Operation Screw Up

Slator spoke with a shrug that made his armless sleeve flap. "Times have changed, Skipper. SEALs now have sixteen-man platoons and employ them in combination. I hear they put more than 50 men ashore at Paitilla in fifteen rubber boats, a regular flotilla. And they may have failed to establish no-go criteria."

"Fifty fuckin' men in fifteen boats!" Donkey Dick shouted. "That's army and jarhead shit. Fuck a dead whore in the ass!"

The Deuce King said, "You've been talking about what was supposed to happen, Slator. What really happened?"

"Well, as I said, I don't truly know what happened. All I can tell you is what I've heard, and I haven't heard from anyone who was on the ground."

"I was in Panama not long ago," Skipper Stein said mildly. "I talked to the public information officer on the staff of the general who commanded Just Cause. He checked with the Navy, and they told him they would give no information on what SEALs did or did not do in Panama."

Startled by news the Skipper had recently been to Panama, I asked, "What were you doing there?"

"I used to be stationed there years ago, before I became a SEAL. I return from time to time. The trout fishing is very good in the corrientes that come out of the highlands near the Costa Rican border, up north near Boquete. I love to fish those streams. You know, when you're fishing a good stream, you are so absorbed in the task that you think of nothing else. But let Slator continue with what may or may not have happened at Paitilla."

"The main invasion was to begin at 0100 - H-hour - on 20 December. The SEALs planned their insertion accordingly; they had to be ashore and in position before H-hour. The rubber boats cast off from the two patrol boats in time for swimmer scouts to recon the lower half of the runway before signaling the platoons ashore. But while the swimmer scouts were reconning the runway, the general in operational command of Just Cause decided to change the timetable, move up H-hour fifteen minutes."

"What the fuck did he do that for?" said the Deuce King. "He must have known some missions would be jeopardized by such a last-minute change."

"I'm sure he took that into account. But he feared the invasion had been compromised."

"No shit. How did he expect to keep the movement of 20,000 or so troops a goddamn secret - especially in a place like Panama? Hell, I bet the girls at the Ancon Inn knew about the invasion long before H-hour. Anyway, if the troops aren't ready, you will not make them ready by declaring H-hour has been moved up fifteen minutes. You just let the troops know they may not have the element of surprise any more. The troops tell you when they're ready. The army learned that lesson in War

The Deuce King was getting hot, which was not a good sign. I said, "Let's get on with what happened at Paitilla. How did the time change affect the SEALs?"

"I suspect it added a sense of urgency to a situation that didn't lack urgency. The most immediate impact was that the officer in charge apparently decided not to wait for the results of the swimmer recon. He took the platoons in blind. Perhaps those were his orders. Who knows?

"The SEALs beached their boats off the southeast corner of the runway, removed a section of security fence, and took up positions alongside the runway. The swimmer scouts were startled to see the platoons, and told the officer in charge they had not been able to recon very far up the runway. The runway itself was not lighted, but hangars on either side had bright, fluorescent security lights. A plane or a person on the runway would be silhouetted by these lights. The hangar with the Lear, however, about 600 meters from the SEALs, was dark.

"Panamanians at the airfield had seen the SEALs take their positions. Although the field was closed after sunset, several security and maintenance personnel stayed through the night. The Panamanians began shouting at the SEALs, telling them to get off the field. The SEALs returned the shouts and ordered the Panamanians away from the runway.

"SEAL radiomen were trying to contact a SPECTRE gunship orbiting overhead for fire support. They could not raise the gunship. It's unclear what the problem was - I've heard the radios wouldn't net, the same problem they had in Grenada; I've heard the SPECTRE computers malfunctioned and the weapons jammed. Whatever the problem, the result was the same: the SEALs had no SPECTRE support.

"While the SEALs were trying to raise SPECTRE, the officer in charge received yet another urgent message: Noriega was inbound to Paitilla by helo or would arrive shortly in an armored personnel carrier to escape by helo. Someone, perhaps the officer in charge, decided that two of the platoons would immediately charge up the runway to prevent Noriega from using the helo pads near the Lear hangar."

The Deuce King cut in. "Wait a minute, Slator. You mean those platoons were ordered up the runway at a gallop without any advance recon? Without even a recon by fire? The SEALs had been compromised, so what was the point in not cranking off a few rounds? Hell, why not crank off a lot of rounds, a regular firestorm? Shoot those Panamanian fuckers rather than shout at them."

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