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SECTION VI

RENACER PRISON RAID


Perhaps time is the most critical element in determining how long and how detailed a rehearsal should be. Time is always in short supply on the battlefield; thus, many rehearsals end up as short-circuited "walk-throughs", at best, if not merely "talk-throughs." Yet given enough time, a unit can conduct effective rehearsals to the point of each member of the team being fully aware of his individual role and what to do in any number of contingencies. An example of an operation of this type was the recent raid on Renacer Prison during Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama, 20 December 1989.

Renacer Prison is located south of the town of Gamboa, Panama, alongside the Panama Canal, about 22 miles southeast of Fort Sherman. At the time of JUST CAUSE, the Prison was suspected of housing approximately 60 Prisoners, some from the October 1989-failed coup attempt against Manual Noriega.

SITUATION

Enemy Forces. There were 22 Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) guards at Renacer Prison, commanded by a captain. Reaction forces (police) could be expected from the town of Gamboa in about 20 minutes; in another 2 hours from Balboa, which is next to Panama City. The morale of these troops and police was unknown.

Friendly Forces. The mission to take the Prison was assigned to C Company (-) (the company's mortars were detached for another mission), 3d Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82d Airborne Division. Attached was a team of military police, three UH-1 helicopters, two OH-58 scout helicopters, and a landing craft medium (LCM) from the Jungle Operations Training Center (JOTC) where the battalion was undergoing the Jungle Operations Course.

PLANNING

Military sources collected intelligence necessary for the soldiers of TM Charlie to seize and secure the Prison, and release the Prisoners. The troopers practiced loading and unloading both UH-1s and Blackhawk helicopters, since they were not sure which type would be used. Squads practiced extensively on Prison mockups, built with imagination from such items as meals, ready to eat (MRE) cases, and trash cans. The troopers particularly concentrated on techniques for room clearing. Buildings and other hastily constructed mockups on Fort Sherman were used to replicate the Prison compound, U.S. aircraft, and even LCMs.

Assault, support, and security teams practiced each other's roles repeatedly until team compositions were finalized. After the final teams were formed, they drilled even more extensively on their roles. Day and night training occurred on mockups of the Prison. A walk-through was conducted using a terrain model/sand table.

Rehearsals emphasize Rules of Engagement (ROE). ROE will always be with us during contingency operations.

The troopers were confident they were as ready as possible. They had war-gamed virtually all contingencies.

PREPARATION

Prior to the operation, the unit was notified it would have UH-1 helicopters, vice UH-60s. The assault force consisted of 22 men who would land in the center of the Prison using two UH-ls. At the same time the assault force landed, the security/blocking force would land in a third UH-1 and occupy positions just north of the Prison and prepare to engage any reaction force from Gamboa or Panama City. The support element, with the company machine guns, would arrive simultaneously via an LCM from the canal side.

EXECUTION

The time and effort put into the rehearsals paid great dividends on the ground when the raid was launched in the early morning hours of 20 December 1989. Although the compound lights went out early-on, and an unanticipated chain-link fence was discovered, the well-drilled teams executed their contingency plans and drove on. The troopers, using their initiative, took their bayonets and cut an entry hole in the fence.

Except for the light and fence problems, the assault went like clockwork. The OH-58s were used for command and control, with one carrying the battalion commander and the other a company sniper. The sniper was used to take out one of the guard towers surrounding the Prison compound. U.S. forces used a loud speaker calling on the PDF to surrender. Casualties were 5 PDF soldiers KIA, 7 PDF WIA, and 10 additional PDF soldiers detained. TM Charlie suffered 2 WIA.

All 65 Prisoners, including two Americans, were secured unharmed. There had been rehearsals, down to individual soldier levels, under realistic combat conditions. This resulted in the mission being accomplished with a minimum of U.S. and PDF casualties.

In this case, the benefits of a good rehearsal under tough realistic conditions were:

  • Tight fire control.
  • Virtual elimination of fratricide.
  • Maneuver elements locations well known.
  • Information down to every soldier.
  • Feedback to the unit leaders which resulted in modifications to the plan.
  • Increased soldier confidence and aggressiveness.
  • Sense of partnership/ownership in the plan.

The raid on Renacer Prison is an example of a complex, orchestrated through realistic and imaginative rehearsals.

Lastly, once units such as battalion task forces, brigades, and divisions are committed, they would probably do reduced force rehearsals.

...At the end of a rehearsal, each soldier should know his responsibilities and the cues for his actions, and, most importantly, the commander will know whether his plan is adequate....

Table of Contents
Section V: Synchronization
Section VII: NCO Corner



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