Operation Just Cause

Operation Just Cause

The U. S. invasion of Panama 1989 

On 20 December 1989, the “All-American Division”, as part of the United States invasion of Panama, conducted their first combat jump since World War II onto Torrijos International Airport, Panama. The goal of the 1st Brigade task force, which was made up of the 1-504 and 2-504 PIR as well as 4-325 AIR and Company A, 3-505 PIR, and 3-319th AFAR, was to oust Manuel Noriega from power. They were joined on the ground by 3-504 PIR, which was already in Panama. The invasion was initiated with a night combat jump and airfield seizures; the 82nd conducted follow-on combat air assault missions in Panama City and the surrounding areas of the Gatun Locks. The operation continued with an assault of multiple strategic installations, such as the Punta Paitilla Airport in Panama City and a Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) garrison and airfield at Rio Hato, where Noriega also maintained a residence. The attack on La Comandancia (PDF HQ) touched off several fires, one of which destroyed most of the adjoining and heavily populated El Chorrillo neighborhood in downtown Panama City. The 82d Airborne Division secured several other key objectives such as Madden Dam, El Ranacer Prison, Gatun Locks, Gamboa, and Fort Cimarron. Overall, the operation involved 27,684 U.S. troops and over 300 aircraft, including C-130 Hercules, AC-130 Spectre gunship, OA-37B Dragonfly observation, and attack aircraft, C-141 and C-5 strategic transports, F-117A Nighthawk stealth aircraft, and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. The invasion of Panama was the first combat deployment for the AH-64, the HMMWV, and the F-117A. In the short six years since the Invasion of Grenada, Operation Just Cause demonstrated how quickly the US Armed Forces could adapt and overcome the mistakes and equipment interoperability issues to conduct a quick and decisive victory. In all, the 82d Airborne Division suffered 6 of the 23 fatalities of the operation. The paratroopers began redeployment to Fort Bragg on 12 January 1990. Operation Just Cause concluded on 31 Jan 1990, just 42 days (D+42) since the invasion started. The following are some stories from personnel involved in the detailed planning and also the execution of the mission.

CSM Tony Padilla (PFC at the time)
Tony participated in the spearhead of the invasion of Panama and was awarded the bronze star on his jump wings for his combat jump into Panama as part of Operation Just Cause. Tony Padilla served in A Co, Assault CP 1990-1993. He is currently serving as a LEO in Saint Paul Minnesota. 

My service in the 82nd Airborne Division and the Assault CP was the highlight of my career. I think about the jump into Panama from time to time. I have a son serving in Kuwait now and hope he never has to go through the things that I did and see the horrible things that I had to see in Panama. In Alpha Company I served under Engle, Perrault, Dodd, and my biggest influence was 1SG Bobby Bell. He was a mountain of a man and he was a great NCO to emulate. During the recall and preparation for the Panama Jump 1SG Bell was key to the planning and execution in A Company. During the recall, Engle could not make it back from leave. He was caught in a snowstorm in Pennsylvania. The 1SG took over planning jumpers and assigning personnel for the various missions that came down from the Division Assault Group and other leaders throughout the Division and Battalion. There was a bunch of Bn officers that wanted to jump and eventually did jump into Panama. My role for this mission was RETRANS. They sent the RETRANS and Shark teams to heavy drop rigging to prep the vehicles for the airdrop. It seemed like we spent the entire day there working on those damn vehicles. Later that same night our Battalion Commander Colonel Woloski briefed us on the Division and Battalion missions. After that, I went to services and it was a welcome break. The Division issued us ammunition and grenades. The ammo was heavy, but we packed it the best we could. I packed the BDUs I had on hand and the other normal packing list gear I thought would be useful in Panama. I was carrying a B-load of my gear, ammo, batteries, those of us involved in the deployment were locked down and not allowed to call home or go home for any reason. As a paratrooper in the 82nd, this was business as usual and we knew how to work around those issues without getting ourselves in trouble. At green ramp we watched the planes being de-iced. Later we received another briefing about assembly on the DZ and what to expect when we hit the ground. Per our briefing, we were organized into staggered sticks. I was mid-way in the stick, and we did inflight rigging to put on the chutes, reserve, and rucks. There was no JMPI but in the sticks, there were a few jumpmasters who did conduct a few JMPI checks. The jumpmasters would jump with us and leave the safeties to do all the door work and remain with the aircraft. We were jumping at 500 above ground level which was typical for a combat jump The pilot come over the intercom and told us there was fighting on the ground and said God Bless and Good Luck. For whatever reason, I ended up also pulling SECOMP (Secure Satellite Enroute Communications Pallet) operator duty for a short while. I think it was originally assigned to one of our officers. I didn’t mind. I was a commo man in the Assault CP and this is what we lived for. So en route to combat jump with a handmike in my hand felt normal. We were not that far out from TOT (Time on Target). It was unbelievable! I was 20 years old. I took in the scene. It was quiet, somber and we were only a few minutes from TOT. I exited the aircraft and after my count to four looked up to see my full canopy. I could also see that we were in a formation of six C141s aircraft. On our quick descent, I could see tracers rounds and hear gunfire. We also heard PSYOPs types of messages, but I didn’t really pay attention to what they were saying. I knew the message was not for me. I later determined that those PYSOP messages were direct to the PDF trying to get them to surrender and lay down their arms. I could see heavy drops going into the jungle which reminded me I had a RETRANS[1] mission once I hit the ground. After landing I put my weapon into operation and left my chute in place. I landed in elephant grass. I decided I needed to move out to the assembly area. I was alone there for a few minutes but soon started seeing other personnel. The LGOP[2] (Little Groups of Paratroopers) concept was in effect. Overhead, another wave of paratroopers was coming down. We had to go over a fence and some other slow-go terrain and tall grass. There seemed to be a lot of close, friendly fire. When we assembled, we found out one soldier had laid down his ruck and misplaced it. It had COMSEC in it so around daylight we were moving back across the DZ to try to find that ruck. It sucked a lot and of course, the guy felt like a dumbass. Once the ruck was recovered, we moved to a nearby Air Force hangar. We found some spot near the hangar area to wash up. We had the Retrans vehicle and trailer from the heavy drop. Later the vehicle was stolen. Obviously, this was my first combat experience. I thought it was kind of wild and out of control. When we had screw-off time, we went to the BX to get some normal food commandeered rentals cars to move a pallet of batteries and gear. We also went over to the PDF barracks to see if there was anything left behind or overlooked by the troops that assaulted the barracks earlier. There was blood all over the place. We went through some of the PDF lockers looking for souvenirs. We took parts of uniforms we needed. Some guys found money, knives, and things like that. We felt like it was all fair game. Shortly thereafter we moved over to the airport. The chow was horrible. We ended up going to the Marriot to get chow there. That worked for a while until they shut off the power. They moved us again over to Fort Amador. We ran into American families that were stationed in the area. They were told to gather there until the area was fully secured or until they were evacuated. They thanked us for our service and gave us what little food and drinks they had on hand. Division had set up HQ at Amador. We set up our comms there and soon found ourselves on 12 hours on 12 hours off shifts. 1SG Bell was clearly in charge of the comms situation. Signs of normalcy were all around us. The Air Force guys were doing PT, playing volleyball, running around in PT shorts like nothing had happened over the past 72 hours. 7th ID moved into the area and relieved the 82nd of the majority of their responsibilities for securing and holding the area. They destroyed the barracks. The area smelled like death. It was towards the end of our deployment and I could slowly see how the mission had changed people around me. Upon being notified to redeploy we did a shakedown and a lot of unauthorized items showed up and had to be turned over. A few weeks later after we returned, we were doing our normal motor pool work when we found a pdf revolver in one of the air filter compartments. I guess the shakedowns didn’t catch that one. The combat jump into Panama was one of the highlights of my career and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. As I said before, this is exactly what we trained for in Assault CP and I felt like I contributed to the Division and Battalion missions.  

Major John Kirkbride (Captain at the time of the war)

John Kirkbride served as 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), Communications Platoon Leader 81-82, 2/504 Communication Electronics Signal Officer (CESO) 82-83, B. Co GP Platoon Leader 83-84, 504th PIR Regimental Signal Officer 86-88, B/82d Signal. Commander 88-89, 82nd Sig Battalion Assistant S3 89-90.

I completed two tours in the 82nd Airborne Division in the 82nd Signal Battalion (BN). My first tour was under General Gray when he was the Battalion Commander. I was selected as an ROTC high performer and received this assignment as a type of reward. In 83-84, I was moved down to 82nd Sig BN as B Company GP Platoon Leader 1984-85 under Captains Brotherton and Later Kline. Due to an overseas assignment, I served in Fort Gordon and Korea. When returning to the States I was again assigned to the 504th as the Brigade SIGO then commanded by Col Steel and Col Crocker. I completed these assignments and had great success. I was selected to 82nd Sig BN, Bravo Company Commander. I replaced CPT Donahue and CPT Hopkins followed me. I turned over command in the May/June timeframe and upon completion, I decided to take a much-needed leave. While on leave, I was taking it easy in Fayetteville, I lived in the popular community called Water’s Edge,.I got a call from the BN CDR Col Woloski. He asked me to come in and talk to him about a special assignment. He selected me mainly because of my experience, availability, and TS clearance. I was one of the few Officers in the Bn that had a TS clearance. He briefed me and “read me on” to the OPLAN for the invasion and buildup of Panama. I knew of only a select few others from the BN that was aware of the plans along with the Col, Major Clingempeel, and a few others from the ADSO shop. I also meet with Col McNeil, the Division G-3 to get more detail and guidance on the mission. After confirming that I was read on to the OPLAN he briefed me on a special mission to Panama. They needed someone that could think on their feet, make things happen on the ground, as well as plan and execute with discretion. The position also required a lot of liaison work in Panama with Army, Air Forces, and whomever else we encountered. I went home and packed my gear excited about the mission. I spent about one month on the ground reconning potential locations for Division Main (DMAIN), Division Nodal Platoons, Division Rear (DREAR), and sites for retrans and other signal support. When I hit the ground, I met the BN CDR. He had already pulled off his Division patches and I did the same. With the Division Commander planning on locating at Lubrock AFB which was a semi-closed-off area. I traveled to nearby Near Howard AFB and I started planning for communications channels and landlines that would need to be either activated, requisitioned, or taken from the existing local infrastructure. When I found a compound nearby that I was sure could accommodate a large DMAIN TOC and all its comms needs I had to Liaison with local personnel to put in service requests for DSN lines. I presented myself as a G6 Staff Officer when submitting the requests. I asked for 20 lines and when they put them in, I took the time to validate each one and started to layout the TOC. During my short downtime, I put together a phone book ready to be published. I briefed the BN CDR and Maj Clingempeel on my latest status and accomplishments. Things were going great. When the BN officers briefed Col McNeil of what had been prepared, he asked If I could take on another special mission. The BN CDR, ADSO, and I were all ears. As a soldier and an Officer, these are the kind of moments and special assignments you hope for. Col McNeil and the Division Staff were looking for an Officer who could handle a mission that would essentially get our Sheridan Tanks on the ground in Panama without anyone knowing what was going on. This was a very cool and exciting mission. I would be notified when and where they would land and I would be required to coordinate the movement of these tanks, at night, under cover of tarps (GP medium tents), and avoid detection. I also coordinated the secret storage of these until they were called into action. I contacted the local US Army Combat Engineer unit and coordinated the use of HEMMIT transports. I had to pre-staged them locally so that I could move them to load the Sheridans and later move them without a lot of commotion or drawing attention to ourselves. All coordination complete I waited on the AFB for their arrival. We were able to offload the Sheridans, load them, tarp them without any issues or attracting any attention. We stored them in a large hangar at Allbrook AFB and awaited further orders. While en-route we crossed over the Bridge of The Americas. We knew this was a dangerous crossing point with armed guards. These guards were known to track you with the weapons while you traversed the bridge. Although the guard’s typical actions were well known it didn’t make the job any easier with a guard drawing a bead on you as you crossed. But we made it across without incident. After putting the Sheridans in storage we had to re-cross the bridge. The guards were not there! Where they were and what they did- we didn’t care at the time. It was a relief to not be under the gun. A year later at Bragg, I had a few beers and a long discussion with one of my neighbors who was on mission in Panama for SFOD-D (aka Delta). He told a story of pulling recon and special missions on that same bridge, that same timeframe. He did not reveal anything but only smiled when I asked him If he was part of that mission to remove the guards. He smiled and thanked me for the beers. Perhaps those guards were taken out by him or his team. It was none of my business, but I thought it was very cool how it happened and how I became aware of it. After my mission was complete, I was asked to return to Bragg and await further orders. I was called up again in October and asked to re-insert in Panama. On this trip, it was me, ADCO, and a TACSAT operator. We took in an SB-22 switchboard, a few TA-838, two TACSATS, and HF equipment. We landed at Howard AFB and moved to Fort Clayton to set up and check the equipment. We quickly established comms back to Bragg and continue to check and re-check our comms gear. The next day there was a large explosion near some POVs in the parking lot only a couple hundred meters away. Later we found out it was mortar fire. They were walking in the mortars to our location. Although we didn’t see the aircraft that returned fire, we were sure it was MC-130s. The speculation was that Noriega knew we were coming and started firing into Fort Clayton about 6 pm local time. We moved to the airport. Division was alerted. The CG was already on the ground and wanted to be near the drop. The Rangers were given the mission of taking down the airfield at our location. When the jump-started, me and 4-5 other personnel moved to the PDF Commandante Offices. The Rangers had already been there, had cleared the building and surrounding areas. With the area being secure we decided to hit the showers. There was blood all over the gym and locker room floor. I looked as though the Rangers had cornered them in the locker room and took them out. We took showers anyway. We hadn’t had a shower since we hit the ground a few days ago. Shortly after I had an encounter with a VIP. It was located at the golf course helipad and a man asked me to escort him/take him to Noriega’s headquarters. I didn’t know who it was, so I asked him. Who are you, Sir? He introduced himself as Dick Cheney, one of the White House planners for the invasion. I was floored and took him wherever he wanted to go. The next day the Division Main staff occupied the TOC. I had worked very hard to ensure they had what they needed for comms and It paid off as a huge success for the BN. The Division Main and staff quickly built up comms such as TACSAT, Local FM, HF and landlines, and wireline comms. The ADSO staff, TACCP Platoon, and other Signal assets continued to improve our comms posture. It was during this time I was asked to put in a wireline between the two locations. SSG Lubeck (ADCO Staff) and I were asked to complete this mission on Christmas Day. I asked for but was denied a detail for security. Lubeck and I knocked it out, but we were constantly on the lookout for snipers. We were laying this wire on the edge of the jungle. Very dangerous. The BN continued their mission until relieved by the 7th Infantry Division. Upon redeployment, I had the honor of Primary Jumpmaster back into Bragg. To my surprise, one of my former commanders from my college ROTC program was on the flight. COL Sornick, then serving as the Professor of Military Science for the College. We had a long talk and I was able to speak of my recent accomplishments and express my gratitude to his mentoring and recommendations for assignments. It was a very rewarding experience for both of us. The planning and preparation for the Division Assault and Communications into Panama was a rewarding experience for me. Although there was a certain level of appreciation I have for the personnel that jumped into Panama and received the Combat Jump wings, I also have a great deal of admiration for the work our team did in the planning and preparation for the invasion. I am proud to say that it may have been my finest work in the service, and I am very proud of that. 

Sergeant First Class Ed Van Vickle (PFC at the time of the war)

Ed participated in the spearhead of the invasion of Panama and was awarded the bronze star on his jump wings for his combat jump as part of Operation Just Cause.

Many years ago, I was a young low speed, low drag, PFC with C-Company 1/504 that made a jump into combat with many other troopers of America’s Guard of Honor, the 82nd Airborne Division. This is my account of the events. Dec. 17th, 1989: While sitting in my meager apartment in Fayetteville N.C. watching the nightly news with my then-wife and putting my daughter to sleep. We were discussing my mother joining us for Christmas when a news piece came on about the happenings in the Republic of Panama. She had asked me about going to the Airport to pick her up. After the news piece, I simply replied, “If I am still here and not in Panama! She came back saying that, “Let’s hope that doesn’t happen; I don’t want to talk or think about that.” Dec. 18th, 1989: It was approximately 0900 ET. The Battalion had assembled to hear the SGM’s idea on Christmas money that the Battalion had, and how to go about spending it for the Battalion Christmas party. At just about the same time the phone in the 1st BN 504th PIR HQ building rang. It was the Brigade SDO. 1SGT Duhon was in the Battalion HQ and he was the one that came out and interrupted the SGM, “SGM I am sorry to interrupt but they JUST CALLED IT! N Hour was 0900!! SGM looked out at his Battalion and told them to report back to their Company areas and start the N Hour sequence. Most of us were positive we knew what was going on. We had a date with history. Our Commander in Chief had sent us a personal invitation to an “Ass-Kicking Christmas Party” in the Republic of Panama! Dec. 18th through the 19th 1989: There was so much going on: the formations, the Op Orders, FRAGOs, rehearsals that to be able to recount it all would be very difficult. However, two things that stick out in my mind the most were: 1. They started cutting regular grunts off the manifest so that a whole bunch of clerk-jerk officers in Division could get a mustard stain on their wings. I was one of the soldiers cut. I gave up my 203 and all my ammo to the guys going. I do remember while in the line drawing ammo, that one soldier made their mark that the op had been canceled. I looked at him laughing and said, “They are giving us live ammo dumb ass you think it’s canceled?” What idiots some of them seemed to be, and 2. My low-speed low drag yet gung-ho self was having second thoughts about going to kill-a-commie-for-mommy and was horrified at the thought of dying or killing someone. I went and talked it over with the Chaplin, I don’t recall his name, but he showed me a verse in the bible about going to war where taking life in that type of activity was not going to get you sent to hell. I was on my way there as it was; I didn’t want a ticket to hell in the afterlife also. I was terrified but going through the motion like a good troop helped calm my nerves. After about 3 hours of waiting they started pre-jump. There was an SSG that came into the hut there at that PHA (the old one across from Green Ramp some of you might recall it). He stated that they had slots for 4 or 5 troopers if I recall correctly: I just know I heard they had slots and I was in my gear and out the door. I was the first one that was cut to get back on the manifest. We loaded the planes, loose rigged, as it was a long flight, I swear my ruck must have weighed 200 lbs. OK, so it wasn’t that big, but it sure felt like it. I had nothing but a pair of BDU bottoms, PVS4, wet weather top, poncho, poncho liner, 4 MREs, 6 bandoleers of 5.56 (not counting the 260 5.56 rounds I was carrying on my LBE. Yeah – basic and then some, it paid to have gotten those extra magazines), 18 extra HE DP rounds for my M203 (yes, I still had 24 invest) with 4-star clusters for it, 3 smoke grenades, a parachute flare, a LAW, and lastly, an M17 Claymore. Add my Combat medic bag to this as I was certified in Combat Lifesaver – of course, I was pretty weighed down. TOT was supposed to be 0145201289. I was chalk 9: it just so happened that my chalk’s bird was de-iced on the tarmac. So off we go. The plane ride was uneventful for the most part. I was just glad to get in and get set down, and up in the air as it was a COLD Son of a Bitch that night when we loaded the birds. It was 17° F in NC, and icy, we get deployed and it starts spitting ice go figure. So, I am sitting there beside another of my platoon’s squad members. BIG old huge corn-fed, hunchback of Notre Dame looking guy, he is jumping the dragon night-site in. The dude would NOT shut the fuck up. He was whining and crying about not wanting to go, I finally had had enough. I slapped him, well I had “finally had enough” two more times before we went out the door. I was ready to shoot him before we could even get into combat. I was too mad at his whining to be scared. The fact was though, I was kind of grateful I didn’t have time to be scared, or not think about it I should say because my pucker factor was MINUS 100. You couldn’t have fit a straight pin up my ass. Needless to say, though, the plan never goes as planned. I awoke from a short nap at 0140 and got real freaked thinking DAMN HERE WE go… we didn’t jump, I got hopeful it was called off, no such luck. 0145came and went, and still not even standing up or a 20-minute warning. Finally, at about 0150, they start screaming for us to wake up, then it was the normal jump commands but not near as much time in between them as usual. We stood for what seems like hours, we had gone through all the commands and were just standing there, then we started hearing light sounds fairly spaced out then we realized it was incoming rounds hitting the aircraft. I have never wanted out of any bird so bad in my life – minus the one that had more turbulence than I have ever seen and the fact I was stressed because I was going home for my father’s funeral. Now I was stressed and scared shitless. The doors were half opened, and you could feel the hot air blowing back past yourself. I was glad after feeling the warm air that I had followed my orders and taken off the Poly Pro, so I wouldn’t die from heat exhaustion. I had enough to worry about I didn’t need to worry about that too. Finally, the doors fly open and I swear, no sooner than they were up the green light was on, I get to the door and exit like an old pro. I look up to check my chute: we have a canopy and no broken suspension lines. I looked to see the birds and their direction of flight, so I could get my bearings as for being on the drop zone. I notice that there are only three planes, double-checked and sure enough only three out of the 20 personnel aircraft there were supposed to be. I started freaking thinking that the Rangers hadn’t completed their mission and they got shot down. I look down to check my descent and hit the ground like a sack of bricks, ruck still on and all. I can see the fires on, what I assumed, was the drop zone and knew that I wasn’t on it. I had landed (by looking at the plane’s direction of travel) just outside the fence. WRONG! I didn’t even get out of my harness before I put my rifle into operation, I had a twenty-round magazine and had put it in, so I wouldn’t have to dig for one after I landed. I locked and loaded and then got out of my harness. I start to climb the fence that is about ten feet high. I hear something behind me. So, I climb back over the fence hoping that it is another American soldier. I waited and listened. I saw and noticed a building just outside of the elephant grass, so I moved to the edge to see what all was out there. A road, a three-story building, and a small shack to my front, and two more three-story buildings to my left, and another road with a fence between me and the building. I listened for a while longer and could hear something to my left. I slowly moved towards it, I would low crawl then move my ruck for cover and wait a moment before I moved again. Finally, I was at the edge of the road and I could see the fence on the other side of the road: it was small, and I could almost make out a figure or figures they were doing something. I couldn’t understand what they were saying or what language they were using. I held my breath and gathered as much courage as I could. I jumped up out of the ditch I was in and bounded across the road behind a log for cover. You could have heard a pin drop; I even blocked out the sound of gunfire, explosions behind me on the airfield. I gave the challenge; there was silence for what seemed like hours, finally, there was a reply of the proper password. Another long silence. After what seemed like an eternity, we all started breathing again. I moved forward and found out there were two of them, one 82nd MP, and one from 4/325. I pulled out my Leatherman and helped them cut the fence, so they could get out to my side. They had both landed on top of the building there and had to climb down their reserve chutes. We started to move out and heard movement coming up the road. We all dove for the ditch and waited in a hasty ambush. As they approached, we could see they were American: four more of us; now we are at 7. There was a corporal from my Battalion’s A-Company. He had a map and a compass. Thank God he came along I was going to head us off in the wrong direction. We moved out, the seven of us, in a small wedge formation. We had to go all the way around to the main entrance to get into and onto the drop zone. You see the great pilots we had dropped us 7 kilometers off the DZ. Such great guys let me tell you, but it made for a nice scenic stroll around and through the jungles just outside of the airport. The Corporal informed us that the reason we only saw 3 planes was that when we were departing the birds had ice on the wings, and they only had one deicer at Pope. We had got off the ground in groups of three and four. We kept picking up others from all the units that had jumped in with us. We had a few small firefights along the way but luckily for me I was too far back in the now huge wedge to see any of it. I heard it and dropped like everyone else waiting to have to flank or be shot at, but it never came. I was thankful, as gung-ho-kill-a-commie-for-mommy as I once was, now that it was here, I wasn’t as gung-ho as I had thought. As a matter of a fact, I was terrified. I kept thinking to myself about the Op Order: we were to move out on an Air Mobil to Tinajitas at H+2, Hit time plus two hours that is. I think that is how it was worded. I just knew that I was going to miss the assault with my unit. On one hand, I was glad, on the other, I didn’t want to let my fellow troopers down and not be there for them with my 203 if it was needed or my aid bag if necessary. We walked for what seemed like days when in all actuality it was only about 4 hours from the time we started the journey. As we entered the main gate to the airfield, I realized there had to have been over 150 of us in that group. I was relieved to think we had ended up with enough to handle anything that had been thrown at us. I looked for the assembly area and moved out at a double-time with that huge ruck on my back. As I approached the assembly area, I see my Squad Leader, SSG Smooly talking to Sgt Young, my Fire Team Leader. Sgt Young looks up sees me coming and in his most sarcastic voice, “Nice of you to join us, glad you could make it”. I dropped to a knee beside him huffing and puffing from the run with all that weight. He looked at me took a quick inventory of sensitive items and reported to SSG Smooly that I was in and the Squad was now at 100% and all sensitive items were accounted for. Sgt Young told me to drop my ruck grab my Aid bag, 2-quart canteen, LAW, extra ammo, claymore, and NODS, then to assemble with them as fast as possible as we were moving out NOW! I could see most of the platoon moving towards the Black Hawks assembled on the Airfield already running just waiting on its cargo. I dropped my ruck, grabbed my NODS, Aid Bag, extra bandoliers of 5.56, 2-quart canteen, LAW, and an extra MRE. I ran for the Black Hawks as my platoon was already loading up. Just as I loaded myself on the bird, I was sitting beside the right-side door gunner I put the latch-up the safety strap we lifted off. There were 24 of us packed into that bird, we did the combat load, there were no seats, and my feet were dangling out the door. The door gunner tapped me, stated that the LZ was clear, and smiled. The Panamanians were waving at us and cheering as we flew to the next objective –Tinajitas, the 1st infantry compound. C-company was to be the support by Fire Company while A-company was the assault and B-company was in the reserve. Our secondary mission was to take the objective if needed. We flew for what seemed like forever. Finally, the door gunner tapped me, made the sign for two minutes out, and motioned for me to let the others know. I started passing the word when I heard a sound the reminded me of hail hitting a hot tin roof like the one on our shed and barn on the farm I grew up on in Kansas. Then again, and again! All at once, the door gunner opened fire with the M60; he started screaming that the LZ was hot. The incoming small arms fire was growing the closer we got to the LZ. We started going down a hell of a lot faster, the door gunner motioned for me to exit. I grabbed the safety strap and jumped. I landed with a thud as I had just done another jump from 490 feet but without a parachute this time. I looked back to see the Black Hawk finally landing. I had jumped just a little bit early we had to have been at the least15 feet off the ground. My knees were sore as hell but that was the least of my worries as we had small arms fire and incoming arty. Once we were all on the ground and dispersed the choppers began to take off. I heard a scream from behind me and looked back to see the chalk in front of us still mostly on the ground and not moving out, and there was a problem. The Black Hawk that was lifting off was almost pointing straight down the LZ – tail high in the air, it came closer to SSG Copening, who was the Mortar Platoon Sgt. The front landing wheel hit him right on the head and he fell like a rock. About that time, I heard more small arms fire and the call to move forward so I wasn’t able to look anymore. We moved forward just a bit more in an On-Line Movement. There was a scream from the A-company line that was to our left, for a medic. We told them the medic was still behind us, so they asked for a combat lifesaver, being the closest, SSG Smooly told me to move out and go help. I arrived just about the time our actual medic arrived. I was much relieved as I saw a young PFC with a head wound that I knew there was nothing my minor knowledge was going to help. Doc told me he had it and to go back to my Squad. I looked up that hill that was to our support-by-fire position and my stomach dropped to my feet. I started up it and thought there was no way in hell we were going to get up it without getting slaughtered. We started taking sniper fire from the road behind us; we started to return fire but were told to ceasefire as we did not have permission to fire back. We moved as best we could IMTing up the hill from rock to rock. I passed a guy from 2nd Squad, the same guy I slapped the hell out of on the bird in – go figure. He was behind a rock that was 4 times smaller than he was. I stopped for a moment and noticed he was crying; my first thought was that he was hit. He was just horrified so I grabbed his ass by his LBE suspenders and drug him up the hill with me. That was not a fun trip, unable to return fire, dragging a230 pound man up with me. I was about ¾ of the way up the hill – I was behind a nothing rock not far from the commander’s RTO. He was still screaming into the radio for permission to return fire. He was cussing the sniper that was taking shots at the two of us: it appeared, as close as the rounds were coming, that he was either a poor shot or just playing, as I was getting dirt on my face, they landed so close but never hit, nor was he. Finally, he started screaming as the Sgt above us said he could see him. I heard the words of SPC James Prince ring loud and clear, “Sgt Conden – you see that son of a bitch? SHOOT THAT MOTHER FUCKER!!! FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!” The sniper fire stopped for the time being and we made the top of the hill. We set in and started to lay down suppressive fire. As I was firing a few rounds I looked and could see something just under my rifle barrel. I stopped firing and noticed that it was a Kevlar of one of our own. I started giving the sign and screaming to cease fire as I had just noticed that A-company was in our direct line of fire. If we had kept firing, we would have had a major fratricide incident. I was laying there not firing as I didn’t want to shoot one of our own and we couldn’t move right any farther. We started taking more sniper fire. We all kept trying to find where it was coming from. I heard movement from behind me and looked up to see boots. Yes boots, someone was standing beside me where I lay. I looked up to see SGM O.R. Hoggard, our Battalion SGM, he was a hard-core old Nam Vet. He looked down at me and smiles, “HEY, short round, (I am all of 5’ 2½” on a good day wearing boots so this was his nickname for me) what be happening there HOOAH?” I freaked, “SGM you better get down –there is a sniper out there.” I have to laugh even today, SGM looks at me and laughs, “Shit HOOAH I did tours in NAM they didn’t get me then they ain’t gonna get me now. Now I think back on it and he was either all hardcore or just flat crazy, however, this is the man that walked point in NAM for his LRRS team because he enjoyed it. I look back and think about it, I recall them calling in air support for us but not knowing it and all at once a fast mover came overhead and dropped bombs danger close. We were all trying to dig foxholes to hide in with our Kevlars; the thing was they were still on our heads. Finally, they told us it was ours and we started to breathe again. I, however, can’t remember if that was before or after finding that A-company was in front of us. I just know I was scared as scared can be. We sat there for several hours waiting and watching. We could see the civilians moving around where two PDF soldiers were dead. The kids kept trying to approach them and pick up the weapons. We would scream at them not to get there. One of the guys in my squad was Hispanic and was telling them in Spanish not to touch the weapons or bodies. After a while, we got the order to put a few rounds into the ground where the weapons lay. They stopped trying to get close to them after that. The PDF was driving around the roads in trucks with machine guns mounted in the back. They would traverse the road and take shots at us. I had a LAW and was close, so the LT called for our squad to send someone over with it, I got there, and he told me to take a seat and wait for them. They went by a few times, but I never got a clear shot at them. Finally, my Squad Leader came over and got the LT to let me go back to my place on the line and just leave the LAW for the guys in the position where they had a shot. SSG Smooly was not happy the LT had let me set there and try to take the shot as we needed the people in our squad so we could all get food, pull weapons maintenance, and take a break. We finally got the word to move out and take the hill, A company was worn out and they had lost two men on the move in so they called on C-company to finish the mission. We moved up the opposite side of the hill that they were to move up. We had our 1st platoon move up all the way and secure the buildings. The rest of the Company moved up to the top of the hill via the road. That was just as bad as IMTing up the hill under fire as it was just as steep. I thought I would die, and my Squad Leader and Team Leader screamed at me the whole way to keep up. I would have rather IMTd up it as for me it was easier than trying to keep up with the fast walk up the hill. We topped the hill late in the afternoon; we sat in to start digging in positions to defend the hill against a counter-attack. I was with Schaffer, HAHAHAHAHA Schaffer; I must laugh to this day when I think about him. I was Pickle to him; later, I happened to see him while attending PLDC in Graf Germany, and he still was calling me Sgt Pickle. When we were digging, I pulled the first security on our position while he dug. He was digging, and he stops for a moment. “Hey Pickle? You know I saw you walking up to the assembly area and I could only think about how you being so short looked like a Kevlar and a rucksack, like a turtle with its head out, yeah that what you looked like, a turtle.” We both laughed. As bad as the cut was, I even had to admit it was funny. They dropped a round at about 1700 at the very bottom of the hill – that was it, no other rounds. Then another came at 1800, it was farther up, once again the only round. Then at 1900 hours, it was more than ¾ of the way up the hill. I was digging my ass off and it was 2000, it came and went, and we didn’t even notice. Well I hadn’t anyway, Schaffer hollers back, “Hey Pickle, what time is it?” I stopped digging to look at my watch, “10 after 8 man, why?” I heard him laugh, “Damn they missed every hour on the hour, and it should have been on top of us.” I shook my head and raised my E-Tool took another swing into the rock we were digging in. Just as fate would have it, I hit the ground with the E-Tool and there was a bright flash of light. The next thing I know is I can hear screaming, “INCOMING” from all around us, I don’t have any idea how many rounds fell; I was lying in Schaffer’s lap, “Hey Pickle you ok?” I took a quick inventory of myself: my first thought considering how far I had been thrown was that I had taken a sniper round in my back and it had hit my 203 vest. I told him I was fine and that I was ok, I started to get up, I felt something running down my back, I reached back and felt something on my hand, I pulled it up to my face as close as I could but couldn’t see, “Schaffer, hey man check out my back, there is something on it. He turned me around and I heard this, “HOLY SHIT YOUR HIT!” I instantly freaked out and went into immediate shock. I took off running towards the buildings. They told me later on that I had cleared the car bar that was there to keep them going over the cliff; they said they don’t know-how as it looked like I didn’t even jump it. Schaffer ran behind me and grabbed me by the shoulder spun me around and slapped me to calm me down. He got me setting down and pulled the hunk of shrapnel from my back. I instantly started coughing, and I was coughing up blood, I knew what that meant, I was trained in sucking chest wounds. Schaffer put his hand on it until the Doc arrived and took care of me, they got me on a litter and carried me to the Company CP where the other wounded were. The COs RTO was my neighbor in Fayetteville; his wife was my daughter’s babysitter even. I called to him, I did the whole thing of, “Tell my wife I Love her and my baby. Tell her daddy is sorry he won’t be home for Christmas.” Top Allen heard me and came over telling me to “shut the fuck up there PFC, you’re not going to die.” That didn’t help, but I still shut up. They finally got all the battalions wounded together and got the birds in where they could evacuate us all. About the time they were carrying me to the bird we got more incoming rounds. They dropped me, right by the bird’s door. It started to lift off and the Crew Chief looked out and saw me reaching up for it, he got them to set back down and he got me on. From there we went to Howard for the main Army Field hospital. When we got there, they took me right past triage and into the main tent. They started to rip off all my clothes and boots, I went NUTS, those were brand new jungle boots, and there was no way were they going to cut them off. As mad as he was the Doc had them cut just the laces and when I left there; my boots were between my feet. Yes, I still have them to this day. They have been to Panama, Saudi Iraq, and all over Europe. I wouldn’t get some rest like the good Sgt told me too – that was the medic in the Evacuation tent. I was scared I wouldn’t wake up, so he gave me good drugs. The next thing I knew I was waking up and all I could see was black, then I started to see a red light, then all at once a bright light above me, my first thought was that I had died, then I swear to this day I saw an angel. It however turned out to be a very hot-looking female LT who noticed I was awake. I was on a C130 bound for San Antonio, Texas. Once in Texas, I wouldn’t let the Docs do anything to me until I had a phone and got to call my wife. She was still at work and I was able to reach my mother. I was home by Christmas Eve of that year arm in a sling and nursing half a lung missing. I went back to the hospital at Ft Bragg the day after Christmas for more surgery. The next day I was home relaxing, and the phone rang, I answered it, the voice on the other end was very puzzled so it seemed and asked for Mrs. Edward Van Vickle, called to the ex and told her it was for her. I heard her answer several questions, she comes back in and hands me the phone, says “Here he wants to talk to you, he doesn’t believe me that you are you.” SoI answered the nice Sgt questions. It was the Army. They called to tell my wife I had been wounded.  

Conclusion 

The careful planning and intensive training directly contributed to the successful execution of the operation. Despite its complexity, the plan represented a clear understanding of immediate military and political goals of rapidly destroying the enemy’s ability to fight without needlessly endangering Panamanian lives or property. The intensive preparation and training allowed troops to quickly adapt to the unforeseen challenges of combat. Major military operations took only five days; Noriega himself surrendered on January 3; and by January 12, Operation Just Cause was over. In less than a month, the U.S. Army and other American Armed Forces had achieved complete success. 3, 4

[1] Short for retransmission of military radio signals. Military units at the brigade level and above may need to retransmit LOS radio communications, in order to integrate forward area personnel into the radio net. When performing radio retrans, with devices such as the VHF-FM SINCGARS radio….Each time audio passes through a radio, it becomes slightly distorted. When audio is retransmitted through the SINCGARS, it will pass through 4 radios, by the time it reaches the listener. Taken from https://www.definitions.net/definition/retrans.

[2] After the demise of the best Airborne plan, a most terrifying effect occurs on the battlefield. This effect is known as the rule of the LGOPs. This is, in its purest form, small groups of pissed-off 19 year old American paratroopers. They are well trained. They are armed to the teeth and lack serious adult supervision. They collectively remember the Commander’s intent as “March to the sound of the guns and kill anyone who is not dressed like you” – or something like that. Definition provided by https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=LGOPS.

[3] Excerpt taken from https://www.army.mil/article/14302/operation_just_cause_the_invasion_of_panama_december_1989

[4] The author has exclusive permission from Tony Padilla, John Kirkbride Ed Van Sickle to publish their stories.

 

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