Personal Accounts of Torrijos/Tocumen Combat Parachute Assault:
Operation Just Cause
Torijos Tocumen Airfield Seizure
Battalion Surgeon’s Perspective
My recollection of Operation Just Cause begins during a Christmas party for the medics of 1/75. They were all at my house when our beepers went off. We broke up the party and headed into headquarters where I left all of the treats from our party. I don’t know if this was the best-planned mission ever, but it certainly had the best-fed planners ever as my wife is an excellent cook. Only the details had to be worked out. The mission was planned months in advance.
The planning phase went by uneventfully but I remember doing PLF’s in several inches of icy water during sustained airborne training. Hard to believe how cold and icy it was in the US compared to how relatively warm it was in Panama.
During the flight over, the commander on my aircraft relayed messages he received from a satcom operator. The PDF (Panamanian Defense Force) somehow knew we were coming as evidence by their passing out live ammo and posturing at all of their defense points. This information did not really concern me at the time, as ignorance is a great shield from fear. We trained so often doing just what we were doing now that it felt just like another training mission. I guess the first point at which I noticed that this was real was when we collected our base load before we left. I was impressed with how much ammunition a Battalion Surgeon was issued. They had claymores, all kinds of pyrotechnics and tons of 9 or 5.56mm. I only took what I thought I might need. When we were uploading the aircraft, I noticed that there were cameramen recording the mission. That was something new also. During the flight over, the commander relayed the information that some MIG’s were trailing us. I didn’t worry about that much either because what could I do about it anyway?
I was the 7th man on the left door in the 3rd aircraft. I knew we would only make one pass so I tried to get to the door as quickly as possible. Kind of hard to do when you are carrying enough stuff to open a small hospital between your legs. Seems like every time I though I was packed, I would think of one more thing I needed. Just one more liter of IV fluid might mean the difference between survival or not for some young Ranger kept going through my mind. Sort of a variation of mission creep kept occurring. The huahs probably have a set load established but I think many did the same. It would take a Mack truck or a Ranger to carry some of the rucks I saw.
It all seemed real for me for the first time right about the second that I stepped out the door of the aircraft. It was real dark, almost black except for where Spectre was shifting fire. I could see a trace of red light in me left peripheral vision where the AC130 was smoking one last bunker. Looked kind of like a god throwing down a lightning bolt. Glad they were on our side!
As I was floating down I tried to figure out where I was. I could see and hear small arms fire in a lot of places but most seemed to be in a corridor that lay straight in front of me. I later realized that the field I was looking at was one which led from the airfield to an adjacent neighborhood. It was a good egress rout for the PDF that decided to run at the last moment. Noriega himself hung out in that neighborhood for days. He was visiting the airfield to dedicate a new medical clinic the next day. We woke him up and he just barely slipped away with rounds from one of our blocking positions following him.
I distinctly remember thinking, “come on ground”, as I wanted to get down as fast as possible. Even starting at 450 feet, it seemed to take a long time to get down. When I did land, I managed to find just about the only tree on the whole airfield. It was a short bushy tree only about 30 feet tall. I didn’t really do a PLF but just managed to get through the branches to the ground. There I found my self sitting on cut grass with a trace of white light illuminating me from a window of what I later found out was the fire station. I was looking at the elephant grass wall about 20 meters away that was the beginning of the field leading away from the airfield to where Noriega was.
The elephant grass must have been about 5 or 6 feet tall because I could just make out the outline of two shadows approaching me. I knew they weren’t Rangers because they couldn’t have gotten out of their chutes before me. Now I was scared. My rifle was in its container keeping it from being damaged on the jump. If I could see these guys, they could see me better. Sometime about then I had one of those experiences where time moves slowly. I remembered my whole past present and future in about 3 milliseconds. The only thought the remained was something like: “Oh shit, I have been studying for my whole life to be a doctor and now some bastard is going to kill me before I even get a chance to use those skills that took me my whole adult life to acquire.” The whole time I am thinking this, I am grabbing my nine mil from its holster. The only thing that saved the guy on the left was lack of tritium sights. I shot him a little too high but square in the head and tried to hit the second one but he dove for the taller elephant grass. Now I couldn’t see either one but I knew one or both were still alive. I wanted to shoot and move but I couldn’t find the quick release to unhook my lowering line. I previously released my canopy when I first hit the ground. I tried to shoot the lowering line with my pistol. It would have worked on TV but it didn’t in real life. When I realized I couldn’t get the harness free on the ruck and chute, like all good doctors or Rangers, I quickly executed plan B. I took off the harness, pulled my CAR15 out of the container and tossed a frag in the direction opposite of where I was headed. Once again, it would have worked on TV but real life is not always so kind. My grenade hit branches from the tree mentioned earlier and made it close to the two guys behind me but too close to me also. When my internal clock counted to 5, I dove for the ground. I felt a burning in my left triceps and hip. I jumped up and ran around the building and took a knee behind what I thought was a pallet. I just tried to let my eyes adjust to the dark and my ears adjust to the sounds around me.
I was just getting my wits about me when the building erupted with the sounds of gunfire. I could hear a few hundred rounds being expent. I wasn’t sure whether whether our side or theirs was being represented until two troopers emerged and threw a chemlight over the door. That was the signal that the building had been cleared. Interestingly, later one very scared military fireman emerged from the fire station somehow unscathed. I had my radio and weapon and now knew I was roughly where I needed to be. We planned on setting up the Battalion Aid Station at the fire station in case we wanted to use white light inside. Not having seen a casualty yet I figured that would soon change. The next Ranger that came near offered to cover me while I ran across the open to pick up my ruck. I did a 360 around the building ending up next to the “pallet” that I kneeled next to earlier. Along the way, I saw a SOCOM interpreter with a badly broken ankle. I gave him a couple of Tylenol three and told him not to worry. The pallet turned out to be a bunker with a 30 caliber heavy machine gun mounted on a tripod. Along side it were RPG’s, AK47’s and bunches of ammo. Turns out my glide path led my right across this position on my way to the tree. I later found out that the bunker was manned at the time of our jump.
One of our young lieutenants broke his jaw playing combat football on organization day during Thanksgiving. He rode on the AC130 flying over our objective as a Ranger liaison. He told me that he could see that the bunker in front of the fire station was manned when we jumped but the PDF soldier ran when the time was right. I imagine seeing roughly 700 Rangers coming at you in earnest would give me pause too. Leaving while they are still under canopy sounds like a pretty good idea. As an aside, that lieutenant joined up with us the next day. I lent him my CAR15 and he stayed for around a week. He had a battery-operated blender, which he used to crush MRE’s with so he could stuff food past his teeth, which were wired shut. A few days after his batteries died he was looking pretty pale from not eating so I had to request that he be sent home. We established the Bn Aid Station near the fire station and were saddened to hear that one of our medics was killed. James Markwell who I had only recently come to know well was shot in the chest. He was trying to stop a vehicle driving on the airfield. Many of the PDF changed into civilian clothes and tried to drive vehicles by and shoot at us. That way, they could drive off if things weren’t going well. Most found that not to be a very good idea. Amazingly, the AC130 can hit moving targets. There is a sign in front of the PDF barracks that has three 105 rounds through it. Looks like a giant above the earth was shooting a rifle down at them. In a manner of speaking, he was.
Most of our casualties were picked up on their part of the drop zone by a medivac instead of bringing them to the Bn Aid Station. We had a SOCOM satcom operator coordinating these medivac runs. That worked well except when the 82nd kept tying up our air space. We called in that the airfield was secure, but they kept dropping jumpers well into the next day during daylight. A day later, we were having a staff meeting on the tarmac and an 82nd trooper walks up looking just like Tom Sellac on Magnum PI. He was wearing flip-flops, jeans, and a Hawaiian shirt. He asked us where his BN of the 82nd was. Tom had apparently landed in the neighborhood adjacent to the airfield and decided to ditch his gear and go native for a day. Now that the coast was clear, he was trying to find his unit.
I have other recollections like delivering babies for the locals who heard that American doctors were at the airfield. Ultimately, I think we were pretty lucky that the PDF did not more vigorously defend the airfield. There is not much cover out there. I expect we would have prevailed but the cost would have been much higher. As I recall, they had roughly 20-30 KIA versus our one. Lest you think that a small price to pay though, imagine that one was you or someone very important to you. Our commander made some comments on that subject. I think for me that this experience was a very humbling one. I realize that Rangers in the past and in the future have been or will be called upon to accomplish some mission that will require a much more dear payment.
One of my medics was heart broken that he got left behind because he was in a school and missed the mission. Other classmates risked going AWOL and returned to the BN just on the chance that there might be a mission. I remember a line of Rangers some sporting casts outside the aid station prior to the mission. Every one of them wanted to be put back on duty, casts and all. I don’t think my friend who missed the jump is any less Ranger for having missed that operation. I have no doubt that he would have done whatever the mission required.
Being a Ranger means being a part of something bigger than you are. Those young soldiers exemplify what is good about being an American. They are intelligent, well trained, motivated, and selfless in their devotion to duty. I am proud to have once been a member of their ranks. To all the Rangers of the past present and future, Sua Sponte, Rangers Lead The Way!
LTC T. Scott McGee, M.D.
Former Battalion Surgeon 1/75th Ranger
I provide observations as seen through the eyes of a young rifle platoon leader. I was the PL for 1/A/1-75. My company commander was CPT Mark Ritter and unit 1SG was 1SG Hall. I believe that he went on to be the Regimental CSM, which does not surprise me. I’m currently a Major and he is one of the finest NCOs that I’ve seen. As for my platoon, I was blessed with exceptional squad and team leaders. The soldiers were top quality and we were exceptionally prepared for combat operations in the country of Panama. As I pull out my original map of operations in Panama, please bear with me as I share some personal thoughts.
Alert / Planning / Jump I want to discuss three things that I distinctly remember. First, prior to movement to the airfield for ammo upload and final rehearsals, SFC Hayes (PSG) said a prayer with the platoon all huddled together. This simple act did wonders to calm the nerves of all of us. Second, once at the airfield, 1SG Hall gave a very HOOAH pep talk to our entire company. He fired us up and we were ready to execute. Deep down, we realized that some of us might not return. However, it would not be because we let one of our fellow Rangers down. Third, who could ever forget a 500-foot jump on a potentially hot DZ? Actually, the DZ was not very hot, but we did not know that prior to the jump. I was the last jumper on the left door and I think it felt like an eternity to reach the door. Bottom line, no one wants to go down in a blazing aircraft.
Air Field Seizure of Torrijos / Tocumen As best that I can remember, 1st Plt tasks were to assemble on North end of the AF, seize the North end of the AF to prevent enemy from entering or departing the AF, defeat any enemy reinforcements from the North that may interfere with operations, clear Northern half of the runway surface to allow air landings of C-5 and C-141 aircraft. We jumped at approximately 0100 or 0200 local time on 20 Dec and we were 100% assembled within 10 or 15 minutes, which was a new platoon record. We completed all tasks in a timely manner, but I vividly remember one key event. As our third squad was checking the runway, SSG Anderson (SL) called back and said that he had found PFC Markwell. He had been shot in the chest and he was KIA. This was a terrible shock and we were all sad to hear this news. He was in a different company, so we did not know him well. However, we all mourned this terrible loss.
Operations at Patilla AF Early the same day (probably 1100 or so), our entire company moved by MH-47 to Pattila AF. Our task was to relieve a Navy SEAL Tm and to secure the AF as a base of operations for future offensive operations in that area. Again, the mission went off without incident, but I do remember that the SEALs were upset, because they had lost some of their brave warriors the previous night. Our Plt task was to secure the West half of the AF. Our stay at the AF was not that enjoyable. Rangers were built to move and to execute offensive operations and this was not the case. I can’t remember how long we stayed at Patilla, but we were ready for the next phase.
Operations in and around Cerro Azul We air moved the entire unit back to Torrijos / Tocumen AF. Again, my platoon secured the North side. After a week or so of this monotonous duty, we were alerted for an upcoming offensive operation. We were relieved of AF security by elements of the 82nd Abn Div, and we prepared ourselves for patrolling operations into the hills of Cerro Azul, which is just North of the AF. 1st Plt task was to conduct zone recon to find and capture members of Noriega’s special police force. We moved by MH-60 into the hills and spent two days combing the hills for nothing.
Final Thoughts As for lessons learned, I want to comment on a few items that I think are the cornerstone of any good light infantry unit. Our unit did these things well and it showed.
Command Climate. Leadership is directly responsible for this. If you have to ask what it is, then your unit probably is suffering from bad command climate. Our Bn, Co, and Plt had an outstanding command climate. LTC Wagner (Bn Cdr) had a lot to do with this, but I really think the NCOs were the key to this one.
Physical Fitness. Our Plt APFT average was 290, which is extremely high. Our soldiers were fit and they had great confidence and great toughness based on this fact.
Live Fire Proficiency. We live fired so much at squad and platoon level that our soldiers could do it in their sleep. We were extremely confident with our buddies to our left and right and we knew that our equipment worked. We also knew we could place accurate fire when needed.
Squad and Platoon Proficiency. We were excellent at the squad and platoon level. There are many reasons. However, we spent many hours executing specific battle drills at the squad and platoon level. We probably spent 40% of our training time at squad level and below, 30% plt level, 20% company level, and 10% at battalion level. SLs had time and they trained their squads.
Major Ivan Denton
Bn S3, 1-152 Inf