In the early hours of December 20, 1989, 28 years ago, the United States began operations against Manuel Noriega and the Panamanian Defense Forces in Operation Just Cause.

During the opening hours of the US operation, several US Special Operations units conducted operations to rescue American Kurt Muse from the notorious Modelo Prison, stop Noriega from leaving the country by disabling his aircraft, seizing the two main airports at Panama City and Rio Hato by an airborne operation and by stopping his troops, specifically his armored unit [Battalion 2000] from reaching the capital of Panama City and influencing the immediate takedown of his government and military hierarchy.

The plan, minus the Muse rescue was actually rehearsed in the spring of 1988 when conditions between the Noriega Panamanian government and the US deteriorated to the point that the US was ready to move. A year earlier it would have been a surgical Special Operations only mission with very little conventional troops involved. In 1989 it would be a full complement of conventional troops to include elements of the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), the 7th Infantry Division (Light) and the 82nd Airborne Division as well as units stationed in Panama.

Operation Acid Gambit: Delta Force Rescues Kurt Muse

 Muse was an American who grew up in Panama, got married and moved back after his service in the military was over. His wife was a DOD schoolteacher. He was arrested and thrown in Modelo Prison for running a covert anti-Noriega radio station in May of 1989. One Panamanian newspaper reported that Muse was a CIA operative.

President Bush decided that a rescue of Muse was the course of action after receiving a letter that was smuggled out of the prison but a US military doctor that was allowed to treat him.

The Army’s Delta Force began rehearsing a raid on the prison on a mockup they built at Eglin AFB, Florida from notes supplied by the doctor. They moved to Panama undetected and began preliminary plans to raid the prison. Shortly after midnight on the 20th, 23 Delta operators boarded four MH-6 “Little Bird” helicopters and landed on the roof of the prison.

Delta Little Bird of 160th Special Operations Aviation that crash-landed in a Panama City street.

Delta Snipers quickly eliminated sentries in the area as well as the Comandancia (Noriega’s Headquarters) across the street. At that moment, two Air Force C-130 Spectre Gunships began shelling the Comandancia to get attention away from Modelo Prison.

One operator climbed down the side of the building to a window outside Muse’s cell to eliminate the guard who was tasked with killing him as soon as a rescue attempt was begun.

The breaching team blew the door to the roof and the extraction teams started down the stairs two floors to Muse’s cell. The Delta operators eliminated two guards and bound another who was not armed and did not resist. Muse saw the beams of their flashlights and saw the smoke. Just then he heard an American voice tell him to take cover. Delta operator Pat Savidge tried to shoot the lock off, but it stood up and had to be cut off with bolt cutters supplied by Delta’s Kelly Venden. Savidge told Muse “Merry Christmas and gave him body armor, goggles, and a Kevlar helmet. They moved back up to the roof.

Once on board the MH-6 that was called back for extraction, the now overloaded Little Bird began nose-diving for the street, 60 feet below. The pilot regained control just a few feet off the ground and they flew along the street putting distance between themselves and the prison just a few feet off the ground. After setting down in a courtyard, the pilot was going to attempt to take off again. Savidge and Venden didn’t buckle in during the tumult.

As the chopper lifted off, it took serious ground fire. Venden was hit in the chest and toppled out of the helicopter 20-30 feet to the ground. Savidge attempting to save his friend, grabbed ahold of his gear to hold onto him and was pulled out as well. The Little Bird was peppered with fire and crashed on its right side. The skid pinned Delta operator James Sudderth’s ankle. All four operators were wounded but Muse and the pilots were fine.

Delta operators in Panama

The Delta operators got to the most defensible position and prepared to protect Muse. About 15 minutes later they signaled a passing chopper with an IR strobe light. They relayed their position by radio and an armored vehicle of the 5th Infantry Division came shortly after and picked everyone up and brought them to safety.

Navy SEALs Suffer Casualties At Punta Paitilla Airfield

The Navy SEALs were tasked to destroy Noriega’s aircraft at the airfield. This mission fell to SEAL Team 4 with 48 operators. The SEALs under the command of LtCdr Patrick Toohey landed just south of the airfield at 0030 hrs on the 20th.

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By 0105 hrs, they were in position, however security elements reported that Panamanian V300 Cadillac Gage armored cars were rapidly approaching the airfield. Toohey sent a squad to set up a blocking position but as soon as they began moving, the Panamanians at the airfield opened fire killing one SEAL and wounding five others. The other SEALs reinforced the troops under fire and in the resulting firefight, suffered two more killed and four more wounded. They disabled Noriega’s plane with an AT-4 rocket.

During the night, they rolled an aircraft into the middle of the runway to keep the airfield from being used. The wounded were MEDEVAC to Howard Air Force Base. The SEALs secured the airfield until mid-morning when they were relieved by a company from the 75th Ranger Regiment.

Noriega’s private plane after Navy SEALs destroyed it with a rocket launcher

Meanwhile, four SEALs using Draeger rebreather systems swam from Zodiac assault craft to plant explosives on Noriega’s heavily armed gunboat, Presidente Porras. They swam under the boat planted the explosives and then were shot at by Panamanian guards who dropped grenades into the water. The SEALs swam to the pier and hiding under it, could watch the gunboat be disabled by the explosions. They later swam back out into the canal where they were picked by rubber assault craft.

Rangers Seize Rio Hato, Tocumen Airports

 The 2nd and 3rd Ranger Battalions were tasked with seizing Rio Hato airfield, destroying the PDF garrison at the base, [the largest in the army] and seizing Noriega’s plush beach house.

At H-hour, two F–117A stealth fighter-bombers delivered two 2,000-lb. precision bombs in an attempt to stun and confuse the PDF garrison of two heavily armed infantry companies defending the airfield. They missed. The precision munitions succeeded in only waking the defenders.

Thirteen C-130s flying from the U.S. dropped the Rangers into a maelstrom of fire from just 500 feet. Moving and assembling quickly despite the incoming fire, two companies of Rangers moved to take the airfield, cut the Pan-American Highway running through it, and seize a nearby ammunition dump.

Meanwhile, another company attacked a nearby NCO academy complex and another struck the two PDF companies deployed to defend the airfield. The PDF defending the airfield were Noriega’s best and the firefight was furious. Two Rangers were killed and four wounded when a helicopter gunship raked them in a friendly fire incident. But within five hours, the entire complex was secure to include Noriega’s beach house.

Outside of Panama City, Torrijos [Tocumen] Airport, the site of the national commercial airport, the 1st Ranger Battalion jumped in to seize it and secure it for follow-on forces. The Rangers suffered just two wounded while Panamanian casualties were slight, with just 5 killed and 21 captured. The 82nd Airborne Division about an hour after the Rangers secured the airfield arrived and began jumping in. 

Special Forces Seize Pacora River Bridge Stop a Whole Battalion

The men of A Co. 3rd Bn 7th Special Forces Group who were stationed in Panama were tasked with keeping surveillance on Fort Cimarron, home of Bn 2000, the only armored unit in Noriega’s army. Under the command of Major Kevin Higgins, A-3-7 was told of the departure of 10 vehicles from Cimarron and he and 24 Green Berets were moving to the Pacora River Bridge to stop the convoy from reaching Panama City.

Pacora River Bridge

The Blackhawk helicopters flying to the bridge got lost on the way but they flew over the armored column rapidly approaching the bridge. The SF troops got to the western side of the bridge just as the Panamanians reached the eastern side. The slope to get up to the bridge was steep and the heavily laden SF troops were just getting to the bridge when they were illuminated by the headlights of the Panamanian vehicles. SFC “Tico” Roman and SFC Dana Bowman were among the first men on the bridge and they blasted the lead vehicle with AT-4s. That stopped the convoy in its tracks. But the SF troops were armed mostly with M-16s, M-249s, and M-203s. Higgins didn’t hesitate. He called in AC-130 Spectre gunships fire, dangerously close to his men and the gunships decimated the column. The Panamanians tried to get away from Spectre by crawling under the bridge. But the SF troops raked the girders with machine-gun fire and buckshot rounds with M-203s. The running firefight lasted most of the night with the Panamanians trying to flank the SF troops, who were augmented by elements of A Co. 1st Bn, 7th SFG from Ft. Bragg during the night. They finally linked up with members of the 82nd Airborne later the next afternoon after their Sheridan armored reconnaissance vehicles got moving from the airport.

Operation Just Cause was far from a smooth operation, there were still glitches in communications, and many units couldn’t talk to one another. Coordination between Special Operations and conventional units was shaky at times and non-existent at others. Despite this, different elements of our Special Operations Forces were laying the groundwork for interacting with one another that would bear fruit in later conflicts. The troops’ use of Air Force Special Operations gunships which supported ground troops across the board became invaluable. Those airmen along with their Combat Controllers have become an extremely sought after asset. While many of the troops involved with a few months later move to the desert for Desert Shield/Storm, many of the SF troops remained and assisted Panama with the switch over from the PDF to the PNP [Panamanian National Police].