Operation Screw Up
Military Bright Ideas have a way of ending disastrously and have been doing so at least since the Great War.
Paul Fussell, Wartime (1988)
"Them ops was clusterfucks, more screwed up than a whore's dream. And all the medals in the Pentagon ain't gonna change that. Ain't gonna change nothin'. We're oh-fer-eight. There's eight dead SEALs and at least six more who're never gonna operate again."
We were sitting at a table in a VFW bar frequented mostly by patrons who carried Styrofoam cups into which they would spit tobacco juice. Occasionally the brown stream missed the cup to join the beer and puke stains on the carpet. It was a bar an old sailor like Tom Pynchon would have loved, even though the barmaid was named Brandy instead of Beatrice and was from the Philippines rather than the Med.
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Tom wasn't with us, but we were all old sailors: SEALs and frogmen retired for one reason or another. Dinosaurs. Ancient mariners gathered once again to talk about team misadventures in 'Nam, Grenada, and Panama. SEALs had the most casualties for our numbers of any Navy unit in Vietnam, had lost four of the sixteen U.S. dead in Grenada, and most recently suffered four of the 23 U.S. dead in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama that sent Noriega to his luxury digs in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in South Dade.
But we weren't here to talk about facts one could read in the paper or watch unfold on the network news. We were here to talk about what the teams themselves were talking about and in so doing perhaps cast out the demons that had been with some of us for a long time.
Our table had just been wiped clean by Brandy, and we could see our reflections in the polished Formica top. There were six of us: Donkey Dick, the Deuce King, Black Mac, Skipper Stein, Slator Crowe - at least I think that's how he spells his name - and me.
Our reflections seemed to stare at the fresh bottle of Cuervo Gold that Brandy the barmaid had placed before us. Donkey Dick continued with what he had to say: "Yes, them ops was clusterfucks - ain't no medals, flags, or bugles blowin' taps gonna bring back them dead SEALs, fix the wounded good as new. Makes you wanna cry."
We looked quickly at the Deuce King decked out in his lawyer's suit, then heard Black Mac mercifully add, "Makes me want to crank off a half-pound block of C-4 under somebody's ass."
"Or loosen the lug nuts on his tires," one of us said, and we all laughed. The Deuce King laughed hardest of all.
"But just what the fuck did happen in Panama?" Donkey Dick persisted. "You been talkin' to guys in the teams, Slator. What have they told you?"
Slator kept in closer touch with the teams than the rest of us and was usually our storyteller. "Well, what I've heard is not necessarily what happened," he said. "I've not talked to anyone who was on the ground in Panama. I've only talked to a few mates who were at two briefings given stateside after the invasion, by those in charge of the Panama ops."
"What you're telling us," offered the Deuce King, "is that we're about to hear opinions, not facts."
"That's right, King."
"Opinions is good enough," said Donkey Dick impatiently. "Opinions is like assholes, ever'body's got one. Give us your fuckin' opinion, Slator, and we'll give you ours."
Before Slator had a chance to speak, the Deuce King said, "It's a little more complicated than that. After all, saying it's our opinion people screwed up in Grenada and Panama might sound like we're saying they did, in fact, screw up. And we can't say that, because we don't know for certain. But it's tough to find out what truly happened, when the Navy has a policy not to comment on SEAL operations. When they're asked about SEAL ops, Navy PAO pimps like to say things like `SEAL operations are totally blacked out' or `We're not real forthcoming about SEALs because of the nature of their work.' That's what they tell the papers."
"If that's so," Donkey Dick wanted to know, "how come we read about the successes - like when SEAL Six rescued the governor general in Grenada? We hear about that, but we never hear about it when SEALs die. Why's that?"
"A good question, and I don't know the answer. Hell, I don't think the Navy to this day has told anyone the true story of how Spence Dry was killed during that POW fiasco in the Gulf on Tonkin. How long ago was that? Eighteen years? And what about the clusterfuck on the Van Sat? Neal, Boston, and Dan Mann killed, everybody else on the boat wounded: sixteen SEALs, one-half of our Nha Be detachment wiped away in a few moments of idiocy. Then there was the lunacy in the T-10 area that killed Antone and our VN SEAL."
Donkey Dick said, "C'mon, King. Don't get started on how our mates got killed in 'Nam. We wanna hear about Panama. You was gonna tell us about Panama, Slator."
"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."
"Why were they using young guys, young officers?" I asked.
"They said they didn't have enough officers."
"Bullshit!" we chorused.
Slator ignored us and continued. "Perhaps they wanted youthful platoons because youth is superbly conditioned, youth is optimistic and eager, youth is filled with the romance of illusions, youth seldom says no to its elders, or even, `I don't think that's a very good idea, sir'; above all else, youth believes it is invincible. Remember how invincible we felt before we went to the Rung Sat, the Nam Can, the Hon Heo, the Delta, the Cua Viet?..."
"Cut the shit, Slator," said Donkey Dick. "Get on to what happened."
Slator drank. "After the rehearsals in the Panhandle, the platoons flew to the staging area at Howard Air Force Base in Panama. I should point out, SEAL platoons were already in Panama. Had been for quite a while, as part of another rotation. Other more experienced SEALs were also there with our permanent detachment, and a few of these SEALs had been to Paitilla many times. Knew the airfield like the face on their Rolexes, even knew about a small hole in the security fence that the swimmer scouts could use without taking time to cut one. These SEALs tried their best to go on the op with the new platoons, but they were told this was to be an outside job.
"Naturally there were rules of engagement. We know all about rules of engagement, don't we? Rules of engagement have smoked more than one good man. Rules of engagement are traps for the unwary often set by folks who work best in air-conditioned suites, folks who never walk point, folks who declare, `Our casualties were light,' when we die."
"The army set the rules of engagement with a great deal of direction from the State Department, I'm sure. I understand the State Department wanted special rules of engagement for the SEALs, because the SEAL target bordered that wealthy neighborhood. The Union Club, much favored by diplomats, sits like a fortress on the bay about 200 meters southwest of the runway. The tennis courts are even closer.
"Of course, all invasion forces were to refrain from killing civilians and destroying property, to the extent they could. But the mission came first. The army, for example, hit their targets with guns blazing: PDF headquarters, Rio Hato, Omar Torrijos Airport, the prison at El Renacer. They even shot up the hospital at Santa Fe and the Marriott Hotel. Killed a newspaper banana and seriously wounded another at the Marriott.
"Furthermore, after the army got through with the poor neighborhoods in Panama City, it was urban renewal time. And the army let the dignity cheese dicks run wild downtown for three days after the invasion. I hear that small oversight cost a billion dollars or so.
"But the rules of engagement for the SEALs were to be strictly enforced: an absolute minimum amount of property damage and few, if any, civilian casualties. The SEALs could not use mortar support from the patrol boats; the SEALs could not use naval gunfire support from destroyers or frigates, even though these ships easily could have taken station off the airfield at the six-fathom curve or closer, and brought their five-inch guns to bear for direct fire at a range of less than 6000 meters. As we know, because we used them in Vietnam, five-inch guns may not be much for indirect fire at times, but they have a fearsome accuracy when the gunner can see the target and take it under direct fire. And the very best targets for Navy guns are those that extend away from the guns, targets such as roads and runways."
"The naval gun is certainly more accurate with direct fire than those one-oh-five howitzers I saw the army blasting away with on CNN," the Deuce King added. "And those boat drivers will run their bows into the mud if that's what it takes to bring the guns to bear. Why, I saw the Saint Paul damn near bottom out in the mud north of Da Nang so she could fire her eight-inch guns into Happy Valley."
"So it goes, King. But as I said, this was an all-army and air force show. No Navy allowed."
The Deuce King appeared confused. "But what about SEALs?" he asked Slator. "SEALs are Navy."
"You've been away too long. SEALs aren't Navy any more. SEALs are now part of the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa. An army lieutenant general is in charge of that outfit."
"Jesus fucking Christ. Whose bright idea was that? That drives a goddamn wedge right between the SEALs and the fleet, our best support."
"But even with the unrealistic rules of engagement," Slator continued, "the outlook was promising. After all, we had our stand-off weapons and excellent marksmen to use them. But at perhaps the last minute, probably after the rehearsals and not long before the insertion, the plan was changed. This was not the last time the plan was to be changed. An army general, under pressure from State, insisted the SEALs not use a stand-off method. Too risky. A stray round or rocket might enter the residential area, damage the Union Club, blow a hole in that expensive Lear jet. The general and the diplomats wanted the plane taken intact.
"Instead of using their sophisticated weapons and extraordinary marksmanship, the SEALs were to secure the hangars, tow the Lear onto the tarmac, slash its tires with a K-bar, and leave it out there to block the runway."
"Slash the fuckin' tires with a K-bar! What kinda weak shit is that?"
"Got something else to make you happy, Donkey Dick. One of the senior SEAL officers on the op apparently tried to justify this fine idea. He briefed our mates later, said the general was correct in not wanting the Lear shot up with rufus rounds. Planes, he said, were very expensive. He knew because he owned one."
"Did the SEALs accomplish the mission using these, ah, new tactics?"
"Oh, yes. And those in charge emphasized this point. Despite the tragic casualties, the deed was done with no civilian losses. Well, perhaps an elderly fireman took a round between the running lights, and the Lear was damaged - but mission accomplished, sir. The SEALs denied Noriega his runway as if he were stupid enough to have used it in the first place. Also, the Union Club retained its splendor, and the privileged remained untouched by war - at least the war the SEALs fought at Paitilla.
The Deuce King shifted in his chair, leaned toward Slator, and asked, as we feared he would, "How were the SEALs killed? How did they kill Connors, McFaul, Tilghman, Rodriguez?"
Although he couldn't possibly have known the dead men, the Deuce King said their names as if they'd been old friends. The Deuce King had a way with names. I've seen him memorize the names of an entire jury panel and talk to them during jury selection as if they, too, were old friends. He did this with the jury that acquitted me of drunk driving, which was actually a deuce with three priors.
But the Deuce King was best at remembering the names of dead SEALs. Most of us seemed to forget the names, or at least the names of those we had not known well. But the Deuce King did not forget. He would sometimes recite the names when he was lost in the liquor. (Later he would say it had been Jose talking.) The liquor did not, however, keep him from speaking the names clearly, precisely, emphatically. He sounded as if he were trying to chisel the names across our brains with his voice:
There are more names, but I don't have the Deuce King's memory. Thank God. Except the Deuce King would not let us forget. He was our very own talking memorial wall.
Slator was calming down the Deuce King now, urging another drink on him - which I thought was a mistake - telling him the dark heart of the matter would reveal itself in due course. Slator continued with the preliminaries.
"Although the rules did not permit ships to support the SEALs, boats were allowed with certain limitations. Two patrol boats would take station about a mile off the end of the runway, to support the three SEAL platoons as they went ashore in Zodiacs, which are now called combat rubber raiding craft. The patrol boats would act as a command center of sorts, with the commanding officer of the SEALs on one boat relaying instructions to the officer in charge, who would go ashore with the platoons. The commanding officer would in turn be getting instructions from his boss, the SEAL commodore, who would be back in the operations center for Just Cause."
"Excuse me for interrupting, Slator, but I'm troubled by a SEAL mission that takes three platoons, a command-and-control element, and such a complicated chain of command. Although I've been out of the teams for a few years, we seldom if ever operated with more than a platoon, twelve or fourteen men. If a mission called for more men than that, we just said no, let someone else do it, let the Marines or Rangers do it."
We nodded agreement as we looked at Skipper Stein, who until now had remained quiet. The Skipper was a Mormon who had retired as a commander a few years ago; now he raised Labrador retrievers. He naturally didn't drink and wouldn't say shit if he had a mouthful of it. But he didn't flaunt or try to impose his rectitude on others, and he was one of us.
The Skipper continued, "We said no, for example, when they asked us to participate in the Sontay Raid and the Mayaguez disaster. We said no when the army wanted to use our Nha Be platoons as waterborne points in advance of their riverine ops in Long An Province. We even said no to our own officers who wanted us to retrieve demolition packs that had been carelessly dropped from a helo flying over the Rung Sat.
"Of course, we knew the right way, the reasoned way, to say no. And when we weren't quite sure if we should say no, we established no-go criteria, like naval aviators do. We would proceed with the mission only if we did not encounter a predetermined limit. For aviators it might be a specific fuel state at a specific distance from a target or a return field. For SEALs it might be an inability to communicate with their fire-support element or a sea state and wind speed that exceed safe limits for a water jump."
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."
"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."
"Who knows? Rules of engagement, perhaps. Nonetheless, up that runway they charged, except for one platoon that stayed back to provide security for the command element."
"Two up and one back," murmured Skipper Stein, who was an old Ranger.
"More army shit," said Donkey Dick, also an old Ranger. "Like L-shaped ambushes and the Hammer 'n' Anvil."
"So it goes," said Slator as he paused to drink. "Yes, those SEALs got on line and charged up that runway as they were told. No advance recon to see what might be ahead, no SPECTRE fire support, no fire support of any kind - just those young, powerful, superbly trained bodies hauling ass up that danger area like Pickett's men charging Cemetery Hill.
"But in the beginning they were luckier than Pickett's men. They did not meet shot and ball. All they suffered in the beginning were more shouts and curses from the Panamanians scattered about the field. The SEALs screamed curses back as they continued their midnight dash; they moved out as if they were on a timed run during training. They swept past the lighted hangars on their way to the ramp of the darkened hangar with the Lear. As they reached the ramp, they slowed to settle into an L-shaped ambush that would cover both the ramp to the west and the helo pads some 50 meters to the north and east. The SEALs were about 50 meters in front of the hangar when they slowed to take their firing positions.
"It was over in the time it takes to empty a pair of AK-47 magazines. The two Panamanian soldiers knew their business; after all, our military had created them just as surely as the CIA had created Noriega. The soldiers fired from behind oil drums hidden within the darkened hangar. They kept their fire low, and even the rounds that struck short of the SEALs ricocheted off the tarmac, sparks flying to shatter shins and knees. But few rounds ricocheted into legs; most found flesh and bone higher up. The ramp was quickly filled with the dead, dying, and gravely wounded.
"Those SEALs who could still grasp a trigger returned furious fire. One SEAL who survived the ambush reportedly said, `We were filling that fucking hangar with rounds, 40 mike-mikes were going everywhere.' They say he trembled when he spoke.
"The smaller-caliber rounds from the M-16s, the MP-5s, and the SAWs perforated the walls of the hangar and Noriega's Lear. A 40 mike-mike or perhaps an AT-4 rocket scorched a fine hole in the fuselage. A light plane parked near the ramp was reduced to scrap. But when the firing stopped and the SEALs entered the hangar to tow the jet out, they found no bodies...not even a blood trail. Those two soldiers had emptied their magazines and vanished.
"The SEAL officer in charge did a good job of directing his men into a tight perimeter near the helo pads. His decisiveness may well have prevented further casualties from Panamanian fire or from SEALs shooting each other by mistake. Even before the SEALs set their perimeter, the corpsmen were doing their best to start the breathing and stop the bleeding. The SEALs called for Medevac helos and waited...waited almost two hours. Some say they waited longer."
"They woulda had better luck dialin' 911, fer chrissake," said Donkey Dick.
"Who was flying the helos?" I asked.
"Army, maybe air force, but certainly not Navy."
"No wonder the wounded had to wait," said Skipper Stein. "SEALs were just one more task on the list for those pilots, who I'm sure were busy that night."
The Deuce King said, "The SEALs should have had Navy Seawolf helos dedicated only to them, like we had in 'Nam. In 'Nam our Seawolf crews lived with us, drank with us, whored with us, and were ready to die with us if it came to that. The thing about working for the army is that you begin thinking like the army, depending on the army for timely support when they might have other concerns. You forget your roots and your salvation - the fleet.
"The Navy could have put a can at the six-fathom curve to provide naval gunfire support, to launch Seawolf helos, and even to deploy Marines as reinforcements. Furthermore, that ship would have had a complete emergency bay to stabilize and treat the wounded."
"They didn't even need a destroyer for helos," Skipper Stein said. "The Seawolfs could have been sitting hot-pad at Rodman Naval Station. That's less than ten minutes from Paitilla. Or the Marines could have deployed from Rodman. The Marines saved our bacon in Grenada at the governor general's residence, and they could have done it again at Paitilla."
"So it goes," said Slator. "The Marines are not part of the Special Operations Command."
I asked, "Did the SEALs extract after the Medevac, Slator?"
"No. They stayed at the airfield for at least another day."
"You gotta be blowin' me! Since when do SEALs have the mission of defending an airfield?" Donkey Dick wanted to know.
"Since they started working for the army."
"Who finally relieved them?" I asked.
"An army company from the 82nd Airborne, and the relief was several hours late."
"Was there any action after the ambush and before the army company arrived?"
"Yes, but the amount of action is uncertain. A story in Navy Times claimed the SEALs died only after they had secured the airfield, that they died during a valiant defense of the airfield against a determined Panamanian counterattack.
"Some claim, however, that fighting after the ambush involved only random sniping and a brief exchange of gunfire when a Panamanian armored personnel carrier attempted to enter the field and discharge seven soldiers. The SEALs turned back the APC and may have killed the soldiers."
"Did you say may have killed the soldiers, Slator?" I asked. "Didn't they get a body count?"
"No body count. Claimed but not counted."
"What was the total enemy body count?"
"Zero. Unless you want to count that poor old fireman I told you about earlier."
"What was the medal count?" the Deuce King asked.
"An interesting question. At first, while the patriotic flame burned brightest, there were to be medals for all. But as more was learned about Paitilla, enthusiasm to award medals waned, except for those medals that would go to the SEALs who fought so hard and well during the ambush, the SEALs who did their best to save their mates."
"I heard our mates in the teams are hot enough to fuck over the whole mess," said Donkey Dick.
"I heard they sent a letter via the chain of command," the Deuce King said, "urging that no awards be given those responsible for planning the Paitilla op, those responsible for sending SEALs up that runway. The letter criticizes senior SEAL officers rather than the army."
We were silent for a while as we attended to what remained in the Cuervo bottle. The wind had picked up as the afternoon declined; I saw sunlight glitter within the tiny dust storms that whirled past the open door of the bar. The cool ocean air reached through the door to touch us. You could smell a storm blowing in.
Donkey Dick spoke first. "Them SEALs didn't have to die, didn't have to get all shot up. It didn't have to go down like that. That op was planned and run like it was a trainee exercise. We're SEAL teams, not Divine fuckin' Wind teams."
Black Mac said in his laconic fashion, "The ambushor become the ambushee." Then he added, "There's old pilots an' there's bold pilots, but there ain't no old, bold pilots." I suspect Mac learned that from a mate of ours who was a SEAL before he started flying A-7s off carriers. Eighty traps without a bolter.
The Deuce King naturally spoke the names of the dead SEALs: "Connors, McFaul, Rodriguez, Tilghman." He also said, "Those SEALs were crucified upon a cross of gold," which I'm not sure I understood. But at least he didn't weep as he usually did when Jose had him and talk turned to dead SEALs.
As for me, the whole thing made me feel pretty bad.
"Donkey Dick is right," Skipper Stein said."The op didn't have to go down the way it did. When I was in Panama about a month ago, I spent a lot of time walking around that airfield."
"What did you see?" Slator asked.
"What any experienced SEAL would have seen if he didn't have his head up and locked, his mind on something other than sound tactics. I saw a runway sloping uphill and away from the sea. I saw the best naval gunfire target you'll ever find. Put one five-inch round in the middle of that runway, and there's not a Panamanian pilot alive who would roll onto the active.
"I saw a ten-story apartment building, El Torreon, standing 100 meters southwest of the runway. I paid a rent-a-cop five bucks to let me into a vacant apartment on the tenth floor, an apartment that had been vacant for nearly a year, with a For Rent sign hung out. I looked off the balcony and out a bedroom window to see the ramp in front of Noriega's hangar less than 600 meters away. Put a recoilless rifle round or even a rufus round on that ramp, and there's not a Panamanian pilot alive who would roll that Lear onto the ramp, let alone the active.
"I also saw the control tower, the helo pads, and the ramps of every other hangar from my tenth-floor observation post. When I'd seen more than I could stand, I went onto the runway, onto the ramp where the SEALs died, and looked into the bullet-riddled hangar. Then I did an about-face and looked across the runway at a three-story slaughterhouse. I also saw the high, steel holding tanks, and the high, steel tower and conveyor belt of a cement factory. The slaughterhouse and the factory were about 400 meters from the mouth of the hangar, less than 400 meters from the helo pads, and about 100 meters beyond the airfield security fence. The ocean was behind the slaughterhouse and the cement factory. I couldn't stand to look at anything else. I left because I felt sick at what I'd seen."
Slator said, "Skipper, if the SEALs had to go onto the field, if they knew Noriega was in the Lear, on a helo, could they have done that?"
"Sure. Could have had an assault team at either end of the runway, covered by SEALs in El Torreon, the cement factory, and the slaughterhouse. Could have put another fire team in the Hotel Presidente, which is a six-story residential hotel about 200 meters from El Torreon. El Torreon, by the way, means `big tower.'
"Marines could have reinforced the SEALs across a wonderful little landing beach in the lee of the Union Club. Those grunts could have put their light armored vehicles or amphibious tanks across that beach and been on the airfield in a hot minute. The SEALs in El Torreon could have covered them."
"But Skipper," I said, "is it right for us to talk about what might have been? After all, we weren't there. Aren't we acting like armchair quarterbacks?"
I wish I'd kept my mouth shut. Donkey Dick went after me first. "Listen, asshole. We ain't armchair quarterbacks, we're real quarterbacks even if we're retired."
"He's right, you clump," the Deuce King said. "We're qualified to criticize SEALs just as Terry Bradshaw is qualified to criticize John Elway."
"But we're not talking football," I said lamely.
"Perhaps we should compare it to a plane crash," Slator said. "Does a pilot have to be in a crash to comment on pilot error?"
I wanted to say it depended on whether the pilot had accurate information about the crash, but I kept my mouth shut.
"We're just trying to establish some lessons learned here," Skipper said. "If the SEALs had done a better job of recording lessons learned, perhaps disasters like this could have been avoided."
"But Skipper," Slator said, "didn't you read where the general who commanded the SEALs said that Just Cause was executed with such perfection there were no lessons learned?"
Donkey Dick said, "If the general had taken the point at Paitilla, he'da learned a lesson."
Skipper again sought to move in another direction: "Were the Jedi Warriors in Panama?" he asked.
"What was the Jedi Warriors doin', Slator?" asked Black Mac.
"Looking for Noriega in all the wrong places, but I hear they still managed several decent head shots with their light sabers."
"Shoulda been doin' a little close-quarter battle in the Dairy Queen where Noriega went to call the pope."
"What about the gunboat op, Slator?" Skipper Stein asked.
"Yeah, Slator," said Black Mac. "Tell us about the gunboat op. I hear that was a real frogman steel mission."
"Have Brandy fetch us another round, and I'll tell you the story."
Brandy brought the bottle, and Slator began. "On the night of the invasion, the Panamanians had one of their four patrol boats tied up at Pier 18 in Balboa Harbor. The pier is near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, not far from Paitilla. The U.S. naval base at Rodman is about a mile from Pier 18 and almost directly across the mouth of the canal from it.
"The gunboat was a fairly new 65-footer with an aluminum hull, twin propellers, and a top speed of 21 knots. A crew of eight manned her, and she was armed with a variety of machine guns, plus individual weapons and grenades. She had been built by Swift Ships in Louisiana and had been christened the Presidente Porras."
"Sounds like a stretch PCF, one of those Swift boats we used in 'Nam," I said.
"That's right. Not the most formidable craft afloat. But Noriega could have used the Presidente Porras for his getaway, and the crew could have positioned the boat to fire on an army assault against a nearby police station. And a Little Creek team dedicated only to ship attacks and beach reconnaissance had the mission of sinking the gunboat."
"That ain't no SEAL team, that's an underwater demolition team - a fuckin' UDT."
"You're a romantic, Donkey Dick. UDTs are no more. But the commanding officer of this SEAL team took his mission seriously. Even before he knew he would attack the gunboat, he had his men in the water so much they looked like prunes. Some grumbled that he might as well make them wear their Draegers to bed with them."
"What's a Draeger?"
"A German-made rebreather. Same principle as the old Emerson: the diver rebreathes his own exhaled air after it's been scrubbed clean of carbon dioxide and after fresh oxygen has been metered into the air supply. Of course the rebreathing system is completely closed, so no air bubbles escape to reveal the divers. Just as with the Emerson, the divers cannot exceed a depth of 30 feet without risking oxygen poisoning."
"What kind of demo were the divers going to use? The Limpets?"
"No. The commanding officer decided the Limpets were unreliable, despite the thousands of dollars the Navy spent building them. The timer was unreliable - never knew when the charge would blow, if at all.
"The C.O. decided to use MK 138 Mod 1 haversacks with MK 39 safety and arming devices, MK 96 detonators, and MCS-1 clocks - specially designed by our lab up in the Panhandle, in Panama City, for the Just Cause mission."
"There you go with all them numbers and letters again," Black Mac said. "Just tell us how much demo was gonna be used to sink the mother."
"Well, if you recall from training, the haversacks each carry twenty pounds of a very high explosive - much more destructive than dynamite."
"Jesus," the Deuce King said. "They were going to use 40 pounds against that aluminum hull?"
"Better safe than sorry. But as a matter of fact, the general who wanted the SEALs to tow the Lear onto the Paitilla runway and slash its tires also wanted the SEALs to avoid using explosives against the gunboat."
Donkey Dick said, "How the fuck you gonna sink a boat without explosives? Drill a hole in her?"
"The general decided he didn't want to sink the gunboat because gunboats are expensive. He told the C.O. he wanted the divers to wrap chains around the propellers so the boat could not get under way."
"Where did this general get his notion of how SEALs operate?" the Deuce King asked. "From reading the funny papers?"
"He probably likes Buzz Sawyer," said Skipper Stein.
"I'm sure the general wanted to minimize damage to the boat and surrounding area, because after we took Noriega out, we would be dealing with a friendly government that would need expensive boats and Lears."
"How did the SEAL C.O. react to this br
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