Operation URGENT FURY - Grenada

By Otto Kreisher - Originally Published Oct. 2003

In the predawn darkness of 25 Oct.. 1983, helicopters loaded with heavily armed Marines lifted off the amphibious assault ship USS Guam (LPH-9) and headed west toward the cloud-draped mountains of the island of Grenada.

The overcast night was not the only thing shrouding the mission of the 22d Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU). The planning for its assault had been handicapped by acute shortages of time and intelligence and a total lack of military maps.

Similar deficiencies troubled the Army Rangers flying in Air Force C-13Os toward their objectives to the south.

Although ultimately successful, the multiservice attack on Grenada, code-named Operation Urgent Fury, would be noted for poor intelligence, communications and interoperability and, in some instances, for timid leadership.

But Urgent Fury also would demonstrate again the flexibility, versatility and the well-honed capabilities of a Navy-Marine Corps amphibious task force.

Grenada, a small former British colony 400 miles south of Puerto Rico, had emerged as a U.S. security concern in 1979 when a group of ardent Marxists seized power and quickly were embraced by Cuba's Fidel Castro.

With Soviet support, Cuba supplied military training and weapons and began construction of a large airport at Point Salines, on Grenada's southwestern tip, to replace the small Pearls Airport on the northeast coast.

Early in 1983, President Ronald Reagan cited the emerging 9,000-foot runway as a possible threat to American security.

On 13 Oct., the charismatic prime minister, Maurice Bishop, lost a power struggle with more radical members of the government and was arrested. When a crowd of supporters freed him and confronted the coup leaders on 19 Oct., Bishop and dozens of his supporters were massacred.

The coup leaders imposed martial law and a 24-hour shoot-on-sight curfew throughout the island.

The presence of more than 600 American students at a medical school in St. George's, Grenada's capital, raised fears of a repeat of the 1980 Iranian hostage trauma and elevated the power struggle to a national security crisis for the Reagan administration.

Planning for possible military action started the day Bishop was arrested and soon involved the President's national security team; the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chaired by Army General John W. Vessey Jr.; and the Commander in Chief Atlantic (CINGLANT) in Norfolk, Va., Admiral Wesley L. McDonald.

On 20 Oct., Norfolk notified Navy Captain Carl R. Erie, commander of Amphibious Squadron Four embarked in Guam, to move toward Grenada for a possible noncombatant evacuation and potential hostage rescue operation. CAPT Erie's five amphibious ships and the 1,900 Marines of 22d MAU had been en route to Lebanon to relieve Marines on a . peacekeeping mission.

But the staffs at Norfolk and in Washington discovered that they had very little useful intelligence about Grenada, including the capabilities or disposition of its military. Or, as it turned out, about the location of most of the medical-school students.

Although the coup leaders tried to assure the outside world that the students were in no danger, the Joint Chiefs directed ADM McDonald to prepare for an expanded mission, to include rescue of the Americans, removal of the new government and restoration of order.

When that word reached Guam, the MAU staff intensified its planning, hobbled by the same lack of intelligence that plagued Washington and Norfolk.

The MAU, commanded by Colonel James P. Faulkner, consisted of the MAU command element; 2d Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ray L. Smith; Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261, led by LtCol Granville R. Amos; and MAU Service Support Group 22, under Major Albert F. Shively.

Marine Corps combat artist LtCol A. M. "Mike" Leahy, USMCR captured the classic predawn assault on 25 Oct. 1983, illustrating how Marines with AH-1 Cobra gunships escorted troop-carrying CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters of HMM261 that had lifted off USS Guam for the assault to recapture Pearls Airport on the eastern coast of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada.

The MAU staff planned a two-pronged assault by helicopters and amphibious tractors to seize both Pearls and Port Salines airports.

Marine Corps combat artist LtCol A. M. "Mike" Leahy, USMCR captured the classic predawn assault on 25 Oct. 1983, illustrating how Marines with AH-1 Cobra gunships escorted troop-carrying CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters of HMM261 that had lifted off USS Guam for the assault to recapture Pearls Airport on the eastern coast of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada.

What they did not know was that two Army Ranger battalions were planning to take the same two objectives, equally ignorant of the Marines' role.

At the same time, ADM McDonald's staff was drafting plans that had the Marines securing Pearls and northern Grenada. The Rangers would capture Salines, rescue the medical students at the True Blue campus of St. George's Medical Center and attack a military camp at Calivigny, both near the airport. The Rangers and the Marines then would be relieved by the 82nd Airborne Division.

The Independence carrier battle group under Rear Admiral Richard Berry would supply air and naval gunfire support.

ADM McDonald gave command of the Grenada operation to Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, the Second Fleet commander.

Early in the morning of 23 Oct., President Reagan was informed that a suicide truck bomb had destroyed the Marines' high-rise barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans and wounding scores more.

The President decided to continue with the Grenada mission and that evening signed the execution order for Operation Urgent Fury.

H-hour was set for early Tuesday morning, 25 Oct.

The MAU's planning hit another snag on 24 Oct. when VADM Metcalf and his staff arrived in Guam with word of the Marines' more limited mission.

The initial attacks would involve about 800 Marines, approximately 650 Rangers and 60 Special Operations fighters.

Opposing them were about 600 soldiers in Grenada's regular army and another 2,500 to 2,800 in the militia, most of who did not respond to a call to mobilize.

More than 700 Cubans also were on the island, including 53 military advisors and 636 construction workers, most of who had some military experience. On 24 Oct., Cuban Army Col Pedro Tortolo Comas and a few aides arrived to direct the Cubans in fortifying their camps and obstructing the Salines runway with construction equipment and vehicles.

Operation Urgent Fury began tragically that night when stormy weather defeated two attempts by Navy SEALs and Air Force combat controllers to scout the Salines area. Four SEALs disappeared in the wind-lashed seas.

However, to allow for the second attempt, H-hour was pushed back to 0500, very close to daylight, but still taking advantage of the darkness.

In the north, SEALs from the amphibious task force were able to get ashore to scout the area around Pearls. But their report of dangerous wind-driven surf forced CAPT Erie to cancel the planned amphibious landing.

Col Faulkner had the problem of getting sufficient combat power onto his initial objectives, at Pearls Airport and the nearby town of Grenville, quickly enough using only helicopters.

There also was a problem finding safe landing zones.

To avoid antiaircraft guns on the hills to the north, LtCol Amos picked a site 700 meters south of the runway that on aerial photos seemed to be covered with low brush. Company E, led by Capt Henry J. Donigan III, would land there and move to secure the airport.

Co F, under Capt Michael E. Dick, would come in later on what appeared to be a similar area 800 meters northwest of Grenville.

Each wave would have four CH-46 Sea Knights carrying Marines, one CH-53 Sea Stallion with jeeps and heavy weapons, and two AH-1 Cobras for fire support.

With final briefings and equipment preparations, there was little sleep for the Marines that night. After a 0100 reveille, a hasty meal and ammunition issue, the Marines formed their chalks and waited for what would be for most of them the first exposure to combat.

The first light of dawn was graying the sky as the helicopters approached Pearls. The pilots could see that most of the LZ was covered with tall trees and bushes.

LtCol Amos led the choppers to a more open spot, a horse-racing track. They landed at 0520 with no opposition. The only casualties were a broken leg and a broken arm suffered in a struggle to offload two jeeps from the CH-53.

The next flight was met by inaccurate fire from 12.7 mm heavy machine guns on the hill to the north, which was silenced quickly by the Cobras.

Capt Donigan led a platoon toward the airport, where they were met by bursts of automatic-weapons fire from the terminal. When the Marines returned fire, the militia ran away. There were no casualties on either side.

LtCol Smith now was on the scene and ordered Donigan to seize the antiaircraft guns. When the Marines reached the hilltop, the militia dropped their weapons and ran.

Meanwhile, Co F flew toward Grenville at 0630 and found the same overgrown conditions at its LZ. Amos directed the flight into an empty soccer playing field in the city.

The Grenadians greeted them with smiles, pointed out militia members and weapons sites and provided vehicles to carry away the captured weapons.

Both of the D-day objectives were secured by mid-morning.

Later that morning, a single amphibian tractor (LVTP-7) managed to land at Pearls beach, but confirmed the SEALs' evaluation that conditions were not safe. That left Co G, led by Capt Robert K. Dobson Jr., and 13 amtracs stranded aboard USS Manilowoc (LST-1180).

Things were not going as well for the . Rangers at Point Salines to the south.

As the lead C-130s approached the runway at 500 feet, they were greeted by searchlights and flaming tracers from well-placed ZSU-23, 23 mm antiaircraft guns and 12.7 mm heavy machine guns. The first Rangers plunged into the faint light of dawn at 0534.

While suffering light casualties, the Rangers were able to clear the obstacles from the runway, attack the enemy on the high ground to the north and secure the medical-school campus.

But the Rangers were shocked when the Americans told them that most of the students were at other locations.

The special-operations missions around St. George's had even more trouble. A SEAL team was driven away from the radio-station transmitter it had seized, and an assault on Richmond Hill prison by the elite Delta Force and Rangers was repulsed by intense fire that knocked down an Army helicopter, killing or injuring nearly everyone on board.

It was a quick but no less deadly confrontation. LtCol Leahy depicted Capt Seagle dragging Capt Howard away from their burning AH-1 Cobra, shot down by enemy antiaircraft fire near Fort Frederick. Seagle was killed eventually while looking for help. Howard was subsequently rescued by a CH-46 of HMM-261.

The 22 SEALs who fast-roped down from Army helicopters to protect the British Commonwealth's representative, Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon, were pinned down by counterattacks.

As the day went on, Air Force transports began landing on Salines' cleared runway to offload vehicles and weapons, the first of the 82nd's paratroopers and their commander, Major General Edward Trobaugh.

The Rangers suffered more casualties in an ambush, then had to beat back a counterattack led by three BTR-60 armored vehicles.

Convinced they were facing stronger-than-expected opposition, MG Trobaugh ordered his headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C., "to keep sending battalions until I tell you to stop." In three days, he would have six battalions of paratroopers on the little island.

Meanwhile, VADM Metcalf was unhappy with the Army's slow progress and decided to send the Marines down to help.

First to arrive was a pair of Marine AH-1 attack helicopters that used a TOW missile to knock out a recoilless rifle firing from a building in the Cuban camp.

The next pair of Cobras was asked to attack the coup leaders' headquarters at Fort Frederick, a mission that exposed them to the same deadly fire that drove off the Delta Force earlier.

Enemy fire hammered the Cobra flown by Capt Timothy B. Howard and Capt Jeb F. Seagle, knocking out both engines, shattering Howard's right arm and leg and sending the chopper plunging to the ground in flames.

Seagle pulled his crippled pilot from the burning wreck and dragged him through the high grass, while bullets kicked up dirt around them.

As the enemy closed in, the other Cobra flown by Capt John P. Giguere and First Lieutenant Jeffrey R. Scharver swept in, shooting and scattering the attackers.

Ordered by Floward to leave, save himself and try to get help, Seagle ran off waving his arms to draw the enemy's attention.

Fire from Giguerc's Cobra and exploding ammunition on the burning "bird" kept the attackers at bay until a Marine CH-46, flown by Maj Melvin W. DeMars Jr., and taking fire from the gun that had shot down Howard, landed near Howard. The crew chief for DcMars' helicopter was Corporal Simon D. "Doug" Gore. The gunner was Gunnery Sergeant Kelley M. Ncidigh. "Gunny" Ncidigh raced to Howard, threw him over his shoulder and hauled him back to the hclo for evacuation. Maj DeMars and GySgt Neidigh were awarded the Silver Star for their actions that day.

They could not find Seagle, but DeMars could not wait due to the enemy fire and Howard's severe wounds. As the CH-46 headed for Guam, Giguere's and Scharver's Cobra was hit hard and plunged into the sea, killing both Marines.

Seagle's bullet-riddled body was found later.

VADM Metcalf, meanwhile, ordered Manitowoc and most of the other amphibs to sail south to put Co G ashore in position to move up the hill to relieve the SEALs besieged at Governor-General Scoon's house.

By 2000, Co G Marines in their amtracs and accompanied by five M-60 tanks were ashore at Grand Mal beach.

Although poor communications delayed the transfer of Co F by helicopters from Pearls to the same beach, LtCol Smith moved most of his available force south to Queens Park racetrack, just north of St. George's.

The Grenadian People's Revolutionary Army soldiers in their path fled without firing a shot when they heard the approaching armored vehicles.

Leathernecks of Co F arrived at Grand Mal the next morning and moved south to join LtCol Smith at Queens Park. Dobson then led Co G up the hill to rescue the governor-general and the SEALs, who had suffered no casualties in the daylong siege.

LtCol Smith then ordered Capt Dobson's Co G to take the Grenadian headquarters at Fort Frederick, which the Marine unit found abandoned.

About the same time, two battalions of paratroopers, supported by artillery and Navy A-7 Corsairs, attacked and captured the Cuban positions northeast of the airport terminal. Cuban resistance was over, although the Americans did not know it at the time.

ADM Metcalf now directed the Marine helicopters to carry a Ranger company to secure the newly discovered other medical-school campus, a beachfront location to the north called Grand Anse.

The hastily planned mission did not go smoothly. The LZ was an extremely narrow beach and the helicopters began taking ever-increasing fire as they came into the crowded zone.

The last CH-46 bringing the Rangers into the zone landed too close to a palm tree and received some rotor damage. After dropping the Rangers, the CH-46s lifted off to be replaced by CH-53 helos that were to carry the American citizens to safety.

When the Rangers got organized and moved to the school, the opposition vanished. The soldiers quickly escorted the students to the beach where CH-53s carried them to the airport for flights to the States. Another CH-46 struck a palm tree as the Rangers were being extracted. Some 200 students were evacuated with no loss to U.S. forces unknown to the military was the existence of scores of other students at several other locations.

The next day, 27 Oct., both the Marines and the Army paratroopers moved to expand their areas of control.

But while the 82nd Airborne Div soldiers moved cautiously, LtCol Smith was sending his Marines on multiple missions in both the northern and southern sectors.

To help cover his expanding area, Smith brought his artillery unit, Battery H, 3d Bn, 1 Oth Marines, ashore as a provisional rifle company. From a base at Queens Park, it conducted patrols around St. George's, finding weapons and capturing four senior government officials who had played key roles in killing Bishop.

The Marines' final mission in the south on the 27th was to "liberate" what was reported by their higher headquarters to be 400 foreign nationals at the Ross Point Hotel. Leathernecks of Co F arrived just after dark to find 20 people, mostly Canadians who had no interest in leaving Grenada.

On the northern part of the island, Co E continued to secure an expanding area around Pearls, mostly with no opposition. But two Marines were badly hurt when a jeep overturned on a steep mountain path.

On 30 Oct., Co G was relieved by Caribbean peacekeepers and moved north on the coastal highway aboard amtracs to take the last two unsecured cities, Gouyave and Victoria.

By evening, the Marines occupied nearly two-thirds of the island's coastline, from St. George's in the southwest around to Grenville in the northeast.

That same day, GEN Vessey visited Salines and reportedly told MG Trobaugh: "We have two companies of Marines running all over the island, and thousands of Army troops are doing nothing. What the hell is going on?"

The Marines had one last assignment. On 1 Nov., two companies conducted a combined amphibious and heliborne landing on Grenada's northern island, Carriacou, to be greeted by friendly citizens and 19 soldiers in civilian clothes, who surrendered.

Relieved the next morning by Army elements, 22d MAU and PHIBRON Four were again on their way to Lebanon.

Editor's note: A former artillery fire direction controlman, Mr. Kreisher became a U.S. Navy officer through the flight program. As a correspondent for Copley News Service, he was with 1stMarDiv in Desert Storm. he is now a national security reporter for Copley News Service.

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