Making history: Engineers remember Operation Just Cause

Headquarters U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Published Nov. 21, 2011
History is not just an academic subject for some people in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They were there when it happened ... they made the history.

When the U.S. invaded Panama during Operation Just Cause in December 1989, three young engineer Soldiers parachuted in with the 82nd Airborne Division. They are now senior officers in USACE.

For most Americans, Operation Just Cause began on Dec. 20, 1989, when President George H.W. Bush announced the invasion and gave four reasons for the action:

Safeguarding the lives of U.S. citizens in Panama.  Bush stated that Manuel Noriega Noriega had declared war between the U.S. and Panama, and that he had threatened the lives of the 35,000 U.S. citizens living there.  Forces under Noriega’s command had shot and killed an unarmed U.S. serviceman, wounded another, and arrested and beat a third U.S. serviceman and brutally interrogated his wife.

Defending democracy and human rights in Panama. In May 1989, an alliance of parties opposed to Noriega’s military dictatorship had won the national election by a 3-to-1 margin. Noriega declared the election null and maintained power by force.

Combating drug trafficking. Panama had become a center for drug money laundering and a transit point for drug trafficking to the U.S. and Europe.

Protect the Torrijos–Carter Treaties. The treaties were signed Sept. 7, 1977, by President Jimmy Carter and Gen. Omar Torrijos, commander of the Panamanian National Guard, and guaranteed that Panama would gain control of the canal after 1999. Members of Congress and others in the U.S. political establishment claimed that Noriega threatened the neutrality of the Panama Canal and that the U.S. had the right under the treaties to intervene militarily to protect the canal.

For the Soldiers, Operation Just Cause began the day before, on Dec. 19 at Fort Bragg, N.C. The three now with USACE were all members of A Company, 307th Engineer Battalion, the only engineer battalion in the 82nd. The battalion commander was Lt. Col. Carl Strock, who later became Lt. Gen. Strock, the chief of engineers. The battalion operations officer was Maj. Merdith “Bo” Temple, now Maj. Gen. Temple, the acting commander of USACE.

“It was Monday morning. We had just finished PT, and we got alerted,” said Col. Charles Klinge, deputy commander of Southwestern Division. “It was my first time in the Division Ready Force. That means we were on two-hour recall.”  In 1989, Klinge was a second lieutenant commanding first platoon.

“Word was that this was an EDRE, an ordinary emergency deployment readiness exercise, and that we were going to jump into Sicily Drop Zone on Fort Bragg,” said Col. Vernie Reichling, commander of Memphis District. In 1989, he was a first lieutenant commanding second platoon.

“It was just before the Christmas holiday, and the Soldiers were grumbling. ‘Why are they doing this right at the holidays?’ But we were used to things like that in the 82nd, so we just sucked it up and drove on,” said Col. Christopher Larsen, acting commander of North Atlantic Division. In 1989, he was a captain commanding A Co., with only about four weeks of command time before his company parachuted into combat.

The EDRE deception held until they were in the Personnel Holding Area (PHA), an isolated area of Fort Bragg where Soldiers prepare for an operation.

“I got my guys together and we did normal mission preparations,” Klinge said. “We didn’t find out this was for real until we moved to the PHA. I remember distinctly that Maj. Gen. James Johnson, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, gathered the leadership and said, ‘Gentlemen, we are going to liberate the Republic of Panama.’”

“I knew it wasn’t an EDRE when we arrived at the PHA and I saw Lt. Col. Strock and Capt. Larsen talking and both had very, very serious expressions on their faces,” Reichling said. “I knew then this was for real.”

“There were two things we noticed right away when we arrived at the PHA,” Larsen said. “They were issuing live ammunition, and they were not looking at maps of Sicily Drop Zone on Fort Bragg. They were looking at maps of Panama City. Everything changed in the blink of an eye. It went from ‘Let’s get this jump over with so we can go home for Christmas,’ to everyone packing up and getting ready to jump into combat.

“That was a very uneasy night with very little sleep,” Larsen said. “We were up all night getting briefed, planning the operation, and making sure our men were prepared and kept informed.”

“We had very good relationships with our task force, the first brigade of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, so good that when they got ready to allocate parachutes for the jump, they cut infantry to take engineers,” Reichling said.

“I have a vivid memory that we were not issued reserve parachutes because it was a combat jump,” Klinge said. Training jumps are from 1,500 feet, but the first wave did a combat jump from 485 feet, “so there’s no time for a reserve ‘chute to deploy if anything goes wrong with your main parachute.”

The weather played an important factor in the preparations for Operation Just Cause.

“I remember that conditions at Fort Bragg were horrible,” Reichling said. “A major ice storm was sitting right on top of us and it was cold! We had to take off our winter gear before getting our ‘chutes on, and I have never been so cold in my life.”

“This was back when equipment was heavier and combat loads were not that different from World War II,” Larsen said. “Most guys jumped with 60 or 80 pounds, and the parachutes added probably another 60 pounds. The aircraft were a good distance from the building, and we had to walk out to them in ice and snow.”

“When we finally got on the aircraft, it was crowded like it always is, and it was warm,” Klinge said. “We had been standing in freezing rain and we had been up all night, so I slept most of the way down. We didn’t wear our parachutes in the aircraft because it was such a long flight. We did in-flight rigging. I remember being woken up when it was time to put on our parachutes to jump into Panama.”

The paratroopers flew to Panama in Air Force C-141 Starlifters flown by the 317th Tactical Airlift Wing. Their objective was the Omar Torrijos International Airport in Panama City. (Now renamed the Tocumen International Airport.) They noticed two things immediately when they arrived. The first was the temperature change. The second was the bullets.

“My aircraft flew over the drop zone, they opened the doors and the jumpmaster yelled, ‘Hot DZ! Hot DZ!’ We saw tracers on the ground and they shut the doors and we went around again,” Klinge said.

“They opened the doors and we hooked up our static lines,” Larsen said. “The first thing we noticed was the temperature change. It was freezing at Fort Bragg, and hot and humid in Panama. Then we had to stand there for about 10 minutes holding all that combat load in that heat before we jumped. So finally jumping out of the aircraft was almost a relief.

“They were going to drop us on the runway,” Larsen said. “Regrouping is so much easier that way because you can see everyone and you can see where to go. But the pilots saw gunfire in the area and veered off the runway and dropped us in sawgrass 10 or 15 feet tall. We had to get out of our gear and work out way through the sawgrass to get to the runway.”

“The jump was like any other,” Reichling said. “When I came out of the plane I remember the hot, humid air hitting my face. My ‘chute opened and I had a quick chance to look around before hitting the ground. I remember seeing tracer rounds on the north end of the airfield. I landed in the middle of a swamp with my ‘chute on top of me. I found out later that the Air Force dropped us off-target because of firefights on the airfield. I got my weapon in action and humped to the sound of the gunfire. Our first obstacle was a six-foot chain link fence. We had to cut a hole through it to get to the airfield.”

“Our first big mission was to clear the runway so the Army could fly in helicopters,” Larsen said. “That was mostly a job of policing up parachutes.”

“I had a couple of guys who could hotwire anything, so we immediately commandeered every vehicle we could find for that mission,” Reichling said.

The engineer paratroopers of A Company supported several military assaults against the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), but their most high-profile mission was to assist the arrest of Gen. Manuel Noriega.

Navy SEALs had destroyed Noriega’s private jet and gunboat in the early hours of Operation Just Cause, and Army attacks had destroyed La Comandancia, headquarters of the PDF, leaving Noriega nowhere to go. He remained at large for a few days, but faced a massive manhunt and a $1 million reward for his capture.

On the fifth day after the invasion, Noriega telephoned the Apostolic Nuncio, the Vatican embassy, to seek refuge in the church. American Soldiers set up a perimeter outside the building, because direct action against the embassy would have been an act of war against the Vatican and enraged Roman Catholics worldwide.

“I got a call from Lt. Col. Strock, who said he wanted to discuss a mission,” Larsen said. “When we got together, he said we had to do a wire mission in Panama City. Noriega had holed up in the Vatican embassy, and we needed to surround it with wire, more to control the crowds that were gathering than to keep Noriega in there. We set up two perimeters, one quite a distance away to keep the crowds from getting too close and interfering with military operations. The other was closer to the embassy.”

“I remember vividly meeting Lt. Col. Strock at the Apostolic Nuncio,” Reichling said. “His exact words were, ‘Vernie, I know you’ve got this, but the commanding general asked me to come down here and ensure it was done.’ Noriega surrendered a few days later. That was an awesome mission.”

The intensity of operations slowed down for the U.S. troops after Noriega’s surrender.

“After that, a lot of our mission switched to recovery operations, accounting for ammunition and property and preparing to turn over operations to the U.S. presence already in Panama,” Larsen said.

“Our last mission was ‘Guns for Money,’” Reichling said. “We bought truckloads of weapons to get them off the street. It was a great mission, and we were fed very well by the local people, who were happy we were there.”

“We were on the ground in Panama about a month,” Klinge said. “We celebrated Christmas and New Year’s there, and I got to call my parents on Christmas on one of those old RATT rigs (radio teletype) to tell them I was OK.”

“Many of our uniformed and civilian personnel have served in combat, many more recently than Operation Just Cause,” Temple said. “Those experiences have resulted in a knowledgeable, broad-based workforce and leadership who are moving USACE into the 21st century. We’re proud of them all!”

The 82nd Airborne Division, including A Company, parachuted into Sicily Drop Zone at Fort Bragg on Jan. 20, 1990. Later that year they went back to Panama for training at the Jungle Operations Training Center, “then in August and September we deployed to Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and we were there until March or April of 1991,” Larsen said. “So Operation Just Cause was just the beginning of a very busy time for us.”