Operation Just Cause: Liberation of Panama
by LTC JD Lock
President George Bush authorized the invasion of Panama by U.S. forces shortly after midnight on 20 December 1989 in an effort to capture General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, and bring him back to the U.S. to face drug-smuggling charges. Among a vast number of other missions to be conducted throughout Panama on the morning of the invasion, OPLAN 90-2 directed “Task Force Red,” the 75th Ranger Regiment, to conduct an airborne assault on the Omar Torrijos International Airport and Tocumen Military Airfield complex with the 1st Ranger Battalion and C Company of the 3rd Ranger Battalion…designated as Task Force Red-Tango…simultaneously with a jump by the remainder of the regiment against the Rio Hato base camp…designated as Task Force Red-Romeo. The ready brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, over 2,000 paratroopers strong, was to jump forty-five minutes after the Rangers’ seizure of Torrijos/Tocumen Airport.
At 0100 on 20 December, after a seven-hour flight, the airborne assault on Torrijos-Tocumen Airport commenced with preparatory suppressive fires. Three minutes later at 0103, according to plan, 732 Rangers of the 1st Ranger Battalion task force exited seven C-141 Starlifters and four C-130 Hercules transports 500 feet AGL over the objective. The 1st Ranger Battalion’s targets were Objective Tiger…the Fuerza Aérea Panamena (FAP)…Panamanian Air Force barracks to the north that were assigned to A Company, Objective Pig…the barracks of the 2nd Infantry Company in the center of the airfield…and the Tocumen control tower that were assigned to C Company, and Objective Bear…the main airport terminal south of center that was assigned to the attached C Company, 3rd Ranger Battalion. In addition, B Company was assigned the mission of securing the perimeter of Condor, preparing the runway for follow-on air landings, and, on order, securing Objective Hawk…the Ceremi Recreation Center in the La Siesta Military Resort Hotel that was a potential hideaway for Noriega or his Dignity Battalions.
The seizure of Tocumen was nearly a flawless operation. With the southern security established, A Company quickly overwhelmed a handful of FAP personnel who elected to fight and secured the FAP barracks and their nearby aircraft. Part of C Company’s objective, the 2nd Rifle Company’s barracks had been leveled and completely destroyed by a Spectre gunship. The Ranger company quickly secured the barracks area. The second phase of their mission, the securing of the control tower, met stiffer resistance. By 0210, twenty-five minutes later than planned, the 1st Ranger Battalion’s objectives on the Tocumen military airfield were cleared and secured.
South of the 1st Ranger Battalion, C Company, 3rd Ranger Battalion, was involved in considerably more action securing a fire station, an airline baggage area, and establishing an over-watch position prior to an assault into the terminal.
With the fire station secured, 3rd Platoon of C Company continued on to the main terminal. Shots rang out from the northern rotunda, shattering glass, as the platoon moved across the tarmac. The Rangers scattered under the hail of gunfire. Sergeant Reeves, Specialist Eubanks, and Private First Class William Kelly located some maintenance stairs and entered the terminal.
Inside, the three Rangers observed two PDF soldiers…who must have fired the shots…run into a women’s restroom. The PDF soldiers had started the fight and the Rangers decided they were going to finish it in what would become one of the strangest five-minutes’ worth of close-quarters combat experiences in the annals of Ranger history.
Electing to finish the enemy off with one move, Reeves pulled the pin on a grenade and kicked the restroom door in, only to find a second closed door just inside. With only seconds to spare, he tossed the grenade into the middle of the concourse as he and his men jumped for cover. The detonation blew out what remained of the windows and created a huge hole in the floor.
Gathering themselves, the three-man Ranger assault team led by Reeves proceeded to charge through the two doors, through which only one man could fit at a time. Surprisingly, all was quiet when Reeves burst through the second door into the darkened room. Seeing nothing to his right, Reeves was just starting to look towards the stalls on his left when he caught movement out of the periphery of his eye. One of the PDF soldiers was standing on the toilet of the stall closest to the door.
Before Reeves could fire or react, he was struck by three rounds from the enemy’s AK-47, fired only three feet away. With two hits to the shoulder, one through the collarbone, and powder burns covering his face, Reeves was knocked to the floor. As he lay on the floor seriously wounded, Reeves was pounced on by the second of the PDF soldiers. Believing he was about to die, Reeves closed his eyes only to be startled and relieved when the enemy soldier and his compatriot quickly disappeared to the rear of the bathroom. Fighting mad and unable to use his right arm to grip his M-16 rifle, the sergeant attempted to grip a grenade with his left but he was unable to move his arm enough to get at the grenades in his hip pocket.
Having heard the shots, Eubanks and Kelly crawled on their hands and knees into the dark facility to grab their wounded squad leader. Bullets ricocheted off the walls and floor as one of the PDF jumped out in the open to fire at the Rangers. Three shots bounced off Kelly’s Kevlar helmet as they pulled Reeves to safety.
Outside of the restroom, the two Rangers sat the wounded Ranger up against the wall as Eubanks attended to the sergeant’s wounds the best he could. Caring little about his wounds and wanting the two PDF soldiers dead, Reeves assisted the two with the development of another plan of attack.
Their plan of action was to start with the toss of another grenade into the room. Opening the second door that had stymied Reeves the first time, the two unwounded Rangers tossed a grenade into the left side of the restroom. Mirrors were shattered and glass flew everywhere with the detonation, but the two enemy soldiers had moved to the far side of the restroom, seeking shelter by the stall partitions located there.
Eubanks and Kelly realized that grenades were not the solution. They needed another plan and quickly realized that only a personal, face-to-face confrontation would accomplish the mission. Eubanks quietly entered first with Kelly covering the opposite side of the wall. Creeping along the wall as quietly and concealed as possible, Eubanks soon spotted the two PDF soldiers towards the rear of the room.
Raising his weapon and placing one of the enemy in the sights of his Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), the Ranger pulled the trigger only to have the weapon malfunction as it failed to chamber a 5.56-mm round. To add insult to injury, the machine-gun’s barrel fell off as a result of the locking lever having become unsecured. Compromised by the noise, Eubanks had three rounds fired at him from a pistol. The bullets whistled by his head, high and left as he scrambled from the room.
Back out in the concourse, Eubanks grabbed and loaded Reeves’ M-203 grenade launcher and secured a second hand grenade. Tossing the hand grenade into the room with the intent to stun the enemy, Eubanks and Kelly rushed through the door and opened fire with their weapons. When they ceased-fire, the two Americans incredulously heard the PDF cursing the Rangers and the United States in Spanish.
Understanding and able to speak a little Spanish, Eubanks told the two PDF soldiers to lay down their arms and surrender. With each offer to surrender, one of the enemy soldiers would poke his head around the far corner and yell at Eubanks, “Fuck off!” The third such humorous effort to retort found one of the PDF poking his head out a little too far, for Eubanks was able to fire a single round through the taunter’s neck. The wounded Panamanian dropped his weapon and crumbled to his knees. Eubanks screamed at him to lie face down but the babbling and dazed PDF soldier was not listening. M-203 in hand, Eubanks grabbed the wounded soldier by the back of his shirt and pushed him to the floor.
Neither Eubanks nor Kelly saw the second PDF soldier behind a stall door. Lunging for Eubanks’ weapon, the second enemy soldier struggled for the grenade launcher as the wounded soldier on the floor rolled over and attempted to pull a pistol from his waistband. Eubanks and Kelly were able to kick the wounded soldier out a window where he bounced off a ledge onto the tarmac twenty-five feet below.
Having somehow survived the plunge, the PDF soldier’s luck finally had run out, for he had fallen in front of a Ranger M-60 machine-gun position. Refusing to halt as ordered, he was finally killed with a burst of 7.62-mm rounds.
Inside the bathroom, however, the struggle still ensued. Able to get both hands on Eubanks’ weapon, the remaining, though wounded, enemy soldier attempted to wrestle the weapon away from the Ranger rather than shoot him with it. Enraged, Eubanks pushed the Panamanian against a urinal and began to kick him repeatedly, screaming for Kelly to shoot the man. Kelly’s shot to the arm was immediately followed by two more to the head that finally brought the action within the airport restroom to a close.
As the Rangers began to sweep through terminal’s ground floor the first of the 376 passengers from a Brazilian airline that arrived just prior to the airborne assault began to emerge from their hiding places around the terminal. Following a brief standoff with five PDF soldier’s holding some civilian hostages, the terminal was secured by 0500. By dawn, all of the Ranger objectives on Tocumen and Torrijos had been cleared and secured.
Dawn of the 20th found one major objective yet to be achieved. The PDF headquarters at La Comandancia in Panama City had yet to be taken. The task fell to C Company of the 3rd Ranger Battalion. Following preparatory fires and supporting building clearing assaults that commenced at 1500, the Rangers swept through La Comandancia and secured it by 1700.
The 2nd Ranger Battalion had linked up with the 3rd Ranger Battalion…minus C Company that had already departed early that morning to support the 1st Ranger Battalion…at Lawson Army Airfield, Georgia, on 18 December. Both battalions constituted Task Force Red-Romeo, whose objective was Rio Hato, home base to the 6th and 7th PDF Rifle Companies…considered the best fighting units in the PDF…and located approximately sixty miles southwest of Panama City on the coast of the Gulf of Panama.
Designated “Area of Operations Eagle,” or AO Eagle, Rio Hato was divided into two different operational regions for each attacking Ranger battalion. The southern portion was assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion and included the 6th and 7th Company compounds…Objectives Cat and Lion. The two companies of the 3rd Ranger Battalion were to secure the northern sector of Eagle to include the NCO academy, the camp headquarters, the airfield operations complex, the motor pools, the communications center…Objectives Dog and Steel, and the ammunition supply point at the far northern end of the runway. Additionally, the battalion was to clear the runway for air landing operations to follow and cut the Pan American Highway that ran through the area.
The attack on Rio Hato commenced simultaneously with the assault on Torrijos- Tocumen with brief preliminary fires. Three minutes after the opening fires, the green light of the lead C-130 came on and the first of 837 Rangers exited the blackened aircraft at 500 feet AGL. The antiaircraft fires were heavy and, for the moment, unsuppressed as close air support had to cease-fire and withdraw while the paratroopers were in the air. Eleven of the thirteen pax transports were hit as they over flew the objective.
On the ground, the Rangers found themselves in a 360-degree firefight against an alert and dispersed PDF who, while not well organized, were all over the place, firing at the Rangers as they discarded their chutes. Despite the enemy fires, the Rangers fanned out to secure their objectives. Seven minutes ahead of schedule, one hour and fifty-three minutes into the operation, the airfield was reported secure.
At 1000 on 25 December, the 3rd Ranger Battalion air-assaulted into the town of David to secure the Malek Airfield. Within the hour, the attack on the small airfield was completed and the facility seized.
Task Force Red-Romeo’s final mission occurred on 28 December when the two companies of 3rd Ranger Battalion assaulted Camp Machete, a penal colony on Coiba Island. The Rangers arrived to secure all the prisoners who had broken free from their locked cells. Hostile guards were rounded up and flown off the island. The next day, the Rangers were relieved by elements of the 7th Infantry Division.