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Death from Above
Everybody drops. Everybody fights.
--Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
"All okay, jumpmaster."
Four voices, shouting in near unison, four separate hands, fingers joined, pointed like a knife edge toward a single dark, bulky, helmeted figure standing on the dim red-lit deck. All four hands, all four voices told the same story: The other twenty-five to thirty men behind each of the four stick leaders were ready to go. The four lines stood shoulder to shoulder, facing the rear of the C-141B Starlifter. Centered between the two jump doors, still closed, was the primary jumpmaster, who nodded slightly. An Air Force sergeant with a headset called forward to the flight deck, then gave a thumbs-up to the jumpmaster. Everything was right on time, a welcome change after all the screwing around in the freezing sleet and ice scud back in North Carolina.
Almost as soon as the leading foursome reported ready, the pilots up in the cockpit commenced "slowdown procedures," U.S. Air Force talk for decelerating the big, four-engine C-141B so that the 110 men on board could survive their exits. Descending in a shallow glide, tracking with the other seven jet transports in the formation, the Starlifter throttled back from its cruising speed of nearly 500 miles per hour down to about 140 miles per hour, close to the aircraft's stall threshold. With a heavy slug of paratroopers in its belly and a drop zone (DZ) dead ahead, it took some cool customers to keep the bigbird in the sky at all, let alone on the right glide path.
In the back, it felt the way it always felt at this stage of the flight--as if the plane had run into a vertical pillow the size of Long Island, bounced slowly backward, and hence was slipping out from under the numb, cold, booted feet of 110 tense Americans waiting to end their flight the hard way. The big aircraft tilted steadily downward by the nose, as if urging the jumpers to back away from the doors that would soon swallow them all. Soldiers leaned backward, staggering to keep their feet, jostling, bumping, and bouncing, holding one another up. As in many training jumps, the paratroopers were rigged with full combat loads, including the deadweight of hefty radio batteries, lots of small-arms ammunition, plenty of hand grenades, and a good selection of mortar rounds. This inevitable, unforgiving mass of cumbersome gear made the entire five-hour flight crammed into tiny nylon bench seats bad enough. But it made these last few minutes standing upright especially agonizing.
Each man wore a coal-scuttle Kevlar helmet on his head, a main parachute the size of a robust knapsack on his back, and a weapons case tied to his left leg. The case protruded up under the left arm, the hard rifle butt end sticking up like the top of a crutch. Some weapons containers proved particularly awkward. Those saddled with the versions for carrying M-60 machine guns, mortar tubes, and antitank weapons endured roughly the equivalent of being strapped to an outboard boat motor. Small reserve chutes the size of full plastic grocery bags sat athwart each man's upper stomach, to be used if the main chute failed to open. Swelling rucksacks packed full of ammunition and water hung across each jumper's knees, tied off beneath the reserve chutes. Under all of this, the paratrooper wore his combat webbing, which included a canteen and small-arms magazines. All the gear was "mission essential," of course, although the experienced sergeants and the long-suffering privates had their own views on that.
Most men wore ensembles that equaled their body weight. Many, especially leaders who carried heavy secure-voice radios, carried gear that outweighed them. The book cautioned: "Regardless of rank or grade, parachutists should jump in extra LAWs [light antitank weapons], antitank mines, MAWs [medium antitank rounds], or radio batteries." You never knew when, if ever, resupply might show up. So like Boy Scouts, airborne forces believe in being prepared. As a result, these jumpers rocked and rolled in the crimson twilight, swaddled and sweating in green camouflage equipment. Their mottled green and brown face paint smeared as beads of sweat formed and dripped from brows and noses.
The parachutists balanced on leaden feet, their canvas-sided jungle boots dampened and chilled by the drenching ice storm back at Fort Bragg-Pope Air Force Base. Handholds were few along the outer hull of the C-141B. Many steadied themselves by grabbing the upper edges of the stowed, flimsy bench seats made of taut red nylon stretched over light aluminum tubes, some kind of USAF version of cheap lawn furniture. No longer needed, the seats were tied off neatly with Velcro strips to the exposed airframe ribs. Others held on to transverse frames and bracing spars. There were enough of those. The Starlifter granted nothing to comfort or style. All of the jetliner's bundles of wires and pipes and cables stood exposed on the gray-green inner fuselage, barely identifiable in the red night-lighting. Soundproofing wasn't a priority on this kind of flight, so along with the meat-locker temperature of high altitude and decor akin to a steam plant, the airborne troopers endured the steady roar of the plane's four Pratt & Whitney TF-33-7 turbofans. Some paratroopers used foam earplugs. Some did not; it wouldn't matter after a few more minutes.
The steady jet-engine pitch kept changing, growing alternately deeper, then higher, pulsing as the crew goosed the throttles. The big jet bled off speed and altitude, sloping downward. In a few minutes, they would level off for the final run over the drop zone. The eight-plane formation tightened and settled into a staggered column for the delivery. They were committed, heading inexorably toward the Pacific coast of Panama, toward the reason for all of this miserably taxing activity.
With their conveyance losing airspeed and height, the four swaying lines of overloaded paratroopers strained to stay upright. Besides having odd touchpoints along the plane's unadorned innards, the airborne people all had one sure handhold. Like subway riders holding overhead straps in a crowded car, with a tight fist each soldier grasped a bright yellow static line. Above each man's fist, at the end of this tether, was a strong metal clip, locked onto one of four anchor line cables, every cable a quarter inch of twisted steel sagging gently under the pull of more than two dozen intent jumpers. The yellow line stayed in the plane when the jumpers exited; it stayed attached until then. If everything went right, no paratrooper needed to pull a ripcord by hand. The yellow line served that function. Thus, this line, at least, remained "static."
The nonstatic part of the static line hung below each jumper's fist. First came a small loop of slack, enough to keep it clear of a soldier's arm. If the yellow line somehow wound around an arm, a neck, or a weapon, the forces of gravity and buffeting wind guaranteed gory results on exit: muscles stripped off bones like filleted fish, impromptu amputations, strangling, battering against the side of the moving transport jet--all bad outcomes, to be sure. Keeping control of excess yellow line prevents these horrors. Jumpers don't have to be told twice.
Its bight of excess firmly grasped, the line then snaked into the main parachute pack tray; held in place for the present by rubber bands. In the chute, the line hooked to the main canopy. When pulled by a great mass, such as a falling, overloaded body clearing the jet, the line yanked the canopy out of its bag, handily splitting away the rubber-band tiedowns. The line then split away, flapping on the outside of the plane, still clipped to the stout anchor line. The paratrooper drifted down to battle. That was the idea, at least.
Battle there would be. Thanks to an onboard satellite transceiver, the word had already been passed. It wasn't good. The phrases turned over in the mind as the Starlifter started to square up for its final approach: "The Rangers have not secured the drop zone ... the DZ is hot ... one pass and one pass only." All aboard knew what this meant.
With a roar, both doors slid open and rose up the curving tracks toward the pipes and conduits overhead. Warm, humid air washed through the plane, dank and foul like a crowded locker room after a big game, mixed with a touch of sea salt. A few men gagged: a bad sign, because once one nauseous guy vomited, the chain reaction would not be pretty. Almost everyone worked cold toes on the frigid metal deck, letting the welcome warmth soak in. Those not already sweating profusely under their burdens started the waterworks. And with less than three minutes to go, all eyes locked on the brightest red lights in the plane, little half globes over the howling jump doors.
"Stand by," came the command. Nobody heard it, but the first few soldiers saw the dark arm point at the yawning gap. Everyone began pushing for the door, "assholes to elbows," as the sergeants liked to put it. The push for the exits told all aboard that they were close, really close.
Hooked up, the jumpmaster at the door held his outboard stick of thirty in check. His counterpart at the other door did likewise. The two inboard lines of twenty-five waited, ready to push once the outside streams cleared. With a DZ of just over five hundred yards, and no go-arounds to drop those who didn't get out, nobody dared hesitate. When those hard red lights turned Christmas green, it would be a stampede through the door, propelled by a green-clad human piston. Everybody was going.
"One minute," came the shout. The warning moved back down the rows as hands not on the static line held up an index finger. The lead jumpers in the door were physically holding their men back from the maw.
The first few jumpers could see green streaks and flashes in the black rectangles beyond the doors, a real fireworks show. Everyone could hear what sounded like pebbles popping against the airframe. But those lights outside weren't skyrockets, and the things hitting the fuselage weren't pebbles.
"Thirty seconds." Each man passed the information, hoarsely shouting in the blast of hot air and making the sign of a thumb and forefinger an inch apart. It was that close.
Two men in the center rows made the sign of the cross.
All eyes watched the shining red light, waiting for the green.
It didn't come.
Instead, they heard the big turbofans accelerate and saw the jumpmaster and his assistant back away from the open doors. A hand across the throat signaled "no drop."
It was like a balloon deflating, with curses all around. Many of the heavily loaded men dropped to a knee or leaned onto the hull struts, groaning under their equipment. The Starlifter gained a little altitude for what would be a painful, twenty-minute oval back to the drop zone. So much for one pass and one pass only. It happened this way enough in training, but in combat, too? Welcome to shooting war. Friction reigned supreme.
Thanks to the trusty satellite link, the full story moved down the long rows of perspiring paratroopers. The heavy drop cargo birds were still over the DZ, thirty-one more Starlifters dropping all kinds of big weapons and containerized supplies, including eight M-551 Sheridan light tanks, four 105mm howitzers, and some seventy-four Humvees of various descriptions. The ice storm had not delayed them, but they were a little late anyway, so these unmanned cargo pallets were still dropping at 0155 when the eight C-141Bs from Bragg-Pope showed up. Had the paratroopers realized that the Rangers were hotly engaged around the DZ, and that their flight crews were having trouble finding that featureless black quadrilateral on the eastern fringe of the contested Omar Torrijos International Airport, all might have been more grateful for the short delay and the dry run.
But that logic ignored the psychological impact of walking literally right to the brink, then pulling back, combatus interruptus in the worst way. The keyed-up paratroopers wanted to get the show going. The jump would also free them of some of their crushing personal baggage, no small matter as all were sweating freely now. Muscles ached from standing erect with the suffocating equivalent of another guy wrapped all around you. In the words of Sgt. Roy E. Burgess, "Let's go. The heck with the fighting. Let's get out of here."
Again, the big jet slowed, this time only a bit, and the men fell back toward the cockpit, again only a small amount. The eight transports shook themselves into a staggered column over the Pacific and steadied on course. Once more, the Starlifter straightened up, and the jumpers swayed in their hellish subway tube, hands in death grips around their sweat-slimed static lines.
"Stand by," came the well-known command. Again, the men pressed for the open doors. The countdown started, just as before.
The now-familiar display of flashing and sparking started outside. Small-arms rounds or shell fragments or something else unwelcome began skipping off the Starlifter's thin aluminum hull.
Hands tensed on the yellow cords. Boots shuffled toward the door.
"Go! Go! Go!"
The rows raced out like a rope through a smoking capstan, stepping into the tracer-cut blackness. The manuals said it took a second per parachutist, but every planeload beat that time.
As each jumper waddled diagonally through the opening, the clawing black slipstream sucked his feet right out from underneath him, pulling him out. Static lines yanked away, and the round, light green T-10 parachute canopies blossomed with a series of whoompf sounds audible even over the drone of thirty-two whining jet engines. Dropped from five hundred feet, men had time to look up to see that their chutes had opened, look down at a sea of tall, waving grass rippling in the light breeze, and drop their bulging rucksacks to dangle fifteen feet below them. Keep feet and knees together, thought many, as they had learned at Fort Benning's jump school and perfected at Fort Bragg.
And then they were down, feet, calves, thighs, buttocks, upper backs--just like in school--plus heads, elbows, knees, and faces, just like in real life. Most men landed in fifteen-foot-tall swamp grass, in squishy, stinking mud and slop. Few could see anything but the swaying sawgrass towering above their heads.
Above, the departing, empty airplanes motored off into the distance. Around the men on the ground, gunfire crackled from all directions. Tracers arced up on the horizon. Green were enemy. Red were American, although maybe not, as this time, the enemy used quite a few weapons made in the United States.
No time to worry about that. Automatically, as in numerous training drops, practiced hands popped off the tight chute harnesses (blessed relief). Weapons containers were opened, and rifles with magazines were slid out. Along with the din of shooting on the nearby Ranger objectives, the characteristic click of M-16A2 bolts slamming rounds up the barrel, ready for action, echoed across the wide marsh. Machine gunners and mortarmen got out their pieces and loaded them up, too, then went looking for their team members. Leaders screwed in radio antennas and keyed hand mikes, trying to check in, to get a communications net going. Then, with their tools of the trade in hand, men shouldered their heavy rucksacks and moved out. They intended to find their brothers, to assemble, to get to work.
Little groups of paratroopers (LGOPs)--that was what they were called at Fort Bragg. The very act of jumping ensures that although almost nine hundred men can be put on the ground in a few minutes, they get scrambled up like pieces from a child's puzzle tossed into the air. So step one was always identical: Get organized. That sometimes took fighting. Once more, as in Sicily, as in Normandy, as in Holland, the 82d Airborne's LGOPs began to coalesce out in the darkness.
The drop into Panama by the 1st Brigade, 82d Airborne Division, demanded more from the LGOPs than most. As planned, the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, would jump at 0100 to seize the Torrijos civilian airport and the adjacent Tocumen military airfield. Then, starting with a heavy drop at 0135 and a troop jump ten minutes later, the All-Americans of the 82d were due to insert in the grassland east of the Torrijos airstrip. Normally, an airborne assault force likes to hit right on its objectives, as the Rangers did at Torrijos-Tocumen. Given the confusion built into any parachute drop, especially at night, it made sense to face reality and inflict your chaos on the befuddled, surrounded, infiltrated nests of bad guys. You land right on the opposition's heads and come up shooting.
But the 82d took a risk and intentionally tried to go beyond that kind of conventional use of airborne infantry. In doing so, they recalled the memorable words of Bernard Fall, who had seen plenty of French paratroop operations in Vietnam in the 1950s. "A parachute," Fall cautioned, "is merely a means of delivery, but not a way of fighting." For the All-American troopers, the jump simply got them there in one clump. All the fighting came later. And the scheme for that combat was definitely ambitious.
After forty-five minutes allotted for assembly, the airborne brigade would stage its three battalions for pickup by helicopters already in Panama. Each battalion was bound for a critical enemy outpost, going one after another in rapid succession, like bullets shot out of a revolver. The 2d Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, expected to form at the south end of Torrijos and launch first, bound to defeat the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) garrison at Panama Viejo, a seaside PDF compound. Next, the 1st of the 504th, gathering in a central pickup zone (PZ), would lift off to take on another PDF element, a reinforced heavy weapons company at Tinajitas. Finally, 4/325 expected to assemble at the north end of the strip and go third. Its destination was Fort Cimmaron, home of the PDF's premier mobile force, Battalion 2000. All three missions would be finished before the sun rose over the green hills of the Panama jungles.
These three successive air assaults, using the airborne contingent just dropped from Bragg, would complete the neutralization of Gen. Manuel Noriega's PDF, taking the last of the twenty-seven key objectives designated for Operation Just Cause before dawn on 20 December 1989. With its insistence on defeating, indeed decapitating, the foe in a single night's stroke, the Just Cause scheme resembled few other American military undertakings before or since. There were to be no front lines, no big arrows, no long power drives, no large-scale flanking maneuvers other than from the top flank, the night sky. It was one big takedown, landing right on the objective, a classic airborne profile inflicted not on an isolated airfield or fortress but on an entire small country. Multiple U.S. task forces worked to appear simultaneously out of the darkness right atop every key PDF facility in and around Panama City. Whether or not the nefarious Noriega survived the first blow, his PDF would not.
Indeed, though few might have wanted to discuss the parallel for obvious political reasons, the U.S. intervention in Panama resembled the Soviet Union's lightning "liberations" of Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979), especially the latter two. Like the Soviet assaults, the American version drew on in-country friendly units, including special operations forces (SOF) and airborne, rapidly reinforced by even more airlifted SOF and paratroopers. Politically odious though they might be, from a military standpoint, the 1968 Czech takedown and the even more effective initial takeover in Afghanistan in 1979 demonstrated how to shock, paralyze, and assume control of a hostile country. In Operation Just Cause, Lt. Gen. Carl Stiner and his Joint Task Force (JTF) South team outdid these Soviet adventures, and with a much better outcome for the indigenous people, to say the least.
In keeping with the thoroughly unconventional tone of Just Cause, the 82d Airborne role did not rely on its airborne skills, save to get there and get organized. In what would surely surprise--and hopefully shock and overwhelm--its PDF opposition, the 82d borrowed a leaf from its Screaming Eagle brothers of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and devised three swift, daring heliborne descents to complete the demise of the PDF. This would have been a hell of an effort for the 82d even if everything went exactly as planned.
It did not.
Unseasonably wretched freezing rain pelting the Fort Bragg-Pope Air Force Base complex slowly shredded the carefully sequenced drop. Only eight of twenty Starlifters launched on time from the frozen-over Pope Air Force Base, a direct result of the limited deicing gear available to the ground crews. The aircraft were just late enough to cross airstreams with the thirty-one heavy drop aircraft coming in from Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. The resultant wave-off delayed the initial jump until 0211, a mere nineteen minutes before the first air assault on Panama Viejo had been due to start. So much for that idea.
This was bad enough, but even worse, the C-141Bs were not the first eight planes in the planned pattern but birds 1 through 6, 9, and 10. Given habitual airborne cross-loading procedures, no one plane had men from only 1/504, 2/504, or 4/325. To prevent catastrophic effects on any one unit if a plane went down, and to assist in assembly on the ground, each load consisted of a mixed bag, with 2/504 teams at the rear of the planes to jump first for the southern stretch of the elephant grass, 1/504 in the middle headed for the center of the spongy DZ, and 4/325 at the front end, destined to go out last, bound for the marsh just east of the north end of the Torrijos main runway. Perfected over years of jumping, and coupled with the very low drop altitude that limited dispersion, cross-loading worked, but only if enough troops arrived to get going on the air assaults.
Had all twenty C-141Bs arrived at 0145, or had more of them showed up together, all three fighting battalions might have shaken out quickly. Instead, hobbled by deicing back in North Carolina, the drop of the All-Americans dragged on through the wee hours of the morning: two C-141Bs at 0350, three at 0400, another pair at 0455, and the rest at 0515, three and half hours late. This series of partial formations and dribbling follow-ups guaranteed trouble. Units never quite assembled before the next batch of jumpers floated down. This resulted in incomplete, screwed-up units unready to conduct any air assaults at all, let alone commencing at 0230.
The air assaults might have gone off even later had not the 82d Airborne's senior commanders insisted on getting key leaders onto the 0211 drop serial. As a result, enough commanders got in early enough to get the three battalion PZs established, saving some time as their trigger pullers slowly arrived. The designated assault helicopters waited at a distant refueling site, marking time as the cover of night steadily ebbed away. With every passing minute, it became more obvious that the All-Americans were doomed to make daylight helo landings against alerted opposition. All the LGOP guts in the world couldn't solve that problem, imposed by war's iron laws of time, distance, and friction.
The DZ imposed its own nagging costs on the hurrying paratroopers. Dumped into the high reeds, slowed by viscous mud, bewildered by the black of night, and bearing crippling loads of weapons and gear, the jumpers took longer than usual to link up and move out to their PZs. One radioman who landed within eighty yards of the runway found himself almost immobile. "It was so bad that I could only take three steps and fall down," he said. Worse, "in the dark, I couldn't tell if the man only three feet away was a good guy or a bad guy, so I would lay very still until he went away."
There was another problem, the PDF. Their 2d Company's barracks lay at the Tocumen end of the double airdrome, and they had come out fighting when the Rangers hit them at 0100. Although the 82d's commander, Maj. Gen. James H. Johnson, later told researchers that his men "did not engage a single PDF troop" as they gathered for their air assaults, the situation looked a little different down at the private level. Several jumpers drifted north into the Tocumen complex, smack into a major firefight between the Rangers and Noriega's supporters. Others in the grass down near Torrijos reported sniper fire and shot back. Roy Burgess recounted his thoughts as he moved to his linkup point: "I could hear weapons going off in the near distance, but I didn't know whose they were." Floundering at night to breast the sticky, thick cane grass, some 82d men might have been shooting at one another, but there were no casualties attributed to friendly fire. Nobody moved too quickly in this maze of dark canebreak.
Casualties from the jump itself turned out to be light. In a training drop, the 82d anticipates a 4 percent rate; in Panama, only 1.38 percent (thirty men) suffered injuries. The equipment did not survive as neatly. About two-thirds of the heavy drops smacked into the deeper quarters of the boggy DZ, though USAF graders adjudged the drop 90 percent effective. (Scoring somehow looks better back at a safe, air-conditioned air base.) Most of what fell could not be found until after daybreak and so contributed almost nothing to the initial three air assaults. One Sheridan tank was a total loss. Another was nearly so and became a source of parts to keep the rest going. The human and material costs of the drop did not turn out to be great. But the minutes and hours that slipped away exacted their own hard price.
The sky shaded to pearl gray well before the first helicopter chattered onto the Torrijos runway at about 0610. The brigade commander, Col. Jack Nix, led his key staff onto the command and control (C2) ship, which allowed for an aerial post to oversee the upcoming attacks. Rigged with extra-long-range radios, the UH-60A C2 Blackhawk was piloted by Lt. Col. B. Howard Bornum, commander of Task Force (TF) Hawk, the composite aviation element programmed to carry the All-Americans into battle. Bornum and his flight crews had already carried out a tricky night insertion at Fort Amador at 0100, drawing plenty of ground fire and losing a small scout chopper. That done, the aircraft of TF Hawk then refueled and waited at a remote site. Having already lost a man and an aircraft at night on a surprise landing, the TF Hawk pilots knew only too well what flying in daylight meant, especially against an aroused foe.
With Colonel Nix and his C2 bird in an overwatching orbit, the 2d Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, departed at 0645, destined for Panama Viejo. The first of the day's three 82d Airborne air assaults found a dry hole, with most of the enemy long gone. But the remnant elected to make the gringos bleed. Between eighteen and twenty-five energetic hostile stay-behinds opened fire on the landing zones (LZs) and managed to wound a few Americans. Slogging through tidal mudflats and more of the high sawgrass, 2/504 took until 1155 to declare their objective secure. At least the tired soldiers grabbed a large arsenal for their troubles. Thankfully, the human price was small for this marginal outcome.
The helicopters of TF Hawk took it on the chin, however. It might have been worse had not an accompanying AH-1F Cobra gunship chased off the gunners on a Soviet-made ZPU-4 quad-barreled antiaircraft gun. Small-arms fire badly damaged two of the seventeen lift UH-60As. Those aircraft diverted for repairs. Pocked by a few bullet holes, the other fifteen flew back to Torrijos for round two.
Arriving after 0730, TF Hawk found Lt. Col. Renard H. Marable's 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (Red Devils), lined up for loading in PZ Center. The paratroopers faced a tough target at Tinajitas, home of the PDF 1st Infantry & Fire Support Company, Los Tigres (Tigers). Intelligence assessed the Tigers with 184 men, 4 big 120mm mortars, 6 mortars (81mm), 3 mortars (60mm), and another one of those ZPU-4 quad flak guns. Nobody knew how much of 1st Company would still be there by now, but given the experience at Panama Viejo, Marable and his rifle companies prepared for a firefight. They were not disappointed.
Tinajitas Barracks was a tough nut to crack, thanks to some brutal terrain. The PDF compound stood in the middle of a saddle between a pair of sheer five-hundred-foot hills. The only decent landing zone--LZ Leopard--lay at the foot of the ridge that held the twin hills, leaving 1/504 troopers with almost a half-mile climb up the steep, foliage-choked slope to get at their prey. Even this six-ship LZ had problems, such as a dirty little creek called Rio Matias Hernandez flowing to the south, the busy Trans-Isthmus Highway to the west, and a basket weave of telephone wires and power lines hanging all over the place to the north. In addition, shanties and shacks full of poor Panamanian civilians choked the whole area except for the hilltops and garrisons proper. Many of them carried AK-47s courtesy of Manuel Noriega's Dignity Battalion (Digbat) civil militia program. Some would use them. It looked bad, all right.
In true airborne fashion, Marable and company might well have gone in atop the barracks parade ground and gently angled metal building roofs, right onto the objective at Tinajitas. Though this would require a rain of fire to get the paratroopers to ground, it would concentrate on the bad guys and avoid moving through the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Plus, there is something to be said for just kicking in the door, especially with an alert enemy. The audacity alone might have helped generate some degree of local surprise.
Such a dangerous direct descent certainly could not have been any tougher than what the 1/504 commander chose to do, landing 800 yards away at LZ Leopard and crashing uphill through the undergrowth. To protect this advance, the Red Devils relied on attack helicopters to deliver covering fires. In addition, Ren Marable decided to fly in a mortar squad with a heavy, tripod-mounted, .50-caliber machine gun. While everything else went in through LZ Leopard, that group planned to get out at miniscule LZ Jaguar, an open slash of ground near a Baha'i temple sited on a commanding 650-foot hill about 1,500 yards southwest of the PDF buildings. From the map and aerial photographs, the temple mount appeared to dominate Tinajitas and offer a good firing post. Taking this high ground would also ensure that the hostile PDF did not use it for their own purposes.
With the attack aviation and the powerful .50 caliber in support, Marable stuck with the scheme of maneuver prepared and rehearsed back at Fort Bragg. It would be Company A swinging east to take one of the looming hills, Company C pushing west to secure the other hill, and Company B right up the gut. This would isolate the PDF in their garrison.
Therein lay the other reason that the Red Devils of 1/504 did not pounce right onto their target. Ren Marable developed his maneuver concept in accord with ideas originated by JTF South's General Stiner, the overall commander of Just Cause. Stiner envisioned surrounding each PDF garrison, broadcasting an appeal for surrender, then beginning to employ precision fires to coerce the enemy to quit. Normally, the ill-disciplined opponents quit long before the Americans brought full firepower to bear. That suited Stiner well. After all, the goal was to retake Panama from Noriega's goons, not slaughter every living member of the PDF, let alone the innocent citizenry of Panama City. This exact method had been used quite well at Fort Amador.
But that had been at H hour, in the darkness at 0100 in the morning, before the bad guys knew what had hit them. After a night of wide-ranging attacks, after the Panama Viejo assault, exposed in the full light of day--well, maybe Stiner's slow squeeze method didn't make sense anymore at Tinajitas. Indeed, with the PDF shattered and on the run, maybe the entire landing at Tinajitas deserved reconsideration. But nobody in 1/504 thought that way. That was way above their pay grade. At their level, they prepared to execute, to do what infantrymen do best and make the leap into death ground.
The small, uneven LZ known as Leopard forced TF Hawk to proceed in two flights, each with two serials. Just to add to the complexity, the tail Blackhawk on the second serial needed to divert to the Baha'i temple, to unload the .50-caliber machine-gun team at LZ Jaguar. Whereas the plan back at Bragg counted on twenty UH-60As, now there were only fifteen. There were no extra C2 craft, no designated medevac birds, no spare lift ships, no dedicated search and rescue teams, just these fifteen Blackhawks, several already sporting nicks and holes from their adventures at Fort Amador and Panama Viejo. With no margin for error, the airborne hoped to get in without losing an aircraft, banking on the durability of the Sikorsky Company's Blackhawks, the nerves of some good Army fliers, bad shooting by frightened, half-trained PDF and Digbats, and the courage and skill of airborne infantrymen. One rocket-propelled grenade or shoulder-fired heat seeker pumped into an overloaded UH-60A, one blazing fireball, and then all the bills would come due, a blood debt of corners cut, big chances taken, and lives in the balance. It was very risky business, an air assault on the cheap, low, and slow under the shining tropical sun.
So be it. Paratroopers live with adversity. They train for it. Now they would fight under it. Men loaded up, packing aboard to make up for the five helicopters not there. Up to twenty-six sweating, grim-faced troopers, bowed by heavy rucksacks, shoehorned themselves into the waiting choppers. With nothing to hold them in but a green canvas nylon retaining strap strung across each open door, the first nine took off at 0815, followed within a few minutes by the second six.
Meanwhile, someone was checking out LZ Leopard and the Tinajitas Barracks, sniffing around for Los Tigres. A pair of AH-64A Apache attack birds and an OH-58C Kiowa scout trolled across the San Miguelito slums, looking for trouble. They found it.
Just east of the PDF barracks, northeast of LZ Leopard, about a dozen uniformed PDF types opened fire on the three U.S. aircraft. Using a big machine gun, the enemy poured it on. They blew holes through the little OH-58C, which broke away, leaking fuel. More impressively, they tore up the lead Apache, wrecking one of its two engines and dislodging the 30mm under-nose cannon, rendering it useless. The shot-up chopper broke for nearby Howard Air Force Base, out of action. The other Apache pulled off, protecting its battered wingman. This was great shooting by the PDF.
Unfortunately for the Panamanian gunners, they quit firing a little too soon. They also had the bad timing to open up just as their targets had been about to trade out with a new team of two Apaches and a new scout ship. Covering the withdrawal of their injured mates, the next two Apaches came on station. The lead gunner, CWO John Flankey, marked the target by laser pulse at almost 3,000 yards. His craft then reared up, its 30mm cannon swiveling. Flankey looked right at the hostile squad, and the gun followed along, guided by the warrant officer's helmet sight. In the distance, the PDF team recognized the hovering AH-64As on the horizon. They started to run, but it was too late. With a rasping roar, the U.S. Army chopper spat out 160 big 30mm rounds, finishing off all but one survivor. He dropped his weapon and fled into the brush fronting the cleared hilltop. That scratched off about ten opponents, but it also left no doubt that the 1st Company at Tinajitas was ready and waiting.
Flying in an oval pattern slightly offset from the main U.S. approach routes, Col. Jack Nix and the men in his C2 bird also saw plenty of armed Panamanians in and around LZ Leopard and the Tinajitas compound. Opposition elements took up positions along the edge of the landing zone. Additionally, attracted by the diving Apache gunfight and the orbiting C2 ship, a large crowd gathered in the dusty streets and along the Trans-Isthmus Highway. The neighbors of San Miguelito were going to see this show. Mixed in among them, civilian-clad Digbat activists hunted for good ambush spots. As for separating these bad actors from the innocent bystanders--well, no UH-60A door gunner or Apache driver wanted to try that kind of surgery. Somebody besides American and PDF soldiers looked sure to get hurt this morning. Helicopter weapons just aren't very discreet.
The first six helos swung out across the Pacific, then turned inland, crossing the coastal highway and Panama City proper. Below, smoke from earlier attacks along the Panama Canal itself and downtown billowed in the bright morning sun. Many civilians waved white handkerchiefs and cheered as the green-black American helicopters crossed over their apartment buildings.
The cheering stopped as the decent offices and apartments gave way to the ghetto of San Miguelito. Local Digbats, some of them women, opened fire as the string of American aircraft passed over. The TF Hawk pilots had to slow down and flare to land, threading a needle of fire and overhead wires to worm their way into little LZ Leopard. Slugs tore through aircraft hulls, wounding men in the last two helos. Even so, young door gunners held their fire, clutching bouncing M-60D flexible-mount machine guns. They could have made short work of these AK-47 shooters, but they would certainly have hit many civilian gawkers. In doing so, they followed the directive of Maj. Gen. James H. Johnson of the 82d Airborne Division: "We put our soldiers at risk in order to minimize casualties and damage to the Panamanian people and their country." So the frustrated helo gunners held their triggers, taking the beating as their craft sank slowly (too damn slowly) toward the high elephant grass covering LZ Leopard.
One door gunner got a clear target and an okay to fire from TF Hawk commander Howard Bornum. With two bursts of 7.62mm rounds, every fifth bullet a red tracer, the soldier blew three Digbat autoriflemen out of the bed of a pickup speeding up a rutted trail paralleling the Trans-Isthmus Highway. Two accompanying AH-IF Cobras and the Apache team waded in to engage, but they broke off. There were too many civilians intermixed. To clear LZ Leopard meant grunt work, sending men, not bullets. It was going to be necessary to wade in and clean them out with rifle, grenade, and bayonet--mano-a-mano, Red Devils versus Los Tigres.
The first half dozen choppers settled into the blowing waves of tall swamp reeds. As they did, enemy automatic fire erupted from a warehouse to the north, just past the low-hanging electrical wires. Most of it whipped way overhead, well above the whirling rotor disks but rising right into the teeth of the next three inbound birds. One lucky 7.62mm round smacked into the flight lead's left windscreen, wrecking the instrument panel and opening a bloody scalp wound on Capt. Tom Muir, the Blackhawk pilot. Muir's face exploded, ripped by metal and glass fragments. The impact came just as he tried to get his helo down into the thrashing elephant grass. Thinking fast, Muir's copilot, CWO Neal Vandenhoovel, wrestled to gain control of the ship and get his twenty-six paratroopers onto the ground. Dazed, his visage a bloody mask, Muir stayed conscious.
The chief somehow got the helo down, and the Red Devils rolled out. A few reached back for tripods and rucksacks. The rushing howl of helicopter turbines, the steady whacking of the rotor blades, did not mask the unbroken stuttering of enemy small arms. With the north end of the LZ already sparking with fire, now the east flank opened up. Hostile gunmen engaged from inside a row of three rusting bus carcasses. The ill-disciplined, poor-shooting Panamanians evidently learned the virtues of the L-shaped ambush, because they were inflicting one on the Red Devils of 1/504 and their assault pilots.
The volume of enemy gunfire escalated as the paratroopers cleared the aircraft. On one UH-60A. three paratroopers slumped back, hit as they tried to get out. On another, a helicopter door gunner staggered back, a hole in his arm, his M-60D machine gun dangling useless as he slumped into his gray nylon seat. Then, led by the bleeding Tom Muir's battered Blackhawk, the six helos took off, skirting the swinging power lines above the enemy-held warehouse. They had been on the ground an average of ten seconds. Blood smears, gunpowder stains, and gaping holes told their own tales. Spent brass cartridges, flashlights, batteries, canteen caps, the jetsam squashed from men crowded rucksack to rucksack, all rattled around the damaged, empty insides of the helicopters as they sped back to PZ Center at the airport. They had another lift to bring in.
On the ground, the paratroopers found themselves entangled in the same fifteen-foot-tall brand of thick, wet grass that had dogged assembly at Torrijos-Tocumen. Getting bearings was hard. The carefully briefed attack plan did not help much here. With the helicopters gone, and another three on short final approach, all attracting fountains of fire, soldiers quickly sensed where the enemy had holed up. When a Cobra flashed overhead, gunning the warehouse that the men could not see, several teams turned that way. Others focused on the shooting coming from the bus hulks to the east.
It was like the drop on Torrijos-Tocumen all over again, only in the light of day. The Red Devils wanted to conduct a quick, tight air assault. Instead, it seemed that a typically chaotic airborne operation had broken out. But that was not bad news at all. After all, these men knew well how to exploit that kind of confusion and friction. On LZ Leopard, it was LGOP time.
It was up to them to do what the door gunners and attack aviators could not, to clean off the fringes of this rotten little LZ. There had been little preparatory attack helo fire, no AC-130 Spectre flying gunship, no mortars, no artillery, no rain of ruin to pave the way. No, this one counted on the good old little groups of paratroopers. At least the pilots had some minor armoring on their craft, and swift rotor blades to take out the aircrews. The men of 1/504 had only camouflage-fabric shirts and guts to protect themselves. And they would not be leaving until they took Tinajitas. There was no turning back.
The time was 0830. The next set of Blackhawks floated down, three fat targets headed to ground. But already, the LGOPs were having an effect. The M-249 SAW guns were snorting away, and grenades were going off. A few NCOs, a clutch of privates, and some tough young officers saw the enemy and went after them, just the way they had been taught. Staff Sergeant Joseph Sedach, platoon leader of 1st Platoon, Company B, described it this way: "The soldiers fought just the way they practiced back at Fort Bragg, but with a difference. Usually, the live fires we had at Fort Bragg are only one way." Sedach's platoon did not have an officer or a sergeant first class, as the approved table of organization said it should. But it had Sedach, a tough, smart, young NCO. With his example, the guys knew what to do.
This time, ground fire hit only one chopper, and that on the tricky egress over the warehouse. Aviator 1st Lt. Lisa Kutschera said later, "Whoever planned that LZ gave the PDF an easy shot at us as we departed the area. We couldn't go under the wires because of a shorter set running alongside the tall set." When the helos climbed up and away, showing belly, the opposition punched holes in the bottom of the airframes.
Now the PDF threw another card on the table. Mortar rounds started to burst on the LZ. They landed in twos and threes, randomly popping out in the long grass. The paratroopers pressed against the warehouse and buses. Their best chance involved getting belly to belly with these PDF defenders. Staying out on the LZ meant death. Indeed, a mortar shell killed two men from Company B, both under care at an impromptu aid station for gunshot wounds suffered on landing. The attending medic also went down, injured.
The next rack of five helicopters descended, enduring another gauntlet of fire from the buses and warehouse, plus mortar rounds spewing hot fragments all about. A sixth helo broke off from that flight and veered into cramped LZ Jaguar, up at the Baha'i temple hill. All the aircraft got out, punctured but without casualties. Now, if only that .50 caliber might uncork and hose down these bastard mortarmen. The rifle companies would take care of the tormentors in the buses and the warehouse.
With parts of all three rifle companies down, Lieutenant Colonel Marable gradually imposed order on his industrious LGOPs. He sent Capt. Gordon Gidumal's Company A up toward the southeastern hill. They skirted the fire nest in the buses, pressing for that summit. Company B went for the buses. Hell, the LGOPs were already there, the PDF down or fleeing. Company C drew the warehouse. That took some time to clean out. All expected the second lift shortly, minus Muir's smashed-up Blackhawk.
The fight at LZ Leopard ended quickly, within a half hour. Like the Viet Cong of legend, the Panamanians proved ghosts, mere handfuls turning up dead or wounded when the rifle squads finally got into their positions. Had the rest melted away into the slums of surrounding San Miguelito? Or had there been no others, merely these diehards with lots of ammunition?
Whatever the reason, the Red Devils' immediate assault from the doors of their helos broke the back of the resistance at LZ Leopard. It had not been pretty or neatly choreographed, but it had certainly been violent and relentless, short-range grunt work. Although the second lift of helicopters still took sniper fire, they all got in and out with only bullet holes, no casualties or major damage. Thanks to all of the shooting on the first trip, the door gunners did not hestitate. Indeed, one overzealous crewman stitched 7.62mm bullets right across the base of the hill, accidentally catching the lead platoons of Company A laboring up the rise. One All-American collapsed, shot in the leg by the misguided burst. In a better-coordinated bit of aerial firepower, a Cobra loosed six Hydra-70 rockets (2.75 inch), peppering a corner of the Tinajitas garrison. That largely ended the hail of mortar rounds that had been coming from that spot up there.
The .50-caliber machine-gun element at the Baha'i temple turned out to be a big nothing. The ground did not quite match the map. Regardless of what all had been told, the gun crew could not see the PDF barracks on the neighboring hilltop. By the time they set up to shoot at where they thought it stood, the rest of 1/504 had humped halfway up the hill. Not that it mattered. The .50-caliber gunners had no targets up there anyway by now. Unschooled in tactics, Los Tigres and their Digbat buddies did not know the value of high ground. The ones inclined to resist evidently decided to fight it out on the rim of LZ Leopard. With those characters killed, wounded, or run off, with the enemy mortar teams scatttered by Cobra rockets, there was nobody shooting back from Tinajitas proper anymore.
It took the Red Devils several hours to establish that fact. To the east, Company A made their way carefully, thanks to advice from its experienced senior NCO, 1st Sgt. Johnny R. Oliver. The rifle platoons rotated their point men to break the lush green foliage. They also reconnoitered, and found a covered draw. This twisting crack, though encrusted with heavy vegetation, led them slowly right to their designated objective, the eastern hill. It took time, but the company got there without further loss.
Company B, which took the brunt of the fire on the LZ, faced the toughest climb. Specialist Andrew Slatniske of 1st Platoon called it "the longest seven hundred meters [760 yards] I ever did--up that hill in that elephant grass." But with the relentless SSgt. Joe Sedach leading, 1st Platoon bent their backs and kept moving, Slatniske included.
The adrenaline rush of the LZ cross fire drained away, sapped by the hot sun, the unyielding jungle, and the crushing burden of those same hundred-pound rucksacks that had pressed the men into the marsh mud after the jump the night before. Had it really been less than twenty-four hours since they left Fort Bragg, cursing the chill winds, longing for the warmth of the tropics? Well, now they had warmth in spades, heat to the nth degree, a hot flight in, a hot LZ, a hot gunfight in the old buses, and now this endless march. Occasional sniper rounds snapped overhead. But the sun was the enemy now. It proved more persistent than the PDF.
The steep hillside took its toll. Eyes clouded by sweat; men stumbled. Their monstrous backpacks sent them tumbling. At times, entire trudging files crept along on hands and knees, clutching root knobs and vines. Men had not slept the night before, or much the night prior to that, back at Bragg. Few had eaten much; a full stomach makes for ugly abdominal wounds. Now, lack of water and dwindling energy began knocking men down. Six troopers keeled over, one after another, some out cold with heat prostration. Far more surprisingly, almost four hundred men kept going, up and up, crusty white sweat rings crisscrossing their sodden camouflage uniforms. Still, they labored onward.
Company A got there first, then Company C, and finally Company B. At 1433, Ren Marable declared Tinajitas secure. In a search of the abandoned garrison, the men found a litter of PDF uniforms, racks of rifles, and boxes of ammunition, as well as all kinds of discarded service equipment. They also found three 120mm mortars, two aimed at LZ Leopard and one at the U.S. facility at Fort Clayton. They would fire no more rounds in anger. Like Panama Viejo, the garrison itself turned out to be a dry hole. But the Red Devils had certainly done their part to dry it up.
The third All-American air assault inserted 4/325 near Fort Cimmaron. By that time, PDF's will to fight back had largely dissipated. The landings were unopposed. The airborne infantrymen had several sharp small-scale engagements later, to include a major fracas at the Battalion 2000 barracks with a few PDF holdouts. Shooting went on most of the night. An AC-130 Spectre flying gunship helped settle that affair. By 0730 on 21 December 1989, 4/325 declared Fort Cimmaron to be secure. Once again, the mass of the enemy fled long before the U.S. paratroopers attacked.
In fact, Fort Cimmaron stood empty for a good reason. Before the 82d Airborne even jumped into Torrijos-Tocumen, Fort Cimmaron's elite Battalion 2000 had been ravaged trying to cross the Rio Pacora Bridge. It was an "on-the-fly" mission passed to Company A, 3d Battalion, 7th Special Force Group (Airborne), in response to late-breaking intelligence. Manuel Noriega's shock troops had started moving; even without the weather delays, the 82d would not get there in time to stop them. So the Special Forces drew the task.
Between 0045 and 0300 on 20 December, as the Rangers and 82d fought it out at Torrijos-Tocumen, two dozen Green Berets and a supporting Spectre gunship stopped and wrecked an eight-vehicle Battalion 2000 convoy full of heavy weapons. In a tough fight that lasted all night, they killed or wounded thirty-six PDF troops and snagged twenty prisoners. No wonder that in the encounter on 21 December, the few still willing to fight in the Battalion 2000 barracks reconsidered once 4/325 again brought the hated Spectre overhead.
During the battle of the Pacora Bridge, twenty-four Special Forces men and a Spectre did more physical damage to the PDF than the 82d Airborne's three air assaults on 20 December, and at no cost to the Americans. By contrast, following a jump strung out and bollixed up by bad weather in North Carolina, the All-Americans had taken three largely empty PDF compounds. In the toughest of the three engagements--Tinajitas--they lost two paratroopers killed and seventeen wounded, plus three wounded aviators. An Apache and a Kiowa scout were knocked out of action, and fourteen of the fifteen Blackhawks took a beating, one sufficient to render the aircraft unflyable for the rest of Operation Just Cause. It could have been worse, and probably should have been, except the enemy's morale had cracked before sunup on 20 December.
Essentially, all of the 82d's disappointments related to timing. In an unconventional lightning strike such as Just Cause, speed is life. There is only one chance to surprise the foe, and you had better be there in his face or be ready to pay. The All-Americans certainly got there, and they hit every objective--but too late. They paid in blood and pain to verify victories already won.
Hindsight allows that unobstructed view, but things were not so clear on the morning of 20 December. At that point, launching the 82d Airborne's three air assaults made military sense. In Lt. Gen. Carl Stiner's command post, the situation at the time looked pretty dicey. Noriega himself had fled, and his rabid Radio Nacional kept broadcasting prerecorded appeals to take to the streets, `jungles, and mountains and fight on against the hated gringos. Combat continued in and around the PDF headquarters at La Commandancia in downtown Panama City, with surrounding neighborhoods afire and sniper rounds going off like firecrackers. Would the PDF regroup and go into insurgent mode? Were the thousands of American civilians in country in danger? What about the support of the local populace? Nobody knew, not really.
In that light, the U.S. forces had to take the last three known enemy garrisons, if only to clamp hands on their arms caches. Under the PDF program called Operacion Montana, a pro-Noriega guerrilla movement counted on taking the heavy weapons from Panama Viejo, Tinajitas, and Fort Cimmaron. In the former two urban locations, seizing the garrisons would also send an unmistakable signal to the people of Panama. The Americans had the initiative. When the men of 1/504 went in hard at Tinajitas, the spectators got the message--these Yankees would not go home.
In the war on the PDF's will, the meager returns on the daylight air assaults meant less than the fact that tough All-Americans took on, and took out, the last three major enemy nodes of resistance. Manuel Noriega's bluster about guerrilla warfare turned out to be hollow. The three 82d Airborne attacks underlined and ensured that outcome. They were a part of the whole, and it is hard to say that they were unnecessary. Only the PDF leadership knew that for sure, and their view had been relayed incoherently. It all happened too fast. In that important way, the paratroopers did their job well.
That acknowleged, the airborne infantry experience in Panama deserves more consideration, particularly in light of the confusing jump and the difficult daylight air assault at Tinajitas. But that did not happen as well as it should have. Hungry for a victory, the American public and military accentuated the positive. The courage and capability of the paratroopers certainly earned welcome praise. Then the war with Iraq erupted, and the Panama operation faded away, its fifteen minutes of fame long gone. One afternoon and evening in Somalia in October of 1993, though, it all came rushing back in technicolor blood and fire. There's not much future in flying helicopters full of men across enemy gun barrels in broad daylight.
But that was still in the future as the country applauded the heroes of Just Cause. Proud Americans in uniform nearly broke their arms slapping backs and exchanging high fives. This came right from the top, when General Stiner told a group of reporters that, "in my judgment, there were no lessons learned on this operation. I don't think that I or my commanders or our armed forces learned a single lesson." That got quoted repeatedly, implying that all went exactly as planned. Mostly, it did.
Less often did folks hear Stiner's next sentence, an important qualifier: "But we did validate a lot of things." That's military terminology for relearning old lessons. Friction, the enemy, freezing rain, ubiquitous swamp grass, hot sun, and human nature all played their parts. There were obvious miscalculations in time and space. In the internal military trade journals and documents, that validation process did start, although truncated by the Gulf War.
Taking Stiner's lead, some in the armed forces have airbrushed Just Cause into some kind of simultaneous blitzkrieg, ignoring the important nuances of the 82d's late entry on the field of action. The self-described "keystone document" of the armed forces, Joint Publication 3-0: Doctrine for Joint Operations, uses Just Cause as a prototype for a forced entry. No argument there; this nonlinear "takedown" campaign was truly revolutionary and worthy of emulation. But in an unexpected nod to George Orwell, readers of Joint Pub 3-0 learn that the JTF "simultaneously attacked twenty-seven targets" at H hour (0100 on 20 December 1989), which is not true. The last three targets were not even due to be hit until 0230, ninety minutes after H hour. In reality, of course, these air assaults dragged on throughout the morning of 20 December. Perhaps simultaneous means something different to doctrine writers.
Worse, the 82d Airborne's troubled drop gets explained away thusly: "One large formation experienced delays from a sudden ice storm at the departure airfield--its operations and timing were revised in the air." Well, that's one way to put it.
Incensed by this kind of material, some sideline experts relooked at the 82d Airborne's role in Just Cause, then overreacted. They argued that the airborne jump made no sense. These critics think that the 1st Brigade should have landed at the twin airports like any other airline passengers (albeit a lot faster). Although superficially attractive, this idea makes a hash of reality.
Start with the basics. To land big transport jets at Torrijos-Tocumen, the entire area must be secure. It's one thing to pass over in the night sky. It's another to land, taxi, and park. Air Force Starlifters lack armor, and a few well-placed tracer rounds or an RPG could turn the parking ramp into a barbecue scene. One such explosion would end airlanding very quickly.
Next, the runways must be clear of battle debris. A few spent cartridge cases or a ditched parachute promised mayhem if sucked into a C-141B's screaming turbofans. In mortal combat from the minute they landed, the Rangers had little time to police up the trash of war. Days after the initial assault, a special ops MH-6 Little Bird helicopter vacuumed up a crumpled parachute and beat itself to death. And that was after the airport runways had supposedly been cleaned off.
Even if they could navigate through the PDF gunfire and the military detritus, it takes a while for USAF jets to land and off-load troops. By comparison, an airdrop takes minutes to get thousands of boots on the ground, plus lots of heavy gear. That all happened, too, if not as elegantly as preliminary plans suggested. As late as the 82d was, it would not have formed until early on the morning of 21 December had it landed inside its jet transports, a delay of twenty-four hours or more. The division leadership tried that in Grenada, and it took days to build combat power, which delayed resolution of the fighting. In Panama, they went with the jumps and took their lumps.
No, the jump wasn't the problem, although it caused it. The problem was the follow-on air assaults. That concept simply did not fit into the prevailing scheme, and through no fault of the 82d Airborne, either. Even if the airdrop had gone off like clockwork, the air assau lts were guaranteed to go off one after another, not simultaneously, due to a shortage of Army aviation in country. There just weren't enough helicopters allocated. For added trouble, the JTF South planners wanted to start ninety minutes after the rest of the party, which might well have ensured trouble no matter what. Once the flights slid back into daylight, it is impressive that things went as well as they did.
Focusing on the air assaults misses the real benefit of the 82d's big drop. In a few hours the American effort in Panama brought in a full fighting brigade, to include heavy equipment. This increased the line battalions in country by 25 percent in one swoop. Coupled with the Ranger jumps on Torrijos-Tocumen and distant Rio Hato, the airborne insertions doubled American infantry strength overnight. Although their triple air assault landed no knockouts, the 82d Airborne was in place by daybreak to handle the myriad of 911 calls that soon flooded into Stiner's JTF South.
These started almost immediately. On 20 December 1989, after taking Panama Viejo, 2/504 dispatched a force to secure endangered American civilians at the Marriott Hotel. Following their seizure of Tinajitas, the Red Devils of 1/504 began civic action in San Miguelito, utterly defusing the Digbat presence by medical aid and distribution of meals. The men of 4/325 went into the Punta Patilla Airfield on 22 December. In addition, the 82d Airborne took over Torrijos-Tocumen to clear the runways for the arrival of follow-on troops from the 7th Infantry Division (Light). This freed the Rangers for additional missions, too. And those kept coming, as the Americans mopped up across the country.
That's what makes the airborne infantry useful and unique. They arrive in bulk, right from America. Unlike any other conventional unit shipped from the U.S. homeland, the paratroopers can fight their way in. That capability made a difference in Panama, and promises to do so again some day.
On the face of it, the airborne battalion looks pretty much like any other dismounted infantry outfit in the U.S. Army. The 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, is typical. When they went into Tinajitas, the Red Devils drew their assault echelon from three rifle companies, an antiarmor company, and a headquarters unit. The total strength on paper is 697 men, not particularly strong. Few battalions run at full strength, though in the 82d Airborne, most are close.
Within the rifle companies, each of the three rifle platoons has three nine-man rifle squads and a nine-man weapons squad. Split into two fire teams of four, the rifle squad has the usual mix of M-16A2 rifles, SAW light machine guns, and M-203 40mm grenade launchers. The weapons squad packs M-60 machine guns, big old 7.62mm models based on the World War II German MG-42 series. On paper, the weapons guys also carry M-47 Dragon antitank missiles, but few units bother with these big, weak, obsolescent items. A radioman, platoon sergeant, and lieutenant round out this basic fighting unit.
Three such platoons make a rifle company, designated by the letters A, B, and C. Along with a captain, a lieutenant executive officer, and a first sergeant, there's a handful of others: a supply sergeant; an armorer to fix weapons; a chemical defense NCO, who often does anything but that; and a few more radio operators. A six-man squad carrying 60mm mortars provides readily responsive firepower. In Panama, the ROE prohibited using these mortars except under very restrictive conditions, with all sorts of permission required. So the company mortar sections usually acted as an extra rifle squad, often securing the company first-aid post.
The antiarmor company, Company D, consists of five platoons of four Humvees each. Aboard the Humvees can be mounted a mix of TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) antitank missile launchers, Mk-19 automatic grenade launchers (40mm), or the ever-popular M-2HB .50-caliber heavy machine gun. The platoons regularly mix this potent arsenal, with some TOWs, some grenade launchers, and some .50 calibers. The Humvees have Kevlar-hardened cabs and can be dropped by parachute. About half of the battalion's firepower resides in Company D.
In Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), along with the staff, the communicators, and the supply, maintenance, and medical men, a platoon of scouts and a platoon of four 81 mm mortars offer dedicated reconnaissance and fire support for the battalion commander. At Tinajitas, Ren Marable used his mortarmen to bring in the .50-caliber machine gun at the Baha'i temple. It wasn't exactly their assigned job, but not far out of line with firing their mortars to suppress enemy positions and allow the battalion to advance. It also got around the ROE restriction rather neatly. Unfortunately, the ground around Tinajitas did not allow this clever technique to work out.
There are also habitual attachments. Some of the medics from HHC always split out to the rifle platoons. Outside assistance also comes routinely. The artillery battalion that supports 1/504 gives the battalion a team of forward observers, enough to send one to every rifle company and rifle platoon. The U.S. Air Force sends forward air controllers to call in laser bombs and Spectre gunships, along with just plain old high explosives, but this small team stays at battalion level. Loudspeaker teams and Spanish linguists accompanied the Red Devils in Panama. Engineers or air defenders might have also gone if needed.
In the 82d Airborne Division, all of these characters came ready to jump and fight. The real steel of 1/504 came from its men, not its organizational diagram. Everyone in an airborne infantry battalion jumps and fights, led by the lieutenant colonel. All graduate from Fort Benning, Georgia's demanding three-week basic airborne course. All meet the standards of the 82d's own challenging training program. Leaping out of airplanes already says something about a man's willpower. If you can get a guy to do that, over and over, such schooled bravery translates well into charging enemy machine guns and sticking bayonets into badniks. It all creates an aggressive attitude that pays off when things go on the fritz, as in the opening round at Tinajitas.
Airborne infantry is at its best when dumped right on the enemy, preferably at night. With AN/PVS-7B goggles on their faces and AN/PAQ-4A laser spotters on their weapons, paratroopers can see and shoot in the dark, although goggle fighting is like dodging through a football game looking through two toilet paper tubes. It takes a lot of training to get good with night gear. Many foreign armies have the toys, but only a few bother to learn to fight with them. The 82d Airborne Division has learned. It is a fearsome advantage for a force that prefers to start its war amongst the bad guys.
As far as air assaults, patrolling, infiltration, defense, and all the other aspects of the grunt art, those necessarily get attention after parachute infantrymen master the exceptional perils of a mass night drop right into death ground. That central function takes a lot of time and effort. Sometimes, the All-American riflemen could use work on ground movement or heliborne operations. A few of those gaps showed at Tinajitas. But the United States has other infantrymen to do these tasks. We do well not to forget that, among conventional forces, only the 82d can go straight into battle from stateside. If you want a parachute assault, call America's Guard of Honor, the 82d Airborne Division. They deliver.
Real deliveries have been pretty rare. Since World War II, the 82d has made one combat drop--Torrijos-Tocumen. They almost made another in Haiti in September 1994. But that makes two nights of work since 1945. We maintain and train our airborne infantry at great expense, and have for decades, although we use it sparingly indeed.
Aside from Panama, there have been four other American parachute assaults in the years after World War II. Two came during the Korean War, carried out by the 187th Airborne Infantry Regimental Combat Team. Both drops attempted to cut off enemy forces. In both cases, most of the opposition slipped away. In Vietnam, the 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry, jumped in 1967 as part of Operation Junction City. It had some aspects of a stunt in that unexpectedly successful friendly forces had already secured the drop zone. Airborne battalions fought bravely in many engagements in Korea and Vietnam, as well as leading interventions into Lebanon (1958) and the Dominican Republic (1965-66). They did not jump, though.
Army Rangers, not airborne infantry, took the Point Salines runway in Grenada in 1983, the fourth post-1945 American drop aside from Just Cause. Rangers have made airfield seizures into a fundamental mission, and so drew the nod in Panama, too. The 82d came in on top of them at Torrijos-Tocumen, bound for other business. Had the 1994 Haiti assault occurred, the 82d would have dropped in anger, but that almost happened in Grenada, and even in Santo Domingo back in 1965, too. A strong plea also arose for a jump into Iraq in 1991 during the Gulf War. None of these came to pass. Does close count?
Apparently, it does. Those facing the 82d are the main reasons it rarely jumps. Here's a case in point. Raoul Cedras and the rulers of militant Haiti discounted every U.S. threat until they received definitive word that the 82d Airborne was in the air, coming to drop waves of tough LGOPs all over the Haitian strongmen and their tin-pot army. American envoy Gen. Colin Powell told Cedras face-to-face: "They are already in the air. The entire division is on the way." Cedras threw in the towel. The 82d turned back, mission accomplished without firing one shot.
That is real fighting power.
It's the reason America pays to keep the Red Devils of 1/504 and all their brothers fed, watered, and walked, on the leash, just in case. Transcontinental forced entry offers a terrific tool for senior commanders and the civilian political leadership. But in the end, it works because bad guys don't want to be on the ground some night when Andy Slatniske and Joe Sedach drop in, along with a couple thousand of their closest friends.
|Prologue: A Few Good Men||1|
|1||Death From Above||36|
|3||Hell on Wheels||118|
|Epilogue: The Last Riflemen||296|
|Appendix||Active Army and Marine Infantry Battalions||335|