Following the sad news yesterday of General Norman Schwarzkopf’s death, I wanted to better pay my respects to the man by learning more about his background and military career.
I was surprised to find out that before he was “Stormin’ Norman” leading coalition forces to a swift victory against Iraqi forces during the Gulf War, he was the newly promoted Brigadier General Norman Schwarzkopf of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division. There Schwarzkopf found himself in charge of ground forces in Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury, in 1983, as the Deputy Commander to Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III.
While Metcalf was in charge of the entire invasion force (Joint Task Force 120), the Army found it prudent to send in Schwarzkopf to make sure ground forces were being properly utilized. Schwarzkopf would take charge of two Ranger Battalions, the 82nd Airborne’s Ready Reaction Brigade, a large contingent of JSOCs Tier 1 units, and the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit.
The most important component of the assault on the island nation was to be the combat parachute jump by the 1st and 2nd Ranger Battalions on Point Salines Airport on the Southern end of Grenada. Combat operations revolved around the Rangers securing the airport to bring in the remainder of ground forces to enter the fight. Once the airport was secured, the Rangers’ follow on mission was to secure the estimated 500+ U.S. citizens located at the True Blue campus 2 kilometers to the East of the drop zone – one of the primary reasons the U.S. invaded Grenada.
The original plan was for an eight-man team from the brand new SEAL Team 6 to infiltrate off the coast, west of the airport. ST6 was to gain eyes on the objective and suppress any anti-aircraft positions ordered by a small team of Combat Controllers who were to insert shortly after.
Aside from the SEALs’ objective, another operation in support of the airborne assault was to be undertaken by Delta Force’s B Squadron, along with elements from Charlie Company 1st Ranger Battalion. The Delta-led force was to conduct a helicopter assault against Richmond Hill Prison in the early morning hours of the 25th to rescue any political prisoners held there. This was to occur before the dawn combat jump by the Rangers. Following the assault against the prison, Delta was to fly five kilometers South and land in the hills overlooking the airport to suppress any hidden enemy positions that could impede the jump.
Unfortunately both planned events didn’t happen the way they should have, as the SEALs were dropped into rough seas that led to the death of four of their team-members. Searching for their fellow operators, the men didn’t make it to the airport in time for the Ranger assault.
For the men of B Squadron, delays taking off from Barbados had cost them valuable time in their assault against the prison. Once airborne, the men in the choppers sustained heavy casualties as they neared the objective, which turned out to be abandoned. The heavily damaged helicopters returned to the Navy carriers off the coast to refit and regroup as almost 50% of the assault force had been wounded. The men who could still fight hopped on board the helicopters to finish the job. The operators touched down on the hills just as the planes began dropping the Rangers, giving them no time to silence any hidden machine gun nests.
One of the Delta operators on the ground watching the jump later wrote: “We could see the Rangers pouring out the jump doors and into the sky. They were jumping at such a low altitude that their parachutes opened only a few seconds before they hit the ground. Goddamn, what a stirring sight! This was the first combat parachute operation since the Second World War.”
The day after General Schwarzkopf’s death I came across a clip of an interview he did for a documentary on the conflict in which he talked about the initial combat jump.
When asked what it was like for the first men parachuting, General Schwarzkopf responded with:
“You have to visualize, literally, a cone of tracer fire, green tracer fire coming up into the air. C130 aircraft flying in directly underneath this cone of tracer fire, paratroopers dropping in the air and being shot at in the air from all sides on the ground. I can’t recall any combat operation that the United States has ever been involved in that could have been any more intense then that. And that’s probably the most intense type of combat that we were involved in. In other words, for those Rangers that were hanging in those parachutes in the air at that time, that was absolute total war. If we had known the anti aircraft was going to be as effective as it was we would have suppressed it ahead of time with fire.”
The Rangers jumped at 500 feet AGL (above ground level) – an altitude that I could not fathom, as most static line jumps I did ranged anywhere from 800 feet (this was rare) to 1100 feet. They didn’t even rig their reserve parachutes as there would have been no time to open them in case of a malfunction. A “daring” jump is an understatement.
Grenada was an important success for the U.S. military, and the country as a whole, which at the time was recovering from the Vietnam War as well as the failure to rescue the hostages from Iran in 1980. The Grenada invasion had its share of complications, some very major. But without making mistakes how could we ever hope to learn from those mistakes and improve?
Military enlistments following Grenada took such a major leap that a third Ranger Battalion was formed shortly after. This is a small part of the legacy that General Norman Schwarzkopf leaves behind. I am ashamed to say that I only knew of his role in the Persian Gulf War before his death, but I am very glad I got to share the story of his successes in Operation Urgent Fury with all our readers.
Rest in peace sir.