably on the 18th, the NCOIC of PAC told us who was going and who was staying. I remember thinking, for Gods sake, don’t leave me back here. As it turned out, I got picked to go, but there were three others who would have to sit this one out in the office. The NCOIC also stated that there was only one parachute for the office, and he was wearing it.
And an Air-Lando-Commando was born
It was going to be weird going back to Panama, I thought. I used to live on the Atlantic side of the country as a kid (1979-1982) and I might end up, like, shooting the first baseman of my little league team. Oh well, fukkem if he can’t take a joke.
On the 19th, we arrived at Lawson AAF. I had never seen, or would ever see again, so many combat aircraft in one place. It was awe-inspiring. Also of note, was the tremendous amount of ammo and demo made available for us. It was like window shopping- I’ll take some of this, and maybe a little of that! I carried a LAW, a Claymore, two SAW drums, 10+ Grenades, a couple of pounds of C-4, and 210+ 5.56mm. But I didn’t end up For a couple of hours we milled about in our chalks, wearing wool blankets and eating cookies and hot soup. And then we left. I was asleep under one of the gun-jeeps before the plane took off and didn’t wake until the 1-hour alert and we started final preparations. I was a REMF and a cherry to boot and I didn’t know what to do, so I just did what everyone else did. I remember word getting passed down that the Panamanians knew we were coming and were waiting for us on the airfield. Fuckin-A man! For the first time-and perhaps the last- I was glad I wasn’t jumping in.
We were supposed to be the first bird on the ground, and I remember the engine noise cutting as we began our decent. JCT was already on the ground, clearing the runway and doing the heavy lifting, we just had to come in to off load the Jeeps and bikes, along with the CCP. We were going down when suddenly the engines whined back up again and we started a steep ascent. I thought, “what the fuck, did they cancel the invasion at the last minute?” I found out later that there were still obstacles left on the runway. The plane did a racetrack and ended up landing 20 minutes later. Jeeps and Bikes off loaded, then the dismounts.
The CCP, which consisted of myself, a few HQ medics, and a handful of REMF 11B’s, halted on the near side of the airstrip and waited for the Combat Controllers to give us permission to cross the runway. Tracers were sporadic, but the occasional fire-fight would set off at various locations around the airfield. While we waited, I was amazed by how quiet the C-130s were when they landed. Usually you didn’t really hear them until they reversed thrust after they were on the ground.
We got the “go” to cross, so we moved to our cluster of buildings, which were already cleared by a team from Regimental HQ. That was probably the scariest moment of the invasion for me- getting to my OBJ only to find SSG Watson, along with all of the other RIP instructors, pulling security around the CCP. A Cherry’s nightmare! Some veterans have flashbacks of combat, mine are of elevated push-ups.
I was in the prone, pulling security until sunrise, then the wounded started coming in. I would spend the day carrying wounded, and the occasional body-bag, around the CCP AO. I remember thinking how little my contribution was compared to that of the Line-dogs’. I was on a detail while they did the fighting. This shames me even today, ten years later.
Early on the first morning, I watched two little-birds go to town on this building that was holding some of the PDF. I didn’t know it at the time, but two Rangers were about to die due to stray rounds from this event.
I have a very powerful memory of CSM Leon-Guerrero coming over to the CCP to check up on us. During his visit, he took a knee beside the bags holding the remains of the departed Rangers. He stood there for a long while, just staring. I could see the emotions raging just behind his eyes, but he held it all in, like a jar holding in a hurricane. After four days, we were on our way out. The only time I ever feared for my life was when the 7th ID came in and lit up A Company, just off to my right. Either they were poorly trained, informed, and led, or, they didn’t like Rangers. At Howard AFB, I found out that my Ranger Buddy from RIP, James Markwell, was killed at the Tucumen OBJ. It was hard to believe he was gone. He was a medic, and an all-around good guy.
When I got back stateside, my experience in Panama eventually caused me to request reassignment to a line company. I joined the Rangers to be a field soldier, and PAC just wasn’t where I wanted to be. The PAC NCOs got pissed and fucked with me over it, but they eventually let me leave.
Six months after graduating RIP, I was reassigned to 3rd Platoon, A Company, 3/75. I took over a SAW in 2nd Squad- the one left vacant by PFC Roy Brown’s death. I was a cherry for a second time, but I never regretted the move. I got tabbed, promoted, and eventually sent to the SSG Board before I ETSed in 1993.
Every December 20th, I make sure I wear my tab, or carry one in my pocket. James Markwell and Roy Brown never got the chance to earn theirs, so I earned one for them. Today, I wear it in their honor.
Rangers Lead the Way.
2/75 Ranger, Rio Hato/Follow-on Ambush
Words to Live By
A few days after Rio Hato, C Company was sent to Panama City. We moved into one of the better parts of town, setting up check points to enforce the curfew. On the first night in town, three Panamanian men in a pick-up truck tried to run 3rd platoon’s roadblock. My squad was occupying a position a few blocks away, and at about midnight, we heard the unmistakable sounds of a good Ranger ambush. Like the man said, “fuck around, fuck around, soon you won’t be around”.
The next day we assumed QRF duty, and using two gun jeeps borrowed from 3rd BN, we drove to all the Company’s positions. When we got to 3rd Platoons position, I found a friend of mine sitting on the curb near the remains of the vehicle they had engaged. The locals had already stripped the bloodstained truck of everything useful, but that’s life in the third world. If it wasn’t for the 7.62 holes, it would have looked like just another abandoned wreck.
I sat down, and he told me what had happened. When he was done, he just sat there smoking a cigarette.
“Well, I guess that’s the way it goes sometimes” I said.
He thought for a moment, “Ya, one day you’re all Hooah and everything, and the next, cats are licking your brains up off the street”. And so it was.
It was a good time to be a Ranger, which meant it was bad time to be anybody else. Bob Shalala,
2nd Plt. C 2/75 89-93
75th Ranger HHC, Rio Hato
A Communicators Perspective
If there was ever a time to write about something, now is the time. Let me share this with you. I joined the rangers on reenlistment option 14, Special Forces/Ranger.
I had already been in the military for 13 years in the “conventional army” I needed something to challenge me. I went to airborne school, and spent 3 days in RIP, while there I make E7 on the secondary zone, this moved me into ROPE. After completion of all, I knew I still needed to go to Ranger school. As things were during that time we were training heavy doing “Blue Spoon” operations. Keep in mind that my MOS (31C) is/was communications.
We had just come back from a mission in FL, I had my family staying with me in a transit apartment in Ft Benning, GA. My son and I were lying on the floor of the apartment getting ready to watch the premeire of the “Simpson’s” when suddenly my pager started blowing up. I said my “see you later” to my family and jumped in my Z28 and jetted to the regiment. Got to the entrance of 3rd Battalion, and MPs were at the gate checking ID’s against our roster. I thought to myself, this must be something serious. I arrived at the Regimental Signal Detachment (RSD), and was greeted by Cpt Hildebrand the detachment commander, he informed me that we were getting ready to do “Blue Spoon”, “for real”. Sgt Bradley Smith, a squad leader, and one of the most professional soldiers I have every worked with, had already gotten the men packing rucks and checking out our radios, SHARKs and CAMELs, while we went to the warning order. My hats off to the S2 guys, we had color photos of each objective and location that Team Black (Rio Hato) and Team Gold (Torrijos-Tocumen) were going to operate from. Maj Condrey the Regimental Signal Officer (RSO), had already built the OPSKIDS/CEOI’s. After the warning order we went and gave the team leaders our warning order and proceeded to draw equipment.
We got on the bus to go to Lawson Army Airfield. As communicators our rucksacks were weighting in excess of 100 pounds, but adrenaline carried most of the weight. I stated to the men “I know you want to be shooters, but we need your radios in the “circle, we can be more effective with comms”. The scene at Lawson was awesome, there were C-130s and C-141s all over the runway. It was winter in GA. we had hot cocoa, soup, coffee and blankets provided to us by the Ranger Support Element (RSE). Col Kernan and CSM Leon Gurrria, climbed up on some entry/exit stairs and barked encouragement to us and we all barked back, to let them know that we were ready. It was very inspirational and at that moment we all knew that what ever was ahead of us better be ready because we were.
SSG Pudimai, from 3rd Bat was the Jumpmaster, he stops at me and grabs my rucksack, noticing how heavy it is he looks, and with just eye and face expressions he said ” this is heavy, and I said Yea it is”, I grab his shoulders and pull him into me so he can snap my rucksack into my “D” rings, he turns me around and sets me on the Ranger’s rucksack behind me. He makes his way back to the door and up it comes. We start going thru our jump commands/checks, the static line is hanging really low. He shouted, 30 seconds and kind of nonchalant everybody mouthed 30 seconds. He shouts, 10 seconds and the entire bird became alive and we all put our war face on and shouted 10 seconds. Now as the Jumpmaster he had the option to put the stick out or take the stick out, hey, combat jump, what would you do? That’s what he did. The stick started moving like a train, know one wanted to be left on the bird, I am in the middle of the stick, my rucksack is nonexistent and my only fear is that when I get on the ground my radio will not work. Out the door, were shot-gunning both doors, 500 feet, I sort of sling my rucksack out and the adrenaline and momentum pull me along. Pop, I look up and have a nice round, no danger from other jumpers, look down and there are tracers being fired back and forth, green and red, “Hot DZ”.
I landed center mass of a white line on the runway, you could tell it was freshly paved, the rocks were still sharp. The wind blows me over; knocks a chunk out of my k-pot, bust my knuckles open, rips my cargo pocket, I loose my dip and PC. Out comes my CAR, I already have a magazine loaded, I just charge a round into the chamber, I pulled my 100 pound plus ruck in with one hand, I was pumped. All of a sudden a truck starts coming down the hill with a yellow light flashing, “supreme violence of action on the objective”, you could see fire just shift to this vehicle, to the left of me a hooah with a LAW fires it at the vehicles, it stops dead. We are up and moving now, Bull-dog, Bull-dog, I stop, and start moving using the running password again, this voice whispers, is that you Sergeant Mallard, yea who is that, it’s Lt Estes, he was Ranger buddy in ROPE, assigned to 2nd Bat, I said “what do you need Lt”, he said ” I lost my glasses and can not see, I need to get to the end of the runway”, “come on sir let go”. We make our way there, I depart and start heading to our key hole where Team Black, will be assembled, again our S2, made it easy with the photos, I get there and I am counted in, all of my guys are there too setting up communications, I say a thank you to the Ranger in the sky. Pull out my Sat Ant, line it up with the pre-set azimuth on my compass, “I am wearing a British RACAL head-set, operating an PRC 113, I said “one” into the boom mike and, “one” is echoed backed into my ear piece. I place my handset into the “circle” and inform them that I have comms with JSOTF. Everything is going really good, all of the radio nets are up and operational. The SHARK has arrived and we transfer communications from the rucksacks to it. We are relieved to not have a communicator’s worst nightmare, on the ground with a broke radio in combat, what good are. Team Black’s circle is composed of the primary regimental staff, and six communicators, we are circled by the rangers who run RIP/ROPE, some very capable Rangers you would want providing security. Suddenly we hearing firing in our area, we know that is not directed at us, the is no “crack, pop’, Col Kernan, turns to Maj Newman, our USMC fire support officer and asks him to get SPECTER, which was up and flying its circle on the battle field raining lighting and thunder, to take a look at what’s going on. We have already secured the runway and follow-on forces are on the ground. Maj Newman, responses “we have some bad guys who have run into a building”. Like magic, two “Little Birds” start race tracking on the building firing their dual mini-guns and rockets Wreeeer, Wreeeer , is the sound of the guns blazing, shell casing fall on us and the prop wash blowing, as they fly over us to the objective. I am thinking to myself, this is just like when we were in FL, doing “Blue Spoon” smooth. This is also when we lost or Ranger brothers from 3rd Bat, Brown and Barnard.
Eventually the sun starting coming up and we moved to the TOC in the NCO academy. The “Bat Boys” went and did patrols. The 7th ID flew in on their Black hawks, after they got on the ground, all hell broke loose, and they started shooting at each other. We were relieved to be transferred back to Howard. We did some follow on missions and just hung out. Made it back to Ft Benning, to families, friends and cold beer. God, it’s great to be a Ranger!
HHC 75th Ranger Regiment
Regimental Signal Detachment NCOIC 89-92
2/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
Lawson Army Airfield, Georgia
Everyone’s nerves were at their limits. I remember feeling the need to urinate every twenty minutes or so. I was a sergeant then; Alpha team leader. I remember a couple of guys actually vomited once or twice due to nerves. We were expecting heavy casualties. There were several elements in the plan that could easily go wrong and if they did, the drop zone (DZ) would be a blood bath. If the US gun ships missed their targets, there would be several enemy anti-aircraft guns on the DZ that could knock our C-130s out of the sky. These guns could be lowered to put grazing fire across the DZ ripping us to pieces.
The chaplains were present, dressed in full dress chaplain gowns. They were giving a general service and giving individual troops whatever service they desired. I took communion. I vaguely remember the chaplain mumbling some prayer and giving me the body and blood of Christ. “God be with you son.” It was a surreal moment, not the last of the night.
We rigged our parachutes in a long wooden shack that I remembered too well from Airborne School. I was a jumpmaster and decided to inspect (JMPI) some of the jumpers before I rigged up and sat down. I remember the looks on the faces of some of the new privates. Hell, this would be their first jump with the unit and they would be jumping into anti-aircraft fire. I was calmly telling them to stay calm and focus on the jump first. I explained that we couldn’t fight if we didn’t get on the ground safely. This coaching actually helped me keep my mind occupied and that was a tremendous relief from the constant thought of one’s own mortality.
I watched the sun setting and wondered if I would ever see it again. Several of us had written letters to be delivered to loved ones in the event of their deaths. I still have that letter, in a shoebox somewhere never having been delivered or opened. The airfield was miserably cold and it was drizzling. We were wearing lightweight uniforms due to the fact that we would be jumping into 90-degree weather in Panama. The wind was blowing rain and it was miserable. Just before we boarded the planes, Command Sergeant Major Leon Guerrero rolled out onto the airfield on top of an old aircraft stairwell mounted on a truck. His speech was incredibly moving and motivating. Much of my fear was then transformed into battle lust. He worked the entire Regiment into a fury. We were truly ready to kick ass, I could not imagine disappointing him. He is an inspiration to me to this day. Whenever I let my standards or conduct slip, I feel as though he is about to walk up and catch me. It was never the fear of him kicking your ass for something; it was the fear of disappointing him.
The pre-jump flight was the quietest I remember. The aircraft was packed full of men and equipment. No one said a word for hours. Everyone was thinking of the details of the missionas well as thinking about the impending possibility of their own violent death. At about two hours out we were told that the Air Force had cancelled their pre-jump bomb run. This news was a crushing blow to our moral. The stealth fighters were to drop a pair of 2,000lb bombs on the objective at T minus two minutes. This would have significantly reduced the enemy’s numbers and will to fight. You could see the frustration and fear in the faces of the troops at this announcement. A couple hours later, we were told that the bomb run was back on. Thank God.
With two hours left before the jump, we started hanging our ammo-laden rucksacks onto our parachute harnesses. The rucks weighed close to 100 pounds. The parachute equipment was an additional 50 pounds. I didn’t know how I would make it to the door. The aircraft was so packed that the primary jumpmaster had difficulty sitting us back down. He decided to put the seats up. The last two hours of the flight would be on our knees. It was impossible to move. A 5-gallon water can was passed around for those who needed to urinate. We had not eaten or slept well in a couple days. It was, once again, miserable.
“Six Minutes!!” The jumpmasters started their pre-jump commands. It was time to stand up. My knees had never been so thankful. Now it would be my legs and shoulders that would bear the discomfort of the tremendous weight of equipment. I wondered if I could stand for six minutes. The aircraft was so packed that the jumpers near the front of the aircraft were actually standing on the stairs leading to the cockpit. The anchor line cables were packed full of static lines. These unfortunate souls would have to hook up on the way towards the door as troops exited the aircraft.
The doors were opened. Hot humid air instantly filled the aircraft. I was about mid-way in the line of jumpers on the port side. I remember watching the jumpmaster hanging out the door performing his checks. At T minus two minutes he pulled himself back in and shouted that he saw the Air Force bombs detonate on target. There was a brief but sincere cheer from the jumpers. I prayed to God that the Apache attack helicopters were now hitting the anti-aircraft gun positions, if they missed…
At T minus thirty seconds the jumpmaster frantically pulled himself back inside the aircraft and shouted, “The drop zone is hot, we’re taking fire”. This was not the best of news. The enemy was waiting for us. My heart dropped into my boots. “Drop zone coming up, stand in the door!!” It was show time. Just then I could hear it. Ground fire was snapping through the skin of the fuselage. Jesus H. Christ, would we even get out the door without casualties? The green light flashed on and Rangers started pouring out of both troop doors. The line of jumpers in front of me started moving. I struggled forward with the rest. I could see the jumpmaster standing near the door, buried in yellow static lines. The whole thing seemed so surreal. I handed off my static line, did a half-right face, and stepped out into the darkness.
Stepping into a 130mph blast is always a phenomenal sensation. My exit was no more or less violent than any other C-130 jump. Such an exit is so turbulent that you can’t really see or hear anything until your chute opens a few seconds later. I felt the familiar tug on my harness and heard my canopy pop open. The next sound I heard was the chatter of small arms fire from every direction. I had a couple of twists in my risers. As I twirled through the night sky coming out of the twists, I saw tracers both skipping across the DZ and arching into the sky. The aircraft were being hammered by ground fire. The first weapon I heard sounded like a US M60 machinegun. It seemed, and I prayed, we were already giving them hell. Our objective, the enemy compound, was on fire. As I popped out of my last twist, the air traffic control tower flew past just a few feet in front of me. I had just a second to look down. I hit the ground hard. My worst nightmare had not come true; no one was standing there waiting to shoot me as I struggled out of my parachute harness. OK, I made it this far; I’m in the fight.
The Drop Zone
As I pulled my rifle out and put it into action, myself and the Rangers near-by came under fire from an AK47 not far off in some bushes. The AK blasted tracers over our heads. The Panamanian soldier would fire across the DZ, fire at the aircraft, across the DZ, etc. Before I could put my sights on him, I heard an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) open up. This weapon can fire up to 1,000 rounds a minute. The SAW gunner fired an entire 200-round drum of ammo into the enemy position and then fell silent as the gunner changed ammo drums. There was no more firing from the enemy position.
I then noticed a Ranger shooting and kicking the door in on the tower. He ran inside yelling and screaming and shooting. He emerged with our first POW. The Ranger was none other than SSG Dean Brackenbury. I felt good knowing Brack was nearby. He was one mean SOB. As I moved toward our assembly area, we came under fire by three or four armored personnel carriers (APCs). The sound of their diesel motors and large caliber weapons was terrifying. They were firing all over the DZ. Then I noticed that they had flashing yellow lights on top of the APCs! It was suicidal, what were they thinking! Within seconds, the vehicles were exploding and burning. You could hear rockets firing and the sound of the rockets smacking the side of the APCs. This was followed by a muffled explosion as the vehicles were destroyed. Every Ranger was carrying either a LAW rocket or an AT-4 anti-tank weapon. The APCs didn’t have a chance. They burned all night.
After we assembled, I was tasked with leading my platoon from the assembly area to the objective (OBJ). I walked as quietly as possible through the pitch-black jungle towards the Panamanian barracks. There could be enemy soldiers hiding anywhere just waiting for us. I could actually hear my heart beating in my chest. Sweat poured down my face. The other platoons were already on the OBJ fighting. An occasional stray round would rip through the vegetation near by.
As we neared the compound, I heard whispering in the blackness directly in front of me. I gave the hand signal to freeze. I could not tell if the voices were in English or Spanish. I rotated my selector switch to fire and assumed the prone position. I could not remember ever lying so flat and so low. I wanted so badly to shoot first and ask questions later, but I had been trained differently. I whispered for my grenadier, PFC Kirk Waldorf. I knew he had buckshot in his grenade launcher. If we made enemy contact at this close range, that might give us a winning edge. We crawled forward. I could then hear that the voices were in English. Now I faced the dilemma of startling them and coming under friendly fire at a range of about five meters. I issued the running password. The voices responded with words and not weapons. It was SPC Popp of my platoon. He had been missing on the DZ and we had moved out without him. He was wounded and huddled up with a few other Rangers who were wounded on the DZ.
On the OBJ
Our platoon was tasked with evacuating casualties and handling POWs. We set up operation in a two-story officers club. My squad was upstairs with the prisoners and the others were downstairs at the company CP with the medical aid station. I remember hearing the cries of those wounded in action. SSG Howard was hit badly. He was under the effects of morphine. He thought he was dying and was terrified. SGT Saunders was screaming angrily, asking us to go get the fucker that shot him. His wrist was shattered and his thigh had an AK round buried deep inside. Sgt Swinsiki was howling from fragmentation wounds all across his back. His uniform and equipment were shredded from the blast. It took two shots of morphine to calm him.
It was daybreak now. As I looked around on the bottom floor, what I saw was a horrible bloody mess. Blood, in streaks and pools, and medical supply wrappers were everywhere. The evacuation litters we used (SKEDCOs) were covered with thick dark blood. I remember the look of shock on a private’s face as he dropped his bloody SKEDCO to the ground. He looked exhausted from dragging it, shocked by the circumstances, and fatigued from lack of sleep and food. There was a tapir (similar to an ant-eater but much larger) licking up blood from the ground. I glanced into a side room. There was the body of Phillip Lear. He was covered with an olive-drab army poncho. His left forearm was uncovered and pointed towards the ceiling; it had streaks of blood on it and looked pale and lifeless. He was gone forever. Just days before I helped Lear tow his car with my Ford Bronco. He was with his fiancé that day, I remember how kind she seemed and how they appeared to adore one another. That was all over now. As I looked away, I noticed the most breathtaking view of the ocean in the early morning light.
Eight Years Later
I was working for an environmental consulting firm and had the opportunity to do some unexploded ordnance work in Panama. We took a day off and I decided to take a drive down the coast to Rio Hato. As we drove into the compound I noticed that nothing had been repaired or replaced since the raid. The only difference was that everything was overgrown and unattended. All the sheet metal roofing had been torn off and presumably sold as scrap. It was a ghost town. I started to walk around the compound and was stopped by a militiaman. I was terrified, my heart beating as it had eight years prior at this same place. I explained that I was an American environmental scientist and that we were planning to search for unexploded bombs in the area and that we needed to take a few pictures. It was a lie of course. He glared at me for a moment, nodded, then walked away. I sensed a deep hatred and mistrust. I wondered if he was a participant in the fight. Had he lost a family member here?
I visited all the buildings that we had destroyed. It was all just the way we left it. All except for one thing, there were grave sites. On the bluff overlooking the ocean, there were graves of the soldiers killed here. One in particular stood out. It had a small shrine that included a picture of the deceased. There were several of his personal effects, a shot glass, a pen, letter, etc… There were fresh flowers on the grave. It was a Sunday and the flowers could not have been more than an hour old. I then realized that peoples’ lives were forever changed on that day. I again noticed the spectacular view of the ocean. I saluted the man and left immediately. I did not feel remorse, I simply felt unwelcome. Scarcely a day goes by that I don’t think about that experience at Rio Hato. The only recurring dream is feeling that I may die today. Shortly after I awaken, the feeling is gone and I can’t remember it, try as I may. And sometimes I dream that I am looking over the ocean view in the morning light. I feel no regret, little remorse. It was however, a day that changed our lives somehow. On Veterans Day I put two pictures in my living room next to a candle. One picture of Phil Lear, in his dress greens holding a sword; the other of a Panamanian soldier’s elaborate grave. Both gave their lives on that day. Both were patriots and thought they were doing the right thing for their country. Both died because Bush and Noriega could not settle their differences. It seems a terrible waste of humanity but, I guess that’s what war is.
Rangers Lead the Way!
Sgt Dave Hall
2nd Platoon, Bco 2/75
2/75 Ranger, Rio Hato
We had just come back from a deployment and weren’t home more than a day I think, and we get the call. I go to work and the PL says were gonna jump into Eglin in Florida, to do an airfield seizure. Then the very next morning get on buses back to Ft. Benning, and hop a plane back to McChord AFB for home. Cool enough, a one day op.
So we’re on the runway breaking up into our chalks and there’s this new guy and he’s scared shitless because it’s his first jump in battalion. Which as we all know is just a little bit different than jumping anywhere else. So I tried to make him feel better by telling him not to worry, everything was gonna be okay, in a few months he’d have a bunch of these night blasts under his belt, etc. So on the jump into Eglin there’s an ice/hail storm, blowing hard, maybe 17 knots? This little deal they set up for us didn’t have any open space to land, there was this skinny ass runway, next to it were the buildings, on the other side were nothing but trees, lots of them. And of course the wind was blowing towards the trees, which I guess was better than the buildings.
Out we went, man I was pulling so hard to the right I had suspension lines in my hand, shit ! I’m gonna make the runway! So what do I do? Let go to lower my ruck, dumbshit! that little second not steering and now I’m going in the trees, like everyone else. Shoulda rode the ruck in. I thought I was all done, everyone hears horror stories about tree landings, I’m thinking I’m gonna be skewered. It was the best landing I ever had, the trees were skinny and tall, I blasted thru, canopy got hung up in the top, and I stopped with my feet hanging about 2 feet off the ground! No shit! One problem, because dumbshit here decided to lower his ruck and now it was in the top of tree. So I climb to the top, cut it loose and drop it. I’m climbing down and the CO is running by now and says, hey Miller, quit fucking around in that tree and go kick some ass! That guy was hilarious. I link up with my AG, go to the blocking position, hung out, lit up some shitbags from the 100 and worse, the other guys took down the buildings, we went home.
I’m home about 3 hrs. and we get the call again, now I know they wouldn’t fuck with us twice right? I get to work and the PL says were going to Ft. Bliss. “Roger that sir”. I get my buddies together and start going over the procedure for a sucking chest wound (they sent me to EMT school in Jan. or Feb. of that year). We get on birds at Mac to go to Benning, and I notice the crew chief is wearing a pistol in a shoulder holster, these guys never hardly carried wpns. for routine stuff. We get to Benning and the spec. ops jeeps are loaded so heavy the springs are bottomed out. Were fucking going! Righteous.
We’re in the tents now and the PL says were going, which we were glad of, you train hard for years, eventually you want to go do the real thing. Sure there was rush a of emotions but that didn’t matter, it was you’re job, you volunteered, you weren’t drafted. (I mention this because a few years later there were some guys in other army units whining about going to desert storm, saying they just came in for the college money, or getting religion all of a sudden, bullshit, fucking pussies).
So we’re in the tents loading up mags, its cold out and they have these pot belly stoves, but they’re running low on wood or whatever so were throwing the empty 5.56 boxes in the fire, and bang! Of all people a Ranger, and even worse, a sniper missed a round that was in a box he threw in and it went off, it zinged right by me and Spec. Agueda, I couldn’t fucking believe it, we almost got killed in the fucking tent! We smoked his ass, he spent the next 20 min. in the front leaning rest.
We’re in our chalks now and I see the same new guy that I gave the pep talk to at Eglin and he’s looking at me for more words of wisdom, except I aint got any. It was my first time in combat too, what do you say? I told him to stay low, and link with his team asap! And don’t forget the running password! and he’ll be all right, but in my head I’m thinking he’s fucked! It’s now his 2nd jump in battalion and its in combat!
Twenty minutes out or so, we recite the Ranger creed and it helped a lot! One minute, the jumpmaster stands in the door, (he goes first on a combat drop) green light! And he doesn’t go at first! I’m third in the stick and I see nothing but tracers going by the door, I look back at Spec. Agueda who’s fourth and our eyes locked, we knew what each other were thinking, we’re fucked! We’re gonna buy it! But we’re going! We’re fucking Rangers!
We start screaming go! go! and pushing, he went, we went. (He would have gone anyway, he was just waiting till we past the gun emplacement, he saved our lives by not doing what was automatic, go on green, good job jumpmaster).
It’s funny the little things you notice when all hell is breaking loose, green tracers, the bad guys have green tracers instead of red. They kinda seem to be moving in slow motion as there coming up, then they just all of a sudden whiz by through you’re suspension lines. Everything’s as good as it can be and then thump! I’m unconscious. To this day I do not know what happened, if someone stole my air or what? One second I was fine, had a little time, about 100 feet before the ground and the next I’m spitting blood and my teeth are killing me. Suck it up, I cut my way out of my shit like a lot of guys who were just too tangled up to unsnap. (At Benning while rigging I put a Cold Steel Tanto between my h-harness and my ruck just in case.) So now I’ve got my M-16, AT-4, my EMT bag, four laws, and all my other shit (our 90’s were being airlanded) and I’m moving out.
I get near the edge of the runway and for no reason just fall down! I get up and fall down again, what the fuck? I think it was Sgt. Gormly with another hooah a few feet away, and he hears me cussing up a storm and says “what’s wrong?”
I tell him “I think my legs broke”.
He says “if you just think its broke, it probably aint, get going”
It didn’t hurt at all so I figured he was right and moved out. It was the adrenaline, I got about 10 yards and fell down, now it was really hurting, of course Murphy’s law, I’m in the open now, in the middle of the runway and this fucking APC with a flashing light on top and a car come out of nowhere, see me and start lighting me up, he’s walking the rounds in at me and I roll away from where I went down like I was taught. I had thrown my ruck down in front when I went down, he hit it with a burst and sent it tumbling. If I hadn’t rolled away I’d be dead. Three or four other hooahs lit him up with everything they had, Saws, M16’s, and a couple of LAWs.
This dumb bitch in the back seat of the car starts shooting at us with a sub-gun, I think it was an Uzi. We just took out an APC, why didn’t she just surrender? why? I emptied almost half a mag. in her so did the other Hooahs.
Now her husband ( he’s in the front seat driving) is screaming that he surrenders, and he’s got a baby! and its crying! He’s holding it up and he’s screaming, please! please! senior my baby! Our guys surround him and they’re yelling “I know, just get the fuck down!” They take him and the baby, who’s okay, prisoner (Later my buddy, Kane told me he thought the screaming baby was the psyops guys playing their stuff, it wasn’t).
I start moving out again towards my objective, which is still at the other end of the runway and on the other side. I got about 20 yds. but it aint happening, it wasn’t the pain, fuck the pain, my leg just wouldn’t work, I fell again and another hooah, a real good sniper named Rudig, ran over to me,” are you shot?” he says. No, my fucking leg is broke, I tell him, he takes a couple of my laws to relieve me of some weight, and then he says “man I’m sorry, I gotta get to the OBJ”. I tell him get going, I’m thinking if we don’t take this fucker down now, were gonna have worse problems than broke legs. But already it’s starting to feel more like, if ‘they’ don’t take it down, rather than ‘we’. I’m out of action and finally realizing it. GD! and Fuck! I try anyway, I’m walking, falling down, walking some more, I’m heading for this tree for cover, I’m getting woozy now from the pain, then I can’t even feel the pain in my leg but my head is spinning, there’s this hooah in front of me, with a bunch more hooahs around the tree, he’s saying something, now he’s yelling it, (“Miller you fucking idiot he’s saying… halt!”) I yell out the running password. He doesn’t shoot me.
I spent the night there, he called in my line # so my CO would know were the fuck I was. In the morning some of the macho demonte guys tried to counter attack, the little birds made short work of them, mini-guns and rockets chopped them to bits. They were screaming. Fuck em. A PJ gave me a ride on a four wheeler to the casualty collection point. At the point some other PJ takes my weapon, he’s holding it straight up in the air and it’s pointing at his buddies head, I say, ” hey idiot, there’s a round in that chamber” he looks at me confused.
I’m sitting on the table in this room where they are bringing in some real casualties now, there’s a hooah from third bat. on the table next to me. I’m not sure but I think he was one of the guys that got strafed by our own little birds, but his team leader was there (wounded also) and he said it was mortars that came up short, so I don’t know, but the poor guy was in serious pain. He was screaming for about 20 minutes, then the Chaplain came over, told him he was there to give him last rights, and the guy got instantly quiet. I’ll never forget him.
The hoohas kicked some serious ass that night, man our guys did a great job. What a fucking job! This medic named Pensi, repeatedly ran out into fire to drag guys in from the runway that had jump injuries, I heard SSG Debaere landed in a tree, and dropped a grenade on this machine gun below him that was raking the drop zone. All our guys kicked ass. I’m sorry I let you down Kane (my gunner), more than you’ll ever know. Aftermath.
I get home and had to deal with some real dumb asses, some leg officer at Camp Murray that worked with my wife told her it was probably my first night jump, asshole, more than half my jumps at that time were night jumps.
Another guy on base a year later, a fucking leg mechanic in the Third Brigade of all people, tells me his daddy was in a real war, that Nam’ and we didn’t deserve all the congrats we were getting. I had to listen to this shit being only an E-4, but you’ll be glad to know that as a civilian, in Texas, in 1995, I didn’t. Some asshole who told me there was a lot of Rangers in the battalions who weren’t “real Rangers” because they hadn’t been to Ranger school. This clown was yet another mechanic who served in the 82nd and somehow got to Ranger school. I explained to him that while he was wearing his Ranger tab and changing a tire or doing a tune up, PFC John M. Price and all the other non-tabbed Rangers who died in Somalia gave their lives in battle. Then I gave him a beating and a free trip the hospital.
One good thing that happened after, I was at the VA hospital at American Lake in ’94, my back and leg had been killing me for years, I was going thru a really hard time, rough divorce, lost job, and not feeling very good about myself at all. I’m waiting to be seen by the doctor and who walks around the corner but CSM Leon-Guerrero. He was our CSM at 2nd bat. before he was CSM for Regiment. He remembers me, by name! That made me feel great.
He asked me how I was doing. I lied and said good, then he shook my hand, bowed and put my hand to his forehead, like he always did to his fellow Rangers, and said “thank you”.
I got so choked up I couldn’t say anything. But what I was feeling was that here was this great man, great warrior, treating me with friendship and respect. My god, how lucky I was to serve with him.
Thanks LG, that moment got me through some rocky roads.
Wpns. A co. 2/75
War Stories Torrijos/Tocumen
Personal Accounts of Torrijos/Tocumen Combat Parachute Assault:
Operation Just Cause
Torijos Tocumen Airfield Seizure
Battalion Surgeon’s Perspective
My recollection of Operation Just Cause begins during a Christmas party for the medics of 1/75. They were all at my house when our beepers went off. We broke up the party and headed into headquarters where I left all of the treats from our party. I don’t know if this was the best-planned mission ever, but it certainly had the best-fed planners ever as my wife is an excellent cook. Only the details had to be worked out. The mission was planned months in advance.
The planning phase went by uneventfully but I remember doing PLF’s in several inches of icy water during sustained airborne training. Hard to believe how cold and icy it was in the US compared to how relatively warm it was in Panama.
During the flight over, the commander on my aircraft relayed messages he received from a satcom operator. The PDF (Panamanian Defense Force) somehow knew we were coming as evidence by their passing out live ammo and posturing at all of their defense points. This information did not really concern me at the time, as ignorance is a great shield from fear. We trained so often doing just what we were doing now that it felt just like another training mission. I guess the first point at which I noticed that this was real was when we collected our base load before we left. I was impressed with how much ammunition a Battalion Surgeon was issued. They had claymores, all kinds of pyrotechnics and tons of 9 or 5.56mm. I only took what I thought I might need. When we were uploading the aircraft, I noticed that there were cameramen recording the mission. That was something new also. During the flight over, the commander relayed the information that some MIG’s were trailing us. I didn’t worry about that much either because what could I do about it anyway?
I was the 7th man on the left door in the 3rd aircraft. I knew we would only make one pass so I tried to get to the door as quickly as possible. Kind of hard to do when you are carrying enough stuff to open a small hospital between your legs. Seems like every time I though I was packed, I would think of one more thing I needed. Just one more liter of IV fluid might mean the difference between survival or not for some young Ranger kept going through my mind. Sort of a variation of mission creep kept occurring. The huahs probably have a set load established but I think many did the same. It would take a Mack truck or a Ranger to carry some of the rucks I saw.
It all seemed real for me for the first time right about the second that I stepped out the door of the aircraft. It was real dark, almost black except for where Spectre was shifting fire. I could see a trace of red light in me left peripheral vision where the AC130 was smoking one last bunker. Looked kind of like a god throwing down a lightning bolt. Glad they were on our side!
As I was floating down I tried to figure out where I was. I could see and hear small arms fire in a lot of places but most seemed to be in a corridor that lay straight in front of me. I later realized that the field I was looking at was one which led from the airfield to an adjacent neighborhood. It was a good egress rout for the PDF that decided to run at the last moment. Noriega himself hung out in that neighborhood for days. He was visiting the airfield to dedicate a new medical clinic the next day. We woke him up and he just barely slipped away with rounds from one of our blocking positions following him.
I distinctly remember thinking, “come on ground”, as I wanted to get down as fast as possible. Even starting at 450 feet, it seemed to take a long time to get down. When I did land, I managed to find just about the only tree on the whole airfield. It was a short bushy tree only about 30 feet tall. I didn’t really do a PLF but just managed to get through the branches to the ground. There I found my self sitting on cut grass with a trace of white light illuminating me from a window of what I later found out was the fire station. I was looking at the elephant grass wall about 20 meters away that was the beginning of the field leading away from the airfield to where Noriega was.
The elephant grass must have been about 5 or 6 feet tall because I could just make out the outline of two shadows approaching me. I knew they weren’t Rangers because they couldn’t have gotten out of their chutes before me. Now I was scared. My rifle was in its container keeping it from being damaged on the jump. If I could see these guys, they could see me better. Sometime about then I had one of those experiences where time moves slowly. I remembered my whole past present and future in about 3 milliseconds. The only thought the remained was something like: “Oh shit, I have been studying for my whole life to be a doctor and now some bastard is going to kill me before I even get a chance to use those skills that took me my whole adult life to acquire.” The whole time I am thinking this, I am grabbing my nine mil from its holster. The only thing that saved the guy on the left was lack of tritium sights. I shot him a little too high but square in the head and tried to hit the second one but he dove for the taller elephant grass. Now I couldn’t see either one but I knew one or both were still alive. I wanted to shoot and move but I couldn’t find the quick release to unhook my lowering line. I previously released my canopy when I first hit the ground. I tried to shoot the lowering line with my pistol. It would have worked on TV but it didn’t in real life. When I realized I couldn’t get the harness free on the ruck and chute, like all good doctors or Rangers, I quickly executed plan B. I took off the harness, pulled my CAR15 out of the container and tossed a frag in the direction opposite of where I was headed. Once again, it would have worked on TV but real life is not always so kind. My grenade hit branches from the tree mentioned earlier and made it close to the two guys behind me but too close to me also. When my internal clock counted to 5, I dove for the ground. I felt a burning in my left triceps and hip. I jumped up and ran around the building and took a knee behind what I thought was a pallet. I just tried to let my eyes adjust to the dark and my ears adjust to the sounds around me.
I was just getting my wits about me when the building erupted with the sounds of gunfire. I could hear a few hundred rounds being expent. I wasn’t sure whether whether our side or theirs was being represented until two troopers emerged and threw a chemlight over the door. That was the signal that the building had been cleared. Interestingly, later one very scared military fireman emerged from the fire station somehow unscathed. I had my radio and weapon and now knew I was roughly where I needed to be. We planned on setting up the Battalion Aid Station at the fire station in case we wanted to use white light inside. Not having seen a casualty yet I figured that would soon change. The next Ranger that came near offered to cover me while I ran across the open to pick up my ruck. I did a 360 around the building ending up next to the “pallet” that I kneeled next to earlier. Along the way, I saw a SOCOM interpreter with a badly broken ankle. I gave him a couple of Tylenol three and told him not to worry. The pallet turned out to be a bunker with a 30 caliber heavy machine gun mounted on a tripod. Along side it were RPG’s, AK47’s and bunches of ammo. Turns out my glide path led my right across this position on my way to the tree. I later found out that the bunker was manned at the time of our jump.
One of our young lieutenants broke his jaw playing combat football on organization day during Thanksgiving. He rode on the AC130 flying over our objective as a Ranger liaison. He told me that he could see that the bunker in front of the fire station was manned when we jumped but the PDF soldier ran when the time was right. I imagine seeing roughly 700 Rangers coming at you in earnest would give me pause too. Leaving while they are still under canopy sounds like a pretty good idea. As an aside, that lieutenant joined up with us the next day. I lent him my CAR15 and he stayed for around a week. He had a battery-operated blender, which he used to crush MRE’s with so he could stuff food past his teeth, which were wired shut. A few days after his batteries died he was looking pretty pale from not eating so I had to request that he be sent home. We established the Bn Aid Station near the fire station and were saddened to hear that one of our medics was killed. James Markwell who I had only recently come to know well was shot in the chest. He was trying to stop a vehicle driving on the airfield. Many of the PDF changed into civilian clothes and tried to drive vehicles by and shoot at us. That way, they could drive off if things weren’t going well. Most found that not to be a very good idea. Amazingly, the AC130 can hit moving targets. There is a sign in front of the PDF barracks that has three 105 rounds through it. Looks like a giant above the earth was shooting a rifle down at them. In a manner of speaking, he was.
Most of our casualties were picked up on their part of the drop zone by a medivac instead of bringing them to the Bn Aid Station. We had a SOCOM satcom operator coordinating these medivac runs. That worked well except when the 82nd kept tying up our air space. We called in that the airfield was secure, but they kept dropping jumpers well into the next day during daylight. A day later, we were having a staff meeting on the tarmac and an 82nd trooper walks up looking just like Tom Sellac on Magnum PI. He was wearing flip-flops, jeans, and a Hawaiian shirt. He asked us where his BN of the 82nd was. Tom had apparently landed in the neighborhood adjacent to the airfield and decided to ditch his gear and go native for a day. Now that the coast was clear, he was trying to find his unit.
I have other recollections like delivering babies for the locals who heard that American doctors were at the airfield. Ultimately, I think we were pretty lucky that the PDF did not more vigorously defend the airfield. There is not much cover out there. I expect we would have prevailed but the cost would have been much higher. As I recall, they had roughly 20-30 KIA versus our one. Lest you think that a small price to pay though, imagine that one was you or someone very important to you. Our commander made some comments on that subject. I think for me that this experience was a very humbling one. I realize that Rangers in the past and in the future have been or will be called upon to accomplish some mission that will require a much more dear payment.
One of my medics was heart broken that he got left behind because he was in a school and missed the mission. Other classmates risked going AWOL and returned to the BN just on the chance that there might be a mission. I remember a line of Rangers some sporting casts outside the aid station prior to the mission. Every one of them wanted to be put back on duty, casts and all. I don’t think my friend who missed the jump is any less Ranger for having missed that operation. I have no doubt that he would have done whatever the mission required.
Being a Ranger means being a part of something bigger than you are. Those young soldiers exemplify what is good about being an American. They are intelligent, well trained, motivated, and selfless in their devotion to duty. I am proud to have once been a member of their ranks. To all the Rangers of the past present and future, Sua Sponte, Rangers Lead The Way!
LTC T. Scott McGee, M.D.
Former Battalion Surgeon 1/75th Ranger
I provide observations as seen through the eyes of a young rifle platoon leader. I was the PL for 1/A/1-75. My company commander was CPT Mark Ritter and unit 1SG was 1SG Hall. I believe that he went on to be the Regimental CSM, which does not surprise me. I’m currently a Major and he is one of the finest NCOs that I’ve seen. As for my platoon, I was blessed with exceptional squad and team leaders. The soldiers were top quality and we were exceptionally prepared for combat operations in the country of Panama. As I pull out my original map of operations in Panama, please bear with me as I share some personal thoughts.
Alert / Planning / Jump I want to discuss three things that I distinctly remember. First, prior to movement to the airfield for ammo upload and final rehearsals, SFC Hayes (PSG) said a prayer with the platoon all huddled together. This simple act did wonders to calm the nerves of all of us. Second, once at the airfield, 1SG Hall gave a very HOOAH pep talk to our entire company. He fired us up and we were ready to execute. Deep down, we realized that some of us might not return. However, it would not be because we let one of our fellow Rangers down. Third, who could ever forget a 500-foot jump on a potentially hot DZ? Actually, the DZ was not very hot, but we did not know that prior to the jump. I was the last jumper on the left door and I think it felt like an eternity to reach the door. Bottom line, no one wants to go down in a blazing aircraft.
Air Field Seizure of Torrijos / Tocumen As best that I can remember, 1st Plt tasks were to assemble on North end of the AF, seize the North end of the AF to prevent enemy from entering or departing the AF, defeat any enemy reinforcements from the North that may interfere with operations, clear Northern half of the runway surface to allow air landings of C-5 and C-141 aircraft. We jumped at approximately 0100 or 0200 local time on 20 Dec and we were 100% assembled within 10 or 15 minutes, which was a new platoon record. We completed all tasks in a timely manner, but I vividly remember one key event. As our third squad was checking the runway, SSG Anderson (SL) called back and said that he had found PFC Markwell. He had been shot in the chest and he was KIA. This was a terrible shock and we were all sad to hear this news. He was in a different company, so we did not know him well. However, we all mourned this terrible loss.
Operations at Patilla AF Early the same day (probably 1100 or so), our entire company moved by MH-47 to Pattila AF. Our task was to relieve a Navy SEAL Tm and to secure the AF as a base of operations for future offensive operations in that area. Again, the mission went off without incident, but I do remember that the SEALs were upset, because they had lost some of their brave warriors the previous night. Our Plt task was to secure the West half of the AF. Our stay at the AF was not that enjoyable. Rangers were built to move and to execute offensive operations and this was not the case. I can’t remember how long we stayed at Patilla, but we were ready for the next phase.
Operations in and around Cerro Azul We air moved the entire unit back to Torrijos / Tocumen AF. Again, my platoon secured the North side. After a week or so of this monotonous duty, we were alerted for an upcoming offensive operation. We were relieved of AF security by elements of the 82nd Abn Div, and we prepared ourselves for patrolling operations into the hills of Cerro Azul, which is just North of the AF. 1st Plt task was to conduct zone recon to find and capture members of Noriega’s special police force. We moved by MH-60 into the hills and spent two days combing the hills for nothing.
Final Thoughts As for lessons learned, I want to comment on a few items that I think are the cornerstone of any good light infantry unit. Our unit did these things well and it showed.
Command Climate. Leadership is directly responsible for this. If you have to ask what it is, then your unit probably is suffering from bad command climate. Our Bn, Co, and Plt had an outstanding command climate. LTC Wagner (Bn Cdr) had a lot to do with this, but I really think the NCOs were the key to this one.
Physical Fitness. Our Plt APFT average was 290, which is extremely high. Our soldiers were fit and they had great confidence and great toughness based on this fact.
Live Fire Proficiency. We live fired so much at squad and platoon level that our soldiers could do it in their sleep. We were extremely confident with our buddies to our left and right and we knew that our equipment worked. We also knew we could place accurate fire when needed.
Squad and Platoon Proficiency. We were excellent at the squad and platoon level. There are many reasons. However, we spent many hours executing specific battle drills at the squad and platoon level. We probably spent 40% of our training time at squad level and below, 30% plt level, 20% company level, and 10% at battalion level. SLs had time and they trained their squads.
Major Ivan Denton
Bn S3, 1-152 Inf