The Truth About the 1989 Invasion of Panama

by | Aug 28, 2015 | Stress Blog

by Brad Smith

Dec 19th, 1989 I was attached to the 7th infantry (light) B Co. 5/21. That morning we were on a half day schedule due to the holidays. I went in for PT and they called an “alert.” We had color codes and the color they called meant we were going to war, pack your bags and go. So that is what I did. 12 hours later I was on a C-130 in the air headed to Panama. 20 years old, scared to death and puking from the anti-malaria drug they gave us, it was quite a shock. My wife didn’t know why I hadn’t come home and wouldn’t find out what country I was in for three days. My 6 month old Daughter wouldn’t recognize me when I finally got back.

Our unit had been the first called from the 7th id, although there were some others that were already there, due to a rotation in and out of Ft. Sherman. We landed at Tocumen Air base in Panama the early Morning hours of the 20th of December to relieve in place the soldiers that had jumped in to secure it. It was already ridiculously hot coming out of the back of the C-130 and running across the tarmac loaded with tons of gear. Much of the air base was a smoldering wreck from the attack. The Airport itself (Panama International) was in pretty good shape but the barracks around the Air Base were destroyed, just shells of building were left standing. There were destroyed vehicles all over, some military but mostly civilian ones.

We took cover in the Elephant grass and then were given our orders to relieve the special forces guys who were holding the perimeter. I was given point and led our squad to the Velodrome. I took us down the road passed the burnt out cars with the bodies still inside them. The Velodrome was a small stadium that had been used for the Pan American games. There were destroyed barracks on the other side of it that we went through and secured after the SF guys left. The barracks had just been taken apart from the air. Specter Gunships had pocketed them completely. The roofs were gone in most places. Even the floors were pocketed from the gunfire. Plumbing exposed, water everywhere, etc. The dead had already been removed when we got there, but not the blood of course. Later I found out the dead had simply been buried in mass graves. The survivors had been rounded up and taken across the bridge, I went later that night to where they were being held.

As the sun was going down we were pulled off guard and sent by Deuce and a Half trucks to another air field to prepare for an Air Assault into the Jungle to hit another Barracks. That trip took us across the bridge and through Panama city. Wow! Another eye opener. A large part of the city had been destroyed as well. We went by more destroyed cars, blasted building, blood in the streets. At the Hospital (not sure why we stopped there) there was a stack of bodies lined up by the back wall. I didn’t go inside but I could tell it was still mayhem in there.

We left there and went to the air field where the prisoners where being taken. There was a large area where Concertina wire had been spread to hold the prisoners. Hundreds if not thousands were there. It looked like they were rounding up everyone, it was not just soldiers, there were plenty of civilians behind the wire as well. They looked incredibly miserable. They were treating people for injuries but again you could tell the medics and doctors where overwhelmed.

There ended up being some big mix up and instead of doing the air assault that night it had been put off till the next Morning. So we drove back through the city to the Velodrome again. We spent the night as perimeter security but didn’t include the barracks. I spent the night in a ditch guarding the road to the airport. That night we had more drive by shootings and I could see as our Company had come under attack around the perimeter by all of the tracers from the gunfire. Same results, more dead Panamanians. None of us were so much as scratched. It wasn’t exactly an even fight. But then none of it was, we had destroyed their military all over Panama using massive firepower.

I was relieved from the ditch and decided to walk to the top flood of the Veledrome. Again it was rather a shock. Blood, bandages, first aid stuff discarded all over. From the top flood I could see all over and the destruction was even more clear. Parachutes were scattered everywhere, in the distance I could see even more destroyed buildings and cars. I could also see the looting. They were just stealing everything. We did nothing to stop it even when Panamanians came to us for help. They even came in trucks and looted the barracks right in front of us. They took everything including the wires from the walls and the tiles from the floor. Anything that hadn’t been destroyed was loaded in their trucks and off they went. I went back through the barracks after they were done and all that was left was piles and piles of paper. I saw this again in again throughout my deployments. Whenever we went to guard barracks it was the same piles of paper left in burnt out ripped to shreds buildings.

We left that morning for our Air Assault into the Jungle to secure another barracks. It had been destroyed the night before and was another smoldering wreck. We were the first there but the Panamanians that where in those barracks had mostly made it out and fled into the Jungle. We pulled out the next morning and went to relieve the Rangers at Rio Hato. Another mess up left my squad behind as the Battalion flew out in Chinook helicopters. Finally Blackhawks showed up early that night with Apache attack helicopters for escorts as they pulled us out. The remaining PDF (Panamanian defense force) seeing the Battalion leave had come back. We took fire as we pulled out and my Helicopter was hit and almost went down. I went from hanging out of the side watching the tracers, to pointing straight ahead as the Helicopter pilot tried to keep it under control. It was surreal, I was suddenly facing forward as the Helicopter slid sideways through the air. I don’t know how but he controlled it and used the radio to call ahead to clear a runway for us. We made it but had a “hard landing.” Welcome to Rio Hato and more death and destruction.

This time the Barracks hadn’t been destroyed by the Specter Gunships. Instead they had tried out their new toys, the Stealth bombers. They Missed! They hit a tennis/basketball court and an empty field with their 5,000 pound bombs. This left the Rangers that jumped in exposed and it also ended the life of my friend Larry who had jumped in with them. He was not alone, they also lost their medic and had many more casualties. This was something else I saw repeated; the loss of American lives because everyone wanted to use their toys, they all wanted in on the action. The Seals got hammered on a stupid mission and so did a bunch of Marines. By then information was coming in from all over and a lot of it wasn’t good.

I cleaned out the Barracks at Rio Hato, dumping all their belongings into pits in the ground that had been dug next to the barracks. In went their clothing and equipment along with their Barbie dolls. Yep, Barbie dolls! This was one of the things that kinda got to me. A bunch of the bunks had Barbie dolls either wrapped up or waiting to be; Gifts for the Christmas season. Gifts that were not going to be delivered, by dads who may or may not ever come home.

This marked the end of our first Mission. The destruction of the Panamanian Defense force had been completed. Around the entire country we had destroyed all of it. How many thousands were dead I don’t know. But over the course of my deployments I went through dozens of different barracks all over Panama and it was always the same. Complete destruction, gaping holes, roofs blasted off, even holes through steel girders. Around Panama city the poorest part of it had burnt to the ground, it looked like an A bomb had gone off. Reports were that thousands of civilians had been killed. In my short drives though I had seen dozens at the hospital and if that was any indication the reports were true. There was no way it could not be true, the destruction was simply unreal.

After Rio Hato our mission shifted to taking over the Police stations in the Northern Part of Panama. I’ll try and make this part quick. It was relatively bloodless actually. Not that it wasn’t violent. But it was mostly just flying in with Blackhawks, then walking through the crowds of people, many of them cheering, to take the stations. We used them as patrol bases, gathered snitches and then went and kicked in door to arrest the cops. Pretty interesting in a way. The people hated the cops and for good reason. At the end of their bunks they had left their rubber hoses behind. The cells were filthy dungeons. Despite all the death and destruction, the people hated their own government so much that they cheered as we locked up their cops. There is a lesson here someplace I’m sure! We repeated this in a handful of towns and it was always the same. They helped us lock up their cops. We kicked in their doors and dragged them out in front of their screaming family members and the people cheered. I have often wondered if the same thing would happen here. Probably not everywhere and maybe not even in most places but I’m sure in some cities the people would loot everything they could and then cheer as their cops where locked up in their own cells. They cheered when the news came through that Noriega had been found. They cheered when he surrendered.  It didn’t end there though, the next mission was to enforce Martial law in Panama City.

More snitches and this time it was for anyone who had guns. We kicked in more doors and dragged out more people in front of their screaming families. We set up checkpoints after curfew to stop anyone who was out at night. Randomly we would drag Concertina wire across the road and if you didn’t stop you got shot, some of them didn’t stop. The ones who did stop were pulled from their cars and detained. No more cheering crowds and we started seeing graffiti, Yankee Go Home, was a common one. But they spelled it differently. That was when walking patrol in the city got dangerous. This went on day after day and night after night for a while. Walk a grid during the day and set up checkpoints at night. Sometimes a snitch would give you info, sometimes it was good, sometimes you just kicked in the door of someone they didn’t like. Sometimes we found the “Dingbats.” The Dingbats where the members of the Dignitary Battalion.

These guys were mostly untrained civilians who Noriega had armed. These were the guys who drove by and shot at us. Some of them were just people like you and me who didn’t want their country taken over. Some were scum of the earth who used their weapons on their own people. Many of them died one way or another. Others gave up or blended in.

I don’t remember the exact date I left Panama the first time. But it was about three months after the invasion. By then they had stopped calling it Just Cause (“Just Because” was what many of us said). Now it was Operation Promote Liberty and we went home to get more guys so we could come back and do it some more. My second deployment would come only two months later. During that deployment we walked more patrols only this time we often had a Panamanian in uniform with us. While we were gone the US had rushed to rebuild their police force. The outcry over civilian deaths had put a stop to the nighttime roadblocks. By now things had calmed down. We had bulldozed the destroyed buildings and carted off the mess. Empty fields of barren dirt was all that was left in many places. When I left a few months later the Panamanians had started to dig up the mass graves.

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