In 1989 the United States invaded Panama. During the invasion, the US Navy SEALs were tasked with two missions. The first, to disable a boat General Noriega might use to escape, was successful (It was “disabled” by putting so much explosives under the hull that one engine was never found!). The second was not, to the tune of four SEALs killed and eight seriously wounded. It is this second incident we will focus on.
The failure of this mission started during the planning process. The original plan called for Army units to be air lifted into key areas. But the Navy command was unhappy that none of their units got to share in the action, so SEAL Team 4 was given two missions one of which probably should have been assigned to the Army Rangers. The second mission SEALS were tasked with was disabling Manuel Noriega’s Learjet at Patilla Field to prevent him from escaping in it.
Originally, the plan called for 48 SEALs in two platoons to be towed near the cliffs at the end of the runway. The SEALs would then move the 3,500 ft. length of the airfield up to the hangar the lear was kept. One squad would disable the lear while another would pull small airplanes onto the airstrip to prevent it from being used. The others would be used to provide security at the north and south end of the fields.
The planner of the mission, Commodore John Sandoz, had asked an experienced SEAL under his command, a Lieutenant Commander Mike Walsh, to review his plan. Walsh had recently returned from a three half year tour in Panama and knew both the country and its current situation well. Walsh almost immediately rejected the original and offered three different plans of his own.
The first was to drive a team of eight SEALs to the fence of the airfield in a vehicle disguised to look like one of the many canal zone vehicles in the area. Previous reconnaissance would have located a hole in the fence the SEALs could use to gain access to the field. Four SEALS would remain behind as vehicle and fence guards while the remaining four would move to the hangar, take care of any guards in the hangar with sienced MP5s, and then disable the plane.
The second plan was to infiltrate a SEAL sniper team into the airfield and have them take position on top of the airfield’s cafeteria. This position would give them a commanding view of the main doors to the hangar as well as the rest of the airfield. Only if the plane was about to move out would the SEALs open fire, disabling it with rounds into the cockpit ot tires.
The third and best plan involved the same two-man SEAL sniper team, but would base them from an apartment rented next to the airfield. This plan would involve the least amount of danger to the SEAL operators and was more in-line with how SEALs normally operate.
All three plans were shot by Commodore Sandoz. The original plan would be implimented. Lt. Cdr Walsh refused to sign an endorsement for Sandoz’s plan and was moved from operations to logistics for his refusal.
H hour for the invasion was set for 0100. The PBR from SBU-26, with CRRCs in tow, left the dock at Rodman 2000 hours on Decemer 19, 1989. The SEALs were armed with an impressive array of weapons. Not only were pistols and M-16/203 combos carried, but several team members had the then-new M-249 Saw or M-60 machine gun. Rounding out their arsenal were fragmentation grenades, claymore mines, and AT-4 anti-tank rockets.
At 0045, the mission commander was notified that H hour had been moved forward 15 minutes (fighting had broken out early between Panamanian and American forces). The element of surprise lost, the SEALs continued towards their objective. A second problem was that the USAF Combat Controllers attached to the SEALs had not been able to raise the AC-130 Spectre assigned to provide supporting fire if needed.
Other problems began to crop up as the reached the shore and assembled on the edge of the runway. There was no cover. The runway was well lit by landing lights and backscatter from the city. Worse yet, the administration building and hangar itself were well lit. And fire from the nearby city began waking up houseguards in buildings surrounding the field. On the positive side, a SEAL surveillance team had occupied a rented apartment across from the field earlier in the day and could give them realtime intelligence about troop and vehicle movements.
So far, things had gone well. Bravo Platoon had disarmed several guards and had began to drag light aircraft onto the runway. As they did, the two squads of Golf Platoon made their way up the field. Radio calls came in; one reporting that a helicopter had left Colon heading for Patilla–possibly carrying Noriega. The second relayed that several PDF armed cars mounting 90mm cannon were possibly heading to the north end of the field.
About this time, the houseguards in the buildings surrounding the airfield noticed members of Golf Platoon’s unprotected dash up the field. Using portable radios, they notified guards in the hangar and then took aim on the SEALs below. The hangar guards, now awake, quickly dressed and took up defensive positions in the hangar.
The two squads took up position, the first within 100 feet of the hangar, the second slightly behind and to the side of the first. A call came out from the hangar for the SEALS to surrender. A SEAL responded by demanding the Panimanians surrender to the SEALs. Realizing they were in a bad position on a brightly lit field, the first squad tried to relocate. Then several long bursts of fire came out from the hangar.
In the initial volley of fire, all but one of the SEALs were wounded. The houseguards across the airfileld also began to fire upon the SEALs, putting them in a deadly cross-fire. Some of the SEALs were now dead, and those that weren’t were having a hard time dealing with their wounds and getting out of the heavy rucks they’d brought with them.
The second squad of Golf platoon began to attemp to lay down a protective cover as Bravo Platoon and members of the command and control element rushed to the hangar. The USAF Combat Controllers had just made contact with the gunship, but they had been kept with the command and control element of the SEALs and were too far away to provide assistance.
Surviving members began to drag the casualties away, several becoming casualties themselves in the process. Lt Phillips from Golf’s second squad ordered the Learjet to be taken out by rocket. The AT-4 hit the aircraft cleanly, destroying any chance of it being used to escape. A medevac was reported as inbound, but wasn’t actually released from Howard AFB (only ten minutes away for another hour and a half.
Killed were Lt. John Connors, CPO Donald McFaul, Torpedoman’s Mate 2nd Class Issac Rodriguez, and Botswain’s Mate 1st Class Chris Tilghman. Rodriguez had only been a SEAL for one week. Eight other SEALS had been seriously wounded.
Clearly, the tradgedy at Patilla was the fault of poor planning. But there were many factors that played into the events that took place, and many questions that should be asked. Why weren’t the Rangers given this mission? Why did the Naval command decide to use such a large operating force? Why was the advice of an experienced operator and decorated SEAL ignored? Could the gunship had provided enough cover and broken Panimanian resistance had it been in contact with the team?
The operations during Just Cause should have been tasked to the units that specialized in that type of operation. The SEALS were a logical choice in the assault on Noriega’s boat, but the Army Rangers should have been given the Patilla mission. Given that the SEALs got the mission, the senior staff should have come up with a better plan that was less risky, and the SEALs leading the team should have refused the mission as it was planned and developed a new plan using methods more in-line with SEAL doctrine. A smaller force should have been used. A sniper team could have taken out the lear and prevented any other aircraft from using the field. The SEALs should not have tried a conventional assault on an open, coverless airfield.
|In memory and appreciation of those that lost their lives serving our country during Just Cause.|