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Invasion of Panama

" (Chapter 12 volume II)

The fighting during Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama in December 1989 was similarly limited. However, the highly successful nature of such a complex operation pointed out just how well the U.S. Army had learned the lessons of a decade of training and preparation.

The origins of the U.S. invasion of Panama are complex. Forty years of finely balanced confrontation with the Soviet Union had induced the United States to cooperate with many unsavory international leaders. Panama’s General Manuel Antonio Noriega was among the worst. The last free election in Panama had been in 1968, when a military coup expelled the populist Arnulfo Arias from the Presidency he had won at the ballot box. Noriega, a capable intelligence officer at the time, ingratiated himself with the new military leadership of Panama by ruthlessly facilitating their consolidation of power. He subsequently gained a measure of favor with the United States by assisting the Central Intelligence Agency in covert operations against Nicaraguan and Salvadoran Leftists. Ultimately he himself attained absolute power, his rise assisted by blackmail, fraud, corruption, intimidation, drug dealing, and outright murder.

As the Cold War wound down, it became more difficult for the U.S. government to overlook Noriega’s crimes. He was indicted in a Florida court for his direct involvement in the drug trade and was also suspected of colluding with Communist Cuba to help it avoid economic sanctions, as well as smuggling illicit arms to Colombian rebels. He sustained a brutal campaign of intimidation against critics and opponents and stood accused of spectacular, grisly political murders. When American leaders expressed concern with his outrageous behavior, Noriega turned his intimidation efforts against American soldiers and civilians in the Panama Canal Zone. His heavily armed Panama Defense Force (PDF) and paramilitary “dignity battalions” began a campaign of harassment that ebbed and flowed with Noriega’s whims and with the current volume of criticism from Washington. Because of national preoccupations elsewhere, American military leaders in the Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) were ordered to handle the abuses quietly. Ultimately the PDF murdered an American marine, and the United States could turn the other cheek no longer.

Fortunately, the newly assigned SOUTHCOM commander, General Maxwell Thurman, was well along in planning an invasion of Panama when the political decision to do so was made. Under the operational command of the XVIII Airborne Corps out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 13,000 soldiers from a half-dozen major posts across the United States airlifted into Panama to join the 13,000 soldiers and marines already there. H-hour was 1:00 A.M. on December 20, 1989. At that time the Americans simultaneously assaulted the two battalions, ten independent infantry companies, cavalry squadron, and special forces command of the PDF at over a dozen localities while fanning out to secure American lives and property in over a dozen more locations.

Typical of the fighting was the airfield takedown at Rio Hato, seventy-five miles west of Panama City. At H-hour two F–117A stealth fighter-bombers delivered two 2,000-lb. bombs in an attempt to stun the soldiers of two heavily armed infantry companies defending the airfield. Thirteen C–130 transport aircraft, having flown nonstop from the United States, parachuted in two battalions of rangers from the dangerously low altitude of 500 feet. Gathering quickly in the darkness, two companies of rangers fanned out to isolate the airfield, cut the Pan-American Highway running through it, and seize a nearby ammunition dump. Meanwhile, another company attacked a nearby NCO academy complex and yet another struck the two PDF companies deployed to defend the airfield.          The fighting turned into a ferocious exchange of fire, with the ground fire of the rangers heavily reinforced by fires from an AC–130 gunship and attack helicopters. Contested buildings fell in room-to-room fighting following a liberal use of grenades and automatic rifles at close ranges. Within five hours the rangers had secured Rio Hato, including Noriega’s lavishly appointed beach house nearby. At Rio Hato, the Americans killed 34 Panamanians and captured 405 plus a huge inventory of weapons, themselves losing 4 killed, 18 wounded, and 26 injured in the jump. The fighting had been confusing and brutal but brief and decisive.

In many cases urban settings and the proximity of civilians—in particular American civilians—complicated the nature of the fighting. The PDF’s La Comandancia Headquarters, for example, in the heart of Panama City, was seized only after a tough firefight. M113 armored personnel carriers found themselves peppered by fire from surrounding buildings as they pushed their way through obstacles en route. Operations assumed a third dimension when the Americans had to clear PDF snipers floor by floor from high-rise apartments. At Fort Amador, the firepower was less intense but the situation just as tricky; PDF objectives to be secured or neutralized were within a hundred meters of an American housing area, wherein dependents were still sleeping. At Omar Torrijos International Airport, some PDF soldiers attempted to escape by hiding among 300-plus passengers from a stranded Brazilian airliner and others attempted to escape by making hostages of American passengers. In some cases PDF soldiers and dignity battalion members fought in civilian clothes. As careful and disciplined as the American soldiers were, they could not altogether avoid civilian casualties in this confused and intermingled fighting. Somewhat more than 200 nonhostile Panamanian civilians were killed in the crossfire.

Within eight hours serious fighting ceased and the Panama Defense Force had been effectively subdued, thanks to a number of factors. Most of the fighting occurred in the dark; and the Americans had overwhelming advantages with respect to night combat, including more-effective night-vision devices. Such devices, in their infancy during Vietnam, were now sufficiently refined to provide near-daytime light quality or thermal imaging and were available to individual soldiers as well as to crew-served weapons. Even more important, American units had trained extensively in night fighting and were fully prepared to make the best use of their technical advantages. The Americans also enjoyed absolute air supremacy and had sufficient airlift to parachute or helicopter to dozens of targets at the same time—with overwhelming force at each such target. Air power meant radically enhanced firepower as well, particularly with respect to the formidable AC–130 Spectre gunships and deadly efficient munitions. A final and in some ways decisive advantage was that the Americans were long familiar with Panama and were not only exhaustively trained but also carefully rehearsed for their combat roles. Indeed, in many cases American soldiers had driven through, physically observed, or even exercised on their H-hour objectives during the weeks prior to the attack.

The combat results were correspondingly lopsided; the Americans lost 26 killed and 325 wounded to the 314 killed and thousands of captured or wounded Panamanians.


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