U.S. Navy SEALs
in Panama Canal Fiasco

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.

                             Our Hero: Carlos Moleda (SEAL)Survived the Panama FiascoBut he lost three of his brothers.


Ike Rodriguezmcguirerig.jpg (4338 bytes)


HISTORY The Panama Invasion Operation JUST CAUSE December 1989 The following story, written by Malcolm McConnell, author of the book JUST CAUSE, appeared in the October 1990 issue of Readers Digest and is reprinted here in its entirety.

Measure of a Man Lieutenants Mike Phillips and John Connors sat in the humid darkness of the beach at Howard Air Force Base on December 19, 1989, watching the distant lights of Panama City sparkle in the water.

Around them, men in camouflage fatigues and jungle boots rested among rucksacks and stacked weapons. They were quiet, anxious to be under way. Phillips noted the size of Connors's pack. He was lugging a combination rifle/grenade launcher, reserve ammunition, medical supplies and a radio. "How much does all that stuff weigh?" Connors shrugged, "About a hundred pounds, I guess." Phillips snorted. "You planning to run with that load?" "Try and catch me." The two grinned. For a moment they were young athletes again, ready to compete.

They had been together in the Persian Gulf and for months of jungle training in Brazil. Their growing friendship had provided a refuge from the heat, insects and pounding rain. But tonight was no exercise. They were about to go into combat. "John," Phillips began, his voice low, "if I--if I get pinned down out there..." "Yeah. Don't worry, Mike," John said quickly. "I'll cover you."

Joan Connors returned to the family's brick home in Arlington, Mass., after Christmas shopping. As she wrapped presents for her husband, Joe, and their five grown children, she felt a pang that John, their youngest, would not be home for Christmas. He had recently called from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he was undergoing treatment for a parasitic disease he had contracted in Brazil. "Ma," John had said, "I don't want you and Dad getting all concerned about this." He assured her that daily intravenous medication would prevent the parasite from attacking internal organs, and he promised to send her detailed information. "Say hello to everybody," he had said. "Give Duke a hug." Joan smiled at the living-room photo of John grinning over his puppy, Duke.

That skinny kid had filled out to 170 pounds of muscle, exquisitely trained for combat. Every photo of John showed that permanent grin of his. But there was also a restless intelligence in his blue eyes. His love of learning had resulted in a four-year scholarship to prestigious Boston College High School and a chemical engineering degree from Worchester Polytechnic Institute. He also took a scuba course and a strenuous body-building program as part of the Naval ROTC program. When he completed his duty-preference form, Connors stated: "My sole desire is to become a SEAL." The SEALs (named for their Sea-Air-Land warfare capabilities) are the Navy's elite commandos, specializing in missions behind enemy lines.

Among military special-operations units, the SEALs are considered the toughest, smartest and best disciplined. Joan recalled evenings when John had returned from an 11-hour shift on his summer construction job. After a quick meal he somehow found energy to run ten miles and cycle another 20. With all this preparation, the family had hoped John would do well in the SEAL training program at Coronado, Calif. But there were no guarantees. Trainees swam for hours in cold Pacific waters; they ran nightmare obstacle courses. It was a season in purgatory, designed to transform each man into a team player, performing well beyond his limits.

Joan remembered her own amazement, at John's SEAL graduation in 1988, that almost two-thirds of his class had not graduated. They had lacked John's mental toughness and drive. These very qualities sometimes worried his mother. At least, with his medical treatment ending, John would be home for New Year's. On Monday, December 18, at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base near Norfolk, Va., SEAL Team Four's Commander Tom McGrath was busy assembling his forces. McGrath and several of his platoons, bone tired from a training session in Florida, had been looking forward to holidays with their families.

But now they had orders. Panama's dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega was resisting U.S. efforts for his arrest on drug-trafficking and racketeering charges. He had brutally rejected a popular election that would have toppled him. He had himself named "Maximum Leader" and proclaimed a "state of war" against America. On Saturday, his troops murdered Marine Lt. Robert Paz on the streets of Panama City, then abducted and savagely beat a Navy lieutenant and terrorized his wife. Now Noriega's thugs were roaming the streets with Cuban-supplied weapons.

On Sunday, President Bush had ordered U.S. armed forces to execute a full-scale intervention in Panama. McGrath's men were preparing to go. Their objective: Paitilla Airfield on the seafront of Panama City, where Noriega based his private Lear Jet. Preventing Noriega's Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) from using the airport was a tactical necessity. As McGrath worked at his desk, an athletic young man appeared in the doorway, grinning widely. "Good morning, sir," John Connors said. "It looks like something's going down." McGrath pushed his chair back. "Exactly what are you doing here?" He knew Connors had completed only half his medical treatment and had to get back to the hospital. "I figured the team might need me," Connors said simply. McGrath paused.

He thought of the Persian Gulf, when Connor's platoon had practiced raiding Iranian positions by "fast-roping" from helicopters onto a Navy barge. The SEALs plummeted 50 feet on thick ropes, braking at the last moment with gloved hands. Connors landed hard and limped away. He didn't complain, but when it came time to climb the narrow ladder back to the hovering chopper, his leg would not support him. He had cracked a bone. So he simply hauled himself up hand-over-hand. No question about it: Connors was one of the team's strongest officers, a leader who brought out excellence in others.

Besides, he spoke fluent Spanish. But skipping treatment could be a breach of the mission's security. Finally, McGrath spoke. "If you can get yourself cleared from the hospital without arousing suspicion, then I can use you. If you can't, I want you at Walter Reed before anyone asks where you are." Half an hour later, Connors was back, still grinning. "I'm off medical orders, sir." He had told doctors there was a family emergency. "Lieutenant," said McGrath, "go find your platoon." The rubber raiding boats were secured together at a rallying point two miles off Paitilla.

The SEALs gazed at the glittering Panama City skyline. It looked like a normal night in the handsome tropical city. Yet the largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War was about to begin. Airborne troops from bases in America, as well as ground and helicopter forces stationed in the Canal Zone, would attack 27 targets across Panama at precisely 1 a.m.: H-Hour. The men on the boats were somber. They knew Paitilla's runway, taxi strips and grassy margins were devoid of cover. Until they gained control of the airport, they would be badly exposed to enemy fire. Worse, under the rules of engagement for this operation- the most stringent ever imposed on U.S. forces- they were forbidden to use covering fire before they advanced.

To avoid harming civilians, the SEALs could fire only in self-defense. They would have to rely on speed--and sheer audacity. The command radio crackled. Panamanian forces had unexpectedly attacked U.S. troops in the Canal Zone. The task-force commander was advancing H-Hour 15 minutes, to 12:45 a.m. Immediately, the SEALs were under way. Connors's boat ground ashore on the hard mud by the end of the runway, and his platoon sprawled in the low grass, weapons ready, searching for PDF guards. People were moving under the control tower's dome of yellow light, but the south end of the airport was deserted. The SEALs advanced up the runway toward the hangars, maneuvering precisely. One squad crouched while another dashed ahead, their cleated boots muffled by the grass. From their left came a steady roar punctuated by the boom of tank guns and howitzers. The assault on Noriega's headquarters and the PDF barracks at Fort Amador had begun. Gaudy fountains of tracers wobbled above the city skyline.

The SEALs' fire-support gunship whined overhead, unlighted--an unseen but reassuring presence. While Connors's Bravo platoon prepared to block the runway with some of the light planes lining the taxi strip, Phillips's Golf platoon dashed toward the open PDF hangar that housed Noriega's Lear Jet. Suddenly, Phillips heard a voice inside shout: "Ponganse en posision. Preparense para disparar" ("Take positions. Prepare to fire.") Just as Phillips yelled a warning, the PDF opened up.

The Panamanians had timed their ambush well, hitting a squad from Golf platoon as it sprinted from the cover of parked planes. PDF troops blasted away with AK-47's, raking the SEALs only 30 yards away. Seven of the eight-man squad fell. Phillips rushed his men forward, firing at the PDF muzzle flashes. As he approached, he saw the extent of the devastation. "Heavy wounded!" he shouted into his radio. "Bravo, get up here!" He saw that the gunship could not hit PDF positions without endangering the downed men close to the hangar. Phillips's squad, together with Bravo, would have to gain fire superiority to evacuate the wounded.

He spread his men and began shooting. Moments after calling for reinforcements, he heard Connor's squad pounding up. As promised, his friend was there to cover him. Connors did not hesitate. Using hand signals, he arrayed his men in a line formation and led them directly toward the PDF. Phillips could see Connors's face. His eyes were focused with absolute determination. His intensity was controlled. He showed no fear. Bullets struck Connors's web gear and ammunition pouches with sledgehammer force. But he regained his stride and ran toward the enemy, firing as he advanced. The maneuver worked. By drawing attention away from the wounded, Connors and his squad had given the medics time to move in. But now the PDF volley intensified.

The hangar's cinder-block walls offered the Panamanians solid protection, and their weapons swept the parking apron, throwing up chunks of asphalt. Lying on the tarmac, Connors saw that they were making little progress against the enemy. He had a grenade launcher, but it was difficult to use from his prone position. It was time to up the ante. Now! Phillips saw Connors rise to one knee and level his grenade launcher at the hangar. From the rear, Phillips heard the sound of reinforcements. For an instant, the scene seemed to freeze. Then a heavy-caliber automatic weapon blasted. Connors flew backward in the darkness. He'd been hit squarely in the chest. Phillips ran to his friend and dragged him out of the line of fire. Other SEALs helped bundle Connors to the medics' triage point. They cut away his bullet-torn pack and ripped open his shirt while a corpsman tried valiantly to resuscitate him. The SEALs watched silently as Connors's lips moved in a mumbled prayer. Then he was gone.

Behind Phillips, the sounds of combat rose and fell in echoing waves. Reluctantly, he turned away and ran back to the fighting. SEAL squads were now pounding the hangar with rockets, grenades and machine guns. A rocket struck Noriega's Lear Jet, disabling it. Once the perimeter was secured, Mike Phillips rushed back to the triage point. Torpedoman's Mate Second Class Ike Rodriguez lay mortally wounded. Nearby, three dead SEALs--Connors, Boatswains Mate First Class Chris Tilghman and Engineman Chief Don McFaul--lay together on the grass. In the chalky glare of aerial flares now illuminating the battlefields, the young men's faces were smooth, freed of pain, as if they were sleeping. Two Navy officers and a priest arrived at the Connors home on Wednesday.

There had to be some mistake, Joan told them. John couldn't be in Panama. He was at Walter Reed. The officers explained that John had suspended treatment to go into combat with his men. That he had exhibited bravery on the battlefield. That he had died honorably in the service of his country. After the men left, the Connors family sat together in the kitchen. Slowly, the realization of what their son had done took hold. "That was typical of John," Joe Connors finally said. "He was there when people needed him." The next day, neither Joe nor Joan could face all the reporters. John Sheehan, John's best friend, offered to talk to them. Standing on the icy front porch, Sheehan verified to one newspaper reporter that John was an honor student, had studied abroad, spoke several languages. He was considered one of the finest men his town had ever produced. The young woman rapidly jotted notes. Finally, she looked up, puzzled. "He had overseas experience, a college degree. He could have found a good job and made a lot of money..." Her voice trailed off. "I don't understand. Why did he want to be a SEAL?" Sheehan was stunned by the question.

Clearly, to some of the reporter's generation, money and a prestigious job were the only measures of a life. But to others, like John Connors, they were not the only measures, or even the best ones. How could he convey John Connors's values--honor, loyalty, sacrifice--to this smart reporter? He could only say, "If you have to ask, you'll never know the answer." Over 1000 people jammed St. Agnes Church for the funeral of John Patrick Connors, age 25, filling every pew and standing quietly in the aisles.

The night before, the Connors family had been called by Eduardo Vallarino, the new Panamanian ambassador to the United Nations. He asked to attend John's funeral, as a gesture of respect from the new democracy for which John had fought. After the psalms and the homily were read and the color guard carefully removed the flag from the coffin, Navy SEAL Lt. Cmdr. William Dempsey summarized what so many in the church felt. "He fulfilled every obligation our country asked of him," he said. "We are what we are because of men like John." There is a postscript to this story.

On the cold morning of February 7, 1990, Mike Phillips's wife, Audrey, gave birth to their first child, a boy. To honor a beloved friend, they named the baby Connor. Noriega's Lear Jet after a SEAL hit it with a 40-mm grenade.

Article  typed from a Magazine article, I think it was Reader's Digest, but i cannot remember.  Doc Riojas


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The SEAL assault on Patilla Airfield during Operation Just Cause

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.

"At the Hurricane's Eye" Greg Walker
"SEALs at War" Edwin P Hoyt.
"Inside the US Navy SEALs" Gary Stubblefield, Cdr. USN (ret)

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