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At H-Hour, 20 0045 Dec soldiers of the 4-6th Inf, 5-87th Inf, and attack helicopters from the 1-82d Avn assaulted the Commandancia complex in Panama City. They met stiff resistance and began to use the precision weapons from the AG-64 attack helicopters, AC-130 gunship, and M551 Sheridan assault vehicles to suppress positions inside the large complex. As U.S. fire into the complex increased, Dignity Battalion members and PDF soldiers began starting fires in the civilian housing area adjacent to the Commandancia to confuse and distract U.S. forces. The flames, heat, and thick smoke frustrated U.S. attempts to assault the complex and to concentrate fire on the positions within. Few assets were available to fight the now consuming fires raging through the housing area in the Chorrilo district. An estimated 10,000 people lost their shelter and swarmed to the DC camp established at the U.S. Balboa High School. As the economy was shut down by the fighting, more and more people flocked to the camp for food and safety. An estimated 30,000 people were in the camp during peak periods from 20-25 Dec. Inspections by the International Red Cross cited the camp operations as some of the best ever observed.


A DC camp was established to handle the flow of refugees from the city, whose numbers far exceeded initial estimates. Civilians came to the camp for three reasons: housing, security, and food. The most critical problems were medical care, sanitation, concern for family units, care for the elderly, security, and identification of former PDF/DIGBAT personnel.


  • A computer registration data base is essential. DCs would come and go from the camp, often losing their registration cards.

  • The camp became an informal, but effective, intelligence collection center, primarily because the phone number was one of the published American points of contact. The camp needed additional staffing (personnel and communications) to exploit this opportunity.

  • Local expertise and leadership should be used whenever possible. For example, the mayor of the devastated area was one of the DC camp members. He was made mayor of the camp and organized a staff and six suborganizations which took over the functions of administering the camp. This took a large burden off the U.S. forces and demonstrated our confidence in the Panamanians.

  • Supplies and materials, such as tents, concertina wire and sanitation supplies should be planned for in detail in advance.

  • A unit should be designated as the security element for the camp. Rotation of administrative elements; i.e., medics and clerks, as security only degrades the camp's ability to function.

  • Preventive medicine specialists are especially important as sanitation is a constant problem.

  • Planning needs to address nondisplaced persons who will show up at the camp for different reasons and how they are to be identified and handled.

Table of Contents, Volume III

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