Above: A C-141 Starlifter lands at
Point Salines Airport during Operation Urgent Fury.
Granada is the smallest and southernmost of the Windward Islands in the
Caribbean, only 21 miles long and 12 miles wide. Except for the spice
plantations that produced a third of the world's nutmeg, there was not
much there in 1983. A medical school operated by investors in the
United States accounted for 15 percent of its total economy.
However, the little island nation
offered several strategic benefits to the Soviet Union and its client
state, Cuba. The leftist government in Grenada had given the Cubans
permission to build a 9,000-foot airfield of military quality at Point
Salines on the southern shore, and it was nearly complete.
The airfield would give Moscow a
staging base to support the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and
Communist insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala. For the Cubans,
who could not fly nonstop to their operations in Africa, it would be a
refueling base that avoided questions about landing in places where
Cuban troops and military equipment were not welcomed. Revetments along
the taxiway at Point Salines undercut the pretense that the airfield
was for purposes of tourism.
The United States was worried about
the formation of a "red triangle" with Cuba in the north, Nicaragua to
the west, and Grenada to the east. In a March 23, 1983, speech.
President Reagan assailed "the Soviet-Cuban militarization of Grenada."
Grenada's neighbors in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States
(OECS) were alarmed as well.
Then, on Oct. 12, the four-year-old revolutionary "New Jewel Movement"
government was overthrown in a bloody internal coup. The plot was
conceived and carried out by even more-radical elements who wanted to
move faster and harder toward a Marxist state. They executed President
Maurice Bishop on Oct. 19. Gen. Hudson Austin, the head of Grenada's
army, assumed control and ordered a round-the-clock, shoot-on- sight
An Awkward Fit
In the US, Americans still had fresh and painful memories of the
1979-1981 Iranian hostage fiasco. It was a humiliating crisis in which
more than 50 US diplomats and staff, seized by revolutionary Islamic
elements, were held captive in the US Embassy in Teheran for more than
Thus, on short notice, the Pentagon organized Operation Urgent Fury to
bring out of Grenada some 600 American students stranded at St.
George's University Medical School. And since US forces were going in
anyway, they would take advantage of the crisis to put the Grenada
corner of the red triangle out of business.
"The entire Grenada operation was driven by the State Department," said
George P. Shultz, the hard-nosed Secretary of State who pressed
Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and members of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff to move faster than they were inclined to do.
"Weinberger said that we didn't know enough to act," Shultz said, but
"we couldn't let the Pentagon drag out our preparations until it was
too late, which I feared they might do."
Reagan, who was already worked up about what was going on in Grenada, supported Shultz's call for a prompt response.
When Bishop was executed, the Joint Chiefs sent a warning order to US
Atlantic Command, alerting it to a possible need for a rapid
evacuation. Under the unified command plan, LANTCOM had jurisdiction in
the Caribbean and would be in charge of any such operation.
It was an awkward fit for the Norfolk, Va.-based command; the Caribbean
was strictly a sideline for LANTCOM, a maritime command geared toward
offensive operations in the North Atlantic and reinforcement of NATO
Europe in the event of a Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion.
"We made an effort to evacuate the students through a Pan Am charter,
but the plane was refused the right to land," Shultz said. "We made
another effort by chartering a cruise ship. It was denied permission to
On Oct. 20, the original guidance for a possible evacuation was
expanded to include "neutralization" of Cuban and local military forces
in Grenada. Vice Adm. Joseph Metcalf, commander of the Second Fleet,
was chosen to head the possible invasion force, and the Joint Chiefs
assigned an Army officer, Maj. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, to advise
Metcalf on ground operations.
Above: Flight line
floodlights reveal members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division
boarding a C-141, ready to take off for Grenada.
The acting head of the eight-member
OECS, Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica, asked the United
States to intervene in Grenada. Her request was made on behalf of seven
members—Dominica, Montserrat, St. Lucia, St. Kitts-Nevis, St.
Vincent, the Grenadines, and the twin- island nation of Antigua and
The eighth OECS member was Grenada,
which had, in addition to a Marxist revolutionary regime, a
governor-general. The office was a relic of Grenada's days as part of
the British Empire. When the island in 1974 gained independence from
imperial control, it became a member of the largely ceremonial British
Commonwealth, and the governor-general was a symbol of the crown.
Even after it seized power in 1979,
how-ever, Bishop's revolutionary government declined to abolish the
post of governor- general. It was occupied by an eminent Grenadian,
Paul Scoon. While Scoon represented the queen on the island, he did not
speak for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—a fact which
soon would take on considerable significance.
At the moment, Scoon was being held
under house arrest by the rebels. He was, however, communicating with
the outside world. Prime Minister Charles sent around to other OECS
members a Scoon request for intervention. The governor-general followed
up with a written request when he was free to do so.
LANTCOM got the execute order on Oct.
22. Weinberger conferred full power to conduct the operation upon Army
Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., the Chairman of the JCS, even though a
Chairman was not normally in the operational chain of command.
Congressional leaders were told in
confidence of the impending action, but otherwise Administration
officials gave out no advance notification. Certainly, they provided
nothing to the news media, although invasion rumors were in steady
Reagan later said, "We decided not to
inform anyone in advance about the rescue mission in order to reduce
the possibilities of a leak. ... We did not even inform the British
beforehand because I thought it would increase the possibility of a
Although the main effort would be by
US forces, small military contingents from Antigua, Barbados, Dominica,
Jamaica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent joined in the intervention.
The plan was to quickly take and
secure three main objectives: the Point Salines airfield, which was
adjacent to the True Blue campus of the medical school; another
airfield at Pearls, midway up the eastern coast of the island; and
Government House, where the governor-general was being held, just east
of St. George's city, the capital of Grenada.
The Grenadian armed forces, consisting
of about 300 regulars and 1,000 militia, were no real challenge. They
were armed mostly with light weapons but had eight Soviet armored
personnel carriers and two scout cars with 14.5 mm machine guns. They
also had several kinds of anti-aircraft guns, but they lacked
radar-assisted fire control.
|The Lebanon Bombing
Of more concern were the 700 Cuban
"construction workers" stationed at Point Salines. Cuba's Fidel Castro
had supposedly ordered the Cuban workers not to interfere with US
forces "if the Yankees land on the runway section near the university
or on its surroundings to evacuate their citizens." However, Castro
sent a Cuban Army officer, Col. Pedro Tortolo Comas, to direct the
defense of southern Grenada.
The Cubans at the airfield were
organized into quasi-military units. Many of them were veterans of
Castro's campaigns in Angola and Ethiopia. They had AK-47 assault
rifles and were dug in on the hills around Point Salines with machine
guns, mortars, and recoilless rifles.
According to Schwarzkopf, the briefers
at LANTCOM had asserted that the Grenadian forces would give up as soon
as the invaders arrived, and that the Cubans were not going to fight.
In fact, neither LANTCOM nor any other Americans had much reliable
information on Grenada. The invasion force had no military maps and no
way of identifying the buildings and facilities in the target locations.
"We planned the operation in a very
short period of time, in about 48 hours," Vessey said. The security lid
was so tight that US Readiness Command was cut out of the planning loop
and some of the critical supporting forces—such as the
logisticians—were excluded until late in the process.
Right: An aerial reconnaissance map of Point Salines Airfield on Grenada, with areas of the base identified.
Two days before the invasion, Vessey's
attention and that of other senior officials was drawn away from
Grenada when terrorists in a truck loaded with explosives rammed into
the US Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 US service
members. There was some speculation that the Grenada operation was laid
on to distract attention from the losses in Lebanon, but preparations
for the intervention were well along by that time.
H-hour for the
invasion—code-named Operation Urgent Fury—was 5 a.m. local
time on Tuesday, Oct. 25. Army Rangers were to fly in and seize the
Point Salines airfield. US marines, in a helicopter assault, were
simultaneously to capture the other airfield at Pearls.
More than a dozen US Navy
warships—including Metcalf's flagship, the helicopter carrier USS
Guam—were on station in the waters around Grenada. Air Force
MC-130 and C-130E transports were in a holding pattern offshore, having
picked up two battalions of Rangers before midnight at Hunter Army
Airfield near Savannah, Ga., and refueled twice in flight to Grenada.
The Marine Corps helicopter assault on the Pearls airfield went off on schedule at daybreak and met very light resistance.
Defenses at Point Salines were more
substantial. AC-130 gunship escorts passing over the field ahead of the
airlifters discovered that the Cubans had blocked the runway with
vehicles and various obstructions. It was not possible to land the
transports, so the Rangers made ready to jump.
The MC-130s came in elements of two.
The first aircraft over the drop zone was flown by the squadron
commander, Lt. Col. James Hobson. As he approached, he was illuminated
by a spotlight from the island. AAA guns opened up from the nearby
hills and 23 mm tracers were visible on both sides. To reduce their
vulnerability to ground fire, the Rangers jumped from the very low
altitude of 400 feet. They reached the ground in about 12 seconds.
The Grenadian forces manning the AAA
guns around the airfield were poor shots, but they managed to inflict
some battle damage on the USAF transports before the gunships took the
batteries out of action. The Rangers had cleared the runway by 6:30
a.m. and secured the strip shortly thereafter.
Above: Mike McReynolds and US Army
Rangers parachute into Grenada.
LANTCOM was wrong about the Cubans,
though. They fought fiercely, at one point charging the Rangers with
three BTR-60 armored personnel carriers. Fighting around the airfield
continued. In fact, two battalions of the 82nd Airborne Division were
flown in from Fort Bragg, N.C., by Air Force C-141s, to reinforce the
Just in Time
Meanwhile, Navy SEALs and Army Special
Forces troops had run into difficulty at Government House and other
sites around St. George's. Outgunned, the SEALs were pinned down along
with the governor-general and his family until all of them were rescued
by marines on the morning of Oct. 26. Elsewhere, Special Forces teams
rolled up the opposition at several other locations.
Moving north and east from Point
Salines, the paratroopers found a cluster of warehouses at Frequente,
which were guarded by Cubans. The Cubans fled after an attempt to
ambush the oncoming Americans. The warehouses contained enough Soviet
and Cuban arms and military equipment to outfit six infantry battalions.
"Grenada, we were told, was a friendly
island paradise for tourism," Reagan said. "Well, it wasn't. It was a
Soviet-Cuban colony, being readied as a major military bastion to
export terror and undermine democracy. We got there just in time."
At 9 a.m., several hours after the
start of Urgent Fury, Rangers arrived at the True Blue campus at the
end of the runway at Point Salines. They rescued all of the American
students that they found, but there were only 138 of them—far fewer than the number they expected to find.
The other Americans—more than
200 of them—were at Grand Anse to the north and Prickly Bay on
the southern coast. US intelligence had not known these facilities
existed. It would take several days to collect all of the students, but
eventually, 564 of them would be evacuated to the United States.
Meanwhile, Navy A-ls mistakenly bombed
a mental hospital on a hill overlooking the governor-general's house
near St. George's city. The air planners and pilots had no military
maps identifying the building as a hospital and Grenadian gunners were
firing from that location at US helicopters and at the Navy SEALs
pinned down in Government House. The Grenadians had given weapons to
hospital staff and, incredibly, to some mental patients.
The operation was beset with other
problems as well. Army and Navy radios could not communicate with each
other. The Rangers and airborne troops could
see the ships offshore but had to send their requests for fire support
to Fort Bragg, which relayed the messages by satellite to the ships.
Above: A USAF C-141 takes off from
Point Salines during Urgent Fury. C-141s brought in two battalions from
the Army's 82nd Airborne Division to reinforce Army Rangers already on
Service parochialism also was at its worst. Schwarzkopf later reported,
"Admiral Metcalf received an urgent message from the office of the
Navy's comptroller in Washington warning that he should not refuel Army
helicopters because the funds-transfer arrangements had not yet been
worked out." Metcalf, declaring the message to be baloney (or words to
that effect), told his chief of staff, "Give them fuel."
In another instance, a Marine Corps colonel refused to transport
Rangers to Grand Anse to rescue the students held there because, as the
marine put it, "We don't fly Army soldiers in Marine heli-copters." He
relented when Schwarzkopf threatened him with court-martial.
These lapses would be cited as prime examples of organizational
dysfunction in the debates leading to adoption in 1986 of the
Goldwater-Nichols reorganization act, which established sweeping new
rules for joint operations. They did not matter that much in Grenada
because of the overwhelming strength of the invasion force. Significant
resistance was over by Oct. 28, and the operation's combat phase ended
on Nov. 2. Yet the structural weaknesses of the system were only too
Forty-six-year-old Maj. Gen. Colin Powell, who was then Weinberger's
military assistant (and later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
national security advisor, and Secretary of State) called it "a sloppy
Britain, which had pulled out of Grenada in some haste in 1974 amid
strikes, rioting, and political turbulence was embarrassed by US
intervention in a commonwealth nation. Thatcher, stung by an opposition
Labour Party gibe that she was "an obedient poodle to the American
President," angrily denounced the operation.
Britain joined in a United Nations General Assembly resolution, adopted
Nov. 2 without debate, "deeply deploring" the invasion of Grenada as "a
flagrant violation of international law." Grenada's nearest neighbors
and Israel voted with the United States against the resolution, which
passed by a vote of 108 to nine.
Charles R. Modica, the founder and chancellor of the Grenada-based
medical school, observed the operation from school headquarters on Long
Island, N. Y. From that safe location, he told the NewYork Times that
the invasion was "very unnecessary" and that Reagan "should be held
accountable" if anyone was hurt.
In Congress, Rep. Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass.), the speaker of the
House, criticized Reagan for resorting to "gunboat diplomacy." Vessey
had reversed the no-press order on Oct. 28, acknowledging that it had
been a mistake, but the operation was condemned by most of the American
Television cameras from all three networks were on hand when the first
aircraft bringing students back to the United States landed at
Charleston AFB, S.C., Oct. 27. The first student out fell to his knees
and kissed the ground.
A National Holiday
In a CBS poll conducted Nov. 3 in Grenada, 91 percent said they were
glad the US troops had come. Eighty-five percent felt they or their
families had been in danger, 76 percent believed that Cuba wanted to
take control of Grenada, and 65 percent thought the Point Salines
airfield was being built for Cuban-Soviet military purposes.
Almost 500 of the rescued students came to a reception at the White
House Nov. 7, where they waved small American flags and cheered the
President. On Nov. 8, with public opinion running strongly in favor of
the intervention, O'Neill changed his mind, saying, "Sending American
forces into combat was justified by these particular circumstances."
A year after the operation, school chancellor Modica was among those
attending White House ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of the
invasion. He gave Reagan a small replica of a memorial set up on the
True Blue campus to honor US troops killed in the operation.
"I was probably the first person to voice reservations about your
decision to go ahead with the rescue mission in Grenada last year,"
Modica said. "I know I certainly was the most publicized. During my
State Department briefing the following day, I realized there were
factors unknown to me which required that you make a tough and
immediate decision.... The very definition of strong leadership is
exemplified by your decisive action in Grenada."
Capps, Rick Caffee, Ray Heath,J.J. Scanlon, Tony Snodgrass, Mike Lampe,
Jerry Jones, Bob Kelly, Johnny Pantages, Bob Reyes, Monkey West, Jack
McMullen, Little Feller, and Mike McReynolds
About 8,000 US military members participated in Operation Urgent Fury,
along with 353 troops from allied Caribbean nations. It was essentially
a ground forces show, although 26 USAF wings, squadrons, and groups
took part. Between Oct. 25 and Nov. 6, Military Airlift Command flew
US casualties were 19 killed and 116 wounded. The Cuban contingent
suffered 25 killed, 59 wounded, and 638 captured. The Grenadian forces
sustained 45 killed and 358 wounded.
The St. George's Medical School in Grenada reopened in January 1984.
"The following April, a million rounds of ammunition were found under a
false floor in the vacated Cuban Embassy," Shultz said. Also found were
documents that revealed five military assistance agreements between the
Bishop government, the Soviet Union, and Cuba, as well as a Moscow
commitment to send some $30.5 million worth of military equipment and
Austin, the rebel leader, was caught and given a death sentence, but he
got a reprieve and instead spent the next 25 years in prison. Castro's
man on the scene, Comas, escaped into the Cuban Embassy, where he was
given diplomatic status and was returned to Cuba. Castro had him
court-martialed and reduced in grade to private for his ineffective
defense of Cuban interests in Grenada.
The plan to establish a red triangle in the Caribbean failed. In
December 1984, Grenada held the first free elections since 1976. The
new Prime Minister was Herbert Blaize of the conservative, pro-US New
In 2004, Scoon said Reagan had "saved us from chaos" and that US troops
"came and established peace and the return of democracy, a democracy
which we now enjoy.... It was not an invasion, because Ronald Reagan
came to Grenada on invitation—invitation by me and invitation by
the OECS territories."
As for Thatcher's objections, Scoon said, "As governor-general, I owed
no allegiance to the British government; I owed allegiance to the
British crown. When you look at the end result, even the British people
will now think it's a good thing the American and other Caribbean
forces came when they did."
Commentaries in the news media and opinion journals continued for the
most part to depict Operation Urgent Fury as reprehensible and
unnecessary. That view has not been shared on Grenada, where Oct. 25 is
celebrated as a national holiday in remembrance of the US intervention.
Special Thanks to Fred Garcia Again