Torrijos airport buildings after Army assault
Military Bright Ideas have a way of ending disastrously and have been doing so at least since the Great War.
— Paul Fussed, Wartime (1988)
1. Union Club, 2. El Torreon apartment building, 3. Hotel Presidente, 4. Hangar with Noriega Lear jet, 5. Ramp where SEALs ambushed, 6. Helicopter pads and control tower, 7. Where SEAL platoons inserted from Bay of Panama. (Click to enlarge photo.)
"Them ops was cluster-fucks. more screwed up than a whore's dream And all the medals in the Pentagon ain't gonna change that.
Ain't gonna change nothin'. We’re oh-fer-eight. There's eight dead SEALs and at least six more who’re gonna get surveyed, ain't never gonna operate again."
Paitilla airport. "The mission was to deny Noriega the use of Paitilla Airfield in Panama City or to capture him if he tried to use it."
We were sitting at a table in an I.B. bar frequented mostly by patrons who carried Styrofoam cups into which they would spit tobacco juice. Occasionally the brown stream missed the cup to join the beer and puke stains on the rotting carpet. It was a bar an old sailor like Tom Pynchon would have loved, even though the barmaid was named Brandy instead of Beatrice and was from the P.I. rather than the Med.
After the invasion. Noriega kept his Lear jet in the middle hangar of three hangars.
Tom wasn't with us, but we were all old sailors: SEALs and frogmen retired for one reason or another. Dinosaurs. Ancient mariners gathered once again to talk about team misadventures in Nam, Grenada, and Panama. SEALs had the most casualties for our numbers of any Navy unit in Vietnam, had lost 4 of the 16 US. dead in Grenada, and most recently suffered 4 of the 23 U.S. dead in Panama.
1. Pier 18, 2. Pier 17. The piers are near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal,
But we weren't here to talk about facts one could read in the San Diego Union or watch unfold on Channel 39. We were here to talk about what the Teams were talking about and in so doing perhaps cast out the demons that had been with some of us for a long time.
Hole in security fence used by swimmer scouts to enter airfield
Our table had just been wiped clean by Brandy, and we could see our reflections in the polished Formica top. There were six of us: Donkey Dick, the Deuce King, Black Mac, me, Skipper Stein, and Slator Crowe — at least I think that’s how he spells his name.
Our reflections seemed to stare at the fresh bottle of Cuervo Gold that Brandy the barmaid had placed before us. Donkey Dick continued with what he had to say: "Yes, them ops was clusterfucks — ain't no medals, flags, or bugles blowin' taps gonna bring back them dead SEALs, fix the wounded good as new Makes you wanna cry."
We looked quickly at the Deuce King decked out in his lawyer's suit, then heard Black Mac mercifully add, "Makes me want to crank off a half-pound block of C-4 under somebody's ass."
"Or loosen the lug nuts on his tires," one of us said and we laughed. The Deuce King laughed hardest of all.
"But just what the fuck did happen in Panama?" Donkey Dick persisted. "You been talkin' to guys in the Teams, Slator. What have they told you?"
We turned to Slator Crowe. Slator kept in closer touch with the Teams than the rest of us and was usually our storyteller He took a drink of tequila and began. "Well, what I've heard is not necessarily what happened. I've not talked to anyone who was on the ground in Panama. I've only talked to a few mates who were at two briefings given here on the Strand by those in charge of the Panama ops."
"What you're telling us." offered the Deuce King, "is that we’re about to hear opinions, not facts."
"That's right. King."
"Okay, okay," said Donkey Dick impatiently. "Opinions is good enough. Opinions is like assholes, ever'body’s got one. Give us your fuckin' opinion, Slator, and we’ll give you ours."
Before Slator had a chance to speak, the Deuce King said, "It's a little more complicated than that. After all, saying it's our opinion people screwed up in Grenada and Panama might sound to some as if we're saying they did. in fact, screw up. And we can't say that, because we don't know for certain. But it's tough to find out what truly happened in Grenada and Panama because the Navy has a policy not to comment on SEAL operations"
"If that's so, how come we read about the successes — like when SEAL Six rescued the governor general in Grenada. We hear about that, but not about the Grenada clusterfuck that killed Ken Butcher and them other three East Coast guys. Why's that?"
"A good question, and I don't know the answer. I recall reading in the Union that Butcher and the others drowned when their boat overturned at sea while they were on their way to rescue the governor general "
"Fucking bullshit." a few of us muttered.
Slator said, "I heard they put those men off the ramp of an Air Force C-130 on a Rubber Duck drop in the middle of the night with gale-force winds raging and high seas running. It's a wonder they all didn't drown. The men parachuted off the ramp of the C-130s with 22-foot Zodiacs or Whalers with twin 175s."
"I'll bet them mothers could flat move."
"Yeah, but only if Six could keep the engines running, which I understand they couldn't at Grenada "
"What else did you hear about the op, Slator?"
"I was told some folks knew the men might have trouble before they jumped, that the boats might be lost in the heavy seas. Instead of canceling or postponing the jump, they decided to lighten the boats by taking the weapons and ammo out of them. The jumpers carried it instead." .
"Un-fuckin'-believable! Just decided to strap on all that iron. I'll bet when they hit the ocean they musta gone to 120 before they could get rid of that junk "
"A SEAL who survived the jump said he knew damn well what would happen and started shit-canning his gear the instant he got a canopy."
"Good man. Save yourself and save your buddies."
"Unfortunately, he couldn't save his buddies. He said he thinks the only thing that saved him was hitting the crest of those huge waves, then surfacing in a trough. Said he felt like he was at 60 feet before he shucked his harness and started up. He thinks Butcher and the other three probably hit a crest and came up under a crest — went too deep and had too much water above them to make it. I suspect those tiny UDT life jackets they reportedly wore just couldn't handle the weight. Since they never recovered the bodies, nobody got to check the jackets."
"The Navy never told the public about any of this shit."
"No, and in fact Ken Butcher's wife, Lee Ellen, said the Navy wouldn’t even tell her the details of Ken's death. She said the Navy wanted her to lie about how Ken died, to tell the reporters Ken died on a training mission."
"I heard our mates didn’t even have to make the fuckin' jump at night, that they was just rendezvousing with a ship before the op was supposed to go down — and the cp didn’t have anything to do with the governor general. It was gonna be a simple-ass recon."
"I heard about the recon. and I heard the jump was supposed to be during the day, that the SEALs sat around the airfield all day with their gear while people tried to make up then: minds what to do.”
"I heard about the recon but not about the rendezvous at sea."
"That's what I was talking about," said the Deuce King. "The problem we have in trying to sort things out, get to the bottom of what actually happens when SEALs die, is this policy of keeping everything a secret. Maybe if these disasters were exposed for what they were, we’d have fewer of them."
The Deuce King was getting agitated, which troubled some of us. He filled his empty glass and said, "When asked about SEAL ops, Navy PAO pimps like to say things like 'SEAL operations are totally blacked out' or We're not real forthcoming about SEALs because of the nature of their work.' That’s what they tell the Union and the Times. Hell, I don't think the Navy to this day has told anyone the true story of how Spence Dry was killed during that POW fiasco in the Gulf of Tonkin. How long ago was that? Eighteen years?
"And what about the clusterfuck on the Van Sat? Neal, Boston, and Dan Mann killed, everybody else on the mike boat wounded: 16 SEALs, one-half of our Nha Be detachment, wiped away in a few moments of idiocy. Then there was the lunacy in the T-10 area that killed Antone and our VN SEAL."
Donkey Dick said, "C'mon, King. Don’t get started on how our mates got killed in 'Nam We wanna hear about Panama. You was gonna tell us about Panama, Slator."
"Okay, King?" Slator asked.
"Sure, sure. Sorry. Tell us about Panama."
We settled back, took a pull on our tequila, and waited for what we knew might be a lengthy, perhaps rambling account. That was Slator's way. Sometimes when Slator told a story, following what he said was like trying to see the moon through a fog bank.
He began clearly enough. "The mission was to deny Noriega the use of Paitilla Airfield in Panama City or to capture him if he tried to use it. The airfield is located near a fashionable neighborhood where diplomats and wealthy Panamanians live in a tropical La Jolla. The neighborhood is next to a financial district with modern skyscrapers that house the largest banks in the world.
"The airfield runway has a north-south axis and is a little longer than a klick, about 1100 meters. Planes normally take off to the south, across the Bay of Panama, but reverse their direction if the wind shifts.
"The southern end of the runway is less than 100 meters from the bay. and the entire runway is completely open to the bay and the Gulf of Panama beyond. The six-fathom curve at low tide is less than 6000 meters from the end of the runway.
"The airfield is used for domestic flights, and Noriega kept his Lear jet in the middle hangar of three hangars near the northern end of the runway. He would often arrive and depart the field by helo; the helo pads are also at the northern end of the runway, 50 meters or so from the hangars... Pass the bottle."
I slid the tequila toward Slator, careful to keep it on his right side. Slator had lost most of his left arm in the Nam Can Forest some years ago, while he was working with the PRUs for the Plumbers in their Phoenix Program. Slator got hit on his Navy Cross op, I think, although it could have been the Silver Star op. I’m not sure. At any rate, he refused to wear a prosthesis, but he did pin the empty sleeve of his Pendleton to the shoulder; Slator hated loose ends.
"The mission began well enough. Three platoons from the East Coast isolated in Florida for rehearsals a week or so before the op was to go down. As I understand, the plan initially called for the platoons to insert from the bay around midnight — about an hour before the main invasion. The East Coast SEALs had known for some two months that they would have this mission if we invaded Panama.
"The platoons would position themselves along the southern half of the runway, near a drainage ditch 600 meters or less from the hangar with Noriega's Lear. The SEALs could cover the hangars and the entire runway from their positions. The SEALs would not move closer unless they knew they could deal with the airfield defenses. Intel said the field might be guarded by one of Noriega's dignity battalions that could be reinforced by armored personnel carriers ’ with 50-caliber machine guns.
"Noriega's jet or helicopter was to be taken out by stand-off weapons: 50-caliber sniper rifles with rufus rounds or AT-4s if necessary. Swimmer scouts would recon the site before signaling the platoons in from the bay. Never cross a danger area without a recon first, right?
"A few members of each platoon would carry the sniper rifles with the rufus rounds; the rest of the platoon would carry the AT-4s and the usual assortment of SAWs, MP-5s, shotguns, and M-16s with M-203 40-mike-mike launchers. The C-and-C element, the command and control, would have the comm gear_to talk with the SPECTRE gunships and the patrol boats — the PBs.
"The SPECTRE gunship is an Air Force C-130 with rapid-fire cannons, a one-oh-five howitzer that fires out a side door just forward of the ramp. The entire cargo deck is packed with ammo. The weapons are aimed by computers and low-light TV cameras."
"Sounds something like Spooky and Puff, the C-47 gunships we had in 'Nam."
"That's it. Mac, but much fancier than Spooky and Puff; SPECTRE is a technological marvel."
"What about them other weapons?"
"The AT-4 is a shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket accurate enough to take out anything that might roll onto the runway at Paitilla. The AT-4 replaced the LAW we used in ’Nam. The MP-5 is a 9mm submachine gun manufactured by the Germans, Heckler-and-Koch.
"The new .50-caliber sniper rifle has night-firing optics: starlight and thermal, plus the low-light Leopold scope. If SEAL smpers can see a target through the optics that is within six or seven hundred meters, they can hit it. Some say our best snipers can hit a target at more than 800 meters, except marksmen like Mr. Guns and Bud Playman."
Donkey Dick reached for the Cuervo and said: "If Mr. Guns could kill movin’ VC at 100 with a 45-caliber pistol, he sure as shit could hit a slow-rollin’ plane on the ground at 1000 with a 50-caliber rifle. And with them rufus rounds, close counts."
"What the fuck’s a rufus round?" Black Mac asked.
"A rufus round," Slator explained, "is a bullet with a very high explosive head, HBX. Would tear hell out of a jet impeller, nose cone, cockpit, or anything else it hit on a Lear or a helicopter. And the SAW is a two-two-three light machine gun: a squad automatic weapon. Replaces the old Stoner used in 'Nam... Pass the bottle.
"The three platoons in the Panama op were mostly new guys led by young officers. Very little if any combat experience in the platoons. The officer in charge of all the platoons, the officer who was to go ashore with them in the C-and-C element, had been with SEAL Six in Grenada."
"Why were they using young guys, young officers?"
"They said they didn't have enough officers."
"Bullshit!" we chorused Slator ignored us and continued. "Perhaps they wanted youthful platoons because youth is superbly conditioned, youth is optimistic and eager, youth is filled with the romance of illusions, youth seldom says no to its elders, or even, 'I don't think that’s a very good idea, sir’; above all else, youth believes it is invincible. Remember how invincible we felt before we went to the Rung Sat, the Nam Can, the Hon Heo, the Delta, the Cua Viet?... ”
"Cut the shit, Slator. Get on with what happened "
Slator drank. "After the rehearsals, the platoons flew to the staging area at Howard Air Force Base in Panama. I should point out, SEAL platoons were already in Panama. Had been for quite a while as part of another rotation. Other more experienced SEALs were also there with our permanent detachment. A few of these SEALs had been to Paitilla many times. Knew the airfield like the face on their Rolexes, even knew about a small hole in the security fence that the swimmer scouts could use without taking time to cut one. These SEALs tried their best to go on the op with the new platoons. But the SEALs who knew Paitilla so well were told this was to be an outside job.
"Naturally, there were rules of engagement. We know all about rules of engagement, don’t we? Rules of engagement have smoked more than one good man. Rules of engagement are traps for the unwary often set by folks who work best in air-conditioned suites, folks who never walk point, folks who declare 'our casualties were light' when we die."
"Right. The Army set the rules of engagement with a great deal of direction from the State Department, I'm sure. I understand the State Department wanted special rules of engagement for the SEALs, because the SEAL target bordered that wealthy neighborhood where many folks live behind concrete walls topped with broken glass. The Union Club, much favored by diplomats, sits like a fortress on the bay about 200 meters southwest of the runway. The tennis courts are closer.
"Of course, all invasion forces were to refrain from killing civilians and destroying property to the extent they could; however, the mission came first. The Army, for example, hit their targets with guns blazing: PDF headquarters, Rio Hato, Omar Torrijos Airport, the prison at El Renacer; they even shot up the hospital at Santa Fe and the Marriott Hotel. Killed a newspaper banana and seriously wounded another at the Marriott.
"Furthermore, after the Army got through with the poor neighborhoods in Panama City, it was urban renewal time. And the Army let the dignity cheese dicks run wild downtown for three days after the invasion. I hear that small oversight cost a billion dollars or so.
"But the rules of engagement for the SEALs were to be strictly enforced: an absolute minimum amount of property damage and few if any civilian casualties. The SEALs could not use mortar support from the patrol boats; the SEALs could not use naval gunfire support from destroyers or frigates, even though these ships could easily have taken station off the airfield at the six-fathom curve or closer and brought their five-inch guns to bear for direct fire at a range of less than 6000 meters. As we know, because we used them in Vietnam, five-inch guns may not be much for indirect fire at times, but they have a fearsome accuracy when the gunner can see the target and take it under direct fire. And the very best targets for Navy guns are those that extend away from the guns, targets such as roads and runways."
"Fuckin’-A mate," said Donkey Dick. "Hittin’ that runway for them gunners woulda been easier than spearin' garibaldi or takin’ lobster with a sling."
The Deuce King added, "The naval gun is certainly more accurate with direct fire than those one-oh-five howitzers I saw the Army blasting away with on CNN. And those boat drivers will run their bows into the mud if that's what it takes to bring the guns to bear. Why, I saw the Saint Paul damn near bottom out in the mud north of Da Nang so she could fire her eight-inch guns into Happy Valley."
"So it goes, King. But as I said, this was an all-Army and Air Force show. No Navy allowed."
The Deuce King appeared confused. "But what about SEALs?" he asked Slator. "SEALs are Navy."
"You've been away too long. SEALs aren't Navy anymore. What I mean is, the SEALs are now part of the U.S. Special Operations Command. An Army lieutenant general is in charge of that outfit."
"Jesus fucking Christ. Whose bright idea was that? That drives a goddam wedge right between the SEALs and the fleet, our best support."
Slator continued. "But even with the unrealistic rules of engagement, the outlook was promising. After all, we had our stand-off weapons and excellent marksmen to use them. But at perhaps the last minute, probably after the rehearsals and not long before the insertion, the plan was changed. This was not the last time the plan was to be changed An Army general, under pressure from State, insisted the SEALs not use a stand-off method. Too risky. A stray round or rocket might enter the residential area, damage the Union Club, blow a hole in that expensive Lear jet. The general and the diplomats wanted the plane taken intact.
"Instead of using their sophisticated weapons and extraordinary marksmanship, the SEALs were to secure the hangars, tow the Lear onto the runway, and slash its tires with a K-bar."
"Slash the fuckin' tires with a K-bar! What kinda weak shit is that?"
"Got something else to make you happy, Donkey Dick. One of the senior SEAL officers on the op apparently tried to justify this fine idea. He briefed our mates on the Strand that the general was correct in not wanting the Lear shot up with rufus rounds. Planes, he said, were very expensive. He knew because he owned one."
"Did the SEALs accomplish the mission using these, ah. new tactics?"
"Oh. yes. And those in charge emphasized this point. Despite the tragic casualties, the deed was done with no civilian losses. Well, perhaps an elderly fireman took a round between the running lights, and the Lear was damaged — but mission accomplished, sir. The SEALs denied Noriega his runway, as if he were stupid enough to have used it in the first place. Also, the Union Club retained its splendor, and the privileged remained untouched by war — at least the war the SEALs fought at Paitilla."
The Deuce King shifted in his chair, leaned toward Slator, and asked, as we feared he would. "How were the SEALs killed? How did they kill Connors, McFaul, Tilghman, Rodriguez?"
Although he couldn't possibly have known the dead men. the Deuce King said their names as if they’d been old friends. The Deuce King had a way with names. I've seen him memorize the names of an entire jury ' panel and talk to them during jury selection as if they, too, were old friends. He did this with the jury that acquitted me of drunk driving, which was actually a deuce with three priors.
But the Deuce King was best at remembering the names of dead SEALs. Most of us seemed to forget the names, or at least the names of those we had not known well. But the Deuce King did not forget. He would sometimes recite the names when he was lost in the liquor. (Later, he would say it had been Jos6 talking.) The liquor did not, however, keep him from speaking the names clearly, precisely, emphatically; he sounded as if he were trying to chisel the names across our brains with his voice:
Machen, Mann, Boston, Neal, Funk, Bomar, Wilson, Wagner, Antone, Trani. Collins, Dry, Butcher, Lundberg, Morris, Shamberger, Schaufelberger.
There are more names, but I. don't have the Deuce King’s memory. Thank God. Except the Deuce King would not let us forget; he was our very own talking memorial wall.
Slator was calming the Deuce King down now, urging another drink on him — which I thought was a mistake — telling him the dark heart of the matter would reveal itself in due course. Slator continued with the preliminaries
"Although the rules did not permit ships to support the SEALs, boats were allowed with certain limitations. Two patrol boats would take station about a mile off the end of the runway to support the three SEAL platoons as they went ashore in Zodiacs, which are now called combat rubber raiding craft. The patrol boats would act as a command center of sorts, with the commanding officer of the SEALs on one boat relaying instructions to the officer in charge, who would go ashore with the platoons. The commanding officer would in turn be getting instructions from his boss, the SEAL commodore, who would be back in the operations center for ‘Just Cause,' code name for the entire Panama invasion."
"Excuse me for interrupting, Slator, but I’m troubled by a SEAL mission that takes three platoons, a command-and-control element, and such a complicated chain of command. Although I’ve been out of the Teams for a few years, we seldom if ever operated with more than a platoon, 12 or 14 men. If a mission called for more men than that, we just said no. let someone else do it, let the Marines or Rangers do it."
We nodded agreement as we looked at Skipper Stein, who until now had remained silent. The Skipper was a Mormon who had retired as a commander a few years ago; he raised Labrador retrievers in Jamul. He naturally didn't drink and wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful. But he didn’t flaunt or try to impose his rectitude on others, and he was one of us.
The Skipper continued. "We said no. for example, when they asked us to participate in the Sontay Raid and the Mayaguez disaster. We just said no when the Army wanted to use our Nha Be Det as waterborne points in advance of their riverine ops in Long An Province. We even said no to our own officers who wanted us to retrieve demolition packs that had been carelessly dropped from a helo flying over the Rung Sat.
"Of course, we knew the right way, the reasoned way, to say no. And when we weren't quite sure if we should say no, we established no-go criteria, like naval aviators do. We would proceed with the mission only if we did not encounter a predetermined limit. For aviators it might be a specific fuel state at a specific distance from a target or a return field; for SEALs it might be an inability to communicate with their fire support element or a sea state and wind speed that exceed safe limits for a water jump.''
Slator spoke with a shrug that made his armless sleeve flap. "Times have changed, Skipper. SEALs now have 16-man platoons and employ them in combination. I hear they put more than 50 men ashore at Paitilla m 15 rubber boats, a regular flotilla. And they may have failed to establish no-go criteria."
"Fifty fuckin’ men in 15 boats!" Donkey Dick shouted. "That’s Army and jarhead shit. Fuck a dead whore m the ass!"
The Deuce King said, "You’ve been talking about what was supposed to happen, Slator. What really happened?"
"Well, as I said, I don’t truly know what happened. All I can tell you is what I’ve heard, and I haven’t heard from anyone who was on the ground."
"I was in Panama a few weeks ago," Skipper Stein said mildly. "I asked the public information officer on the staff of the general who commanded Just Cause what happened. He checked with the Navy, and they told him they would give no information on what SEALs did or did not do in Panama."
Startled by news the Skipper had recently been to Panama, I asked, "What were you doing there?"
"I used to be stationed there years ago. before I became a SEAL. I return from time to time. The trout fishing is very good in the corrientes that come out of the highlands near the Costa Rican border, up north near Boquete. I love to fish those streams; you know, when you’re fishing a good stream you are so absorbed in the task you think of nothing else. But let Slator continue with what may or may not have happened at Paitilla."
The main invasion was to begin at 0100 — H-hour — on 20 December. The SEALs planned their insertion accordingly; they had to be ashore and in position before H-hour. The rubber boats cast off from the two PBs in time for swimmer scouts to recon the lower half of the runway before signaling the platoons ashore. But while the swimmer scouts were reconning the runway, the general in operational command of Just Cause decided to change the timetable, move H-hour up 15 minutes."
"What the fuck did he do that for? He must have known some missions would be jeopardized by such a last-minute change " "I’m sure he took that into account. But he feared the invasion had been compromised."
"No shit. How did he expect to keep the movement of 20,000 or so troops a goddam secret — especially in a place like Panama? Hell, I bet the girls at the Ancon Inn knew about the invasion long before H-hour. Anyway, if the troops aren't ready, you will not make them ready by declaring H-hour has been moved up 15 minutes. You just let the troops know they may not have the element of surprise anymore. The troops tell you when they're ready. The Army learned that lesson in War Two."
The Deuce King was getting hot, which was not a good sign. I said, "Let's get on with what happened at Paitilla. How did the time change affect the SEALs?"
"I suspect it added a sense of urgency to a situation that didn’t lack urgency. The most immediate impact was that the officer in charge apparently decided not to wait for the results of the swimmer recon. He took the platoons in blind. Perhaps those were his orders. Who knows?
"The SEALs beached their boats off the southeast comer of the runway, removed a section of security fence, and took up positions alongside the runway. The swimmer scouts were startled to see the platoons and told the officer in charge they had not been able to recon very far up the runway.
"Although the runway itself was not lighted, hangars on either side of the runway had bright, fluorescent security lights. A plane or a person on the runway would be silhouetted by these lights. The hangar with the Lear, however, was dark and about 600 meters from the SEALs.
"Panamanians at the airfield had seen the SEALs take their positions. Although the field was closed after sunset, several security and maintenance personnel remained throughout the night. These Panamanians began shouting at the SEALs, telling them to get off the field. The SEALs returned the shouts and ordered the Panamanians away from the runway.
"While this exchange was taking place, SEAL radiomen were trying to contact a SPECTRE gunship orbiting overhead for fire support. They could not raise the gunship. It’s unclear what the problem was — I’ve heard the radios wouldn’t net, the same problem they had in Grenada; I've heard the SPECTRE computers malfunctioned and the weapons jammed. Whatever the problem, the result was the same: the SEALs had no SPECTRE support.
"While the SEALs were trying to raise SPECTRE, the officer in charge received yet another urgent message: Noriega was inbound to Paitilla by helo or would arrive shortly in an armored personnel carrier to escape by helo. Someone. perhaps the officer in charge, decided that two of the platoons would immediately charge up the runway to prevent Noriega from using the helo pads near the Lear hangar. The distance the platoons had to cover was about six or seven hundred meters, not quite half a mile."
"Wait a minute, Slator. You mean those platoons were ordered up the runway at a gallop without any advance recon? Without even a recon by fire? After all, the SEALs had been compromised, what was the point in not cranking off a few rounds? Hell, why not crack off a lot of rounds, a regular firestorm. Shoot those Panamanian fuckers rather than shout at them.'
"Who knows? Rules of engagement, perhaps. Nonetheless. up that runway they charged, except for one platoon that stayed back to provide security for the command element."
"Two up and one back." murmured Skipper Stein, who was an old Ranger.
"More Army shit," said Donkey Dick, who was also an old Ranger. "Like L-shaped ambushes and the Hammer ’n’ Anvil."
"So it goes," said Slator as he paused to drink. "Yes, those SEALs got on line and charged up that runway as they were told; no advance recon to see what might be ahead, no SPECTRE fire support, no fire support of any kind — just those young, powerful, superbly trained bodies hauling ass up that danger area like Pickett's men charging Cemetery Hill.
"But in the beginning they were luckier than Pickett's men; they did not meet shot and ball. All they suffered in the beginning were more shouts and curses from the Panamanians scattered about the field.
"The SEALs screamed curses back as they continued their midnight dash; they moved out as if they were on a timed run during training from the Hotel Del to the North Island fence and back. They swept past the lighted hangars on their way to the ramp of the darkened hangar with the Lear.
"As they reached the ramp, they slowed to settle into an L-shaped ambush that would cover both the ramp to the west and the helo pads some 50 meters to the north and east. The SEALs were about 50 meters in front of the hangar when they slowed to take their firing positions.
"It was over in the time it takes to empty a pair of AK-47 magazines. The two Panamanian soldiers knew their business; after all, our military had created them just as surely as the Plumbers had created Noriega.
"The soldiers fired from behind oil drums hidden within the darkened hangar. They kept their fire low, and even the rounds that struck short of the SEALs ricocheted off the tarmac, sparks flying, to shatter shins and knees. But few rounds ricocheted into legs; most found flesh and bone higher up. The ramp was quickly filled with the dead, dying, and gravely wounded.
"Those SEALs who could still grasp a trigger returned furious fire. One SEAL who survived the ambush reportedly said, 'We were filling that fucking hangar with rounds, 40 mike-mikes were going everywhere.' They say he trembled when he spoke.
"The smaller-caliber rounds from the M16s, the MP-5s, and the SAWs perforated the walls of the hangar and Noriega's Lear. A 40 mike-mike or perhaps an AT-4 rocket scorched a fine hole in the fuselage. The SEAL fire reduced a light plane parked near the ramp to scrap.
"But when the firing stopped and the SEALs entered the hangar to tow the jet out. they found no bodies...not even a blood trail. Those two soldiers had emptied their magazines and vanished.
“The SEAL officer in charge did a good job of directing his men into a tight perimeter near the helo pads. His decisiveness may well have prevented further casualties from Panamanian fire or from SEALs shooting each other by mistake.
“Even before the SEALs set their perimeter, the corpsmen were doing their best to start the breathing and stop the bleeding. The SEALs called for Medevac helos and waited... and waited. Some say they waited almost two hours; some say they waited longer."
“They woulda had better luck dialin' 911, fer chrissake."
“Who was flying the helos?"
“Army, maybe Air Force, but certainly not Navy."
“No wonder the wounded had to wait. SEALs were just one more task on the list for those pilots, who I’m sure were busy that night.”
"The SEALs should have had Navy Seawolf helos dedicated only to them, like we had in 'Nam. In 'Nam our Seawolf crews lived with us, drank with us, whored with us, and were ready to die with us if it came to that.
“The thing about working for the Army is that you begin thinkmg like the Army, depending on the Army for timely support when they might have other concerns. You forget your roots and your salvation — the fleet.
“The Navy could have put a can at the six-fathom curve to provide naval gunfire support, to launch Seawolf helos. and to even deploy Marines as reinforcements. Furthermore, that ship would have had a complete emergency bay to stabilize and treat the wounded.”
Skipper Stein said, “They didn’t even need a destroyer for helos; the Seawolfs could have been sitting hot-pad at Rodman Naval Station, which is less than ten minutes from Paitilla. The Marines could also have deployed from Rodman. The Marines saved our bacon in Grenada at the governor general's residence, and they could have done it again at Paitilla.”
“So it goes. The Marines are not part of the Special Operations Command."
“Did the SEALs extract after the Medevac. Slator?”
“No. They stayed at the airfield for at least another day.” “You gotta be blowin’ me! Since when do SEALs have the mission of defending an airfield?"
"Since they started working for the Army."
“Who finally relieved them?" “An Army company from the 82nd Airborne, and the relief was several hours late."
“Was there any action after the ambush and before the Army company arrived?"
“Yes, but the amount of action is uncertain. A story in Navy Times claimed the SEALs died only after they had secured the airfield, that they died during a valiant defense of the airfield against a determined Panamanian counterattack.
“Some claim, however, that fighting after the ambush involved only random sniping and a brief exchange of gunfire when a Panamanian armored personnel carrier attempted to enter the field and discharge seven soldiers. The SEALs turned back the APC and may have killed the soldiers"
“Did you say may have killed the soldiers, Slator? Didn’t they get a body count?"
“No body count. Claimed but not counted."
“What was the total enemy body count?”
“Zero. Unless you want to count that poor old fireman I told you about earlier.”
“What was the medal count?" “An interesting question. At first, while the patriotic flame burned brightest, there were to be medals for all. But as more was learned about Paitilla, enthusiasm to award medals waned, except for those medals that would go to the SEALs who fought so hard and well during the ambush, the SEALs who did their best to save their mates."
“I heard our mates in the Teams are hot enough to fuck over the whole mess."
“I heard they sent a letter via the chain of command urging no awards be given those responsible for planning the Paitilla op, those responsible for sending SEALs up that runway. The letter criticizes senior SEAL officers rather than the Army."
“I wished there had been a memorial service at the Amphib base for the dead SEALs. Why didn’t they have a memorial service. Slator?"
“Who knows? Maybe they thought a memorial service on the East Coast was sufficient. Maybe they’re still playing 'I've got a secret.’"
We were silent for a while as we attended to what remained in the Cuervo bottle. The wind from the ocean had picked up as the afternoon declined; I saw sunlight glitter within the tiny dust storms that whirled past the open door of the bar. The cool air reached through the door to touch us. You could smell a storm blowing in from the Pacific.
Donkey Dick spoke first. “Them SEALs didn’t have to die, didn’t have to get all shot up. It didn't have to go down like that. That op was planned and run like it was a trainee exercise against the airfield at San Clemente Island. We’re SEAL Teams, not Divine fuckin’ Wind Teams."
Black Mac said in his laconic fashion, “The ambusher become the ambushee." Then he added, "There’s old pilots an' there's bold pilots, but there ain’t no old, bold pilots." I suspect Mac learned that from a mate of ours who was a SEAL before he started flying A-7s off carriers. Eight hundred traps without a bolter.
The Deuce King naturally spoke the names of the dead SEALs: "Connors, McFaul, Rodriguez, Tilghman." He also said, “Those SEALs were crucified upon a cross of gold," which I'm not sure I understood. But at least the Deuce King didn’t weep as he usually did when Jose had him and talk turned to dead SEALs.
As for me. the whole thing made me feel pretty bad.
Skipper Stein said, “Donkey Dick is right. The op didn't have to go down the way it did. I was in Panama less than a month ago and spent a lot of time walking around that airfield "
“What did you see?” Slator asked.
“What any experienced SEAL would have seen if he didn’t have his head up and locked, his mind on something other than sound tactics. I saw a runway sloping uphill and away from the sea. I saw the best naval gunfire target you’ll ever find. Put one five-inch round in the middle of that runway, and there's not a Panamanian pilot alive who would roll onto the active.
“I saw a ten-story apartment building, El Torreon, standing 100 meters southwest of the runway. I paid a rent-a-cop five bucks to let me into a vacant apartment on the tenth floor, an apartment that had been vacant for nearly a year with a For Rent sign hung out. I looked off the balcony and out a bedroom window to see the ramp in front of Noriega's hangar less than 600 meters away. Put a recoilless rifle round or even a rufus round on that ramp, and there’s not a Panamanian pilot alive who would roll that Lear onto the ramp, let alone the active.
“I also saw the control tower, the helo pads, and the ramps of every other hangar from my tenth-floor observation post. When I'd seen more than I could stand, I went onto the runway. onto the ramp where the SEALs died and looked into the bullet-riddled hangar. Then I did an about-face and looked across the runway at a three-story slaughterhouse; I also saw the high, steel holding tanks, and the high, steel tower and conveyer belt of a cement factory. The slaughterhouse and the factory were about 400 meters from the mouth of the hangar, less than 400 meters from the helo pads and about 100 meters beyond the airfield security fence. The ocean was behind the slaughterhouse and the cement factory.
“I couldn't stand to look at anything else. I left because I felt sick at what I’d seen."
“Skipper, if the SEALs had to go onto the field, if they knew Noriega was in the Lear, on a helo. could they have done that?"
“Sure. Could have had an assault team at either end of the runway, covered by SEALs in El Torreon, the cement factory, and the slaughterhouse. Could have put another fire team in the Hotel Presidents which is a six-story residential hotel about 200 meters from El Torreon. El Torreon, by the way, means 'big tower.'
"Marines could have reinforced the SEALs across a wonderful little landing beach in the lee of the Union Club Those grunts could have put their light armored vehicles or amphibious tanks across that beach and been on the airfield in a hot minute. The SEALs in El Torreon could have covered them."
"But. Skipper," I said, "is it right for us to talk about what might have been? After all, we weren't there. Aren’t we acting like armchair quarterbacks?"
I wish I'd kept my mouth shut. Donkey Dick went after me first. "Listen, asshole, we ain't armchair quarterbacks, we're real quarterbacks even if we’re retired."
"He's right, you clump," the Deuce King said. "We’re qualified to criticize SEALs just as Terry Bradshaw is qualified to criticize John Elway."
"But we're not talking football,” I said lamely.
"Perhaps we should compare it to a plane crash," Slator said. "Does a pilot have to be in a crash to comment on pilot error?"
I wanted to say it depended on whether the pilot had accurate information about the crash but kept my mouth shut.
"We’re just trying to establish some lessons learned here." Skipper said. "If the SEALs had done a better job of recording lessons learned, perhaps disasters like Paitilla and Grenada could have been avoided."
"But, Skipper." Slator said, "didn't you read where the general who commanded the SEALs said that Just Cause was executed with such perfection there were no lessons learned?"
Donkey Dick said, "If the general had taken the point at Paitilla, he'da learned a lesson."
Skipper again sought to move us in another direction: "Were the Jedi Warriors in Panama?" he asked.
"What was the Jedi Warriors doin', Slator?"
"Looking for Noriega in all the wrong places, but I hear they still managed several decent head shots with their light sabers."
"Shoulda been doin’ a little close-quarter battle in the Dairy Queen where Noriega went to call the Pope."
Skipper Stein asked, "What about the gunboat op, Slator?"
"Yeah, Slator, tell us about the gunboat op. I hear that was a real frogman steel mission."
"Have Brandy fetch another round and I'll tell you the story."
Brandy brought the bottle, and Slator began. "On the night of the invasion, the Panamanians had one of their four patrol boats tied up at Pier 18 in Balboa Harbor. The pier is near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, not far from Paitilla. The U.S. Naval Base at Rodman is about a mile from Pier 18 and almost directly across the mouth of the canal from it.
"The gunboat was a fairly new 65-footer with an aluminum hull, twin propellers, and a top speed of 21 knots. A crew of eight manned her, and she was armed with a variety of machine guns plus individual weapons and grenades. She had been built by Swift Ships in Louisiana and had been christened the Presidente Parras "
"Sounds like a stretch PCF, one of those Swift boats we used in ’Nam," I said.
"That’s right. Not the most formidable craft afloat. But Noriega could have used the Presidente Porras for his getaway, and the crew could have positioned the boat to fire on an Army assault against a nearby police station."
"An East Coast SEAL team dedicated only to ship attacks and beach reconnaissance had the mission of sinking the gunboat."
"That ain't no SEAL Team, that’s an underwater demolition team."
"You’re a romantic, Donkey Dick. Underwater demolition teams are no more. But the commanding officer of this SEAL team took his mission senously. Even before he knew he would attack the gunboat, he had his men in the water so much they looked like prunes. Some grumbled that he might as well make them wear their Draegers to bed with them "
"What’s a Draeger?"
"A German-made rebreather. Same principle as the old Emerson: the diver rebreathes his own exhaled air after it has been scrubbed clean of carbon dioxide and after fresh oxygen has been metered into the air supply.
"Of course, the rebreathing system is completely closed so that no air bubbles escape to reveal the divers. Just as with the Emerson, the divers cannot exceed a depth of 30 feet without risking oxygen poisoning."
"What kind of demo were the divers going to use? The Limpets?"
"No. The commanding officer decided the Limpets were unreliable, despite the thousands of dollars the Navy spent building them. The timer was unreliable — never knew when the charge would blow if at all.
"The C.O. decided to use MK 138 Mod 1 haversacks with MK 39 safety and arming devices, MK 96 detonators, and MCS-1 clocks — specially designed by our lab in Florida for the Panama mission."
"There you go with all them numbers and letters again. Just tell us how much demo was gonna be used to sink the mother."
"Well, if you recall from training, the haversacks each carry 20 pounds of a very high explosive — much more destructive than dynamite."
"Jesus. They were going to use 40 pounds against that aluminum hull?"
"Better safe than sorry. But, as a matter of fact, the general who wanted the SEALs to tow the Lear onto the Paitilla runway and slash its tires also wanted the SEALs to avoid using explosives against the gunboat."
"How the fuck you gonna sink a boat without explosives? Drill a hole in her?"
"The general decided he didn't want to sink the gunboat because gunboats are expensive. He told the C.O. he wanted the divers to wrap chains around the propellers so the boat could not get underway " "Where did this general get his notion of how SEALs operate? From reading the funny papers?"
"He probably likes Buzz Sawyer."
"I'm sure the general wanted to minimize damage to the boat and surrounding area, because after we took Noriega out. we would be dealing with a friendly government that would need expensive boats and Lears.”
“How did the SEAL CO. react to this bright idea?”
"This should please you, Skipper. He said no. He told the general that wrapping chains around the propellers would endanger his men, and he could not use such an lll-advised tactic. He said if he were to remain in charge, the SEALs would do the deed the military way — they would load that boat with 40 pounds of demo and take her down where she was moored, together with anyone who might be aboard.”
“What did the general say?”
“He said, 'You're in charge, Captain.'
“With that matter resolved, the SEALs — known as Task Unit Whiskey — began the mission. Two dive pairs departed Rodman Naval Station across from Pier 18 at 2300 on 19 December. Each pair was in a combat rubber raiding craft; the C.O. was also in one of the craft.
“The plan originally called for the dive pairs to enter the water about 750 meters from the pier, which would enable the rubber boats to remain outside Balboa Harbor. The harbor is near the entrance to the canal and usually has boat traffic throughout the night. A large dry-dock facility is also in the harbor, where work continues 'round the clock.
“Once in the water, the dive pairs would set an underwater course for the pier, where they would surface and meet. The gunboat was docked at the shoreward end of the pier; the divers would work their way through the pilings until they neared the boat. They would then return to dive status, swim beneath the boat, and place the haversacks on the twin propeller shafts. When the haversacks were in place, the divers would activate the timers with a 45-minute delay, double-prime the charges, and move smartly away toward Pier 17.
“From Pier 17, they would set a course for the mouth of the canal, pick up the current, and drift with it to Pier 6, where they would be extracted by the rubber boats.”
"Slator, how were the divers supposed to attach the haversacks?"
"Our Florida lab developed a kind of super glue that works under water. The divers would glue the haversacks to the hull.”
"Did the mission go as planned?”
“Not exactly. While the boats were inbound to the insertion point, the C.O. received the same message the SEALs at Paitilla received: H-hour had been moved up 15 minutes. This meant there was now not enough time for the divers to swim 750 meters. Instead, the boats had to enter the harbor and drop the swimmers 150 meters from the pier.
“The boats, powered by those huge outboards, had to throttle back to reduce engine noise and wake. The high-performance engine on one of the boats stalled because of the slow speeds.
“The C.O. decided to tow the disabled boat to the insertion point. On the way in, the boats had to vary their course several times to avoid harbor craft. Although the dive pairs entered the water seemingly undetected at 2330, later events indicate they may in fact have been compromised as they closed to within 150 meters of the pier.
“The dive pairs worked their way under the pier, alternating between surface and subsurface movement to conserve oxygen, until they reached the shoreward end where the gunboat was tied. They then dived beneath the boat and began to emplace the explosives. As they were about to double-prune the charges, they heard the boat engines start.
“They quickly finished tying the det cord between the two packs and headed away from the boat; the entire emplacement and arming procedure took less than two minutes.
“But as they dived to clear Pier 18 on their way to Pier 17, they were jolted by several underwater explosions, probably caused by concussion grenades. Sickened by the concussion, the divers sought the safety of the pier pilings. They surfaced with the pilings between themselves and the boat to ride out the grenade attack.
"They waited several minutes and suffered more buffeting from exploding grenades. They knew they could not wait long for the explosions to stop. They had to clear Pier 18 before their own charges went high-order or they would go belly up like fish with burst bladders.
“They returned to dive status and headed for Pier 17; they arrived just as the haversacks exploded and tore out the bottom of the Presidente Parras. As the shock waves pounded them, they clenched their mouthpieces so tightly they almost bit them in half; they jammed their masks hard against their faces, prayed their fins would not be ripped away by the pounding.
“When the shock waves had passed, they heard through the ringing and pain in their ears the sound of engines starting, screws and propellers turning. Every ship in the harbor had initiated its anti-swimmer measures. The divers quickly left the shelter of Pier 17 and headed for the mouth of the canal. They maintained a depth of 20 feet, their faces pressed against the depth gauge next to the compass on the attack board.
“They maintained 20 feet until they approached the canal. Then they heard the pulsing thunder of a huge ship closing on them; they headed for the bottom but went through 50 feet without finding it. Fearful of oxygen poisoning — they had exceeded their safe maximum depth — they remained suspended in the darkness until the sound of the ship faded.
“They surfaced and continued their journey, drifting now with the current toward what they hoped would be the safety of Pier 6 But H-hour had arrived, and heavy fighting raged around the Pier. The two rubber raiding craft were at the pier but had to maneuver under it to avoid being caught in a crossfire between Army and Panamanian soldiers. Green and red tracers streaked through the night like tiny comets. The C.O. and his boat crews flattened against the floor-boards, knowing the rubber tubing of the boats offered scant protection.
“The dive pairs arrived at 0200; the crews hoisted the divers aboard, and those big engines finally got a workout. The raiding craft made a highspeed run between the tracers to Rodman Naval Station; Task Unit Whiskey arrived at 0220 with all hands unscathed except for a few ruptured eardrums ... Pass the bottle."
Slator filled his glass, leaned back, and drank. He'd told the story.
“What a great fuckin' op!" Donkey Dick exclaimed. "That C.O. sure had his turd wrapped!"
The rest of us murmured agreement, then we all fell silent as we drank. Perhaps we were remembering what it had been like to be frogmen, before we had become SEALs, before we had traded our UDT swim trunks and blue-and-golds for cammies and 50-pound packs, before we had entered the sewers of the Delta and the Rung Sat. before our commander had become an Army lieutenant general.
Perhaps we thought about the good things of UDT: Point Loma dives, San Clemente Island dives, 20-pound bugs — lobsters so huge you could lead them around on a leash like pets, tender white abs popped from their rocks at 120 feet, sweaty 16-milers in the sand from the Hotel Del to I.B. and back, frosty kegs on Gator Beach with our hard bodies pressed against the hard yet soft bodies of girls who loved the ocean as we did, especially that magical zone between the three-fathom curve and the high water line. Perhaps we thought of storm surf piled high and white by the wind like drifting snow across an alpine meadow.
Slator broke the spell: "With this weather, I’ll bet they got some boomers coming in down by the pier. Let's go check it out, take some SUROBS, count the lines and time the interval. Might as well do some surf passage."
We stood and shuffled out the door. Donkey Dick took the point.