Operation Screw Up

"Okay, King?" Slator asked.
"Sure, sure. Sorry. Tell us about Panama."
We settled back, took a pull on our tequila, and waited for what we knew might be a lengthy, perhaps rambling account. That was Slator's way. Sometimes when Slator told a story, following what he said was like trying to see the moon in a fog bank.

He began clearly enough. "The mission was to deny Noriega the use of Paitilla Airfield in Panama City or to capture him if he tried to use it. The airfield is located near a fashionable neighborhood where diplomats and wealthy Panamanians live, next to a financial district with modern skyscrapers that house the largest banks in the world.

"The airfield runway has a north-south axis and is a little longer than a klick, about 1100 meters. Planes normally take off to the south, across the Bay of Panama, but reverse their direction if the wind shifts. The southern end of the runway is less than 100 meters from the bay, and the entire runway is completely open to the bay and the Gulf of Panama beyond. The six-fathom curve at low tide is less than 6000 meters from the end of the runway. The airfield is used for domestic flights, and Noriega kept his Lear jet in the middle hangar of three hangars near the northern end of the runway. He would often arrive and depart the field by helo; the helo pads are also at the northern end of the runway, 50 meters or so from the hangars.... Pass the bottle."

I slid the tequila across the table to Slator, careful to keep it on his right side. Slator had lost most of his left arm in the Nam Can Forest some years ago, while he was working for the CIA in their Phoenix Program. He got hit on his Navy Cross op, I think, although it could have been the Silver Star op, I'm not sure. At any rate, he refused to wear a prosthesis, but he did pin the empty sleeve of his Pendleton to the shoulder. Slator hated loose ends.

"At the start, the mission was fine. Three East Coast platoons from Little Creek, Virginia, isolated in the Florida Panhandle for rehearsals a week or so before the op was to go down. As I understand, the plan initially called for the platoons to insert from the bay around midnight - about an hour before the main invasion. The East Coast SEALs had known for two months that they would have this mission if we invaded Panama.

"The platoons would position themselves along the southern half of the runway, near a drainage ditch 600 meters or less from the hangar with Noriega's Lear. The SEALs could cover the hangars and the entire runway from their positions, and they would not move closer unless they knew they could deal with the airfield defenses. Intel said the field might be guarded by one of Noriega's dignity battalions that could be reinforced by armored personnel carriers with .50-caliber machine guns.

"Noriega's jet or helicopter was to be taken out by stand-off weapons: .50-caliber sniper rifles with night-firing optics, or AT-4s if necessary. Swimmer scouts would recon the site before signaling the platoons in from the bay. Never cross a danger area without a recon first, right?

"The expert marksmen in each platoon would carry the sniper rifles with rufus rounds; the rest of the platoon would carry the AT-4s and the usual assortment of SAWs, MP-5s, shotguns, and M-16s with M-203 40-mike-mike launchers. The C-and-C element, the command and control, would have the comm gear to talk with the patrol boats and the SPECTRE gunships.

"And that SPECTRE gunship is a piece of work - an air force C-130 transport with rapid-fire cannons, a one-oh-five howitzer that fires out a side door just forward of the ramp. The weapons are aimed by computers and low-light TV cameras, and the entire cargo deck is packed with ammo."

"Sounds like Spooky and Puff," said Black Mac. "The C-47s we had in 'Nam."
"That's it, Mac, but much fancier. SPECTRE is a technological marvel."
"What about the rest of them weapons?"

"The AT-4's a shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket that replaced the LAW we used in 'Nam. It's accurate enough to take out anything that might roll onto the runway at Paitilla. The MP-5 is a 9 mm submachine gun manufactured by the Germans, Heckler and Koch."

"And what the fuck's a rufus round?"
"A rufus round," Slator explained, "is a bullet with a high-explosive head, HBX. Would tear the hell out of a jet impeller, nose cone, cockpit, or anything else it hit on a Lear or a helicopter. And the SAW is a two-two-three light machine gun - a squad automatic weapon. Replaces the old Stoner used in 'Nam.... Pass the bottle.

"The three platoons in the Panama op were mostly new guys led by young officers. Very little if any combat experience in the platoons. The officer in charge of all the platoons, the officer who was to go ashore with them in the C-and-C element, had been with SEAL Six in Grenada."

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