Urban Operations: An Historical Casebook
Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama City, December 1989
Lawrence A. Yates
Operation JUST CAUSE, the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989, brought a quick and decisive end to the dictatorial regime of General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the country's political strongman and commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF). As official U.S. briefings later proclaimed with only slight exaggeration, approximately 27,000 American troops hit twenty-seven targets in Panama on 20 December, achieving most of the stated combat objectives within hours. Of these targets, many were located in Panama's two principal cities, Colón and Panama City, thereby providing the U.S. military its first significant experience in urban operations (UO) since Vietnam.1 The following assessment will focus on UO in Panama City, the largest of the two urban areas and the capital of the country (see Map 1).
Operation JUST CAUSE opened the climatic act in a drama that had begun in mid-1987 as an internal crisis for the Noriega regime, but which by early 1988 had expanded into a U.S.-Panamanian confrontation, especially after two federal grand juries in Florida indicted the dictator on drug trafficking charges.2 As the crisis unfolded, the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), established in 1962 to oversee U.S. military activities in Central and South America, carefully monitored daily developments, particularly the activities of the PDF. This task was facilitated by the fact that SOUTHCOM headquarters was located in Panama, at Quarry Heights atop Ancon Hill, with a clear view of downtown Panama City and several PDF and U.S. military installations in the area.3
Before the crisis, SOUTHCOM and the forces assigned to it had worked closely with the PDF. By early 1988, however, the escalating tensions had strained that relationship, a result of the PDF's increasing harassment of American military personnel and incursions onto U.S. military facilities. To enhance security for both people and property, SOUTHCOM's commander in chief (CINCSO), General Frederick Woerner, augmented his forces by bringing several U.S.-based units-mostly military police (MPs)-into Panama. Woerner also considered it prudent to begin writing contingency plans for the crisis, in case the PDF's behavior became more belligerent. The first of these operations orders (OPORDs) appeared in March 1988 and described defensive, offensive, and civil-military actions U.S. forces could take in the event of hostilities.4 Nearly two years of continuous planning followed, a process that was still ongoing when General Maxwell Thurman took over as CINCSO in the fall of 1989, just in time to witness the PDF brutally crush an in-house attempt by some disaffected officers to overthrow Noriega. The abortive coup left Thurman and others convinced that only U.S. military intervention could remove the dictator from power. Accordingly, planners concentrated their efforts on finalizing the OPORD, code-named BLUE SPOON, for offensive operations in Panama.
As presented by Thurman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, BLUE SPOON called for the United States to employ overwhelming force in a surprise assault on over two dozen targets in Panama. The "trigger event" for this attack would be another coup attempt, the killing of a U.S. citizen, or some other extreme provocation. H-hour was set at 0100 (as it had been throughout the planning process) to help achieve surprise, limit civilian casualties, and take advantage of U.S. night-fighting capabilities. The objectives of the operation would be to protect American lives, property, and interests; capture Noriega and his "accomplices"; neutralize and, if necessary, destroy the PDF; and engage in stability operations aimed at restoring law and order and assisting a new Panamanian government.5
Given these objectives, Panama City found itself at the "bull's-eye" of the combat plan.6 As the seat of government and home to several PDF facilities, half a million Panamanians, and most of the thousands of American civilians living in the country, the city could not be bypassed or besieged if the BLUE SPOON mission was to be accomplished in a timely way. Rather, U.S. forces would have to seize control of the capital from the PDF and maintain order there afterwards until a new Panamanian government could begin functioning effectively.
This would be no simple undertaking. Panama City, which traced its origins back to 1519,7 occupied in 1989 a broad strip of coastal territory along an axis running east from the southern (that is, Pacific Ocean) entrance of the Panama Canal (see Map 2). As the country's capital, the city housed key government buildings, foreign embassies, and the Panama Canal Commission. It was also a center of economic activity, with emphasis on manufacturing, banking, tourism, service industries, and the retail market. Balboa Harbor was a major port area, while Panama's principal commercial airport, Torrijos International, was adjacent to the Tocumen military airfield on the eastern edge of the city. Another airport at Paitilla serviced small planes. Also located throughout the capital were the various water, power, sanitation, medical, communications, and governmental services critical to the functioning of any major city. As with most urban areas that had evolved over centuries, Panama City was a mixture of old and new, with its varied landscape revealing high-rise apartments and business buildings, more common one- to three-story commercial buildings and private homes, upper and middle class residential neighborhoods, working class areas, slums, and historic sites. Only a few main avenues crisscrossed the city, in contrast to the maze of narrow streets found in the downtown area. Vehicular traffic was moderate to heavy, ensuring some degree of congestion throughout the day.
Panama City was also home to a sizable portion of the PDF, the umbrella organization for virtually all the country's uniformed personnel: infantry, special operations forces, riot control units, highway patrol and police, customs officers, and conservation officials. Out of a force of 15,000, approximately 3,500 PDF were regarded as combat troops, assigned mainly to infantry companies.8 In the capital, several of these units and organizations ringed Ancon Hill (see Map 3). From Quarry Heights, SOUTHCOM personnel looked down to the south upon the comandancia, the PDF main headquarters. Moving clockwise from there brought into view the Balboa and Ancon DENI stations (the DENI being similar to the U.S. FBI), the transportation department (DNTT), and the PDF engineer complex. South from the comandancia, within clear sight across the Bay of Panama, was Fort Amador, where the PDF 5th Infantry Company had its barracks. Down the Amador causeway, on Flamenco Island, were elements of Noriega's special operations unit, known by its Spanish acronym, UESAT. Between Ancon Hill and the northeasterly outskirts of the city were a cavalry squadron at Panama Viejo, the 1st Infantry Company at Tinijitas, and the 2nd Infantry Company and Panamanian Air Force at the Tocumen military airfield. Well east of the airport, but within striking distance of Panama City, was Battalion 2000 at Fort Cimarron. Besides these PDF units, the capital also accommodated the Dignity Battalions, club wielding civilians and PDF sans uniforms, organized to intimidate Noriega's opponents.
While the PDF had a significant presence within Panama City, the adjacent Canal Area was crammed with U.S. military bases and personnel. A short journey up the Canal from its Pacific entrance passed by Fort Kobbe, Howard Air Force Base, the Arraijan fuel depot, and the Rodman Naval Station and Ammunition Supply Point on the left bank; Quarry Heights, Albrook Air Station, and Fort Clayton on the right. The troops located at these and other facilities nearby could easily take part in military operations in and around the capital. Some of the units belonged to SOUTHCOM and were based in Panama. U.S. Army South's (USARSO) 193rd Infantry Brigade fell into this category, as did the Special Operations Command South, with its joint mix of special operations forces (SOF). Also available were elements brought into Panama over the course of the crisis to augment the in-country forces. These included Task Force Hawk, consisting of aviation assets from the 7th Infantry Division (Light); a battalion from the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized); two U.S. Marine companies, one with Light Amphibious Vehicles (LAVs); and several MP units (see Fig.1).9 Since most of SOUTHCOM's forces on the Pacific Ocean side of the isthmus abutted the western edge of Panama City, they would not have to conduct a forced entry into the capital in the event of hostilities. For all practical purposes, they were already there, literally minutes from likely PDF targets.
Fig.1: U.S. Forces in Panama, December 1989
The more pressing issue was whether enough forces were in Panama to attack the PDF while also defending the Canal Area. In early 1988, CINCSO thought not, and the initial BLUE SPOON OPORDs mainly called for in-country forces to secure U.S. facilities within the Canal Area and to isolate the battlefield in Panama City. Taking down the critical PDF command and control elements in the capital itself would fall to SOF strike forces deploying from the United States.10 Planners modified this initial concept of operations, however, once the continuing crisis saw additional U.S. troops deployed to Panama. By late 1989, in-country forces had acquired responsibility for several offensive missions under BLUE SPOON, many in and around Panama City.
While the city served as the bull's-eye for BLUE SPOON operations throughout Panama, the bull's-eye within the capital itself was the comandancia compound. If the PDF hoped to mount a coordinated response to an American attack, it would have to come from this main headquarters. To neutralize the facility and any troops defending it was the mission of Task Force Gator, led by the mechanized battalion already in Panama. Moving outward from the bull's-eye, the first ring around it included Balboa Harbor, Fort Amador, the Bridge of the Americas, Ancon Hill, and PDF positions around the base of the hill. Within this area, Navy SEALs were to disable vessels in the harbor, thus preventing them from entering the battle or extracting key PDF leaders, including Noriega. Meanwhile, Task Force Wildcat, led by a battalion from the 193rd Infantry Brigade, was to secure Ancon Hill and fix the PDF sites around it. The 193rd's other battalion, as the principal element of Task Force Black Devil, was to secure Fort Amador. Marines were to block the Bridge of the Americas to possible reinforcements from PDF barracks at Rio Hato 60 miles to the west, themselves the target for a U.S. Ranger battalion from the 75th Ranger Regiment deploying from the United States.
The outer ring in the target template over and slightly beyond Panama City included the city's three airports and the PDF units at Panama Viejo, Tinijitas, and Fort Cimarron. The mission of securing Paitilla airport fell to Navy SEALs, while a second Ranger battalion from the United States was to seize the Torrijos-Tocumen complex and secure the runways for a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, also deploying from the States. Once the paratroopers were on the ground, they were to mount air assaults on Fort Cimarron, Panama Viejo, and Tinijitas. These operations, together with those around Ancon Hill and at Fort Amador, were designed not just to neutralize the PDF but also to help isolate the main battle at the comandancia.
This concept of operations, while simple enough to explain in general, was in its details highly complex and dependent upon the efficient interaction between SOF and conventional forces during a joint undertaking. An effective command and control arrangement was essential, and Gen. Thurman had taken pains to ensure one (see Fig.2). After becoming CINCSO, he formally named Lieutenant General Carl Stiner, commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, "my warfighter." The corps was geared to contingency operations and, for that reason, had been involved during 1989 in the planning effort for BLUE SPOON. Now, under Thurman's command and control arrangement, execution of that OPORD would require Stiner and his staff to deploy to Panama and set up Joint Task Force (JTF)-South. Nearly all units engaged in the operation would be under JTF-SOUTH's control. That included Task Force Bayonet, the operational appellation of USARSO's 193rd Infantry Brigade, commanded by Colonel Mike Snell, which in turn had control over the three conventional battalion task forces operating in the comandancia-Ancon Hill area. More to the point, the arrangement included the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) that controlled the SOF elements assigned H-Hour targets in and around Panama City.11
Having achieved unity of command, Thurman and Stiner still had to anticipate the fog and friction of war, although even the worst-case scenarios excluded the possibility of an American defeat. Few if any U.S. officers considered the PDF to be a formidable force. The combat units were certainly well armed with Soviet-bloc weapons-AK47s, RPGs, cadillac-gauge vehicles, and the like-but leadership was poor, the soldiers lacked discipline, and, according to intelligence sources, morale in many units was low. Noriega himself was exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior, appearing drunk and belligerent at public and private functions. In SOUTHCOM's best estimate, the U.S. advantage of surprise, darkness, overwhelming force, and effective psychological operations (PSYOPS) would result in most PDF units deserting their posts or surrendering, perhaps after some token resistance. U.S. forces might have to clear a few buildings, but they would not have to fight their way through the city block by block. Small teams of PDF might be able to stage ambushes or, worse, launch shoulder-held missiles at U.S. aircraft. But even if successful, such limited measures would not turn Panama City into another Stalingrad. With a U.S. victory preordained, the only question was, "At what price?"
In answering this, planners recognized that their calculations involved more than the casualties U.S. forces would suffer in combat. BLUE SPOON also contained the mission of protecting U.S. citizens in Panama-Canal employees, businessmen, retirees, family members, military dependents, and others-an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 of whom lived in the capital. There was a separate plan for an evacuation of noncombatants (NEO), but by late 1989, as Thurman concentrated on the BLUE SPOON option, doubts persisted about the feasibility of executing both plans. To do a NEO prior to BLUE SPOON would sacrifice the element of surprise on which the combat operations depended. To conduct the two plans simultaneously, which meant extracting thousands of Americans from Panama while bringing in and supporting thousands of troops, would complicate matters and possibly lead to the kind of prolonged urban combat the BLUE SPOON concept hoped to avoid. Besides, as one XVIII Airborne Corps planner made clear, the tens of thousands of American citizens who had ignored official warnings to leave Panama had to have understood the risks involved in staying.12 U.S. forces would do what they could to protect housing areas in which American citizens were concentrated, but in the course of combat operations, there was no way to guarantee that some Americans would not fall victim to stray rounds, hostage taking, or PDF vengeance. The best hope for their safety lay in the expeditious accomplishment of BLUE SPOON objectives.
Besides the safety of American citizens and the defeat of the PDF, BLUE SPOON planners also had to address another aspect of the "end state" desired by the White House: a stable, democratic, and friendly government in Panama, capable of exercising effective leadership as quickly as possible after the old regime had been swept away. To help ensure that outcome, U.S. combat operations had to minimize the damage they inflicted. Planners considered the vast majority of Panamanians themselves to be friendly or neutral toward the United States; every effort had to be made not to put these people or their homes and belongings at risk unnecessarily. Nor could Panama's political, economic, and social infrastructure be destroyed, or even severely damaged, if BLUE SPOON hoped to achieve its strategic objectives. Yet, SOUTHCOM realized that combat in a congested urban area would inevitably entail casualties among noncombatants, some destruction of private property, and some disruption of law and order and basic services. Shelter, food, and medical facilities had to be available to civilians who suddenly found themselves refugees. Furthermore, any looting or demonstrations that might occur had to be controlled quickly and without resort to excessive force.
With these considerations in mind, the rules of engagement (ROE) set forth in CINCSO's BLUE SPOON OPORD directed that "To the maximum extent possible, commanders should use the minimum force necessary to accomplish the military objectives." The supporting JTF-SOUTH OPORD preferred the imperative voice: "Conduct all operations to minimize collateral damage to nonmilitary personnel and facilities, and limit economic hardship to PANAMA."13
The need to "minimize collateral damage" led to other restrictions, mainly in the area of fire support. Field artillery was available, but it was not to be used in Panama City if at all possible. A barrage simply risked causing too much damage in a congested urban area. Thus, any tactical unit requesting artillery support in the city had to obtain authorization from a lieutenant colonel or higher. For similar reasons, BLUE SPOON made no provisions for an air bombardment of the capital. At best, a few select units were to receive fire support from AC-130 gunships, armed with a 105mm howitzer and other destructive, but precision weapons. At the comandancia, TF Gator would also have the supporting fires of four LAVs and four M551 Sheridan armored reconnaissance vehicles. A limited number of Cobra and Apache attack helicopters were also available to hit selected targets,14 but most infantry units would have to rely for firepower mainly on rifles, grenades, machine guns, mortars, antitank weapons, and recoilless rifles.
The assumption at SOUTHCOM was that the "trigger event" for launching BLUE SPOON would occur sometime in January 1990. This estimate meant that the OPORD, even after the JCS had approved it in November 1989, could not be shelved. Both in Panama and the United States, planners continued to fine tune the plan and to test it using JANUS simulations. At the operational level, there was the ongoing need to perfect the communications for a joint undertaking and to ensure that the night-time airspace over Panama City, which would be crowded with a variety of U.S. military aircraft during BLUE SPOON, was "deconflicted." Beginning soon after the October 1989 coup attempt, Thurman arranged for monthly planning sessions in Panama between his officers, the XVIII Airborne Corps staff, and other involved headquarters. One of these meetings occurred during the week of Thanksgiving, at which time SOUTHCOM received a warning that a Colombian drug cartel intended to detonate car bombs against U.S. military targets in Panama. With Lt. Gen. Stiner and his staff already in Panama, Thurman used the threat to stand up JTF-SOUTH for a trial run. The bomb scare turned out to be a hoax, but it enabled the key BLUE SPOON command element to gain experience and identify problems.15
As the planners tweaked the OPORD almost daily, commanders of units assigned targets in Panama City had to prepare their troops for UO. In this undertaking, U.S. forces already in Panama enjoyed a decided advantage. Since May, as a result of an escalation in the crisis, they had been engaged in a variety of exercises and operations designed to assert U.S. treaty rights in Panama. That meant, among other things, switching the METL of the participating units from jungle warfare to what was then called Military Operations in Urban Terrain, or MOUT, the tactical doctrine for which appeared in Field Manual 90-10. It also meant that many, even most, of the exercises and operations could be geared to BLUE SPOON, with platoon- and squad-sized units often unwittingly rehearsing the plan by moving to the proximity of what were, unbeknown to them, designated H-Hour targets.16 The exercises accustomed the PDF to the constant movement of U.S. forces and allowed in-country commanders to establish a deceptive signature. For example, when airborne troops conducted air assault exercises onto Fort Amador, they always landed the helicopters in front of the PDF 5th Company barracks, even though BLUE SPOON called for a flanking attack.17 In addition to the ongoing exercises, the American troops in Panama familiarized themselves with the terrain and the enemy just by going about their daily business. They also scheduled personal reconnaissance, TEWTs, STAFFEXs, MAPEXs, and JEEPEXs.18
BLUE SPOON units based in the United States also enjoyed certain advantages. Out of view of the PDF, they utilized existing MOUT training sites or erected detailed mockups of their assigned targets that allowed them to engage in elaborate rehearsals (one of which, by chance, had been conducted just days before the invasion of Panama). Furthermore, whether located in Panama or not, units on the BLUE SPOON troop list developed battle books containing detailed information and photographic images of the assigned targets, conducted sandtable exercises, and engaged in live-fire exercises, employing terrain that resembled or had been improvised to resemble downtown Panama City. In one case, troops turned their own barracks into a MOUT training area, learning to clear rooms with rolled-up socks serving as grenades.
Since World War II, U.S. forces had been deployed to Lebanon (1958, 1982), the Dominican Republic (1965), and Grenada (1983), generally on short notice and without adequate preparation. In contrast, the troops who would execute BLUE SPOON in Panama City were as prepared as one could hope for their UO mission. Among the designated units, however, there were few combat veterans below the battalion level. How the others would take to their baptism of fire was problematical.
The answer came sooner than expected. On Saturday, 16 December, a car carrying four U.S. Marines ran a PDF roadblock near the comandancia. The PDF opened fire, killing one of the Marines, Lieutenant Robert Paz. This proved to be the anticipated "trigger event." On Sunday afternoon, President George Bush received a briefing on the incident and the status of BLUE SPOON. His decision: "Okay, let's go." Soon thereafter, BLUE SPOON received a nobler sounding name, JUST CAUSE. It would begin at 0100 Panama time, Wednesday, 20 December.19
Prior to H-Hour, much had to be done. Fortuitously, Stiner and his staff were scheduled to arrive in Panama on 17-18 December for the monthly planning session. With some changes in personnel, that group now showed up at Fort Clayton with orders to go to war. They continued to modify the plan until the last minute, identifying "war stoppers" and reexamining known problem areas. On Monday night, 18 December, certain key commanders were formally notified of the president's decision; others received word the next day, in time to give their troops a few hours to prepare for combat. Intelligence reports revealed that the PDF knew the U.S. was on the verge of taking military action, thus diminishing, but not eliminating, the element of surprise. Further complicating matters as H-Hour approached, SOUTHCOM learned that an ice storm had hit Pope Air Force Base, adjacent to Fort Bragg, thus calling into question the timely arrival of the brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division slated for operations around Panama City. Fortunately, other units concentrating on the capital were ready to go move out. To compensate somewhat for the loss of surprise, Thurman approved launching the attack on the comandancia fifteen minutes early. At 0045, specialized U.S. aircraft jammed Panamanian commercial broadcasting and PDF tactical communications, and AC-130s began pounding the comandancia. The battle for Panama City was officially underway.
Designating 0045 as H-Hour was, in this case, an operational convenience. In fact, well before that time, various U.S. units were en route to their targets, while others were already carrying out their assignments. Among these units were several SOF elements working for the JSOTF commander, Major General Wayne Downing. Downing had the H-Hour missions of capturing Noriega, rescuing an American citizen from a Panamanian jail, and neutralizing various PDF capabilities, including Paitilla airfield, Balboa harbor, and the Torrijos-Tocumen airport complex in the Panama City area. Of these, only the Balboa harbor mission went without a hitch.20 Intended to destroy any vessels that could be used to disrupt U.S. operations or help Noriega escape, the operation fell to Navy SEALs identified as Task Unit Whiskey, part of the JSOTF's TF White. Well before H-Hour, two SEAL swim teams crossed the canal in combat rubber raider craft launched from Rodman Naval Station. Once at the harbor, they swam to Pier 18, where they attached their demolitions to a docked patrol boat. On schedule, at 0100, the boat blew up and sank. (Much later, during daylight, TU Whiskey helped to seize Noriega's yacht, thus depriving the dictator of another means of escape.)
In contrast to TU Whiskey's nearly flawless success, the Navy SEAL operation at Paitilla airfield resulted in a deadly firefight with the PDF.21 The airport was located at Point Paitilla, a piece of land jutting out from the coastline a couple of miles east of the comandancia. A small facility with only one runway, Paitilla served private aircraft and some commercial flights. One of its hangars housed Noriega's Learjet. That and the airfield's potential use by PDF reinforcements flying into the capital put the facility squarely on the list of H-Hour targets for JUST CAUSE. With the southern end of the runway virtually touching the Bay of Panama, the mission for infiltrating the airstrip fell to SEAL Team 4, also part of TF White. As with many other units involved in JUST CAUSE, the team had rehearsed the operation just a week before being called upon to execute it. In brief, 48 SEALs in three platoons, supported by an off-shore command element and an Air Force Combat Control Team to coordinate with the AC-130 assigned to the mission, would run boats from the Canal's west bank up the bay to a beach near the southeastern tip of the runway. From there, they would move onto the airfield, secure the perimeter, and carry out the mission of destroying Noriega's jet and obstructing the runway so as to render it unusable to the PDF. Spotty intelligence reinforced by wishful thinking held that the team would encounter only a few security guards.
At 2100 Tuesday, SEAL Team 4 began its more than three-hour voyage to Punta Paitilla. Still planning to begin their assault at 0100, the SEALs learned en route of the 15-minute change in H-Hour at the comandancia. The battle there began right after the team landed, forcing them to rush in their approach to the hangars. As two of the platoons began moving up the runway, they received some critical information. A helicopter possibly carrying Noriega was heading to Paitilla, as was, possibly, a PDF column with V-300 armored vehicles. When the SEALs interpreted another message to mean that they should disable not destroy Noriega's jet, a degree of confusion was added to their sense of urgency.
After subduing some private security guards at one hangar, elements of the team ran into the PDF at another. A firefight ensued in which two SEALs were killed instantly.22 Two others died in a prolonged exchange of gunfire, during which the PDF were killed or routed. The SEALs then secured the airfield, obstructed the runway, and disabled Noriega's jet. They had accomplished their mission, but at a high price: four SEALs killed and eight wounded. Different assessments of the operation arrived at various conclusions, with the disproportionate casualties suffered by such a small force being variously attributed to last-minute changes--in command arrangements, the designated H-Hour, and the presumed mission--as well as to tactical lapses and poor communication between the SEALs and the AC-130 overhead. For some critics, however, the Paitilla losses were the result of a failure to use the right force for the mission. According to this view, Army Rangers, who train specifically for seizing airports, should have been employed, not Navy SEALs.
The Rangers did, in fact, draw an airfield mission, that of seizing and securing the Torrijos-Tocumen complex on the eastern outskirts of the city.23 Task Force Red-T was composed of the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment; a Ranger company from the regiment's 3rd Battalion; PSYOP and Civil Affairs teams; and an AC-130 gunship and two AH-6 "Little Bird" attack helicopters. The plan called for the Rangers, following preparatory fires from the AC-130 and Little Birds, to parachute into the airport. Their targets were the Panamanian Air Force at Tocumen, the PDF 2nd Infantry Company barracked there as well, and the International Terminal at Torrijos Airport. Seizing the air complex would prevent its use by the PDF and would provide a base for follow-on operations, beginning with those planned for the brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division, scheduled to arrive at the airfield forty-five minutes after the Rangers began their assault. The timely arrival of the airborne unit was viewed as essential, lest PDF units near the airport mount a counterattack against the Rangers or, worse, against U.S. units operating around the comandancia.
Generally speaking, the Ranger operation mirrored the plan. At 0100, the original H-Hour, the gunship and the attack helicopters opened fire on the PDF barracks and other positions at Tocumen. Many of the PDF had already fled, leaving as soon as they heard the fighting start at the comandancia. Others were killed or wounded in the barrage. Still others took cover. When the Rangers parachuted in at 0103, they met little resistance from the infantry company, the air force, and the security guards. Consequently, the battalion suffered only one fatality, the result of sniper fire during the clearing of PDF positions. In a little over two hours, the battalion had secured Tocumen, taken prisoners, and captured almost all of the Panamanian Air Force intact.
Unexpected difficulties arose, however, when Company C from the 3rd Ranger Battalion sought to secure the terminal at the adjacent Torrijos International Airport. One reason BLUE SPOON planners had chosen 0100 as H-Hour was that there would be no commercial flights into Torrijos at that time. But in the wee hours of 20 December, a late-arriving Brazilian aircraft had disgorged a few hundred civilian passengers into the terminal just before the Ranger assault began. As Company C approached the building, it confronted the risk of harming these civilians or of the PDF taking hostages. The latter, in fact, did occur on the first floor of the building, where, as Rangers were evacuating most of the civilians, nine PDF goaded by a Cuban diplomat seized two American girls-one account says a woman and a baby-and used them to hold a Ranger platoon at bay. After a standoff of over two hours, the Ranger company commander arrived and simply threatened to kill the hostage-takers if they did not surrender. Within minutes, they did.
While the hostage situation was evolving, another platoon from Company C, employing a squad per floor, was clearing the second and third levels of the terminal. From a restroom on the second floor, a couple of PDF opened fire on the Rangers, wounding two. The Rangers responded with grenades, but the stalls protected the PDF from the fragments. The Rangers then entered the restroom, and in the ensuing firefight, both defenders were killed.
As buildings at Torrijos-Tocumen were being cleared, the first planeload of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division began dropping in, a process that would drag on until 0430 because of the stateside ice storm, which necessitated the deicing of each transport before takeoff. The brigade from Fort Bragg experienced further problems when various elements and equipment landed well off target, often in swamp or tall grass. Because of the delays, operations against Fort Cimarron, Tinijitas, and Panama Viejo could not be mounted until after dawn. Fortunately, most PDF units in those outlying areas had not yet intervened in the battle for Panama City. The one unit that had tried was Battalion 2000 from Fort Cimarron. Its advance on the city, however had been stopped by U.S. Special Forces and an AC-130.24
Along with the harbor and airports, Downing's JSOTF had another mission in Panama City, a highly sensitive one. Timed to coincide with the attack on the comandancia, the operation involved elite assault forces freeing an American citizen incarcerated in the carcel modelo, a prison compound across the street from the PDF headquarters. As executed, most of the rescue mission went according to plan: the assault force "neutralized" the PDF guards and, after extracting the American from his cell, placed him aboard an AH-6 helicopter on the roof of the jail. But as the chopper lifted off, it was hit by PDF fire and crashed into the street below, resulting in injuries to all aboard save the civilian. Quickly, three M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) arrived on the scene to scoop up the men and rush them to safety.25
The M113s had been waiting nearby in case they were needed. They belonged to TF Gator, the conventional force charged with conducting the main H-Hour assault on the comandancia. The PDF headquarters, three stories high and made of concrete and reinforced steel, was the largest of ten buildings within a walled compound and had always been viewed by BLUE SPOON planners as the most critical of the organization's command, control, and communications nodes. One problem in mounting an attack on the compound was that it was located near the downtown area in el chorrillo, a poor and crowded barrio with narrow and erratic streets, buildings of various sorts and sizes (including a sixteen-story high-rise right behind the comandancia), and significant vehicular traffic, even late at night.
A subordinate element of Task Force Bayonet, TF Gator was led by Lieutenant Colonel James Reed, the commander of the 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized).26 It was no accident that the battalion, which had rotated into Panama as part of the ongoing show of force President Bush had initiated earlier in the year, belonged to the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), a unit still equipped with the M113 APC. In the narrow streets and constricted terrain of downtown Panama City, U.S. planners believed, the M113's size held an advantage over that of its replacement in the Army's inventory, the larger Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
Two of Reed's companies, B and D, formed the core of TF Gator. The plan called for them to set up a series of squad- and platoon-size blocking positions around the carcel modelo and comandancia compounds, designated A and B, respectively (see Map 4). Meanwhile, Company C, 1st Battalion, 508th Regiment (Airborne), a unit attached to TF Gator from USARSO's 193rd Brigade, was to secure and clear the buildings behind the PDF headquarters in the vicinity of the high-rise. From intelligence reports, Reed knew that the ratio of American troops PDF at the comandancia would be at best 1:1 (350 U.S. to 390 PDF). Conventional wisdom, however, holds that to guarantee a successful assault, the attacker to defender ratio should be at least 3:1 and preferably higher, 4:1 or 5:1, in UO. To compensate for the manpower shortfall, Reed, as noted, had operational control of four LAVs and four Sheridans for fire support. He could also count on two AC-130s overhead, as well as AH-6 attack helicopters. Rounding out the task force were two MP platoons (for placing roadblocks around the combat zone), an engineer platoon broken down into 2-3 man demolition teams, and a PSYOPs team. With this force, Reed planned to isolate and pound the PDF headquarters, after which U.S. troops could enter the compound to clear the buildings. Because of the SOF-led rescue mission at the carcel modelo across from the comandancia, TF Gator would begin its attack under Downing's operational control. (The transfer of control from TF Bayonet to the JSOTF took place on Monday, well in advance of the operation.)27
As a result of a repositioning of units on the Saturday night Lt. Paz was killed, Reed had both of his mechanized companies on the east bank of the Canal, the same side as the comandancia. D was at Fort Clayton, B a few miles to the south at Corozal. Shortly before the attack, he brought the LAVs and Sheridans-labeled Team Armor-over to the east bank as well. Last-minute preparations included hydrating the troops for combat in a tropical clime, getting intelligence updates (which indicated the PDF knew the attack was coming), and applying glint tape to uniforms and equipment and disseminating passwords. Both of these latter measures were designed to reduce the risk of friendly fire, an overriding concern U.S. commanders shared throughout the theater of operations, but especially in the congested area of the comandancia.
The decision to move H-Hour ahead by fifteen minutes caused some adjustment but little disruption to TF Gator's schedule as it set out toward the target. When Team Armor reached Ancon Hill, it moved out of formation and took up firing positions on the hillside overlooking the compound. Company B settled in briefly near to Quarry Heights and waited for Company D to move into position around Balboa Avenue. Once that was done, both companies advanced in M113s toward their blocking positions. Meanwhile, Company C, 1/508, moved dismounted into the built-up area adjacent to the compound. The entire task force was now committed to the attack, a fact that caused Reed some concern. TF Gator had no combat reserve. If additional forces were needed, they would have to come from the reserve controlled by Colonel Mike Snell at brigade level, that is, at TF Bayonet.
As B and D companies set out, they immediately saw that the PDF had put its advance knowledge of the invasion to good use. Well before the two units reached their positions, they encountered roadblocks covered by intense small-arms and RPG fire, especially from the built-up area and high-rise apartment building. Reconnaissance by U.S. Special Forces had discovered a couple of the roadblocks, but a third had gone undetected. The worst was one that stacked heavy dump trucks two deep. In trying to negotiate the obstacles, both columns stalled, with Company B suffering one fatality, a corporal who was killed while providing suppressive fire against the PDF. Innocent bystanders also paid a price, as M113s, in going over vehicles in their way, could not always distinguish between empty cars and those with civilians inside.
As the columns approached the comandancia, the battle became more heated. The AC-130s and AH-6s pounded the compound, and to those watching, the 105mm howitzers of the Spectre gunships seemed to be pulverizing the main headquarters building. In reality, the damage inflicted, while extensive, was restricted largely to the top floor, the howitzer rounds failing to penetrate to the second and first floors before detonating.28 From Ancon Hill, Team Armor also opened fire, although some of the vehicles found their line of sight to the comandancia obscured either by trees on the hill or by the smoke, fire, and debris that soon engulfed the target. Consequently, the teams impact on the early part of the battle was marginal. Once Reed realized this, he moved some of the M551s off Ancon Hill, giving one to each of the two companies assaulting the PDF complex.29 From their new positions, the Sheridans were much more effective against the compound's walls and defences.
All of the U.S. assault force initially encountered heavy firing from the compound and the built-up area around it, especially from the 16-story high-rise apartment building. Restricted somewhat by ROE designed to limit civilian casualties, the Americans generally showed remarkable discipline in returning fire, although on occasion, they could not refrain from unleashing indiscriminate suppressive fires on the assumption that, after a certain point, no uninvolved civilian would be so foolish as to stand on a balcony and risk certain injury in order to observe a war.
It took an hour for Company B in the north to secure its positions, and an hour or so longer for Company D in the south. At one point in the fighting, an AH-6 was shot down, landing inside the comandancia compound. The pilot and copilot managed to get out of the craft, hide out, then make their way to a segment of the wall, climb over, and scurry to the American lines, shouting something en route that sounded more like profanity than the password. They both made it to safety, narrowly escaping a tailor-made opportunity to become friendly fire victims. One mechanized platoon, however, was not so fortunate. As it approached the compound, one of the AC-130s tracking PDF V-300s changed the target acquisition system on the gunship in order to obtain a better image. When the gunner reacquired the target, it was the wrong one, not the V-300s, but U.S. M113s. The AC-130 hit all three of the platoon's APCs and wounded 21 of 26 of their occupants. Miraculously, no one was killed, but the unit had been put out of action. Reed had a fire support officer located with the JSOTF, and when it became apparent what was happening, communication with the AC-130 ended the firing before further damage could be inflicted. But the fears of a major friendly fire incident in a congested urban area had been realized.30
While this was going on, Company C, 1/508, was waiting for word to enter and clear the comandancia compound. But Reed never issued the order. In the meantime, heavy sniper fire and grenades rained down on the company, resulting in the death of three soldiers. After that, the unit pulled back to a safer area.
Shortly before dawn, the shooting had been reduced to sporadic sniper fire. At 0430, TF Bayonet resumed operational control of TF Gator from the JSOTF. Remaining was the task of clearing the buildings. Reed had not issued the order to Company C, 1/508, to start the procedure because, after talking to Col. Snell, the TF Bayonet commander, he had decided to await the arrival of a Ranger company from the Torrijos-Tocumen operation to lead the effort. Reed felt that the Rangers had more expertise and experience in clearing rooms than did his mechanized troops, despite their pre-JUST CAUSE UO training. The company arrived around noon on the 20th. With the support of Apache helicopters requested by Reed and a platoon of TF Gator troops covering them from the roof of a nearby gymnasium, the Rangers began clearing the prison and other facilities in compound A and then moved on to buildings in compound B, which included the comandancia itself. Company C, 1/508, joined in. By late afternoon on the 20th, the area was secure. TF Gator had lost four soldiers killed in action (KIA) and had had several more wounded. PDF casualties were unknown, but assumed to be substantial. Hindering an accurate account was the fact that few of the PDF fighting at the comandancia wore uniforms.
Leaving a platoon to secure the PDF headquarters and its contents, TF Gator engaged in several follow-on operations. These included helping Navy SEALS clear Flamenco Island, securing a Panamanian television station near the Ancon DENI, and, potentially most challenging, securing the San Filipe DENI station without harming one of its occupants, a PDF colonel who was also a U.S. intelligence "asset." Reed wondered how he would extract the colonel if a firefight erupted while the officer was still inside the DENI. His speculation ended, however, when U.S. units arrived at the DENI to find that the PDF, with the exception of the colonel, had fled.
Looking back on the battle at the comandancia, Reed reached several conclusions. One concerned the proven value of the M113 APC in UO. Planners had wanted the M113 because of its size and, in case civilians needed to be evacuated from certain areas, its interior capacity. To these attributes, Reed added the vehicle's freewheeling .50-caliber machine gun that could be trained on the upper stories of high-rise buildings and used much more readily for suppressive fire than the Bradley's more precise 25mm cannon. He also noted that infantry in the M113 could stand and fire from the troop compartment without obstruction (in contrast with the Bradley, where they could only do so only with the turret on top pointed to the front).
While Reed praised the M113, he was lukewarm regarding the performance of Team Armor's Sheridans and LAVs from their positions on Ancon Hill. The noise and debris created by the Sheridans did have a psychological value at the outset of the fighting, he argued, and once the clearing operations got underway that afternoon, both the Sheridans and LAVs helped to suppress sniper fire. But neither of the vehicles had created much physical damage from Ancon Hill during the nighttime assault, although the Sheridans Reed pulled out of position to assign to companies B and D proved very effective against the compound walls. As for the AC-130s, he conceded that they were highly accurate and could bring devastating supporting fires to bear, a tremendous asset if they hit the right target. That they did so most of the time at the comandancia was offset by the one serious incident of friendly fire.
Other key observations offered by TF Gator dealt with a variety of issues. U.S. snipers, Reed believed, had been too constrained by the ROE, thus limiting their effectiveness against the PDF snipers who bedeviled the task force. The fact that few PDF fought in uniform also created a dilemma for U.S. troops under strict orders to avoid civilian casualties. What was a legitimate target and when to shoot at it was not always clear, although no friendly KIAs could be attributed to any indecision by the troops as to when to use deadly force. During the battle, Reed also realized that his medical station was too far away from the fighting, so he approved setting up an intermediate one closer to the battle. Finally, as will be seen, TF Gator was not prepared to cope either with the large number of refugees that appeared at dawn on 20 December or with the widespread looting in Panama City that followed within days.
The battle for the comandancia saw some of the fiercest fighting to occur during Operation JUST CAUSE. With a force-to-force ratio of 1:1 at best, TF Gator could not afford to find itself outflanked by PDF reinforcements. As Reed put it, "I had no ability within my own resources to fight the deep battle . . . ." That being the case, the Rangers, the 82nd Airborne brigade, Marines, and Special Forces were to block any enemy forces coming in from distant locations. That left PDF personnel in the immediate vicinity of Ancon Hill to worry about. To make sure that none of these forces interfered in the battle downtown was largely the responsibility of Task Force Wildcat, another task-organized unit within Task Force Bayonet.31
Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Huff III, TF Wildcat had at its core three companies (A, B, and C) from the 5th Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 193rd Brigade, headquartered at Fort Clayton. Rounding out the force was a mechanized infantry company, Company A, from LTC Reed's mechanized battalion, and an HHC. In what was labeled a supporting attack for the comandancia, TF Wildcat received the mission of isolating and fixing PDF targets in the Ancon Hill area. Moving clockwise around the hill from its base in the Balboa section of Panama City, Company B was responsible for all of Balboa, including the Balboa DENI station located along TF Gator's route to the comandancia and TF Black Devil's into Fort Amador. Company C targeted the DNTT building and the Ancon DENI station, the latter situated at a critical intersection where two main avenues merged into Gaillard Highway. Company A picked up the PDF engineer compound, mainly because the company commander lived near the target and knew the terrain. The attached mech company would set up five roadblocks at critical intersections to block any PDF reinforcements that might show up from Tinajitas, Panama Viejo, and Fort Cimarron. Prior to all this, the task force's Scout and AT platoons would reconnoiter routes and targets; once the operation began, they would serve as the reserve.
The Scouts pulled out the back gate of Fort Clayton about 0030 and proceeded toward the target area. At that time, there was some shooting in an isolated incident around Pier 18 in Balboa Harbor, but other than that, the city seemed calm. Consequently, TF Wildcat's recon element proceeded as though it were on a routine exercise. That meant, among other things, stopping for traffic lights. The Scouts wore soft caps and kept their weapons out of sight, a modicum of deception that, at one red light, enabled them to avoid a firefight with ten PDF nearby who, despite training their AK47s on the Scouts, seemed confused as to what was transpiring. The Scouts went on to fulfill their mission, reporting to headquarters the status of the targets they had reconnoitered.
Soon after the Scouts left, the four infantry companies departed for their objectives, Company C and Company B from the front gate at Clayton, Company A, 5/87, and Company A, 4/6, from the Curundu area nearby. The mech company reached the 4th of July Avenue within minutes and began setting up the key roadblocks. Company A, 5/87, infiltrated the area near the engineer compound, and Company C began to fix its targets. Only Company B encountered resistance before reaching its objective. As the unit approached Balboa via Gaillard highway, it was ambushed by PDF occupying a bus and two cars. The shooting temporarily slowed the company, but with two soldiers wounded, it drove on through the ambush.
Huff set up his Jump TOC in the vicinity of the Panama Canal Administration building, where with the help of retransmission stations, he enjoyed good communications with each of his companies. He could also move the Jump TOC to either side of Ancon Hill to influence whatever target required his urgent attention. As it turned out, once TF Wildcat crossed its LD, each of its four targets went "hot." At the engineer compound, Company A received small-arms fire from each of fourteen buildings-the biggest a large hangar-that made up the complex. Inside the buildings were PDF-almost all clad in civilian clothes-from several units, including UESAT and Macho de Monte. Systematically, Company A cleared each of the buildings, putting to good use the concealment offered by the terrain around the compound. The company commander, in keeping with the unit's UO training, employed a leap-frog method in which a platoon would clear a building, then rest as another platoon cleared the next building. When the fight was over, five PDF were dead, about twice that wounded, and 85 were prisoners (EPWs). The company suffered three casualties, two from ricochets and one from broken glass.
As Company C began its assaults on the Ancon DENI and the DNTT, the company commander encountered communications problems between the two sites, primarily because of the obstructions posed by natural terrain and houses. Once he moved his Jump TOC to another location on Ancon Hill, the problem was resolved. (On a more general level, TF Wildcat discovered that its PRC-126 radios did not work that well inside or between buildings.) Meanwhile, Company C moved on its two objectives, hopeful from intelligence reports that the defenders at each would not fight. The assessment proved wrong. The PDF had formed an ad hoc commando unit around a core of UESAT troops and had "sprinkled" the group around to the various sites surrounding Ancon. Consequently, when the elements of Company C maneuvering against the DNTT building tried to talk the defenders into surrendering, they were met with small-arms fire.
At one point in the ensuing firefight, an AC-130 became available, and TF Wildcat asked for fire support. The request was canceled, however, when one of two "marking rounds" from the plane exploded dangerously close to Company C's 3rd Platoon. The attackers next called for fire support from the task force's 81mm mortars placed in an athletic field on Albrook Air Station, but as with the AC-130, spotter rounds landed precariously close to friendly platoons. The next step was to fire the company's 60mm mortars in a direct-fire mode, a decision that produced "good results." Once in the DNTT building, elements of Company C engaged in room-clearing operations, with some PDF, especially the snipers, not giving up until U.S. troops were right outside the door. At the company's other objective, the Ancon DENI station, resistance was heavy, so the company commander ordered the building "riddled" by .50 caliber machine guns. Then, as his troops set to enter the structure, he had a 90mm round fired through the door. In this case, the proximity of a housing area to the station precluded use of mortars. Similar to the DNTT, however, the station had to be cleared room-by-room. In that operation, U.S. snipers proved very effective against those PDF who did try to escape the fighting.
As in the case of the engineer compound, UO training paid off at the DNTT. But training cannot replicate all aspects of combat, especially the psychological impact. After the battles, Huff made reference to the movie "Aliens," a 1980s sci-fi thriller, in recounting the sensory experience his troops shared once they entered the building. The power had been cut, the lights were out. With flashlights, the soldiers could see steam escaping from pipes, and they could hear its hissing, an eerie sound in the near dark. This was punctuated by the noise of materials crashing to the floor in the combat-damaged building. As the soldiers moved from hallway to hallway, their flashlights cast bizarre shadows. The cumulative effect of all this was a "dark" and "surreal" surrounding, one that elevated the fear level of the troops and slowed them down. Still, they got the job done. The men would push their flashlights into a corner, a hallway, a room, waiting to see if the light would draw fire. If it did, they would lob grenades at the source. Working from the ground up (not the top down, as called for in doctrine), the buildings were cleared.
As elements of TF Wildcat were seizing the DNTT, engineer compound, and Ancon DENI, a platoon from Company B began neutralizing the Balboa DENI station. Each infantry platoon in the task force possessed a 90mm recoilless rifle, and just minutes before JUST CAUSE began, the units received rounds for the weapon. Huff later heaped praise on the 90mm: it was "loud," he said, better than the AT-4s and LAWs for creating the desired psychological effect in a UO environment governed by restrictive ROE. At the Balboa DENI, many PDF escaped into an adjacent housing area. Those who remained ignored appeals to surrender, after which the U.S. platoon outside demonstrated the firepower at their disposal. That included the 90mm recoilless rifle, one round from which lodged itself under the building's roof and started a fire. The platoon had not intended to burn the station to the ground, yet in the midst of the H-Hour battles, their requests for a fire truck went unanswered. Huff later remarked sardonically that the fire was "very unfortunate."
Once the four H-Hour targets were secure, TF Wildcat began follow-on operations, many of which took them into housing areas around Ancon Hill. The sweeps sought to ferret out remaining PDF, a task that under intense UO conditions could be fraught with danger. Most PDF, however, knew that it was futile to resist. As U.S. troops combed the houses, Panamanian males of military age who could not prove they were not PDF were taken to the EPW compound at Albrook Air Station for questioning. The sweeps also uncovered weapons caches and PDF documents. Going into Friday, December 22, TF Wildcat had suffered only one KIA, the result of a drive-by shooting by some recalcitrant PDF.
As with TF Gator, TF Wildcat later submitted a list of lessons learned. These included, as already noted, praise for the 90mm recoilless rifle, both for the physical and psychological impact it produced. Units at several of the targets also commented on the need to "eliminate" street lights during the fighting. Additionally, the significant number of PDF taken prisoner reflected well on the task force's achievements, but at the time, looking after the EPWs drained the attack force, leading to recommendations afterwards to develop methods for removing prisoners from the battlefield more quickly.
In conjunction with TF Wildcat, TF Black Devil, the third task force under Col. Snell's TF Bayonet, had the mission of neutralizing a PDF target near the comandancia, in this case the PDF 5th Infantry Company at Fort Amador.32 Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Billy Ray Fitzgerald, TF Black Devil consisted of the headquarters, headquarters company, and two airborne infantry companies, A and B, of the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment (Airborne), located at Fort Kobbe. To round out the task force, Fitzgerald had received MPs and, from the mechanized battalion, a platoon of Scouts with ten vehicles. The 1/508 had prepared for the mission with terrain models and in UO exercises that had converted the barracks at Kobbe into training sites; it had also conducted actual air assault exercises into Amador, part of the assertion of U.S. treaty rights in the months preceding JUST CAUSE. What would complicate the actual execution of the plan was the fact that directly across an athletic field from the PDF barracks was a housing area for U.S. military dependents.
On the night of 19 December, Fitzgerald began infiltrating his HHC, Scout and AT platoons, and mortars onto Amador. They were in position by 2200, three hours before H-Hour. Around 0015, following television announcements that indicated U.S. military action was imminent, movement within the 5th PDF Company could be detected. Around 0030, at the time the shooting at Pier 18 began, that movement increased. Fitzgerald, who was on the scene, spotted a PDF bus that appeared to be getting ready to exit the facility. He therefore asked and received permission to close the front gate to Amador prior to H-Hour. Just as the soldiers sent to do so arrived at the gate, they saw the bus approaching at high speed, with PDF hanging out the windows firing at them. Having rehearsed such a scenario, the U.S. troops returned fire, causing the bus to swerve and hit a tree. As the firefight continued, a Toyota Corolla appeared, with its PDF occupants also trying to shoot their way out, but experiencing no better results than their comrades on the bus.
As Fitzgerald's men started to close the causeway leading from the fort, members of the mortar platoon began knocking on the backdoors of the housing area, informing the occupants of the pending hostilities and offering to take them out, if they insisted. The better course of action, they were told, was to take cover.33 Meanwhile, Fitzgerald requested that the air assault be moved ahead in order to achieve some surprise. JTF-South, however, concerned with "deconflicting" the air-space over the southeastern part of the city, denied the request. By that time, the battle at the comandancia had started, and Fitzgerald thought "incredible" the number of rounds coming toward his objective from that fight.
At 0100, the first elements of the air assault began to arrive, with the troop-carrying Black Hawks being covered by Cobra attack helicopters. Once the first lift discharged its human cargo, the second lift came in, just as a PDF soldier hit an OH-58 Kiowa with small-arms fire. The chopper crashed, killing the crew of two, the only KIA in TF Black Devil. As the assault force assembled, the PSYOPS broadcasts began, Fitzgerald letting them go on for over an hour on the basis of rumors that the 5th Company was about to surrender. When it became clear that the PDF were only stalling, the attack began. For starters, the troops fired M60 and .50 caliber machine guns, AT-4s, and 90mm recoilless rifle rounds at the PDF mess hall. The firing then extended to other buildings. When the PDF refused to surrender, Fitzgerald waited until dawn and then ordered the barracks cleared. The process was slow and methodical, with no U.S. casualties initially. Just as the troops were becoming comfortable, however, perhaps to the point of letting their guard down, the PDF opened fire from Building 4 with RPGs, machine guns, and snipers. By 1800, the barracks were secured in a battle that was best recalled for the use by U.S. troops of a 105mm howitzer in a direct-fire mode. More important to TF Black Devil was the fact that it had incurred no casualties and inflicted no unnecessary damage.
All the H-Hour battles in Panama City encountered the fog and friction of combat, yet all turned out pretty much the way the planners and commanders had anticipated. The PDF put up heavier resistance than expected in some locations, but in no single battle save the shootout at Paitilla airfield did enemy forces take a significant toll of U.S. troops. The live-fire exercises, the training events, the rehearsals, the other forms of preparation had all paid off, a point made in virtually every after-action report. Casualties for the attacking force are supposed to be high in UO, but U.S. discipline, training, and firepower had negated any advantage that an inadequately trained and, with the exception of a few company-grade officers, poorly led PDF might have enjoyed. Ammunition expenditures in UO are also supposed to be high, and in some of the H-Hour battles in Panama City, this proved to be the case. But given the short duration of the fighting, resupply was not a problem. By the evening of December 20, all the H-Hour objectives in Panama City had been taken. The outcome had never really been in doubt.
There were, of course, unexpected developments en route to the victory. For U.S. forces in the southeastern part of the city, one of these surprises involved having to deal with large numbers of civilians during and after the H-Hour battles. The planners knew that people concentrated in a major urban area could create a variety of problems during a military operation. Innocent bystanders could become hostages or, worse, casualties. As anticipated, the PDF did take hostages, as for example at Torrijos International Airport and, later in the operation, at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Panama City. There were other isolated cases as well. Yet, the worst fears of the U.S. planners-a wholesale roundup of Americans living in Panama-did not materialize. Nor did Noriega's supporters attempt to capture key U.S. military and civilian personnel whose names appeared on a PDF "hit list."
Ironically, the first fatality in an operation designed to protect U.S. citizens in Panama was an American school teacher, shot by the PDF outside Albrook Air Station at the outset of JUST CAUSE. (The only other American civilian to die appears to have been murdered in an incident not related to the intervention.) Most of the civilian fatalities were Panamanian, an estimated 200 to 300. Some were killed by the PDF, others inadvertently by U.S. troops. More civilians almost certainly would have been killed or wounded had it not been for the discipline of the American forces and their strict ROE. As it turned out, the figure of Panamanian dead was large enough to stimulate debate over the need for the invasion to remove Noriega, but not large enough to generate a sense of outrage in Panama or abroad, or to turn the Panamanian people against the U.S. intervention or the nation-building program that followed it.34
Where the planners sorely underestimated a civilian problem was with respect to refugees.35 People would be displaced by the fighting in Panama City; that was to be expected. But it was also assumed that the number of refugees would be manageable: the pin-point accuracy of U.S. weapons would minimize "collateral damage," as would the anticipated short duration of the planned attacks. This was not an unreasonable assumption, but one that did not foresee an entire neighborhood going up in flames-which is exactly what happened to the barrio of el chorrillo, located next to the comandancia. Whether set off by stray rounds from the fighting or ignited deliberately by the PDF in retaliation for the neighborhood's well-known anti-Noriega activities in the past, a fire in one house in el chorrillo soon spread to the entire area. By dawn, both TF Gator and TF Wildcat found thousands of homeless and frightened Panamanians-not the few hundred that were predicted-crossing into their lines, even as the combat operations were still in progress. As Huff recalled his reaction, "I could not believe it!" Reed shared this amazement.
To get the civilians out of harm's way and that of the engaged U.S. troops, both commanders had refugees directed to the Balboa High School, site of TF Bayonet's main medical station. Consequently, the school had to be converted into a refugee center immediately, an improvised process that overtaxed the few U.S. officers and troops located there. By the end of the day, thousands of Panamanians had situated themselves inside the building or outside in the athletic field. (At its peak, the number of refugees at the school was estimated at 10,000.) Quickly, toilets backed up. Food, sanitation, and hygiene became serious concerns. So did the mix of people: families with children, young toughs, criminals, even PDF all mingled together. Some inside the camp had weapons, some had drugs. Lacking the personnel to secure and run the camp, U.S. personnel on the scene decided to let the refugees do it themselves. Committees were set up, each with a function and responsibility. Within days, the makeshift center was running more smoothly; security was in place, undesirables had been removed, and some of the refugees had been able to return home or move to better accommodations. By that time, combat units had been brought in to help with the situation, but only over the protests of commanders who did not believe this a proper role for their troops. To follow through on this issue, a year after the invasion, there was a significant number of Panamanians who, made homeless by the invasion, were still living in a "tin city" set up at Albrook Air Station, the biggest scandal associated with JUST CAUSE.
Looting was another problem that planners had anticipated but on a scale much smaller than that which actually occurred. The temporary breakdown of law and order triggered by the invasion and the subsequent destruction of the PDF offered temptations in urban areas that many Panamanians, particularly from poorer neighborhoods, could not resist. Not long after JUST CAUSE began, looting in Panama City (and in Colón on the Atlantic side) had become endemic. As with the refugee situation, U.S. troops during the first few days were spread too thin to deal with the problem. By the time adequate numbers were available to control the disorder, the spectacle of mobs running loose in downtown Panama City had, as with the plight of the refugees, created a public relations nightmare for SOUTHCOM and the Pentagon.
These episodes should not suggest that all encounters between U.S. forces and the population of Panama City during JUST CAUSE were negative or unrewarding. As polls would later show, the vast majority of Panamanians supported the U.S. intervention. After Noriega sought safety within the Papal nunciature in Panama City, angry crowds gathered outside to demonstrate. U.S. officers trying to negotiate the deposed dictator's surrender used the demonstrations to increase the pressure on him. If he did not give up, Noriega was told, the crowds might get out of control and storm the the premises. His safety-his life-in that event, could not be guaranteed. Noriega got the point and turned himself over to U.S. drug enforcement agents.
Large numbers of friendly Panamanians were alsoin the city, eager to do their part in determining a satisfactory outcome to the U.S. intervention. Within hours after hostilities began, people were accosting American troops and flooding official phone lines, offering a variety of helpful information: the whereabouts of PDF trying to evade capture, the location of arms caches, the best way to win the war. Much of what these Panamanians had to offer was valuable and some was put to good use. But a good deal of the information was ignored: SOUTHCOM, JTF-SOUTH, USARSO, and other headquarters had no organization or procedures designed specifically for handling this kind of fortuitous windfall on such a grand scale.
Nor were the organization and procedures for implementing a "guns for money" program in place once the fighting subsided. Thus, responsibility for paying Panamanians for turning in their firearms passed initially to combat units, often before those units knew the program had been started (thus making life precarious for any well-intentioned citizen seeking to turn in a weapon) and often before the money was available to pay out (which led to the issuance of IOUs that could be easily duplicated by unscrupulous individuals). After some glitches, administering the program became much smoother, with PYSOPS officers providing much-needed leaflets from which the populace could learn the procedures for turning in weapons. But as with most programs of this sort, a very small percentage of the guns in Panama City were actually removed from the streets.
For some soldiers in Panama City, the biggest post-combat adjustment came when they learned that the defunct PDF would be replaced by a new organization, in essence a police force, that would start recruiting on Friday, 22 December, just two days into the invasion. The cadre of the new force would consist of members of the old PDF, after they had been vetted to screen out those with records of flagrant abuses and misdeeds. Patrols with the new force would begin immediately, even before a proper training course could be implemented.
The initial recruitment took place in the parking lot of the DNTT building, and it was here that the last organized armed resistance to U.S. forces in JUST CAUSE took place.36 The DNTT was under the control of a platoon left behind from TF Wildcat's C Company. By 1100 Friday morning, about 100 Panamanians who until two days before had worn PDF uniforms had shown up to be screened for the new police force. Shortly after the process began, a group of 20 to 30 "rebel PDF" in a warehouse adjacent to the DNTT opened fire on the crowd with small arms. Mortar rounds soon followed. The U.S. platoon responded with what firepower it had, which was minimal. Almost at the same time as the parking lot came under fire, a motorcade with one of the new vice-presidents of Panama came speeding down the road, itself the target of an ambush attempt along its route. The U.S. troops at the DNTT almost fired on the VIP, whose driver, realizing that he had not reached safe haven, accelerated and drove through the fighting.
An hour into the firefight, rounds from 40mm grenades launched from Ancon Hill began landing in the parking lot. By then, wounded Panamanians were being evacuated to Gorgas Hospital, itself on Ancon Hill, and C Company's commander was maneuvering his other two platoons to deal with the hostile forces. Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Huff got the AT platoons from A and B companies to form another assault force. Once in position, these units opened up on the warehouse with LAWs, 90mm recoilless rifles, and the only two TOWs fired during JUST CAUSE. Using high explosive (HE) rounds had the desired effect. A fire started in the warehouse, and the shooting stopped. Several PDF bodies were later found on a slope running down from the warehouse. In assessing the episode, some U.S. analysts suggested that the recalcitrant PDF had used the city's storm drains to enter the warehouse undetected. As noted, this "counterattack" on the 22nd pretty much ended the combat phase of JUST CAUSE. Drive-by shootings would continue, but as of Friday evening, the war in Panama was over.
As soon as the screening process started at the DNTT allowed the newly installed government of Panama to stand up a police force, the need to restore order and to acquaint the population with its new constabulary dictated "joint" patrols in Panama City. That meant that former PDF members, now clad in hastily procured police uniforms and sporting .38-caliber revolvers, took to the streets, accompanied by U.S. MPs or soldiers. Some U.S. infantrymen who drew this assignment objected strenuously, first, because they considered the duty to be police work, not soldiering, and, second, because the patrols forced them to cooperate with men who just days before could possibly have been trying to kill them. Lt. Col. Huff, for one, had sought to prepare his men for this eventuality. The in-country U.S. forces, namely those from the 193rd Infantry Brigade, were going to have to live in a post-JUST CAUSE Panama for some time to come. That meant, Huff told TF Wildcat shortly before it went into combat, that once the fighting was over, "We're going to have to pat these guys [the PDF] on the back and say, 'All is forgiven,' . . ." Undoubtedly some who heard this message did not take it to heart, but many did. The troops stationed in Panama knew the country, had friends among the Panamanian people, and held out some degree of hope for the country's future. One can only speculate, however, how the requirement for patrols with ex-PDF members was received by soldiers who had deployed from the United States, who regarded all PDF as the enemy, and who, upon redeployment, would evince little concern for what happened in Panama.37
The care of refugees, the control of looting, the collection of weapons, the new police force-these and other issues had been discussed by planners as part of the stability operations an invasion of Panama would necessitate. That the U.S. combat units that had to deal with these issues were often not prepared or trained to do so was the result, to some extent, of what could be construed as the single most conspicuous lapse in the planning of U.S. military operations in Panama City: the failure to coordinate adequately the combat operations called for in the BLUE SPOON OPORD, and the civil-military operations (CMO) contained in the BLIND LOGIC OPORD.
In part, the failure to coordinate resulted from the division of labor in the planning process. The XVIII Airborne Corps had the responsibility solely for drafting the JTF BLUE SPOON OPORD, while the SOUTHCOM J5 shop retained responsibility for BLIND LOGIC. The two staffs had some contact, but no meaningful coordination. This, in turn, was partly the result of how the relationship between the two OPORDs had been conceptualized: from the outset of the planning process in 1988, the CMO OPORD had been labeled "post combat," despite historical evidence that CMO issues are likely to arise while combat operations are still in progress, as well as afterwards. Consequently, the need to synchronize the two OPORDs never received the priority it deserved. When the issue was finally placed on the planners' agenda for mid-December, it was too late.
There were also problems with the BLIND LOGIC OPORD itself. Its basic concept was sound: the United States would have to address CMO issues in three phases. The first stage would focus on immediate, life-threatening concerns in such areas as public safety, public health and sanitation, and population control. The second stage would concentrate on restoring essential services and transferring responsibility for the rebuilding of Panama from the U.S. military to the American embassy's Country Team and to Panamanian institutions. The last phase would involve the United States working with a Panamanian government to ensure a stable, democratic Panama.
The execution of this concept, however, was based on a number of assumptions, two of which were outdated by December 1989. The first was that a U.S. military government, with CINCSO as the military governor, would run Panama for at least 30 days following the execution of BLUE SPOON. That assumption fell by the wayside after the May 1989 elections in Panama, annulled by Noriega, produced a slate of candidates who had clearly won the popular vote. These three men-the president and two vice-presidents-would be installed as the new government shortly before JUST CAUSE began. The second outdated assumption was that the U.S. president would call up 200,000 Reservists to particpate in the CMO followup to BLUE SPOON. By December, it was clear that President Bush had no intention of doing this. In early December, the SOUTHCOM J5 sent BLIND LOGIC to U.S. Army South (USARSO) at Fort Clayton for review, only to be informed that the OPORD needed significant changes. On Sunday night, 17 December, the day President Bush directed the execution of BLUE SPOON, a last-minute attempt to revise the plan collapsed for lack of time. Once JUST CAUSE began, a much shortened version of the OPORD was sent to the JCS, who approved execution of what was now called PROMOTE LIBERTY. Annexes from the BLIND LOGIC OPORD proved helpful in conducting the CMO that followed.
The belated review and rewriting of BLIND LOGIC, when combined with the lack of coordination with BLUE SPOON, had several ramifications. One has already been addressed: U.S. combat units found themselves participating in CMO activities in Panama City for which they lacked training and psychological preparation. Another consequence was the belated deployment of CMO volunteers. By the time they arrived, they found their participation unnecessary or behind schedule. (On the Atlantic side, by the time two Civil Affairs officers showed up in Colón, a battalion commander from the 7th Infantry Division(L) had the administration of the city so well in hand that he essentially assigned the two officers clerical work.) The last-minute attention to BLIND LOGIC/PROMOTE LIBERTY also created organizational difficulties. As the volunteers began to arrive, no fewer than five organizations found themselves engaged in CMO activities. Procedures hastily drawn up to facilitate coordination among the groups were never able to eliminate duplication of effort, an insufficient sharing of information, and the plague of having some important matters just "fall through the cracks."
The confusion surrounding the initial stages of PROMOTE LIBERTY was most apparent in the Panama City area. That is where the largest of the CMO issues would have to be addressed, that is where each of the five CMO-related organizations was headquartered, that is where the new Panamanian government convened, that is where the U.S. and international news media were present in large numbers. Despite its focus on the capital, the CMO problem received its solution from an outsider, General James Lindsay, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill AFB, Florida. Knowing that Gen. Thurman was preoccupied with JUST CAUSE issues, Lindsay asked one of his staff to assess the CMO situation, confer with Thurman, then report back to him at USSOCOM. The assessment resulted in two options being put forward, both of which involved an umbrella organization that would handle the mid-term and long-range stability operations. The first option called for such an organization based on the CORDS model in Vietnam, that is, on a group that included both civilians and military working together, with civilian supervisors in some areas, military in others. The second option was based on the Special Action Forces (SAF) of the 1960s and would involve only military personnel in key positions. Lindsay, an advocate of reviving the SAF (which had been disbanded after the Vietnam War), favored the second option, and Thurman agreed.38 In January, U.S. Army South began setting up the Military Support Group (MSG) at Fort Amador. While the new American ambassador to Panama took charge of the U.S. nation-building effort in Panama, the MSG provided the mechanism for implementing the program.
At the time the MSG was being set up, most of the JUST CAUSE combat units that had deployed from outside Panama had returned home. Major General Marc Cisneros, commander of JTF-Panama, monitored the activities of the MSG, which was put under his control. As the stability operations got underway, Cisneros iterated one overriding assumption: the honeymoon period in which the U.S. military could be visibly connected to any problem in Panama occurring as a result of JUST CAUSE would be short-lived. After a certain point, Panamanians would begin complaining about the inevitable imperfections of any program; if the United States was still overtly engaged in nation-building the criticism would fall on Washington and its military in Panama. The rule of thumb for the MSG, therefore, was to turn over to the Panamanian government and the new police force responsibility for a variety of matters as soon as possible. Colonel(P) James Steele, the head of the MSG followed Cisneros' guidance with significant success. In January 1991, when PROMOTE LIBERTY came to a formal end, the MSG was disbanded.
Even before its official termination in January 1990, the U.S. government hailed Operation JUST CAUSE as an unqualified military victory. The United States had ousted a tyrannical dictator, destroyed the military/police organization that supported him, provided security for Americans living in Panama, and offered a new chance for the Panamanian people to live in a democratic society. Just Cause had also demonstrated "force projection": the ability to have U.S. forces strike virtually anywhere in the world. It was this theme that the Army would take with it into the post-Cold War 90s.
Only toward the end of that decade did the Pentagon turn to another theme, also present in Just Cause, but except for the after-action reports and a few articles, largely ignored: UO. Army doctrine at the time called for bypassing urban areas in any conventional war. But events in the Balkans, the Russian battles in Grozny, America's own experience in Mogadishu and Port-au-Prince, and threat assessments concerning future conflicts all indicated that the U.S. military might find itself operating more and more on urban terrain. This prediction led to a new focus on UO, which in turn led to a search for relevant case studies. There were several from which to choose, including JUST CAUSE.
On a UO spectrum running from total war to peace and stability operations, JUST CAUSE would fall somewhere in the middle. It featured urban combat, but, when compared to Stalingrad, Grozny, or Manila, it was combat of a limited nature. The worst of the fighting was over in a matter of hours, not days or weeks, and the cities involved (mainly Panama City and Colόn) left well intact with little damage to their infrastructure and basic services. Most of all, the high casualties and use of resources usually associated with all-out urban warfare did not occur. The United States suffered 23 KIA and 324 WIA, with estimated enemy casualties around 450.
The reasons for the limited nature of UO in Just Cause include the nearly two years SOUTHCOM and others had to plan the operation, the extensive MOUT training that U.S. units participated in shortly before they executed the plan, and the skillful use of America's advantage in firepower combined with strict control over fire support weapons. Most of all, however, the overwhelming success of JUST CAUSE must be attributed to the fact that the PDF simply did not put up serious or sustained resistance. Most fled their posts as the invasion got underway, leaving some junior officers or hastily formed commando-type units to fight U.S. troops. In places, the resistance was stiff, but still overcome in a matter of hours, with few American fatalities. Had the PDF been a more formidable force, the outcome of JUST CAUSE would have been the same-an American victory-but the cost of the invasion in both lives and property would have been tremendously higher.
As already noted, the greatest flaw in planning UO in Panama was the failure to coordinate the combat with the stability operations, the latter of which would take place primarily in the country's two largest cities, Panama City and Colón. Gen. Thurman, once he became CINCSO, gave little thought to the BLIND LOGIC OPORD, while Lt. Gen. Stiner at Fort Bragg had been directed to work only on the Blue Spoon OPORD. Attempts in December 1989 to revise BLIND LOGIC and link it with the planning for Blue Spoon came too late to accomplish either goal. When PROMOTE LIBERTY began on December 20, the effort lacked synchronization and focus, in part because key assumptions underpinning the original plan-for example, a Reservist callup-were no longer valid. Furthermore, the lack of coordination meant that U.S. combat troops were unprepared for much of the noncombat chaos they encountered and the numerous stability operations they were called on to perform during the first days of JUST CAUSE. Several of the "disconnects" during this period, especially as they affected the refugee issue, proved a source of some friction between the U.S. military and the new Panamanian government in the year after JUST CAUSE.
U.S. military operations in Panama City (and Colón) during JUST CAUSE and PROMOTE LIBERTY provide a case study for UO that involves combat and stability operations in an urban environment in which most of the population is regarded as friendly and, for a variety of reasons, every effort is made to limit damage to the city and its inhabitants. That the United States already had forces stationed in Panama should not detract from the value of the case study. Something analogous could have developed or could still develop in places where U.S. troops occupy urban areas for any length of time. That being the case, JUST CAUSE stands as an instructive example of UO somewhere in the middle of a spectrum that includes Stalingrad and similar cases at one extreme, and Port-au-Prince and similar cases at the other.
1One could argue that the first significant UO experience for the U.S. military after
Vietnam was that of the Marines in Beirut from 1982-84, but, in fact, the Marine positions were located on the outskirts of the city, near the international airport, not in the city itself.
2For background and details of the crisis in Panama, see Kevin Buckley, Panama: The Whole Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991); and Frederick Kempe, Divorcing the Dictator: America's Bungled Affair with Noriega (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990).
3SOUTHCOM headquarters was located in what had been the old Canal Zone and in what was still U.S. territory until 2000. At the beginning of that year, according to treaties signed in the late 1970s, the Panama Canal and U.S. property surrounding it would have been turned over to the government of Panama. By 1989, some U.S. territory had already been transferred to the Panamanian government, and SOUTHCOM was exploring ways to vacate the country before the 2000 deadline.
4Woerner sought authorization to write the contingency plans from the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe. Crowe granted Woerner's request in late February. Message, CJCS to USCINCSO, 28 February 1989. To date, the best overview of the planning process for the crisis in Panama can be found in
Ronald H. Cole, Operation Just Cause: Panama (Washington, DC: Joint History
Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1995). The most thorough account of the planning for civil-military operations is John T. Fishel, The Fog of Peace (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1992).
The initial operations order produced by the SOUTHCOM J-3 staff was code-named ELABORATE MAZE and, once fleshed out, contained five phases for operations in Panama. The first three phases entailed defensive operations, the fourth phase, combat, and the fifth phase, civil-military operations. The plan was soon broken down into a separate operations order for each broad category: defensive, offensive, and CMO. Together with an evacuation plan, the revised OPORDs were collectively code-named the PRAYER BOOK. (The plans, it should be noted, were deliberately drafted as OPORDS, not OPLANS, in part because of the possibility they might have to be executed soon after being completed.)
5USCINCSO OPORD 1-90 (BLUE SPOON), 30 October 1989. A sanitized copy of this OPORD has been declassified. The final version of BLUE SPOON covered the contingency in which hostilities would begin with "no notice" and would require the in-country forces to conduct the battle until deploying units could arrive; it also covered the contingency in which the United States would initiate hostilities and thus have time to prepare. Since the latter scenario is what actually occurred, it is what will be emphasized in this chapter.
6The "bull's-eye" metaphor is from Captain Joseph M. Nemmers, et al, United States Army South Staff Ride: Operation JUST CAUSE, 20 December 1989 - 31 January 1990 (Updated reprint; Fort Clayton, Panama: Historical Office, Headquarters, U.S. Army SOUTH, 1998), 10.
7The city was burned to the ground by privateer Henry Morgan in 1671 and rebuilt slightly west of its original site.
8Nemmers, et al, USARSO Staff Ride, 9.
9There were two major buildups of U.S. forces in Panama during the crisis. The first came with the security enhancement augmentation of 1988 and included MP units, Task Force Hawk, and one Marine company. The second augmentation occurred as a result of the violence surrounding the Panamanian elections in early May 1989, elections that Noriega's opponents clearly won, but which the dictator nullified. This troop buildup, Operation NIMROD DANCER, included the mechanized battalion, a brigade headquarters and a battalion from the 7th Infantry Division (Light), and a second company of Marines, the one with the LAVs.
10The first CINCSO ELABORATE MAZE OPORD gave virtually all offensive missions to SOF, most of whom would deploy from the United States. These elements would be commanded by a Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF), located during the planning phases at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and answering directly to CINCSO. Gen. Woerner also activated another organization, Joint Task Force (JTF)-Panama, commanded by his Army component commander and headquartered at Fort Clayton, Panama, to manage the crisis on a day-to-day basis and to draft supporting plans for conventional operations. Initially, as indicated, most of these operations were defensive in nature.
11Cole, Just Cause, 17, 22-23. Under Woerner's BLUE SPOON, the JSOTF reported directly to CINCSO, an arrangement that Thurman believed violated the principle of unity of command. His solution of placing the JSOTF under Stiner's operational control risked angering SOF commanders who were always concerned that a conventional commander would misuse their assets, but Stiner's extensive background in Special Operations negated this concern.
12Oral history interview, XVIII Airborne staff officer, 20 December 1989, Fort Clayton, Panama, interviewed by author.
13USCINCSO OPORD 1-90 (BLUE SPOON), 30 October 1989; JTF-SOUTH OPORD 90-2 (BLUE SPOON), 3 November 1989.
14The four Sheridans and six Apaches were deployed secretly to Panama in November.
15According to journalist Bob Woodward, Thurman's activation of JTF-South during the bomb scare caused some consternation in Washington, as expressed to the CINC by the president's national security adviser, General Colin Powell. In Powell's view, Thurman did not have the authority to activate JTF-South on his own, since it involved the XVIII Airborne Corps, a headquarters over which CINCSO had no control until BLUE SPOON was executed. Still, once Thurman had set up JTF-South, Powell saw no reason to deactivate it until the bomb scare was over. The Commanders (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 142-44.
16Operational security dictated that most of the troops involved in the various U.S. military exercises in Panama not know that they were rehearsing a contingency plan. Those who did know were generally officers who had a "need to know" and the requisite Top Secret security clearance. For the critical attack on the comandancia, Task Force Gator officers down to platoon leaders were aware of the plan. For most other targets, the inner circle excluded officers below battalion or company commanders and staff.
17Oral history interview, Major General Marc Cisneros, 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama, interviewed by the author.
18Preparations for MOUT in what would become Operation JUST CAUSE are discussed in various oral history interviews, including Colonel Michael G. Snell, 1 January 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama; Lieutenant Colonel James W. Reed, 6 January 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama, interviewed by Major Robert K. Wright; Ibid., 29 January 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama, interviewed by the author; Lieutenant Colonel William Huff, III, 29 January 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama, interviewed by the author. In an email to the author, Huff, commander 5th Battalion, 87th Regiment, 193rd Infantry Brigade, noted: "We took the guys over to the old coast artillery positions on the Atlantic side and used them for the fundamental of room and building clearing from the leaders on down. . . . The detailed mechanics of getting inside a room without killing yourself, but insuring all the enemy was neutralized is pretty standard stuff today, but a few years ago it wasn't as well known outside the CT/SWAT community. Hints like 'make sure the grenade goes off before you enter the room...' became important later on." Email, Huff to author, February 6, 2002.
19Woodward, Commanders, 167-73.
20The operation at Balboa Harbor is discussed in U.S. Special Operations Command, USSOCOM History (MacDill AFB, FL: USSOCOM History and Research Office, nd), 29; Thomas Donnelly, Margaret Roth, and Caleb Baker, Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama (New York: Lexington Books, 1991), 120-21.
21For the Paitilla airfield operation, see USSOCOM History, 28-29; Donnelly, et al, Just Cause, 113-20; Malcolm McConnell, Just Cause (paperback; New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1991), 51-78.
22Accounts differ as to the beginning of the firefight. Some hold that several PDF in the hangar opened up on the SEALs (see McConnell), others that only one PDF fired initially, killing the first two SEALs and wounding six others (see Donnelly).
23This account of the Rangers at Torrijos-Tocumen is based on USSOCOM History, 22-24; Donnelly, et al, Just Cause, 188-213.
24The travails of the brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division did not end at the Torrijos-Tocumen complex. Several paratroopers in the unit that air assaulted into Panama Viejo landed in the mud flats there, becoming immobilized as they sank into the mire. Helping to extract them from the mud were Panamanian civilians, no doubt perplexed by the sight that confronted them. The operations of the 82nd Airborne units, together with the Special Forces battle against Battalion 2000 at the Pacora River bridge, are covered in Donnelly, et al. Just Cause, 124-30. One additional aside: the 82nd's 1st Brigade that deployed in JUST CAUSE was not the brigade that had rehearsed the mission at the MOUT site at Fort Bragg. The 3rd Brigade had conducted the rehearsal but by 20 December had been replaced as the Division Ready Brigade by the 1st Brigade.
25The rescue of the civilian, Kurt Muse, has been recounted in several books, articles, and television interviews and documentaries. See, for example, Donnelly, et al, Just Cause, 130-34. The PDF had arrested Muse for his clandestine political activities prior to Panama's presidential elections in May 1989. The rumor circulated among U.S. forces in Panama that, should the United States invade the country at any time, Muse's guards had orders to kill him. President Bush personally made Muse's rescue a priority mission of Operation JUST CAUSE.
26Unless otherwise noted, the following account of TF Gator is based on Nemmers, et al, USARSO Staff Ride, 47-62; Donnelly, et al, Just Cause, 135-60; Oral history interviews, Colonel Michael G. Snell, 1 January 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama, Lieutenant Colonel James W. Reed, 6 January 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama, interviewed by Major Robert K. Wright; Ibid., 29 January 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama, interviewed by the author.
27From his assets, Reed also created two "ad hoc" squads. One had the task of putting in roadblocks along Balboa Avenue, the other-made up of mechanics and "some people back there at our base camp"-of "decommissioning" a radio attena on Quarry Heights. On the issue of command and control, Reed was not sure at what time on Monday TF Gator would go under the JSOTF, a point that created some confusion when he received conflicting orders from the USARSO/JTF-Panama commander, Major General Marc Cisneros, who wanted to continue U.S. exercises in Panama on a routine basis so as not to signal the PDF an invasion was imminent, and from the JSOTF, who worried that any such exercises might set off the war prematurely. Oral history, Lt. Col. Reed, 29 January 1990.
28The inability of the AC-130 rounds to penetrate beyond the top floor was a lesson learned and remedied by the U.S. Air Force after JUST CAUSE.
29Reed also provided two LAVs, one Sheridan, and six M113s to the JSOTF so that SOF elements would have a small task force to assist in the extrication of American personnel from the U.S. embassy. The problem for Reed, however, was that once relinquished he did not see the vehicles again for several days.
30Donnelly, et al, Just Cause, 150-52; Telephone interview, Lieutenant Doug Rubin, 5-6 April 1990, interviewed by author. Rubin was the platoon leader of the unit hit by the AC-130.
31Unless otherwise noted, the following account of TF Wildcat is based on Nemmers, et al, USARSO Staff Ride, 22-36; Donnelly, et al, Just Cause, 153-55; Oral history interviews, Colonel Michael G. Snell, 1 January 1990; Lieutenant Colonel William Huff, III, 29 January 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama, interviewed by the author; Ibid., 20 June 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama, interviewed by Captain John Hollins.
32Unless otherwise noted, the following account of TF Wildcat is based on Nemmers, et al, USARSO Staff Ride, 37-46; Donnelly, et al, Just Cause, 162-83; Oral history interviews, Col. Snell, 1 January 1990; Lieutenant Colonel Billy Ray Fitzgerald, 27 January 1990, Fort Kobbe, Panama, interviewed by the author; Ibid., 20 June 1990, Fort Clayton, Panama, interviewed by Captain John Hollins.
33Note on the psychological stress caused to the families in the housing area, the marital problems created by it, and the lack of Army counseling for these families.
34A few years after JUST CAUSE, the American news media gave wide play to allegations that U.S. troops had executed thousands of Panamanians and buried them in mass graves. Investigation of the allegations showed them to be groundless. While the exact number of Panamanian casualties could not be determined precisely, the number of dead probably did not exceed 500. As for the mass graves, these indeed did exist, but were hardly meant to be a carefully guarded secret; the principal one in Panama City was the subject of a front-page story in the Christian Science Monitor on 26 December 1989.
35The problems created by the unexpected number of refugees are discussed in oral histories by Lt. Col. Huff, Lt. Col. Reed, Colonel William Connolly, Lt. Col. Knoblock.
36For the creation of a new PDF and the "counterattack" at the DNTT, see Fishel, Fog of Peace; Oral history by Lt. Col. Huff.
37Huff oral history; comments from various soldiers who had to conduct the patrols.
38Oral history with USSOCOM staff officer.
This brief account of Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama City relied heavily on documents that I collected during and after the U.S.-Panamanian crisis, and which are in my possession at Fort Leavenworth. As the endnotes make clear, I also relied heavily on oral history interviews that I and others conducted with the participants in the crisis. Without the candor of the interviewees, this chapter would have read much differently.
Buckley, Kevin. Panama: The Whole Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. An engrossing account of the U.S.-Panamanian relationship, focusing on politics and personalities.
Cole, Ronald H. Operation Just Cause: Panama. Washington, DC: Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1995. A declassified version of an official history, Cole's work is a superb overview of JUST CAUSE from the JCS perspective. The first half of this monograph offers a thorough analysis of the planning process.
Donnelly, Thomas, Margaret Roth, and Caleb Baker. Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama. New York: Lexington Books, 1991. As of this writing, this is still the best comprehensive study of JUST CAUSE available.
Fishel, John T. The Fog of Peace. Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1992. A detailed overview of the planning and execution of Operation PROMOTE LIBERTY.
Kempe, Frederick. Divorcing the Dictator: America's Bungled Affair with Noriega. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990. One of the first accounts after JUST CAUSE to detail the diplomacy of the Reagan administration in its efforts to oust Noriega.
McConnell, Malcolm. Just Cause (paperback; New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1991. A very good overview of JUST CAUSE, based in part on the input of various participants.
Nemmers, Capt. Joseph, et al. United States Army South Staff Ride: Operation JUST CAUSE, 20 December 1989 - 31 January 1990. Updated reprint; Fort Clayton, Panama: Historical Office, Headquarters, U.S. Army SOUTH, 1998. An excellent staff ride guide to Operation JUST CAUSE, which uses the operations logs and recollections of the participants to construct a detailed account of Task Force Bayonet's role in the operation.
U.S. Special Operations Command. USSOCOM History. MacDill AFB, FL: USSOCOM History and Research Office, nd. This unclassified history offers an overview of the role of Special Operations Forces in several operations, including JUST CAUSE.
Woodward, Bob. The Commanders. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. An excellent and very accurate account of the Panama crisis from the perspective of the Bush administration, the JCS, and CINCSO.
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