Story by Maj. Cindi King
COLUMBIA, S.C. – The South Carolina National Guard bid farewell last year to its final serving member from the Vietnam War. That retirement leaves a generation of Soldiers with vastly different combat experience after numerous deployments to the desert in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are however, currently serving members in the National Guard who deployed in combat to other regions, sometimes overlooked after 13 years of continuous deployments for the Global War on Terror following the Sept. 11 attacks. One of those regions is Panama for Operation Just Cause in 1989.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the invasion of Panama to stop the regime of General Manuel Antonio Noriega. It was Dec. 20, 1989 when the invasion began, after President George H.W. Bush ordered more than 9,500 Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel to join the already 13,000 U.S. forces stationed in Panama.
The S.C. Army National Guard has three members who recall where they were when they were notified they would be deploying to support Operation Just Cause.
“I was a young Infantry Specialist serving in the 1st Ranger Battalion at Hunter Army Airfield,” said Sgt. 1st Class Rudy Fontanez, supply specialist, Co. A, 218th Combat Support Battalion, S.C. Army National Guard. “We had been training weeks before using a scenario of an airfield seizure. We had no idea at the time that was the rehearsal for what we were going to be asked to do in Panama.” Fontanez served on active duty from 1987 to 1991, joining the S.C. Army National Guard in 1992.
The Ranger battalions would rotate for block leaves. According to Fontanez, his unit was preparing to begin their scheduled block leave for the holidays and were unexpectedly called back to their units and all leave forms were cancelled.
“It was right before Christmas, so as soon as we reported, within two days we had an operations order, conducted rehearsals and were ready to go.”
Fontanez said his unit parachuted into an airfield in Panama under cover of darkness at 500 feet from a C-141 aircraft with nearly 3,000 other Rangers. He said their aircraft took small arms fire and some of the Rangers were wounded.
“There was a lot of chaos on the ground as you can imagine,” said Fontanez. “Once we came in, we secured the airfield for follow-on units to arrive.”
The Rangers’ mission was to stay until the airfield was in the control of other U.S. units to begin their operations and movement. Fontanez said they were on the ground approximately two weeks. He said shortly after this mission, his unit was being prepared for a deployment to the Persian Gulf for the first Gulf War.
The experience of Fontanez during Operation Just Cause demonstrates the rapid deployment of Ranger units to set-up the conditions for follow-on units. In Panama, one of these units was the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The senior non-commissioned officer from the Recruiting and Retention battalion in the S.C Army National Guard, Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Elvis, was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne when he was alerted to mobilize for Operation Just Cause.
“I was a sawgunner and Specialist in B-Company, 4th Battalion, 325th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division,” said Elvis. “We were just getting ready to go on Christmas block leave and were standing in line in the chow hall when we got the notification.”
Elvis said an announcement came over the loudspeaker for an alpha alert, in which they all had to report as part of the reaction force. This was not uncommon for units designated for first response. He said they knew it was not a typical emergency deployment readiness drill when they saw there was live ammunition.
“Many in the ranks left for work on Dec. 18, saying goodbye to their families not knowing they would be mobilizing,” said Elvis.
On Dec. 20, 1989, almost 1,000 paratroopers from Elvis’ unit parachuted in via a C-141 aircraft through the darkness into a civilian airfield in Panama, and immediately received small arms fire.
“I remember seeing the tracer rounds all around us and thinking what have I gotten myself into,” said Elvis. “We saw a lot of contact after we hit the ground, as our follow-on missions after securing the airfield were to conduct patrols, pull security and conduct check points.”
Once the order was given to transition from air to ground operations, the use of armored vehicles was critical to get into the fortified areas around Noriega’s Comandancia.
The S.C Army National Guard Director for the State Partnership Program with Colombia, Maj. Dave King, was a young lieutenant in 1989 responsible for a team of M113 armored personnel carriers with .50 caliber machine guns, who were supporting Task Force Black. He had prior active duty time from 1979-1982, was in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1982-1987, and again served active duty from 1987 until 1997, before joining the S.C. Army National Guard in 2007.
King was a member of 4-6th Infantry Battalion, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Fort Polk, Louisiana in 1989. His unit had mobilized to Panama in September of 1989 as part of an ongoing rotation of U.S. forces to augment security of the Panama Canal.
“Back then as an Infantryman, the expectation of actually seeing combat did not seem likely, unlike today’s Soldiers who know they will be called to deploy,” said King. “It was mid-December when we knew we were going to be part of the invasion.”
King’s team augmented other units with mechanized infantry assets for the night time assault on the Comandancia. The battle at the Comandancia is considered the bloodiest, with four Soldiers killed and more than 60 wounded.
King recalls the chaos and receiving small arms fire. “We lost two Soldiers in our battalion, Cpl. Ivan Perez and Pvt. Kenneth Scott.”
It was Jan. 3, 1990 when Noriega surrendered to U.S. Forces. The dictator was put aboard a Black Hawk and flown to Howard Air Force Base, where he was arrested by officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Shortly after word spread about his surrender, civilians in Panama began celebrating in the streets.
“The civilians we met were so grateful we were there,” said Fontanez. “I remember while we were patrolling on New Year’s Eve, we ran into a small group of locals who insisted we take a moment to celebrate the new year with them.”
Elvis echoed the sentiment saying that their presence at check points was very much appreciated by the Panamanian civilians.
“We had regulars who would visit us and bring us drinks, baked goods and food to show their appreciation,” said Elvis.
Elvis added he did learn a valuable lesson as a young Specialist that he always shares with his Soldiers, to be considerate of the local population when deploying to another country. He said it was Christmas Day and he thought it would be great for his Soldiers to be able to call home to wish their families Merry Christmas. These were the days before cell phones, so their easist option was to enter a hotel to borrow the telephone.
“We did not think about us going in a hotel with all of our tactical gear and how our live weapons would impact the guests,” said Elvis. “We had to reassure everyone we just wanted to use the phone, and were not trying to seize the hotel.”
King said his troops were also treated very well by the Panamanians, who would bring them food, with one family opening up their home so Soldiers could use the phone to call loved ones on Christmas Day.
King said one important lesson Operation Just Cause taught him was the criticality of squad and platoon level infantry training. He said when operating in an urban combat environment, the skills of small unit tactics is crucial.
During Operation Just Cause, 23 U.S. service members were killed and more than 300 wounded. Pentagon planners, such as former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Edward Meyer rate the success of the operations in Panama as one of the best conceived and although it had some flaws, it was a brilliant success.
The members of the S.C. Army National Guard who saw combat during Operation Just Cause stated they have no special plans during the 25th anniversary of the mission.
“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years,” said Fontanez. “I never really thought about it, as the years go by, the memories seem to fade about those days.”
“I still run into Soldiers from years ago from active duty,” said King. One of my young Soldiers became a Command Sgt. Major who I saw again during combat operations in Iraq. It was quite fitting he served at the beginning of his career in combat with the 4-6th Infantry in Panama and was winding it down as the battalion command sergeant major of the same unit in Iraq.
With little fanfare about Operation Just Cause over the years, these Soldiers still recall those moments as young troops going to combat for the first time. Each has had follow-on deployments to the Middle East.
“We didn’t have cell phones or the internet in Panama to know what was going on everywhere,” said Fontanez. “I heard more about the operation from talking to family who were watching CNN.”
Twenty-five years later, Noriega sits in a Panamanian prison, after being tried by the U.S. for drug trafficking and money laundering. The events that led to the toppling of the Noriega regime are but a distant memory for many, and almost forgotten by the new generation of service members who are too young to know of combat operations prior to Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston, Jr., the Adjutant General for S.C., what has not changed over the years, is the U.S. commitment to helping neighboring countries when needed.
“Our engineer unit had been in Ecuador prior to Operation Just Cause, helping after an earthquake had struck the southern region,” said Livingston. “As a military organization, we were aware of these events and were impressed with the level of professionalism taking place by U.S. forces in Panama.”
Livingston said it is important people don’t forget military history and the lessons learned from those who have answered the call and supported in all regions and operations.
“Operation Just Cause represents the range of our capabilities to extend a helping hand and care for our neighbors in the south,” said Livingston. “We are grateful to these heroes who served during this time in our history and sacrificed to assist those in need.”