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Looking Back on the Invasion of Panama

On the 25th anniversary of Operation Just Cause, three South Carolina Soldiers reflect on their combat experience
MAJ Dave King, State Partnership Program director for the South Carolina Army Guard, reviews a homecoming parade program from Operation Just Cause. King was a junior officer in the 4/6th Infantry Battalion, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Fort Polk, LA, when his unit was deployed to Panama in December 1989. Photo by MAJ Cindi King
MAJ Dave King, State Partnership Program director for the South Carolina Army Guard, reviews a homecoming program from Operation Just Cause. King was a junior infantry officer when his unit was deployed to Panama in 1989. Photo by MAJ Cindi King
CSM Ronald Elvis of the South Carolina Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion flips through a photo album in his office on Dec. 18, 2014. The pictures are from his deployment to Operation Just Cause in Panama in December 1989, where he served as a sawgunner and paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. Photo by South Carolina National Guard
CSM Ronald Elvis of South Carolina's Recruiting and Retention Battalion flips through photos from his deployment to Panama, where he served as a sawgunner and paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. Photo by South Carolina National Guard

COLUMBIA, SC The South Carolina National Guard bid farewell last year to its final serving member from the Vietnam War. That retirement leaves a generation of Soldiers with vastly different combat experience after numerous deployments to the deserts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are, however, currently serving members in the National Guard who deployed in combat to other regions, sometimes overlooked after 13 years of continuous deployments for the Global War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks. One of those regions is Panama for Operation Just Cause in 1989.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the invasion of Panama to stop the regime of General Manuel Noriega. It was Dec. 20, 1989, when the invasion began, after President George H.W. Bush ordered more than 9,500 Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel to join the already 13,000 U.S. forces stationed in Panama.

Three members of the South Carolina Army National Guard recall where they were when they were notified they would be deploying to support Operation Just Cause.

"I was a young infantry specialist serving in the 1st Ranger Battalion at Hunter Army Airfield," says Sergeant First Class Rudy Fontanez, a supply specialist from the South Carolina Army Guard's A Company, 218th Combat Support Battalion. "We had been training weeks before using a scenario of an airfield seizure. We had no idea at the time that was the rehearsal for what we were going to be asked to do in Panama." Fontanez served on Active Duty from 1987 to 1991, joining the South Carolina Army National Guard in 1992.

The Ranger battalions rotated for block leaves. According to Fontanez, his unit was preparing to begin their scheduled block leave for the holidays when all leave forms were cancelled, and they were unexpectedly called back to their units.

"It was right before Christmas, so as soon as we reported, within two days we had an operations order, conducted rehearsals and were ready to go," Fontanez recalls.

U.S. Army M113 armored personnel carriers travel on a road in Panama during Operation Just Cause in December 1989. The invasion of Panama began Dec. 20, 1989, when U.S. military forces were called to remove the regime of GEN Manuel Noriega.

Fontanez says his unit parachuted into an airfield in Panama under cover of darkness at 500 feet from a C-141 aircraft with nearly 3,000 other Rangers. He says their aircraft took small-arms fire, and some of the Rangers were wounded.

"There was a lot of chaos on the ground, as you can imagine," says Fontanez. "Once we came in, we secured the airfield for follow-on units to arrive."

The Rangers' mission was to stay until the airfield was in the control of other U.S. units to begin their operations and movement. Fontanez says they were on the ground approximately two weeks. Shortly after this mission, his unit was being prepared for a deployment to the Persian Gulf for the first Gulf War.

Fontanez's experience during Operation Just Cause demonstrates the rapid deployment of Ranger units to set up the conditions for follow-on units. In Panama, one of these units was the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, NC.

The senior noncommissioned officer from the South Carolina Guard's Recruiting and Retention Battalion, Command Sergeant Major Ronald Elvis, was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne when he was alerted to mobilize for Operation Just Cause.

"I was a sawgunner and specialist in B Company, 4th Battalion, 325th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division," says Elvis. "We were just getting ready to go on Christmas block leave and were standing in line in the chow hall when we got the notification."

Elvis says an announcement came over the loudspeaker for an "alpha alert," in which they all had to report as part of the reaction force. This was not uncommon for units designated for first response. He says they knew it was not a typical emergency deployment readiness drill when they saw there was live ammunition.

"Many in the ranks left for work on December 18, saying goodbye to their families, not knowing they would be mobilizing," says Elvis.

On Dec. 20, 1989, almost 1,000 paratroopers from Elvis' unit parachuted in via a C-141 aircraft through the darkness into a civilian airfield in Panama and immediately received small-arms fire.

"I remember seeing the tracer rounds all around us and thinking, 'What have I gotten myself into?' " says Elvis. "We saw a lot of contact after we hit the ground, as our follow-on missions after securing the airfield were to conduct patrols, pull security and conduct checkpoints."

Once the order was given to transition from air to ground operations, the use of armored vehicles was critical to get into the fortified areas around Noriega's Comandancia.

Major Dave King, the South Carolina Army National Guard's State Partnership Program director with Colombia, was a young lieutenant in 1989, responsible for a team of M113 armored personnel carriers with .50 cal machine guns who were supporting Task Force Black. He had prior Active Duty time from 1979 to 1982, was in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1982 to 1987, and again served on Active Duty from 1987 until 1997, before joining the South Carolina Army National Guard in 2007.

King (shown at right in Panama in 1989 in this image from the South Carolina Guard) was a member of 4/6th Infantry Battalion, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Fort Polk, LA, in 1989. His unit had mobilized to Panama in September as part of an ongoing rotation of U.S. forces to augment security of the Panama Canal.

"Back then as an infantryman, the expectation of actually seeing combat did not seem likely, unlike today's Soldiers who know they will be called to deploy," says King. "It was mid-December when we knew we were going to be part of the invasion."

King's team augmented other units with mechanized infantry assets for the nighttime assault on the Comandancia. The battle at the Comandancia is considered the conflict's bloodiest, with four Soldiers killed and more than 60 wounded.

King recalls the chaos and receiving small-arms fire. "We lost two Soldiers in our battalion, Corporal Ivan Perez and Private Kenneth Scott."

On Jan. 3, 1990, Noriega surrendered to U.S. forces. The dictator was put aboard a Black Hawk and flown to Howard Air Force Base in Panama, where he was arrested by officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Shortly after word spread of his surrender, civilians in Panama began celebrating in the streets.

"The civilians we met were so grateful we were there," says Fontanez. "I remember while we were patrolling on New Year's Eve, we ran into a small group of locals who insisted we take a moment to celebrate the New Year with them."

Elvis echoes the sentiment, saying that their presence at checkpoints was very much appreciated by the Panamanian civilians.

"We had regulars who would visit us and bring us drinks, baked goods and food to show their appreciation," says Elvis.

Elvis adds that he learned a valuable lesson as a young specialist that he always shares with his Soldiers: to be considerate of the local population when deploying to another country. He says it was Christmas Day, and he thought it would be great for his Soldiers to be able to call home to wish their families a merry Christmas. These were the days before cellphones, so their easiest option was to enter a hotel to borrow the telephone.

"We did not think about us going in a hotel with all of our tactical gear, and how our live weapons would impact the guests," says Elvis. "We had to reassure everyone [that] we just wanted to use the phone, and were not trying to seize the hotel."

King says his troops were also treated very well by the Panamanians, who brought them food, with one family opening up their home so Soldiers could use the phone to call loved ones on Christmas Day.

King says one important lesson Operation Just Cause taught him was the criticality of squad- and platoon-level infantry training. He says the skills of small-unit tactics are crucial when operating in an urban combat environment.

During Operation Just Cause, 23 U.S. service members were killed and more than 300 were wounded. Pentagon planners, such as former Army Chief of Staff General Edward Meyer, rate the success of the operations in Panama as one of the best conceived, and, although it had some flaws, it was a brilliant success.

The members of the South Carolina Army National Guard who saw combat during Operation Just Cause state that they have no special plans for the 25th anniversary of the mission.

"I can't believe it's been 25 years," says Fontanez. "I never really thought about it; as the years go by, the memories seem to fade about those days."

"I still run into Soldiers from years ago from Active Duty," says King. "One of my young Soldiers became a command sergeant major who I saw again during combat operations in Iraq. It was quite fitting he served at the beginning of his career in combat with the 4/6th Infantry in Panama and was winding it down as the battalion command sergeant major of the same unit in Iraq."

With little fanfare about Operation Just Cause over the years, these Soldiers still recall those moments as young troops going to combat for the first time. Each has had follow-on deployments to the Middle East.

"We didn't have cellphones or the Internet in Panama to know what was going on everywhere," says Fontanez. "I heard more about the operation from talking to family [members back home] who were watching CNN."

Twenty-five years later, Noriega sits in a Panamanian prison, after being tried by the U.S. for drug trafficking and money laundering. The events that led to the toppling of the Noriega regime are but a distant memory for many, and almost forgotten by the new generation of service members who are too young to remember combat operations prior to Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to Major General Robert E. Livingston Jr., the adjutant general for South Carolina, what has not changed over the years is the U.S. commitment to helping neighboring countries when needed.

"Our engineer unit had been in Ecuador prior to Operation Just Cause, helping after an earthquake had struck the southern region," says Livingston. "As a military organization, we were aware of these events and were impressed with the level of professionalism taking place by U.S. forces in Panama."

Livingston says it is important that people remember military history and the lessons learned from those who have answered the call and supported in all regions and operations. 

"Operation Just Cause represents the range of our capabilities to extend a helping hand and care for our neighbors in the south," says Livingston. "We are grateful to these heroes who served during this time in our history and sacrificed to assist those in need."