Small Wars Journal

An Airborne Thanksgiving

Sat, 11/22/2014 - 6:56pm

An Airborne Thanksgiving

Keith Nightingale

The 25th of October is celebrated in Grenada as Thanksgiving-a holiday created by a grateful Nation to honor the day the US Military rescued them from local thugs and their Cuban cohorts.  The anniversary of the Grenada invasion was also a watershed for the United States by putting the Vietnam experience behind it as well as restoring the International respect it had lost over time. 

President Reagan, as an actor,  had a deep appreciation for the backdrop that caused him to decide to militarily intervene.  There were active insurgencies in Nicaragua and El Salvador.  Cuba was fomenting other undermining actions in large parts of South and Central America.  The Middle East was very unsettled and US influence was on a steady decline.  Grenada had become a Cuban communist lackey and was investing heavily in Point Salines airfield and had shipped a large engineer element as well as security forces.  In March of 1983, President Reagan had warned of this initiative and noted that Grenada could become a very convenient mid-point between Cuba and its Latin American activities and could foment unrest throughout the region.

Earlier, in 1979, the democratic government of Grenada was overthrown in a coup and replaced by a socialist dictatorship.  On 14 October 1983, an internal power struggle resulted in the death of the  original coup leader, Maurice Bishop and his replacement by his chief lieutenant Bernard Coard and his enforcer Gen Hudson Austin, both professed communists. Sir Paul Scoon, the UK Governor General, was placed under house arrest.  With this change of leadership, the eight islands quickly became a gangland populated by military age males with new AK 47’s and non-existent discipline. Thuggery ruled more than ideology.

Despite this evolution, a US-based expatriate medical school, St Georges University, continued to operate from several campus’s on the main island of Grenada.  However, by the October coup, students and faculty became increasingly alarmed about the thuggish nature of local security elements.  On 20 October, Hudson Austin announced a curfew for the students and the entire population, brought in additional guards and accused the school of spy activities.  Numerous students called their friends and families and indicated their lives were in danger.

At this point, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States as well as the governments of Barbados and Jamaica asked the US to intervene.  Three days later, 23 October, the Marine barracks in Beirut were bombed with a large loss of life.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff began intensive planning resulting in an execute order for the invasion of Grenada on 25 October 1983.  This would be the first significant military action for the US since its departure from Vietnam in 1973.

During initial Joint planning, independent of Grenada discussions, a decision was made to send a Marine force by sea to reinforce the Beirut elements.  This force was afloat in the Caribbean when the decision to invade Grenada was made.  Concurrently, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was ordered to be the Grenada strike force.  JSOC had been created as a result of the failure of the Iran Rescue attempt and was an independent entity reporting to the JCS.  It had not been significantly engaged to this point.

The JSOC plan was quite simple.  SEALs would infiltrate early with a USAF Spec Ops team to land at Point Saline airfield-the key initial objective.  They would covertly mark the runway as the drop zone for the 1st and 2d Ranger Battalions which would conduct an airborne assault to secure the airfield.  Concurrently, Delta and SEAL forces would depart Barbados with TF 160 aircraft to seize Richmond Hill prison, secure Sir Paul Scoon at his residence and relieve the students at St Georges University.  At this point, the plan became a casualty of events with JSOC elements already deployed.

The JCS met on 23 Oct and had a very heated exchange regarding the invasion.  PX Kelly, Marine Commandant, made an impassioned speech to the other Chiefs to engage the Marines in the invasion-those now headed to Beirut.  General Vessey, the Chairman, noted the short time to execution but was willing to consider alternatives to the JSOC package.  Later in the day, Army and Joint planners presented the plan in the Tank which would become the invasion force.

Marines would conduct simultaneous landings at Pearles Airfield on the north east side of the main island and secure beaches just north of Grand Anse, the main town and relieve SEAL’s at Sir Paul Scoon’s house.  XVIII Airborne Corps at Ft Bragg would reinforce the Rangers at the airfield, assist in securing the medical school campus and conduct clearing and support operations in the interior.  The US Navy, led by VAdm Joe Metcalf, would be overall in charge with a large two carrier task force.  Army MG Norman Schwarzkopf was hastily appointed as Deputy Commander and was afloat with VAdm Metcalf.  The initial H Hour was designated to be 0400 25 October.  At this point, things began to slip off the rails with dramatic consequences.

JSOC had very little real time to conduct mission coordination or discuss task responsibilities with the conventional forces.  There was no common Communication Electronic Operating Instructions (CEOI) between JSOC elements and the other players-this would prove disastrous as actions unfolded.  Neither were there coordinated CEOI’s between the forces afloat and XVIII Abn Corps.

The JSOC plan took advantage of its night vision capabilities and was based on a night entry. The Rangers would jump at 0400 on a night airfield seizure-a scenario they had rehearsed dozens of times before.  TF 160, moving Delta and the SEAL’s from Barbados would also take advantage of darkness to land the operators on their objectives with minimal visible light.

On 24 October, the Navy/Marines requested that the operation be postponed until approximately 0800-broad daylight.  The reason was that charts of the Pearles area were very dated and they needed daylight to successfully navigate the shoals.  Despite JSOC objections, the postponement was granted forcing the Rangers to conduct a jump of a heavily defended airfield in broad daylight.

In the early morning hours of 25 Oct, elements of SEAL Team 6 were dropped over the horizon by USAF SOF aircraft.  They were heavily loaded and in an unexpectedly heavy sea, were drowned.  The Marines successfully landed north of Grand Anse but were held up by a combination of very narrow roads and light opposition. Pearles was successfully occupied by the Marines as was the northern island of Carriacou.  Elsewhere, results were mixed.

The Ranger daylight assault was met by 20mm anti-aircraft fire from several locations near the airfield.  Eight of the jump C130’s were holed by the guns.  The results would have been worse but LTC Wes Taylor, the Ranger assault force commander asked for a 500 foot above ground jump and the AAA could not effectively depress to that altitude.  The Cuban engineer security elements were fully engaged against the Rangers and held the high ground east of the runway.  Ranger and Delta snipers immediately began to eliminate exposed Cubans.  The accompanying AC 130 gunships effectively suppressed the AAA and reduced the ability of the Cubans to maneuver.

The night SEAL insertion to rescue Sir Paul Scoon was initially successful but Grenadian forces reacted promptly and surrounded the house.  The Marines were unable to affect linkup and the SEAL’s used the now famous act of calling JSOC at Ft Bragg through the AT&T landline and directed the AC 130 gunships which kept the attackers at bay.

The Delta assault on Richmond Hill prison in broad daylight was a disaster.  .51 cal machine guns on the corners of the prison walls effectively engaged the TF 160 helos and seriously wounded several Delta operators.  The helos returned to Pt Saline to offload the wounded.  The prison was not secured until several days after.

The 82d began its arrival in mid-morning of 25 October.  The airfield, though now secured by Rangers and Delta had almost no ramp space.  This meant that the airfield could accommodate only one aircraft at a time and it had to use one end of the runway as an offload point effectively shutting down other air landings.  This issue continued throughout the duration of the invasion and was exacerbated by the artillery unit stationed at the southeastern side of the runway.  Planes would have to divert whenever artillery missions were being fired.  This combination resulted in a situation where the best turnaround times for landing took in excess of 45 minutes per plane.  Over the next two days, 82d troops and Corps support elements trickled in one plane at a time.  The inability of the USAF to rapidly land aircraft forced them to scatter planes throughout the region to refuel and await a landing time.  Consequently, most units landed piecemeal, intermixed and well-behind schedule.

Larger issues were being experienced due to the lack of adequate prior planning and coordination.  The inability of the TF 160 pilots to talk to the Navy ships became a serious issues with casualties.  TF 160 wanted to fly the JSOC casualties directly to naval ships offshore as the best, most expedient way.  However, when they approached the forces afloat, there was no ship to helo commo and the Navy waved them off.  Finally, in  frustration, a TF 160 pilot with WIA’s,  ignored the wave off and landed on the helo deck despite great efforts from the Navy deck crew to prevent that.  After some heated discussions, frequencies were exchanged and from then on better order and common sense prevailed.

By 27 October, thanks to minimal opposition and a lot of ground liaison, some calm and order prevailed.  The 82d discovered a second unknown campus at Blue Anse and secured the students.  It also moved overland and secured the main campus at St Georges’s.  The Rangers and Delta were removed and returned to their home bases.  Elements of the 82d were sent throughout the eight islands to begin the separation of the military thugs and criminals from the population.  The 2-505 of the 82d captured Gen Hudson Austin on the 27th effectively ending any possibility of organized resistance. 

An incident occurred on the 27th that was hugely significant for the psychology and morale of the soldiers.  The 2-505 had landed piecemeal throughout 26-27 October.  

About 0800 on the morning of the 27th, finally assembled, it was moving in column across the runway toward the interior.  Simultaneously from the east, all the recovered students were moving toward a C141 which would take them back to the US.  The two columns paralleled each other on the very hot and humid runway.  In a completely spontaneous move, the students, as if one, broke the column and moved toward the soldiers.  The students overwhelmed the completely surprised troopers with kisses, hand shakes, backslapping and effusive thanks.  It made no matter that these specific soldiers did not rescue the students.  The students wanted to show their appreciation and gratefulness for their rescue to the sweat soaked uniforms with the US Flag on the shoulder.  This event had a hugely positive morale effect on the soldiers and was a wonderful psychological boost after the very confusing and piecemeal introduction.

Such was the welcome all soldiers found as they occupied the interior.  Grenada is extremely rugged, mountainous, thickly jungle covered and with only the most basic of a road network.  Virtually all the island is ringed by a sheer rocky coastline with virtually no beach areas.  Battalions were separated into isolated platoon and squad sizes to occupy and clear the many small villages and individual homes sights in this rugged terrain.  The main island and its seven smaller islands were quickly occupied by a brigade-sized series of essentially Ranger patrols.

The purpose of these population sweeps was to root out the military and criminal elements.  By the end of the first day of the invasion, Austin’s army had dropped its uniforms, put on civilian clothes and tried to fade back in the population.  It didn’t work.  Virtually every small unit had the same story.  They would arrive in a populated area-via helo or truck (units acquired portions of a large soviet vehicle park).  They would be effusively greeted by the populace as saviors, offered food, water and shelter.  Very quickly, locals would point out the thugs who would be detained and flown to the rear for further interrogation and incarceration.  This scenario continued throughout the period until all population centers had been screened and occupied by forces ranging from a squad to a battalion CP.  The soldiers settled down and enjoyed a receptive population and its gratefulness.

By mid-November, most of the assault elements had returned to CONUS and military missions became restarting the infrastructure, getting local government running and assisting the Caribbean Peacekeeping Forces in assuming control while local Grenadians underwent short term security and police training.  It was during this period that the underlying emotional support by the Grenadians for the invasion became evident.

The US Thanksgiving holiday was fast approaching and soldiers talked to the locals about it and its meaning.  The Grenadians, spread in a hundred different small population centers independently began to investigate and query about this thing called Thanksgiving.  Unbeknownst to the US soldiers, Grenadians talked about it to themselves and developed plans to demonstrate their appreciation.  As an historic British colony, the concept of Thanksgiving and its traditional meal components was unknown-even less in existence on the island nation.  However, boats and light aircraft departed, phone calls were made and by bits and pieces these strange food stuffs were assembled in secret.  Finally, on the US Thanksgiving Day, the many towns and villages with their squad or platoon of US soldiers invited them to have a Grenadian Thanksgiving.  No one was more surprised than the soldiers and their leadership.

All across the islands, the same scene repeated itself.  The soldiers with full combat gear would assemble at the villagers request in a building or shady field.  Food would be laid out and a Grenadian would make a small talk and invite the soldiers to eat.  The meal would be some form of turkey-canned or roasted whole accompanied by canned yams, cranberry or potatoes-nothing native and all unfamiliar  to the island kitchens.  The speech was invariably the same-

“We don’t know much about this thing you call Thanksgiving and we don’t understand the food.  But we do know that it is important to you and want you to know that our Thanksgiving is the day you came.  Thankyou.”

 Today, in Grenada, Thanksgiving is a designated National holiday.  It is 25 October.

The success of the invasion, reinforced by low casualties and the media-inescapable appreciation of the Grenadians,  provided a rare “good news” moment for the military.  The many glitches and issues that arose as part of the invasion backdrop were addressed and resolved albeit not without controversy. 

Key was the elevation of Special Operating Forces (SOF) to a level of equality with other major commands.  Relentless questioning by the House and Senate on why mistakes occurred (intelligence failures, no Joint CEOI, no clear lines of authority etc) resulted in the Nunn-Cohen Amendment establishing US Special Operations Command at the four star level and slightly later the creation of a SOF-controlled budget line MFP-11,  giving SOF elements authority to procure outside their mother services.  This was accomplished in spite of repeated protestations by the Services that such legislation was not necessary, facts notwithstanding.  A case can be clearly made that the success of the Bin Laden raid was largely created in the residue of shortcomings revealed by the Grenada invasion.

Of equal human importance, was the effect of the invasion on the individual military participants.  On the islands, they lived in an atmosphere of sincere appreciation for their presence and were constantly showered with food and thanks.  For many, it was an important introduction into the symbology of the flag on their shoulder and what it meant to others as well as to themselves.  They returned home to massive rallies and demonstrations of appreciation and for the first time since the end of WW II, knew they were appreciated.  It was a far cry from Vietnam and put that experience behind.  Everyone wearing a uniform knew they had done well and had made a real positive difference.

My unit, the 2-505, was the last combat unit to leave.  We were spread across all the islands and were focused on re-building infrastructure, training local security forces and assisting in what today would be called COIN operations.  Two events in this period had a lasting impression regarding how America and its Military now felt about themselves.

One of my soldiers was accidentally killed by a weapons discharge.  He was an ethnic Indian but immigrated to America with his parents-one a doctor and the other a nurse.  He was their only child.  I wrote a letter of condolence to them which was answered very quickly.  The parents simply said it was a privilege to have him as their son and a greater privilege to pay back the Nation that gave them so much.  While they had a tragic loss it was for a great cause and they would always remember that their son was part of something larger than himself.

On our last day on the island, assembled near the airfield, I walked around all the units and talked to the troops and their place in history and pride in doing their duty.  I came across one soldier who was reading a letter in one hand.  In the other hand, he held a newspaper clipping of the Statue of Liberty.    I asked him what it was all about.  He was an E4 from New York by way of Puerto Rico.  He told me his mother had sent him the clipping.  She was a single mother who immigrated to New York with two babies and began a life of hard work to support them.  In her letter, she thanked her son for what he had done for everyone, reminded him that we all owe a debt to “the lady in the harbor” and that she was so proud he had paid that debt.

Grenada created the foundation for the pride we all now have for our military.  While we can argue about their employment, we do not argue about them.  Grenada allowed us to collectively put Vietnam in the attic of our minds.  Today, Grenada is reasonably prosperous, peaceful and progressive.  Any American, especially a soldier, will be warmly greeted and treated to whatever is available.  Especially on the 25th of October.

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.