Saturday, February 24, 2007

FEMALE ON THE FLOOR! The storming of Panama *2

Where we left off …

It was a complex operation involving airborne and air-assault troops from the States linking up in the hours of darkness with on-the-ground armoured, light infantry and special operations units. More than 3,000 men parachuted in—the biggest combat drop since World War II. The time of the assault, designated “H—hour”, was set at 1 a.m. on December 20 but was brought forward half an hour at the last moment for fear that troop movements might alert the PDF. Shortly before H-hour, U.S. commandos apparently went in on a covert operation to try to kidnap Noriega but their mission failed … he was not where they thought he would be.

During Tuesday afternoon [19th], Military Airlift Command began moving troops from six bases in the U.S. The transport aircraft gathered in a giant rendezvous pattern over the Gulf of Mexico, many being refueled to enable them to continue to Panama. They were to co-ordinate with the ground operation on five main fronts, designated Task Force Bayonet, Task Force Red, Task Force Pacific, Task Force Atlantic and Task Force Semper Fidelis.

Leading the attack was Task Force Bayonet, composed of two Panama-based infantry battalions, the 1-508th [this Airborne unit was right across the street from us.] and the 5-87th plus the 4-6th Infantry from Fort Polk, the 519th MP Battalion from Fort Meade and an 82nd Airborne armour platoon. They were assigned to the central canal area and their mission was two-fold: to capture the Comandancia, the headquarters of the Panama Defense Forces in Panama City and base of the 4th Infantry Co.(Urraca) and to secure the central canal area including Balboa and Ancon. This also included Fort Amador a former U.S. military installation shared, since the 1979 implementation of the Torrijos Carter Canal treaties, by the Panama Defense Forces.

Sheridan tanks and M 113 armoured personnel carriers rolled into the narrow streets of the district of Chorillo, a densely-populated and generally poor residential neighbourhood surrounding the comandancia in what was to have been a swift and decisive assault. The Comandancia made a difficult enough objective, but matters were made impossible for the quick conclusion which the Americans hoped for, by the fact that unexpected and fierce resistence was met from cadres of Dignity Battalion members and possibly PDF groups which had spread out from the Comandancia at the approach of the Americans and into houses and commercial buildings throughout the area.

The pre-determined technique of the U.S. forces to use loudspeakers or “bull horns” to urge the besieged groups to surrender, was not fully effective. Task Force Bayonet had to use its crushing fire power. Supported by Apache assault helicopters and C131 Spectre gunships with sophisticated infra-red targeting equipment, the task force pounded the area all night.

Fires began in the streets of houses, the majority built of wood and dating back to Canal construction days at the beginning of the century. The area became an inferno casting an orange glow over the whole city.

At daybreak, as American troops entered the now-empty Comandancia an enormous pall of smoke rose over the city and an area of over 50 acres had been reduced to heaps of rubble. Eye witnesses said that some of the fires were set by members of the Dignity Battalions.

Another element of Task Force Bayonet had an easier task in blocking the PDFs 5th Infantry Co. (nick-named “Los Cholos-Victoriano Lorenzo”) stationed at Fort Amador. Soldiers from the 193rd Brigade’s 1-508th quickly neutralized the company after attacking their barracks with 105 mm howitzer and M 60 machine gun fire, although sporadic fighting continued into the second day.

Meanwhile Marines had secured the Bridge of the Americas which spans the canal at its Pacific entrance and brings the Pan American of the Highway into Panama City from the Western Provinces.

In another operation nearby, a covert unit of Navy SEALS from Little Creek, Va. moved in to secure downtown Paitilla Airport, home base of most of Panama’s light aircraft including Noriega’s Lear Jet which could have been used for an escape. The SEALS made a seaborne approach onto the end of runway 35 which is close to the beach. They used the loudspeaker technique as they advanced down the runway and spread out through the hangars which line it on either side. They called on the PDF guards to surrender but were met with a hail of fire and four SEALS lay dead before the airport was captured in fierce fighting.

The gigantic airlift was the key factor in Operation Just Cause. Nearly 3,400 soldiers, Rangers from Regimental headquarters and the 1st 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 75th Infantry Rgt., paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Div and other Special Operations Command Units, parachuted into Panama to spearhead the assault on Noriega’s army.

On December 17th the Joint Chiefs of Staff had ordered Lt. Gen Carl W. Stiner, XVIII Airborne Corps commander to alert specified units. Stiner, who became commander of Joint Task Force South in Panama, alerted Major Gen. James H. Johnson, commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Div to alert the 82’s 1st Brigade.

Within hours, scores of Air Force cargo planes began landing at Pope Air Force Base, adjacent to Fort Bragg, N.C. The following day, 2,200 troopers moved in to the base and on Tuesday December 19th the fully combat-ready soldiers boarded 20 C-141 Starlifters. At 9:30 p.m.—after an ice storm had caused an hour’s delay—the jets began to take off from the 28f temperatures of Fort Bragg destined for a drop into the soft tropical night of Panama.

Taking part in the operation were: the 82’s Assault Command Post, 1st Bde Headquarters: 1st and 2nd Battalions, 504th Parachute Infantry Regt: 4th Bn. 325th Parachute Infantry Regt.: “A” Co. 3rd Bn. 505th Parachute Infantry Regt.: 307th Engineer Bn.: 3rd Bn, 4th Air Defense Artillery, 307th Medical Bn. and the 319th Field Artillery Bn.

to be continued....

Jones, Kenneth J., The Enemy Within: Casting Out Panama's Demon Copyright 1990 Focus Publications, El Dorado.

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