Marines Fight in Panama

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By Ross W Simpson - Originally Published March 1990

"Delta" Company, 2d Light Armored Infantry Battalion, Second Marine Division from Camp Lejeune, N.C., flew to Panama oil October 24, 1989. Sergeant Stephen Phelps thought he and his men would, relieve an armored vehicle crew from "Bravo" Company for three months and rotate Stateside just like two other LAV (light armored vehicle) companies had done before his.

"Before 'Bravo' 'Company pulled out; everybody told us nothing was going to happen;" said Phelps. "Boy, were they wrong!"

Two-thirds of the way through "Delta" Company's tour, U.S. Forces commenced a combat operation in Panama in the early morning hours of December 20.

The U.S. Southern Command ordered "Delta'' Company to join Operation Just Cause, committing the company's four platoons to combat.

"D" Company's mission: Defend the westward approaches to the Panama Canal, Howard Air Force Base, and other key U.S. defense sites-a formidable task for the company's 16 armored vehicles and 105 personnel.

During the operation, elements of "D" Company destroyed a Panama Defense Force (PDF)-controlled facility on Thatcher Highway. Subsequent operations took them to the towns of Arraijan, Vera Monte and El Chorillo, where General Manuel Antonio Noriega's headquarters was located.

Sgt Phelps and his crew took up a position, atop a hill overlooking the slums of Chorillo in Panama City. There, they encountered heavy fire from the PDF who were garrisoned at the Commandancia.

"I was scared," confessed Sgt Phelps, but being the senior man on the LAV-25, Phelps talked to his young driver, 20-year-old James Lidke and gunner, 22-year-old Robert Tate. "I told them not to panic, just do their job and everything would be okay."

Although Phelps and his crew didn't have to run the so-called "Gauntlet Of Fire" with mechanized army units in a narrow street in front of the Commandancia where Noriega's men staged a last ditch stand, Phelps and a platoon of four LAVs did take some fire. Most of it was friendly fire in the form of .50-caliber slugs bouncing off the two-foot-thick walls of the fortress like Ping-Pong balls.

Phelps said he will never forget the fight at the Commandancia. "The roar of gunfire was deafening. Tanks were blasting away at snipers on the upper floors of the four-story white building. The headquarters was blazing and the sky was lit up like the Fourth of July,"

An AC-130H gunship circling overhead added to the sounds of battle. Members of the PDF, who survived a steady stream of 20-mm., 40-mm. and 105-mm. fire from "Spectre;" called the four-engine turboprop gunship "The Devil in Disguise," because they couldn't see it.

The soldiers could hear the rounds whistling into their walled fortress, taking off the roof of the headquarters building and ventilating vehicles in the courtyard like Swiss cheese.

Walking through the ruins a week after the operation, General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, looked at the blackened headquarters building and said, "There was a hell of a fight here."

Although Sgt Phelps and his gunner. Lance Corporal Tate, had a ringside seat for the fireworks, Phelps said the turret of his LAV was the worst place to be on the night of the operation. "Too many stray rounds bouncing off the turret to suit me," recalled the 24-year-old sergeant.

"Tate hunches down behind the 25-mm. chain gun and keeps his eyes in the sights, but I have to stand up in the turret, exposed from chest up as I man 'Echo,' a 7.62-mm. machine gun." But neither Phelps nor his gunner were nicked.

However, a Marine from "D" Company, 2d Light Armored Infantry Battalion was one of the 23 American servicemen killed in action in Panama. Corporal Garreth C. Isaak of Greenville, S.C.. would have celebrated his 23rd birthday with his buddies in Panama had he lived.

Three other Marines were among the 300 American servicemen wounded in Operation Just Cause. Private First Class Aaron S. Jenkins from South Shore, Ky., an antitank missileman, was treated and released, but Sgt Gregory A. Johnson of Anchorage, Alaska, is still recovering from wounds.

First Lieutenant Wayne R. Martin, platoon commander of FAST (Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team), is receiving out-patient care for damage to his right hand from an explosion.

Martin's mission was to search and clear urban objectives and detain suspected Noriega loyalists. In addition, FAST was assigned other tasks such as patrolling the streets of Panama City, and providing security for the light armored vehicles.

The FAST Company cleared about 30 different buildings in the Panamanian capital, leaving LAVs to guard against any possible threat of attack.

Behind the protective fire of the LAVs 25-mm. chain guns, Martin and his men advanced on suspected Panamanian strongholds. The Marines breeched doors, heaved in a concussion grenade called a "flash bang" (designed to stun without maiming), and with small flashlights attached to the bottom of their shotguns and submachine guns, entered pitch-black rooms in search of PDF and Dignity Battalion (DigBat) fugitives,

"We carried special steel-plated protective vests, flash bangs, grenades, ammunition for each weapon, shotguns and submachine guns, plus all our other combat gear.

"We had to be very careful when storming those suspected strongholds," said the Marshfield, Mass., native. "There could have been women and children in there." Martin's job was to root out Noriega loyalists and not hurt the people he was trying to help.

Lt Martin was wounded while trying to secure a local ranch owned by a known drug smuggler.

The first thing Martin and his men saw when they approached the ranch, which was also reported to be a staging area for DigBat personnel, was about 15 pigs that had just been slaughtered. "Big pigs," recalled Martin, "two to three hundred pounders; freshly dressed out." There were several fires burning, like someone was getting ready for a barbecue. Martin suspected the pigs were slaughtered to feed fugitives from Dignity Battalions.

It was during action at the ranch that Martin sustained injuries to his hand from an explosive charge. He was medevaced to Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, for treatment.

After two operations, Martin returned to Marine Corps Security Force Battalion, Atlantic, in Norfolk, Va., where he hoped to rejoin his platoon.

Two other Marine units participated in Task Force Semper Fidelis during Operation Just Cause in Panama.

Eight Marines who provided security at the American Embassy in Panama City had their hands full on December 20.

The PDF fired six RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) at the diplomatic compound. Two were airbursts shattering glass, but four of the rounds punched holes in the building. . .exploding inside.

The MSG (Marine Security Guards) at the embassy had some hairy moments, but for some unknown reason, the PDF failed to follow up on their rocket attack.

Company "K," 3d Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment joined "D" Company in defending the westward approaches to the Panama Canal, Howard Air Force Base, and other key U.S. military installations.

Although the combat situation was fluid following the initial attack, elements of "K" Company continued to provide antiterrorist security for the Arraijan Tank Farm where fuel supplies are stored.

The unit also secured-a PDF-controlled facility in the coastal town of Vera Cruz, but the big show in Panama was at the Commandancia where LAVs from "D" Company were positioned.

After four or five hours of steady gunfire at the Commandancia, Phelps and his crew chased Noriega all over Panama City in their 7-ton, eightwheel drive amphibian vehicle.

Phelps and his men were part of Team Armor-Marine and Army units that hounded Noriega until he slipped through their grasp, taking refuge in the Vatican Embassy on Christmas Eve.

Interviews with former PDF officers now in U.S. custody enabled the United States Southern Command to piece together Noriega's attempt to evade U.S. Forces.

Just prior to the initial attack, Noriega was in Colon (about 60 miles from Panama City) visiting a new facility near Coco Solo. Noriega was aware of increased U.S. activity in Panama, but discounted the notion of an attack, passing the increased activity off as more sabre rattling by Uncle Sam.

Noriega returned to Panama City about 6 p.m. on December 19 and went to PDF Officer's Club (La Siesta) near the military side of Omar Torrijos Airport at Tocumen.

When Tocumen was attacked at 1 a.m. on December 20 by U.S. Forces, Noriega evaded U.S. Forces by driving around Panama City in circles.

Over tlie next several days, Noriega spent most of his time at the home of a relative of his personal secretary. Sources say Noriega was highly agitated and avoided contact with other PDF officers, fearing a trap had been set for him.

Sources close to the general say that Noriega was never in command of his forces. He spent all of his time worrying about his personal safety.

During the initial attack, informants say Noriega's first action was to call his mistress, not his wife, who later sought sanctuary in the Cuban Embassy in Panama City.

During Noriega's attempts to avoid capture, he lost his voodoo paraphernalia which he thought warded off evil. But he wore red underwear to ward off the "evil eye."

One of Southern Command's sources, who spoke very little English, heard something about a million dollars. He said that if he had known it was a bounty, he would have turned Noriega in himself.

All of this information surfaced after General Noriega successfully evaded Sgt Phelps and other members of Team Armor.

Ever since the light armored infantry was formed in 1984, the Marine Corps has been anxious to see how the LAVs would perform in combat. Although the unit is only 5 years old, Phelps thinks its performance was pretty good.

Phelps went into the Marine Corps out of high school in Henderson, Tenn., in 1984. "I know it sounds kind of corny," he said, "but I always wanted to be a Marine."

There was something about the uniform that turned Phelps on. However, a couple of uncles who were in the Corps didn't think their nephew had what it takes to be a Marine. Sgt Phelps said that their lack of confidence became the driving force that helped him become the honor graduate of his recruit platoon. Graduating first out of 42 men gave Phelps his set of dress blues.

"It's hard to do 20 (years) in the Marine Corps," said the sergeant, "but I plan to make the Corps a career."

Perhaps the hardest part of being a Marine is being away from home, especially during the holidays.

"This was the second year in a row we missed Christinas and New Years," said Phelps, whose crew was on duty in the Mediterranean in 1988.

Phelps has been married for three years, but has only been home to celebrate one anniversary so far. He also missed his daughter's third birthday this year.

"It's tough being in the Marine Corps," said Phelps, "but I love it."

After General Noriega slipped into the Vatican Embassy, Phelps and his crew took up a static position at Paitilla Plaza near the papal compound. Their orders were simple: block one of the approaches to the embassy.

For 12 days, Phelps, Tate, Lidke and a two-man scout team stayed at their guns, catnapping when they could. The days were hot and steamy, sending temperatures to more than 100 degrees inside the armored vehicle.

"During the day, it was too hot to sleep in the vehicle, so everyone wanted to sleep at night," said Lidke. But sleeping in the back of the LAV was like trying to sleep in the backseat of a Volkswagen beetle. There is just about as much room.

The best place to sleep was under the eight-wheeled vehicle, in the shade, where it was cool and fairly safe from sniper fire.

But after 12 days, Lidke said, trying to sleep in or under the armored car was a real hassle.

Sgt Phelps and his two lance corporals were luckier than many other Marines in Panama. At least they could satisfy their hunger by walking to fast-food restaurants on the plaza for some chicken or hamburguesas.

Eating fast food got old quickly, but according to Phelps, the fried chicken and hamburgers tasted a lot better than MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that come in brown plastic pouches. Panamanians also brought cakes, cookies and Cokes to Phelps and his crew.

Tate and Lidke were impressed with the friendliness of the Panamanian people, especially the attractive young women who came to the concertina wire to chat with them in the evening.

Phelps didn't want to interfere with his men's love life, but he got nervous when people came too close to his vehicle.

"The first few days were filled with excitement and everyone stayed on their toes, but after Noriega took refuge in the Vatican Embassy, life got boring," said Phelps. "Everybody was getting loose; a little too loose for me," as the sergeant yelled at Tate to order people away from the wire.

"This thing isn't over yet," said Phelps, who feared someone would drive by his position and either open up with an AK-47 or fire an RPG at his vehicle.

"I'm not trying to make life miserable for my men," continued Phelps, "but I wear the rank of sergeant and I'm responsible for this vehicle and their lives."

Phelps said he wanted his men to have a good time in Panama, but he wanted them to return home safely.

Although the operation in Panama was mainly an Army show, Marines played a key role in Just Cause.

As one Panamanian businessman who lost a half million dollars worth of merchandise to looters said, "No price is ever too high for democracy."