October 25, 1983: Grenada and Operation Urgent Fury

Posted on October 24, 2011

By Rick Atkinson

Two surprises awaited Lieutenant Colonel George Crocker as he walked down the ramp of the C-141 on the morning of October 26, 1983. The first was the balmy climate. Trade winds stirred the coconut fronds and provided a briny tonic to a man who had been cooped up for nearly four hours in the bay of the transport jet with a hundred other nervous soldiers. As expected, the island was warm and humid — particularly for an invader liveried in battle dress uniform and a heavy Kevlar helmet. But George had anticipated tropical heat akin to Vietnam, and this was nothing like the first wilting blast that he remembered on the tarmac at Bien Hoa.

The second surprise, considerably less pleasant, was that the fighting was both intense and very close. Operation Urgent Fury had been under way for more than twenty-four hours, yet the Rangers and first wave of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne had barely advanced beyond the perimeter of the airport at Point Salines. George heard the familiar popping of small-arms fire; to the east, squads of American soldiers scuttled across the terrain, maneuvering for better firing positions. On a hillside next to the airport, large white letters spelled SIEMPRE ES 26 — It Is Always 26 — a reference to July 26, the date celebrated as the beginning of the Cuban revolution in 1953. Throughout the morning a medley of fire from helicopter gunships, artillery tubes, and Navy bombers had been raking targets farther inland.

Grenada was supposed to be a simple operation. U.S. intelligence analysts had predicted little or no resistance from the Cubans working on the island and only token opposition from the PRA, the People’s Revolutionary Army. Plainly, the intelligence was wrong. As he moved away from the plane, George felt his pulse quicken. Nothing pumped the adrenaline like live ammunition. More than twelve years had passed since he last heard shots fired in anger; no matter how diligently he and his soldiers trained for battle, it was impossible to simulate the hot churn of fear and exhilaration that only enemy bullets could provoke.

A decade had also passed since George last commanded troops at the cassern in Erlangen. He had dutifully marked time as a major and a junior lieutenant colonel. The three years at West Point were followed by tours as a staff officer in the Pentagon and at Fort Bragg until, at last, his name had appeared on the command list. Leading this unit — the 1st Battalion of the 82nd Airborne’s 505th Infantry Parachute Regiment — was the fulfillment of a dream, the culmination of a career that began when he left Arkansas for Beast Barracks in 1962. And, though rarely given to doubts about his abilities, he found it hard not to be jittery after waiting so long for this chance. He was now wholly responsible for eight hundred heavily armed men. They were good soldiers— in the three months since taking command George had been impressed by their motivation and discipline — yet very few of them had ever been in combat. Every commander could appreciate the old maxim, usually attributed to the Duke of Wellington, which held that there are no bad troops, only bad officers. George did not want to be unworthy.

While waiting for the rest of his battalion to arrive at Point Salines, he jumped into a jeep with the brigade commander and drove to the east end of the airport. In an area called Frequente, soldiers from the 2nd Brigade had just captured an arms cache, killing a dozen Cubans and capturing nearly a hundred others. Munitions sufficient to arm several battalions stood stacked from floor to ceiling in one warehouse. Among the nearly five hundred tons of weaponry that would be seized on the island were 16,000 AK-47S; 5 million rifle rounds; 86,000 rounds of antiaircraft ammo; and nearly 2,000 grenades. All in all, George concluded as he surveyed the warehouse, the arsenal, should it ever explode, contained enough latent power to demolish half the island in a spectacular fireball. At that moment, AK rounds began pinging off the tin roof. He hurried out to the jeep and drove back to the unloading area. If he was going to get shot or blown up, he didn’t want it to happen before his entire unit had arrived.

Because the airport was so congested — only one or two planes could land and unload at the same time — mustering the battalion took all afternoon and much of the night. After the seventh and final C-141 had arrived, George bedded down the troops. In another captured warehouse not far from the Frequente arms cache, he stretched out on the floor for a few hours of sleep. The cartons on pallets around him were crammed with sundries apparently intended to provision the Marxist paradise: toilet seats, Romanian beef, Soviet salmon and vodka, banana liqueur, Cuban cigars, even baseball bats and gloves. His sole mission thus far had been to deploy the battalion ready for combat. We’re in it now, he thought as he drifted off to sleep amid the spoils of war. In the morning, they would join the fight.

Perhaps unconsciously, the American military had been waiting ten long years for Operation Urgent Fury. Symbols like Maya Lin’s wall in Washington were important to help heal the rift between the Republic and its armed forces. But for professional soldiers, the demons of Vietnam could be fully exorcised only by the passage of time and an opportunity to demonstrate again valorous competence on the battlefield. If few wished for war — and few did who had experienced the carnage of Southeast Asia — nevertheless there persisted a yearning among military men to prove themselves. When that chance came on an obscure Caribbean island in October 1983, the Army and its sister services leaped to seize both the island and, they hoped, renewed self-confidence.

Grenada seemed an unlikely target for the fury, urgent or otherwise, of American military power. Barely twenty miles long and twelve miles wide, with the ragged oval shape of a crab’s claw, the isle had been discovered by Columbus on his third voyage to the New World, in 1498. Not much had happened since. The somnolent capital of St. George’s —population, 35,000 — was wrapped picturesquely around a small harbor on the west coast. Grenada’s principal industries centered on nutmeg, bananas, and tourism.

The politics of this tiny, torpid remnant of the British Empire, however, were complicated. In 1979, a pro-Western prime minister had been toppled in a bloodless coup by Maurice Bishop, a lanky, articulate Marxist who sported a salt-and-pepper beard and headed a home-grown political organization called the New Jewel Movement. Finding the taste of autocratic power to his liking, Bishop quickly aligned himself with Moscow and Havana, and reneged on his promise to establish a modern democracy.

To Ronald Reagan, already obsessed with the new leftist state in Nicaragua, Bishop was one more intolerable neighbor, particularly when he began to build a nine-thousand-foot runway on the sandy promontory of Point Salines. Events came to a head in mid October 1983, when Bishop was placed under house arrest by one of his more radical New Jewel minions, Bernard Coard. Six days later, on Wednesday, October 19, Bishop was freed by several thousand chanting supporters. Three armored personnel carriers manned by Coard’s PRA troops fired on the crowd, killing at least fifty people. The soldiers again seized Bishop and several others. At one P.M., as he knelt against a stucco wall beneath a basketball backboard, Bishop was executed by a four-man firing squad.

Preliminary U.S. military planning had begun on October 14, when the National Security Council asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to begin considering the evacuation from Grenada of several hundred Americans, most of them students at St. George’s University School of Medicine. Yet the Pentagon’s zeal to prove itself — to exorcise those demons from Vietnam — quickly colored the planning and influenced the shape of Urgent Fury. Precisely because Grenada was the first sustained American military action in a decade, each of the four services was hungry for a piece of the action. “It doesn’t matter which war you were in,” according to a military truism, “as long as it was the last one.” No one wanted to be left behind.

Moreover, the psychology of the American military had been deeply affected by the catastrophic rescue attempt in April 1980 of the embassy hostages in Tehran. Led by Charlie Beckwith, the mission had been aborted after a helicopter and a C-130 fuel tanker collided in the Iranian desert, burning eight servicemen to death. Many factors contributed to the flaming debacle at Desert One, but one of the catastrophe’s lasting effects was an overkill mentality. “If a mission requires two divisions, send four. If it requires ten aircraft, send twenty,” said one Army general in describing the military’s state of mind before Grenada. “Don’t go at the margin. Double it. We’re not going to fail because of a lack of troops.”

The original American plan, then, which involved a surgical attack on Grenada by special operations forces, became immensely complicated by the inclusion of conventional troops in a full-blown invasion scheme. Most amphibious operations, from Guadalcanal to Inchon, required months of detailed planning. In Grenada the military had only a few days to prepare, and Reagan did not sign the final invasion order until six P.M. on October 24, less than twelve hours before the operation was to commence.

Under Urgent Fury, a contingent of Marines — designated Task Force 124 — would seize the small airstrip at Pearls and the adjacent town of Grenville on the island’s northeast coast; two Ranger battalions — Task Force 121 — and the 82nd Airborne — Task Force 123 — would secure Point Salines and the southern portion of Grenada.

As the invasion began, before dawn on October 25, the Marines — their morale stiffened by a showing of John Wayne in The Sands of lwo Jima the night before — quickly seized their initial objectives on the northern half of Grenada, encountering very little resistance. Elsewhere on the island, however, the invasion began to foul almost immediately.

A team of Navy SEALs — special operation commandos — was lost when four men drowned, apparently after being knocked unconscious when they were dropped into the sea from the rear of a low-flying plane. Other special operations also went awry, including attempts to destroy the island’s radio tower, to rescue the British governor-general, and to capture a prison near St. George’s.

Along with these difficulties, the Army encountered unexpected resistance at Point Salines. Part of the invasion plan called for a platoon of Delta Force commandos to parachute onto the promontory before dawn, where they were to secure the airport for the Ranger battalions. But Grenadian forces and the Cuban construction workers spotted the Delta troops, pinning them down with an intense fusillade.

Rather than landing on a secure airstrip, as planned, the Rangers parachuted from five hundred feet, less than half the usual height and the lowest combat jump since World War II. They had expected to face six hundred pacific Cubans and twelve hundred poorly equipped, petrified PRA troops. Instead, they found themselves pitched into “absolute, total warfare,” as the senior Army commander, Major General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, later described the scene.

The battle raged throughout the morning of the twenty-fifth. At two o’clock, despite harassing sniper fire, the runway was secure enough to allow the first paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne to land at Salines. But an hour later the defenders counterattacked from the north with three armored personnel carriers and mortar fire in an attempt to sweep the runway. The Americans shattered two of the APCs with 90mm recoilless rifle rounds; aircraft cannon fire destroyed the third. The airport was reopened, but the invasion commander, Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, surprised by the intensity of the fighting, asked the Joint Chiefs to send four more battalions from the 82nd. Nearly five thousand paratroopers would enter the fray, three times the number originally estimated by the invasion planners.

As the Marines continued to roll through the north, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Vessey, reportedly called the commander of the 82nd, Major General Edward L. Trobaugh. “We have two companies of Marines running all over the island and thousands of Army troops doing nothing,” Vessey fumed. “What the hell is going on?” The rebuke was to linger for years with the paratroopers, who bitterly resented Vessey’s censure as a classic example of know-nothing meddling from Washington.

Nowhere were the shortcomings of military intelligence more apparent than in the efforts to rescue the American medical students, on behalf of whom, nominally, the invasion had been launched. The American troops presumed, wrongly, that the students would all be found near the Salines airfield at the university’s True Blue campus. But on securing True Blue on the morning of the twenty-sixth, the U.S. soldiers were “shocked and stunned,” in the words of General Schwarzkopf, to learn that 224 additional students were nearly surrounded by enemy soldiers at Grand Anse beach, a campus annex midway between Salines and St. George’s. By telephoning Grand Anse, the rescuers learned that Cuban and Grenadian troops had dug in only 250 yards from the students, facing south in the direction of the expected American attack.

After five hours of planning, gunships, naval batteries, and bombers from the U.S.S. Independence unleashed a barrage that reduced several buildings at Grand Anse, including two hotels, to rubble. Twenty seconds after the supporting fire lifted, in a scene likened by one student to the popular Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now, three waves of Marine helicopters carrying Army Rangers swooped in from the Caribbean. The Grand Anse beach was only a few yards wide, and palm trees grew nearly to the water’s edge. Several Marine pilots thought of the fiery collision at Desert One. “Regardless of what happens to any of our aircraft or any of the Rangers on that beach,” warned one lieutenant colonel, evidently thinking along the same lines, “it’s going to go down.”

As door gunners hammered the Cuban and PRA positions with .50 caliber fire, the Rangers sprinted through the campus buildings, rounding up students who had barricaded the windows with mattresses. Everyone was herded to the beach, where a flock of empty Sea Knight helicopters waited. The only mishap occurred when the blade from one chopper sliced into a palm tree; the trunk tumbled onto the rotors, destroying the helicopter. The Rangers inside escaped safely, and subsequently paddled to sea in a life raft; they were picked up by the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Caron.

In a campaign thus far devoid of glory, the Grand Anse operation had been an unblemished success. In less than half an hour, the Marines and Rangers had executed the plan perfectly without a single friendly casualty. The sole sour note was the certainty that had the PRA or Cubans been inclined to atrocity, they would have had thirty-six hours since the beginning of the invasion to execute the students, leisurely. Moreover, the rescue operation would take yet another day and a half to complete — because elsewhere on the island nearly two hundred additional students remained hidden, waiting, as it turned out, for a lieutenant colonel named Crocker.

George pulled the sheaf of papers from the deep thigh pocket in his fatigues. He now had four or five maps of Grenada, although none displayed the kind of topographical detail that a commander hoped for. On one, the photocopier had even washed out the southern shoreline, so he could no longer tell where land ended and sea began; George had drawn a dotted line with his pen to approximate the coast at Prickly Point.

Each map also had its own grid system, which made any coordination with the artillery firebases difficult. Grenville on St. Andrew’s Bay, for example, was located on either vertical axis twenty or axis forty-two, depending on which map he looked at. Invasion planners on the U.S.S. Guam, according to one account, had even consulted a map last updated in 1895. It was hardly surprising that the usual fog of war was especially murky during the three days that George had now been on the island.

The best map in his collection was a four-foot tourist guide bearing the legend “Grenada: The Isle of Spice.” He opened the map and spread it on the ground. There on the southern coast, only a couple of miles from the airport at Point Salines; was the battalion’s new objective: a tiny peninsula called Lance aux Epines, which bore an uncanny resemblance in shape to the boot of Italy. The third and presumably final group of American students had been discovered hiding in the small hotels and posh houses dotting the promontory, and brigade headquarters had ordered George to seize the peninsula and evacuate the students.

The battalion fanned out from Calliste at the east end of the airport runway. George pushed two rifle companies down the high ground on either side of Lance aux Epines and a third company down the center. Armed resistance seemed unlikely, but the troops had already found one antiaircraft gun, and a die-hard Cuban or Grenadian defender might still be lurking with a rifle behind a palm tree. Of equal concern in George’s mind was the reaction of the students. Although he had witnessed neither the True Blue nor Grand Anse evacuation, as far as he knew both had gone smoothly. But little was known about the group at Lance aux Epines. Did they want to be rescued? Or would they react to the American uniforms with contempt, as their older brothers and sisters had during Vietnam? He half expected the paratroopers to be greeted with profanity and spit.

The war — if the three-day firefight could be called a war — was nearly over now. Resistance had disintegrated. Hundreds of PRA soldiers were fleeing for the hills, leaving behind little piles of hats, belts, uniforms, and rifles. Once the shooting lessened, most Grenadians had happily welcomed the Americans, offering coconuts, bananas, and abandoned hand grenades. Children capered in the GIs’ wake, scooping up instant coffee and ketchup packets that had been discarded from ration cartons. The liberation fervor had even spread to the Grenada zoo, where the resident alligator and anteater had been freed from their cages to lumber off into the jungle, leaving behind only a solitary vulture.

Although the invasion was hardly a model of military precision, George was pleased with the performance of his paratroopers. As he had hoped, they had shown themselves to be physically fit, well disciplined, and eager to fight, a far cry from the Magnificent Seven types that he had commanded at Erlangen. They had spent most of the past forty-eight hours patrolling near Point Salines, searching for pockets of defenders. The only casualty in the battalion thus far was a soldier who had broken his foot while kicking in a door.

Other units, he knew, had not fared as well. George had been lying about a thousand yards from the 2nd Brigade’s tactical operations center (TOC) at Frequente when a Navy A7, misdirected by a Marine liaison team attached to the 82nd, raked the TOC with 20mm cannon fire. Seventeen men had been wounded; one later died. After the strafing run ended, George listened to the chaos on the radio before walking another two hundred yards down the road, where he happened on the Marine fire controller, staring at the ground.

“Do you know that air strike just hit the 2nd Brigade?” George asked. In a voice choked with remorse, the Marine had simply murmured, “Yes,” and hung his head a little lower.

Two of George’s classmates from ’66 were also on Grenada. Both commanded battalions in the 82nd and both had been involved the day before in the final major action on the island, the storming of the Cuban barracks complex at Calivigny. Freddy McFarren, a droll, stocky Texan who had been one of George’s old F-2 company mates, now led an artillery battalion. (During high-level planning sessions before the invasion, McFarren had delighted in surreptitiously making faces at George across the room, as though they were again twenty-year-old cadets in the academy barracks.)

The other classmate was the division’s aviation battalion commander, Bob Seigle, an animated extrovert from Cincinnati who had been one of Bobby Knight’s guards on the academy basketball team. As part of the secret planning for Urgent Fury, Seigle had been asked to calculate how long it would take fifteen Blackhawk helicopters to fly from Fort Bragg to Grenada. The answer, he reported, was 15.9 hours, including eleven refueling stops. That was clearly unacceptable, so the invasion planners decided instead to ferry the helicopters to Barbados aboard gigantic C-5 cargo planes, each of which could hold half a dozen Blackhawks.

By the evening of D-Day, October 25, Seigle was at Salines, where he discovered that the Army’s special operations helicopters had not fared well in the early fighting. About ten aircraft from Task Force 160, a secret unit based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, had been supporting Delta and the other commando forces. Nicknamed the Night Stalkers, their motto was “Death Waits in the Dark.” TF 160 pilots were the Army’s best — combat blooded, with at least two thousand hours of flying time each — and they had just been riddled with gunfire. Every TF helicopter was full of holes; at least one had been destroyed. The Night Stalkers’ experience on Grenada, Seigle realized, did not bode well for the 8znd’s pilots, who averaged only six hundred hours of flying time.

After assembling his Blackhawks on Barbados, Seigle received orders on Thursday, October 27, to send his helicopters into the Calivigny barracks complex on Grenada’s southeast coast. The 82nd pilots considered the mission, apparently ordered specifically by the Joint Chiefs, to be suicidal, because PRA and Cuban defenders were believed to be firmly entrenched at Calivigny. “Guys, we don’t know what’s out there,” Seigle told his crews. “Just remember that your primary job is to fly that aircraft until it won’t fly anymore. Concentrate on that.”

The Blackhawks would carry a company of Rangers in the assault. After Navy bombers, AC-130S, and Fred McFarren’s artillery tubes had pounded the target, the first flight of four helicopters — Chalk One, Chalk Two, Chalk Three, and Chalk Four — swooped across Westerhall Bay at 4:15 P.M., just about the time that the znd Brigade TOC was being accidentally strafed. From satellite photos, the only suitable landing zone appeared to be in the middle of the compound. But when the pilots veered over a steep coastal embankment at eighty knots, they suddenly spotted the landing zone directly below them, half a mile short of where they expected it. As the Blackhawks decelerated, the Rangers — who had not trained with the 8 2nd pilots and were accustomed to leaping for the ground before the helicopters actually touched down — began jumping out. It was too soon. Several tumbled twenty feet; at least two suffered broken legs.

Chalk One landed, hard but safe, followed by Chalk Two. As Chalk Three was slowing, ground fire from the weeds near the barracks struck the tail rotor. The Blackhawk began to counterrotate out of control, smashing into Chalk Two. In a violent spray of metal fragments, the two helicopters flung chunks of rotor blade back and forth at each other, leaving four Rangers dead in a bloody mangle.

In a desperate effort to avoid the carnage below, Chalk Four veered 90 degrees to the right. The Blackhawk slammed into the ground so hard that the rotor blade flexed down, slicing out a section of the aluminum tail rotor drive shaft. When the pilot, unaware that his tail was gone, pulled up to leave a moment later, the Blackhawk spun wildly. After two gyrations, the Chalk Four pilot deliberately crash-landed his helicopter.

The second flight of four Blackhawks set down without mishap south of the barracks. The Rangers quickly swept through Calivigny, where they found the camp largely deserted. Like most of their comrades elsewhere on the island, the Cubans and PRA were dead, captured, or hiding in the hills. Bob Seigle spent most of the next twenty-four hours trying to mollify the furious Rangers and salvage what was left of the three shattered hulks lying at the edge of Westerhall Bay.

Now, on Friday, October 2.8, virtually all that remained before victory could be declared in Urgent Fury was the evacuation of the last group of students from Lance aux Epines. The operation went smoothly as George’s paratroopers searched the beaches, jetties, and inland hills without finding any enemy soldiers. Two hours after he had dispersed his battalion down Lance aux Epines, the peninsula was secured without a shot being fired. The paratroopers then moved from house to house, rapping on doors, as wary of the American students as of the PRA. But the students, delighted to be rescued after four tense days of hiding, emerged without delay, profusely thanking the soldiers. Near the north end of the peninsula, the paratroopers established a landing zone as an assembly point for those who wanted to decamp. The Libyan ambassador, repeatedly drove past the site in his Honda, waving his passport; George suppressed the impulse to have his tires slashed. An eighty-year-old expatriate British woman with gin on her breath walked out of one house, elegantly dressed in an evening gown, white gloves, and diamonds. George personally escorted her to the LZ.

There, as the helicopters began to arrive in a boil of dust and noise, he beheld an amazing scene. One hundred and eighty-three students, many of them wearing cut-off blue jeans and sandals, mobbed the soldiers — hugging, kissing, weeping. “God bless America!” they shouted. “God bless you!” Partitioned into groups of twenty-five, their names recorded on a manifest, they were ushered into the Blackhawks for the short hop to the airstrip, where transport planes would ferry them north to the United States.

George watched the helicopters lift the students, cheering and waving, into the overcast sky. His soldiers waved back, some with tears in their eyes. Things have sure changed, he thought. The war was over. And this time he wasn’t thinking about Grenada.

The invasion forces evacuated 740 American citizens from the Isle of Spice, 595 of whom were students. As the hostilities ended, casualty estimates varied widely. The Pentagon initially announced that 59 enemy soldiers had been killed in the invasion. Two weeks later, General Schwarzkopf put the tally at 160 PRA troops and 71 Cubans. Additionally, civilian casualties were estimated at 45 dead — some of whom died when a mental hospital was bombed accidentally — and 300 wounded. The U.S. government listed 19 U.S. troops killed and 115 wounded (although some analysts believed that the number would be considerably higher if all casualties among the secret, special operations forces were included).

Ronald Reagan called Urgent Fury a “brilliant campaign.” Army Secretary John Marsh praised the invasion as “a great success.” In truth, it was neither. The Pentagon’s own afteraction analyses sharply criticized the operation, particularly the communications and intelligence snafus. “When you dismember it in retrospect as a Monday morning quarterback,” one general commented, “I wasn’t too happy.” As one earthy Pentagon civilian put it, Grenada was “fucked up just like all wars are fucked up.”

In the wake of Grenada, the United States Army added the 168th campaign streamer to its flag. Streaked with brown, yellow, green, and other earth tones, the ribbon was of precisely the same dimensions as the more venerable swatches won at Ticonderoga and Antietam and Anzio. The service also awarded nearly nine thousand medals for valor and achievement, far more than the number of soldiers actually on Grenada. An Army spokesman, somewhat self-consciously, defended the cascade of decorations as “a valuable and effective leadership tool to build unit morale and esprit.”

Therein lay the crux of Urgent Fury. For all of its shortcomings, for all of the derisive commentary about the pathetic stature of the enemy against which American power was hurled, the invasion of Grenada was a victory. Armies fight with morale and esprit as much as they fight with tanks and bullets; after Grenada, soldiers walked a little taller, not because of their battlefield exploits but because of the huzzahs from the rescued students and an appreciative citizenry at home. The United States Army, its self-esteem battered in Southeast Asia, needed to win a war, any war. That slender campaign streamer from Grenada buried beneath it the seventeen preceding ribbons from Vietnam.

Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966 by Rick AtkinsonExcerpted from Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966, by Rick Atkinson

Copyright © 1989 by Rick Atkinson

Published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC

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