DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY
XVIII AIRBORNE CORPS
FORT BRAGG, NORTH CAROLINA
US ARMY CENTER OF MILITARY HISTORY
JOINT TASK FORCE SOUTH IN OPERATION JUST CAUSE
20 December 1989 - 12 January 1990
Oral History Interview
Major General James H. Johnson, Jr.
82d Airborne Division
Interview conducted 5 March 1990 at the Headquarters of the 82d Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Interviewer: Dr. Robert K. Wright, Jr., Historian, XVIII Airborne Corps
JOINT TASK FORCE SOUTH IN OPERATION JUST CAUSE
20 December 1989 - 12 January 1990
Oral History Interview JCIT 026
DR. WRIGHT: This is an Operation JUST CAUSE interview being conducted on 5 March 1990 in the Headquarters of the 82d Airborne Division. The interviewing official is Dr. Robert K. Wright, the XVIII Airborne Corps Historian.
And, sir, if I could, if you could give me your full name, rank and serial number?
MG JOHNSON: James H. Johnson, Jr., Major General, United States Army, ***-**-****.
DR. WRIGHT: And you are the commander of the 82d Airborne Division, sir?
MG JOHNSON: Correct.
DR. WRIGHT: And how long have you held command?
MG JOHNSON: I took command in October of 1988.
DR. WRIGHT: During Operation JUST CAUSE, you commanded elements of your own division and you had command of a brigade that was chopped to you from the 7th Infantry Division?
MG JOHNSON: That's right. I deployed from Fort Bragg for the combat parachute assault with what amounted to a brigade task force: 1st Brigade. That included its normal slice of artillery, engineer, air defense, military police, signal and so on.
Upon arrival in the objective area, after link-up with the Rangers, the 1st [Battalion] of the 75th Rangers was placed under our operational control [on] D-Day, and remained so until their redeployment. And on about D+4 or [D+]5, once we got into stability operations in Panama City, a brigade of the 7th Infantry Division was attached to the 82d--the 1st Brigade of the 7th Infantry Division. [Elements of the 9th Infantry, the] Manchus.
DR. WRIGHT: Okay, sir. If we can, starting a little bit in the planning process, at what point were you brought into the awareness that there was a detailed plan for [a] contingency operation in Panama?
MG JOHNSON: I had been aware all along that there was an appropriate series of plans, BLUE SPOON specifically, dealing with an intervention in Panama. We were not involved or troop-listed and I had not personally been briefed on anything. It was only after XVIII Airborne Corps picked up the planning responsibilities that I became more aware of the potential for our involvement.
Later [came] the first planning conference down in Panama that I participated in. Just prior to that we had been briefed on our role, how we were to be ... the concept for our employment, and we developed implementing plans and began to look at concepts for employment, the troop list, the mission analysis of the targets, the kinds of missions that we would--the battle tasks that would be associated with our involvement.
And then we went off to the first planning conference in Panama. You know, the rest is history. I think there were some three or four of those, which included not only the opportunity to back-brief our plan, but to do personal reconnaissance of our three principal objectives at Panama Viejo, Tinajitas, and Fort Cimarron, as well as overfly--at some distance now--the proposed drop zone at Torrijos-Tocumen International [Airport].
DR. WRIGHT: To get into the targeting a little bit, you were assigned the three targets by the corps plan?
MG JOHNSON: I'm trying to recollect here because it all kind of runs together. I'm not sure if I'm absolutely accurate, but I believe that is correct--that our mission was to prevent reinforcement of either P.D.F. [Panamanian Defense Force] reinforcement of the International Airport or Panama City, and also denying P.D.F. ability to escape into the Panamanian interior.
And so based on our analysis and the enemy situation, we, of course, were focused on neutralizing the P.D.F., and the three major P.D.F. garrisons in our area of operations were Panama Viejo, Tinajitas, and Fort Cimarron.
The priority of those, though, was based on our analysis. I do not believe that that was force-fed by--in fact I know it was not--we were not told which one; we were just told here they are. And we sort of tracked ... in fact they changed as the enemy moved, following the aborted coup in October and the movement of P.D.F. since then, the threat changed. It shifted from Fort Cimarron, which at the outset we saw as the priority target. It was the largest force, it was a mechanized, motorized, armored force, clearly the greatest threat to the airfield.
But with the movement of troops around to reinforce La Comandancia, that became the least threatening of the three targets, and Panama Viejo became the most likely. So all of that ... we had the flexibility in our plan to deal with whichever one posed the greatest threat. But at the time of our deployment from Fort Bragg, the priority was Panama Viejo, Tinajitas, and Fort Cimarron. And that's the order in which we executed them.
DR. WRIGHT: As you developed your plan, you had what is one of the most challenging, I think, military operations that I'm aware of. You had to make a combat assault onto the airfield, regroup in PZ [pickup zone] posture, and then conduct three sequential airmobile assaults, with no breathing space at all. How had you developed your plan to be able to accomplish that difficult task?
MG JOHNSON: We knew ... you know [the] backward planning sequence for airborne [and] SOF [special operations forces] operations were paramount here. First you come up with your ground tactical plan and, as you said, the first thing we wanted to do was put ourselves in a PZ posture as quickly as possible. So that's the way we dropped our soldiers and that's the way we dropped our equipment, to put the equipment and the people so that troops could be assembled and quickly moved to pickup zones on the taxiway to the west of the main runway at Torrijos. That was the intended pickup zone.
The equipment was to drop to the east of that where those troops that were to go by ground movement to contact, to open up MSR [main supply route] to our objective areas, were positioned and cross-loaded in a way that they could quickly de-rig the heavy equipment, put it into operation so that we could move those convoys off the runway.
We also needed to consider in our ground tactical plan both linkup with the Rangers and then passage through the airhead that they had established. And they were to escort [us] through and passage out along the main highway leading into Panama City, which would lead us to ... that is, the major road, I forget the name, I think it was Pan American Highway, or Highway One, or something ... that would lead us down into Panama Viejo/Tinajitas area, San Miguelito. We did the necessary coordination and liaison with Rangers to help facilitate the rapid movement of the ground convoys.
And of course in our planning trips to Panama, of which there were three or four, we did the air mission planning with the Air Mission Commander [AMC] for the conduct of the air assault operations, both pickup zone procedures as well as selecting the landing zones. And indeed they were identified, flight routes were identified, how many lifts and the number of aircraft to go into each landing, and there were multiple landing zones at each objective, all of which was to be done at night. Clearly it's fairly complex and needed to be planned out in great detail and then rehearsed.
And indeed it was. The AMC, both the [Aviation] brigade commander and battalion commander made a trip here to Fort Bragg (in fact while we were in BCTP [Battle Command Training Program]) about a week before, a week or two weeks before the operations, and went over their concept. So we had a good hand-off as they changed air mission commanders in Panama. And they did indeed rehearse these operations down there, I'm told, prior to our arrival.
DR. WRIGHT: And then you had the opportunity to conduct a full-scale rehearsal [Operation BLACK KNIGHT] here at Sicily Drop Zone in November?
MG JOHNSON: Right. Our rehearsal here ... we had planned ... an EDRE, emergency deployment readiness exercise, had been on the schedule, and we merely converted that. I wanted to replicate the same battle tasks without creating ... it was a different scenario environment, but I wanted to execute the same tasks. Of course [I] did not want to compromise what it was we were doing in Panama.
So we created a situation that caused us to execute pretty much the same battle tasks, collective and individual tasks that we would have to accomplish for Operation [JUST CAUSE's] OPLAN 90-2. We received an air package of 20 C-141s [Starlifters] which replicated the PAX [passenger] aircraft, and we had ... I forget the number of heavy drop [aircraft]; it wasn't anywhere nearly as extensive. We were not able to rehearse that in toto, but we pre-positioned equipment on the ground where we did not have the airlift to drop it.
So we did rehearse, to the extent that we could, the airborne assault, the movement to PZ posture by those troops that were to conduct air assault operations, and the de-rigging and putting into operation the vehicles and equipment that were to be used to conduct the ground movement to contact.
The three objectives: we selected three objectives for our three battalions as well, similar to the same objectives in our OPLAN. One of which had armored vehicles involved which simulated that threat ... another of which included ... that [the first] was Fort Cimarron. The second one was in the Northern Training Area; we simulated Tinajitas and the heavy mortar capability that was present at that garrison. And then for Panama Viejo, we used the MOUT [military operations on urbanized terrain training] Site, which was Panama Viejo, of course, downtown Panama City. We wanted to expose our soldiers to what they'd be running into there, a lot of noncombatants.
So we tried to replicate as best we could the kind of targets that they would be going up against. Again, it was a night drop, a night assembly and movement to PZ posture, and pick up by [UH-60] Blackhawk. Night air assault operations in those three targets.
DR. WRIGHT: Was the rehearsal done with the seats out on the Blackhawks?
MG JOHNSON: No. It was done with the seats in, just as a normal training [event]. The only seats-out training we did rehearse, though, [was] static. [We rehearsed] load training with seats out of the Blackhawk a number of times with those units that were in mission status. We had to do static load training with seats out so that our soldiers were accustomed to that. We are not allowed in peacetime to train, however, with seats out. Therefore, we didn't in rehearsal. Could I have requested to do that rehearsal? Maybe. But I did not want to, did not want to make it look like we were rehearsing an OPLAN [operations plan] because I didn't want to "blow" the operation.
So it was a normal ... our EDRE was a normal EDRE that we routinely conduct. Again, we just sort of fine-tuned the specific missions and tasks to replicate as close as we could the Panama missions that we knew we were going to assign to our units.
DR. WRIGHT: Now, this was rehearsed with the DRB [division ready brigade]?
MG JOHNSON: Yes.
DR. WRIGHT: And that DRB at the time of the rehearsal was 3rd Brigade?
MG JOHNSON: Yes, it was, the 3d Brigade. As, of course, our planning intensified, COL Glenn Hale, the commander of the 3d Bridge, the mission brigade, made two trips with me to Panama.
The initial planning involved the 2d Brigade. In fact, COL Jack Hamilton, 2d Brigade [commander], developed the initial plan. COL Hamilton never made a trip with me. He handed the plan off to 3d Brigade, and 3d Brigade did ... based on the reconnaissance down there, COL Hale and his staff developed a more comprehensive plan for the employment of the brigade and its assets and resources, based on the airlift that we had requested, what we would be able to take with us.
As I recall, COL Hale made two trips with me. [On] one he and I went and did the recon; and the second trip down, he and COL Nix, who was to assume mission from him, went down and looked at the landing zones, did an on-site reconnaissance. But COL Hale is the one that wrote the brigade plan. He and his staff developed it and rehearsed it on this EDRE and, as you know, rotated from mission and support. And the 1st Brigade (COL Jack Nix) assumed mission about a week or so ... a week and a half prior to our alert.
DR. WRIGHT: Now, you had anticipated this when you did your rehearsal, however, and you had 1st Brigade commanders involved in the EDRE?
MG JOHNSON: We used the 1st Brigade to evaluate the 3rd Brigade, during the conduct of their EDRE, that's correct, to try to brainstorm problems that might result from that.
I'm glad you asked, reminded me of that, because that was a very important aspect of the planning process. Knowing that our mission rotates every six weeks, we had to make sure we had a real good hand-off from the mission brigade that was planning this operation, 3rd Brigade, to the 1st Brigade that was to assume whatever they did in the first part of December there.
DR. WRIGHT: As you looked at your three initial targets and you did your in-country reconnaissance, was there anything that struck you in particular as potential difficulties with those three sites?
MG JOHNSON: In the case of Panama Viejo, the concern there was [that] your downtown has very constrained areas to get into. The selection of LZs [landing zones] was ... you know, they weren't the best. And with prior warning, they could be very hairy.
DR. WRIGHT: The two LZs were the soccer field and the beach area?
MG JOHNSON: Right. Just picking them in the first place, there weren't real good ones anywhere near Panama Viejo. We were trying to selecting landing zones that were out of direct fire range of the targets, to get the troops on the ground. And then the notion was that we would seal off, isolate the objective, and commence to try to neutralize, if necessary destroy--whatever it took to get them to surrender.
But the selection of landing zones in the Panama Viejo area was not a piece of cake. That was going to be the toughest part, I think, of that particular objective. And also it's the closest one to the city, the downtown, La Comandancia, and we knew that the U.E.S.A.T. was there, a very highly trained, tough enemy.
At Tinajitas we knew also that it's up on a high ground, it was going to be a tough objective to get to. The landing zone we picked there ... personally I was able to pick that one out, selecting a landing zone that was behind high ground that masked fires from the Tinajitas garrison. I thought that was a pretty good landing zone. However, with the advanced notice that the P.D.F. had, they had moved from the garrison and now were located in a warehouse, and otherwise in and around the landing zones and were able to place very effective automatic weapons fires into the LZ. That was the hottest LZ. That's where we, as you know, took two casualties, two killed in action, to automatic weapons, sniper and mortar fire.
DR. WRIGHT: Had you anticipated that they would move, have time to move the mortars out of garrison and start firing back in on you?
MG JOHNSON: No. Because of course our intent was to go in at night, and we had hoped that the element of surprise would allow us to get in and isolate the objective. Again, that's why we picked our LZs far enough away from the garrisons that we had hoped to be able to do that. But now, you know, we're talking considerable delay as a result of the de-icing and all the other aspects. I know it's just "you do the best you can in the face of the situation." We had the ability to suppress. We did not lose any helicopters. It could have been a lot worse. If it were really tough getting in there, then I would have expected that we would have suppressed the area. To do that, the risk is now we're talking about a lot of noncombatant casualties, and we may win the battle and lose the war because of all the innocent people that we take out. So I think ... I would hope that history would report great restraint on the part of the American army and our approach to taking these objectives, particularly Tinajitas, because they drew an awful lot of fire.
We were able to get on the ground, though, safely and put [such] significant combat power on the ground that they were able to overwhelm the garrison without taking a lot of casualties. The tough part of that objective was getting up the hill. Really tough. And we saw on the landing zone here perhaps the best use of the drills and disciplined fire control by our soldiers. They reacted to the fire that they were getting from the warehouse and other places, took it out, and were able to get on with the mission quite quickly. I'm really proud of the performance of the 1st [Battalion of the] 504th [Infantry] at Tinajitas, because they went into a pretty hot situation, dealt with it, and accomplished their mission as quickly as one could possibly hope for. I was really pleased with the results there.
DR. WRIGHT: Then the third of the targets at Fort Cimarron?
MG JOHNSON: At Cimarron, the concerns there ... again we picked two landing zones, one to the west that was well out of direct fire range, where we could place supporting fires. We were able to get in there without drawing any fire at all--didn't expect to, and didn't. The other landing zone was considerably south by about 1,500 meters to 2,000 meters south of the objective, and the intent was to move north with the force in the west providing supporting fires, [and] assault the objective. And that, with the pre-assault fires and all, proceeded very easily, really. It was not a tough objective to take down. Although there was some resistance, it wasn't significant. By the time they got there, they had all left.
In fact, that was kind of the case in all three targets. By the time it actually came to assault the objective, there was nobody left. We learned later that what really happened is that the leaders, those that were there, quickly departed having issued the weapons, and left the enlisted soldiers to do the fighting. So resistance crumbled very quickly. Initially very strong, but then once we showed up with overwhelming firepower, they quickly disappeared.
DR. WRIGHT: Did you have any of the [Psychological Operations] loudspeaker teams available to you?
MG JOHNSON: Yes. We had three mounted loudspeakers: HMMWVs [M-998-series High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicles] with 250-watt [loudspeakers]--tremendous capability. We had nine man-portable loudspeaker teams that were parceled out to each of the task forces to use (once [done] isolating the objective), and helping to convince the P.D.F. that they really don't want to fight. The only people that are going to lose are them and a lot of innocent people.
DR. WRIGHT: And did that work pretty much as anticipated?
MG JOHNSON: Yes. I think the loudspeaker teams proved very effective and needed, not only in the initial combat operations, but in the stability phase, the security phase that followed, in trying to bring law and order and restore confidence of the people that democracy, freedom, was in the process of being restored; you've got a new government that's getting ready to stand up; we're here to help you; tell us what we can do for you.
So they were invaluable to have along with us.
DR. WRIGHT: As you eyeballed the International Airport that was to be your drop zone, you couldn't get too terribly close to it, I guess. You must have observed it from, what, a helicopter out over the water?
MG JOHNSON: Fly-bys. A helicopter at a distance of 2,000, 3,000 meters or more, flying away from it. We obviously did not want to fly and hover over anything. All of our visual reconnaissance flights were done kind of [as] routine air traffic, because obviously we didn't want to give away what we were looking at as objectives or landing zones or drop zones.
So we never got a good look at Torrijos-Tocumen International. However, I've had enough ... over the years, I've had a number of trips to Panama, have been through the Jungle Warfare School about five or six times, and in the last 29 years have been down there many, many times.
There's no doubt in my mind that once you got off the active runway and within 50 feet of the runway that we're talking tall elephant grass and swamp. I could tell that from just the visual, looking at the photographs, the satellite type, whatever kind of imagery we had. I don't know where it came from, but pretty good imagery.
And knowing that we're in the dry season, but coming out of the wet season, I was very leery about getting too far away from the airfield itself for fear of getting the heavy equipment, especially, stuck. I wasn't too worried about the troops, because you know we can deal with anything. But the equipment, I was really concerned about the equipment being stuck.
DR. WRIGHT: And there is just, I guess to the southeast of the airfield, there is that fairly large tree ... I hesitate calling it a jungle patch, but it's a fairly significant forested area. Was that of concern to you?
MG JOHNSON: No, I don't recollect that as being a concern, nor do I recollect that as being a real hazard or causing us a problem.
Most of our problems ... in fact from what we've been able to ascertain about sixty percent of the people and sixty percent of the equipment landed on the drop zone. [The] drop zone being defined as the fence that goes around the airfield. About sixty/forty; or maybe it's forty/sixty. Let me check that. [Pause.]
Make it sixty/forty. So we were not that far from the drop zone. In fact, we were on the drop zone for the most part. Given the distance we had to fly, the fact that there were no lights on the runway--there were lights at Tocumen where the Rangers did their drop, so navigation by the Air Force, I would have hoped, was a lot simpler for their drop than it was for ours. Ours is like flying into a black hole, to quote the pilots.
I can understand that because it was very dark. And while there was supposed to be a lot of illumination, as I looked out the door I noted, while standing in the door, that the moon is being obscured by clouds and there is very little illumination. In fact, it's dark as hell. I remember thinking that to myself. But I could see the runway and I went.
I think that our drop was reasonably close. The problem was, of course, that after fifty feet east of the runway where it was fairly hard, I mean the ground you could negotiate very easily, you got into some real tall elephant grass, a lot of swamps and holes, just at the fence. And that's where most people landed and that's where most of the equipment landed, all of the equipment landed.
DR. WRIGHT: So while it's on the drop zone, it's still a considerable obstacle to be overcome?
MG JOHNSON: Yes.
DR. WRIGHT: And you had sort of been aware that that was a real risk?
MG JOHNSON: Yes. I was concerned about that. And the last several days, I expressed that concern to the Air Force and requested that if they were going to err, to err on the side of flying closer to the runway, not away from the runway.
Instead, it's my belief that they erred flying away from the runway because of a concern they had about leaving equipment and having equipment laying on the runway, which would have rendered the runway unusable.
It's always easier in hindsight to go back and "what if" or criticize. We did not want to jump on the runway for several reasons. We did not want heavy equipment there nor parachutes there that would have precluded not only Air Force aircraft landing there if we needed to bring on critical follow-on loads, but also we had helicopters coming in, twenty of them, blades turning, and we didn't want the chutes to get caught in that. Of course, that was a real critical operation.
So I think in our initial planning, we were determined to try to keep the runways clear. But I'm not sure that we really considered the impact of the swamp and the tall elephant grass, what that was going to have on our ability to rapidly assemble.
So I became very concerned about that and as a consequence, as I mentioned, tried to stress with the Air Force, I don't care if you put us on the runway. In fact, I'd prefer that in many cases. So what I'd really like for you to do is fly right up that runway. If all else fails, go right up the runway and we'll take care of the rest.
That isn't what happened. They flew to the right of it, basically because that's what we told them to do. So I think we tried to be too precise. You know, I don't want to really second-guess. I don't think it's fair to do that. I'm not sure what I would do differently. It could have been a lot worse.
With the delay as a result of the de-icing, we were not going to rapidly assemble and move to PZ posture anyway. We didn't have sufficient combat power right away. So with the delay, we were able to be in PZ posture, and also the aircraft weren't available right away, so timing-wise I'm not sure it made any difference, the fact that we were up to our elbows in elephant grass, or over our head in elephant grass.
DR. WRIGHT: As you develop your plan, you put together your troop list of who you're going to take; I assume you used the standard brigade-size airfield seizure package and then modified from that?
MG JOHNSON: Yeah. We knew that, first of all, well, it wasn't exactly the airfield seizure because we didn't have to seize the airfield. The Rangers were to seize the airfield. Really all we were going to is assemble and move out to these targets.
But in the case of the artillery, there was no--in fact, as I recall, the Corps Commander's initial guidance was we don't need any artillery. However, we took four tubes of [M-102] 105[mm howitzers] because I don't like being without artillery. You never know what you're going to go into. We took the capability of split battery and intended to use it out to the east at Fort Cimarron if necessary because of the less likely to induce collateral damage.
But we really had no use for artillery in the built-up area in the city because of collateral damage. We had not intended it to use it in that role.
DR. WRIGHT: You took a larger slice of the [M-551] Sheridans than normal.
MG JOHNSON: Yes, we did. Normally our airfield seizure, the small airfield would be two Sheridans. We jumped eight, had four pre-positioned in country to support 4/6 Mech [4th Battalion (Mechanized), 6th Infantry] in the take-down of La Comandancia. The eight we took were to be used in the ground movement to contact link-up with the three battalions that conducted air assault operations on our objective.
So we jumped in eight Sheridans; two platoons, two 4-Sheridan platoons. We also jumped a large number of HMMWVs. Let's see: four howitzers and their [HMMWV] prime movers; we jumped eight Sheridans; and a total of about seventy-one HMMWVs if memory serves correctly. [The HMMWVs were] principally cargo carriers that haul troops, with pedestal-mounted [M-2] .50-caliber machine guns. And most of the hatch-back [HMMWV] TOW [Tube-launched Optically-guided anti-tank Weapon] carriers were .50-caliber mounted, again for convey escort and the use of the .50-caliber for surgical fires. [M-2] use in built-up areas helped to provide that additional combat power to isolate the P.D.F. and show them that we mean business. Also command and control HMMWVs.
And we also jumped in our medical package, the advanced trauma team that gives us surgical capability. We jumped in some combat service support, maintenance, ammunition, water, contact team type, but it was mostly those vehicles that we needed for command and control and to haul troops and supplies with the accompanying firepower that would be needed to keep the main supply routes open.
DR. WRIGHT: And the use of the .50-cals., the pedestal-mounted .50-cals. on the cargo HMMWVs is a division initiative?
MG JOHNSON: Yes. Some two years ago, or so, we decided that while--well, first of all, you know, we're equipped in each of our infantry battalions with an anti-tank company that's got twenty TOW-mounted HMMWVs, HMMWVs mounted with TOWs. Twenty TOWs: that's quite a tank-killing capability in a battalion, 180 in the division. Great in the Middle East and in the 1,000-series OPLANS, but not necessarily of any value in built-up areas or in the Central or South American or Caribbean Basin type of scenario.
What we thought we did need was something to put out some firepower, like a .50-caliber machine gun. Of course, we can always put the [7.62mm M-]60, but the .50 has a lot more breakdown capability, blow-down of buildings, more accurate, more destructive.
So we asked for and received the .50-caliber machine guns to augment those which we had. Each battalion [initially] had only five to go ring-mounted with its 2-1/2 ton trucks. We have now at least thirteen of them in each battalion and we're going to twenty in each battalion so that we can, if we have to, we can tailor every one of our TOW carriers with .50-caliber.
DR. WRIGHT: So that gives you twenty vehicles, forty weapons systems, and you can tailor to whatever specific?
MG JOHNSON: Correct. We're not there yet, but we do have in each battalion right now--we have in the last several years upped the number in each battalion to where they would have anywhere from--well, usually about thirteen. They come [by Table of Organization] with five, and we got them eight additional. That's a total of 13 that they can use in a variety of ways, tailoring as necessary.
That's kind of a way of life in the 82d Airborne Division. We need the kind of equipment that allows us to tailor, flexibility to tailor, to deal with any situation that's dependent upon METT-T (Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops Available, and Time). And that's what we did in this case was tailor the force to deal with the situation we thought we would be facing.
DR. WRIGHT: As you developed this package, you've got basically three infantry battalions and one additional company that was to provide you a division reserve or to help secure the airhead?
MG JOHNSON: In the case of the 4[th Battalion of the] 325[th Infantry], it needs to be said that the mission brigade was short a battalion. The 1st Brigade's 3rd Battalion[, 504th Infantry] was already in Panama going to Jungle Operation Training Course, jungle warfare course, and of course was attached to the [3d] Brigade of the 7th [Infantry] Division for operations at Gamboa, the Madden Dam, Renacer Prison, and Cerro Tigre.
So that left us with a mission brigade with two battalions. It was rounded out with a battalion out of the 2nd Brigade, the 4/325. 4/325 during this period, by the way, they didn't participate in the rehearsal with us either, the 2/325 [2d Battalion, 325th Infantry] participated with us in rehearsal and then went on block leave, so all three battalions were fairly new to this mission.
But again I think as a tribute to our flexibility here and the seriousness with which we deal with our mission and readiness requirements is that we've always got a brigade ready to go, even during the half-day schedule at Christmas time, which is where we're at.
So 4/325 is short a company, because they have a company out at the Joint Readiness Training Center playing OPFOR [Opposing Force]. The 4/325 in April was scheduled to go to JRTC, so they have a company out there, along with their 81's [81mm mortars]--as I recall, their 81 platoon.
But we had backfilled the 4/325 with a company out of the 3rd Brigade, Alpha 3/505 [Company A, 3d Battalion, 505th Infantry], and I think their mortar platoon. So the 4/325 did not go down there with an extra company. They went down there ...
DR. WRIGHT: ... with a full load, but cross-leveled.
MG JOHNSON: Two of their companies, plus a round-out company from the 3rd Brigade. While they were down there, we brought in their Charlie company [Company C]. Once they returned from JRTC, we infiltrated them to Panama so that ... for several reasons. I can't really argue that we really needed them there, but so that they would not become bastard children once the battalion got back. We thought it was important to bring them on down, which we did.
So the 4th Battalion, 325[th Infantry], ended up by the time we redeployed with three of their companies plus A Company, 3/505.
DR. WRIGHT: We start on the 16th of December with the shooting incident and then the roughing up of the hostages. At what point do you get the word that it's a go?
MG JOHNSON: I am at the Aviation Brigade's Winter Formal, and LTG [Carl W.] Stiner called me on the telephone and told me that I needed to meet with him at 2200 hours in his war room or wherever it was at Corps Headquarters.
At that point I knew that something would be going down.
DR. WRIGHT: So you go up, you get briefed?
MG JOHNSON: I go up and get briefed, and at that point I learned that the President had made the decision to execute the plan. I was allowed to bring one person with me. I brought my division G-3, LTC Dan McNeil. It was either 8 o'clock or 10 o'clock, I can't remember. In any event, I decided at that point that I did not want to--we knew when D-Day was and H-Hour.
I decided not to notify anyone else so as to maintain OPSEC [Operational Security], except for those that were to pre-deploy with the Corps Commander and his battle staff to Panama. We sent a planner, MAJ Bill Caldwell, and an officer out of our G-2 shop.
DR. WRIGHT: You returned then to the formal?
MG JOHNSON: No.
DR. WRIGHT: Okay.
MG JOHNSON: The only other person I notified that night was the Chief of Staff of the Division, COL George Crocker, who was leaving on leave the next morning at 5:30 with his wife and family, and I had to go to his house and tell him not to leave. And again, he didn't require an explanation. I told him I needed him here, because at the same time the ADC-S [Assistant Division Commander, Support, BG R. F. Timmons] ... the ADC-S is on leave, moving his family to Washington. The ADC-O [Assistant Division Commander, Operations], that's BG Timmons, the ADC-O ...
DR. WRIGHT: ... BG [J. W.] Kinzer ...
MG JOHNSON: ... BG Kinzer, was part of my predeployment package to Panama, although he was not to be notified 'till the next morning, because there was still plenty of time to notify him to get in here. So the only person I notified that night was COL Crocker to tell him 'I need you to come in tomorrow morning.'
And then the next morning, I told the command group what was going on: the chief, the two ADCs (or the one ADC that was here, BG Kinzer). And I decided at that time that I would initiate, really I had decided the night before that I wanted to initiate an EDRE because I had full confidence that we could execute our emergency deployment readiness procedures and meet all the deployment times; that we had a plan in being; that we could brief the troops in the personnel holding area, our marshaling area where we were isolated. Because I felt that once we started to outload, that we would create a major signature and compromise ...
[End of Side 1, Tape 1]
DR. WRIGHT: Continuing with Side 2.
MG JOHNSON: My recommendation to the corps commander was that we run a normal Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise [EDRE] commencing Monday afternoon at about 1300 when all the civilians will have gone home.
DR. WRIGHT: Because we're on half-day work schedule?
MG JOHNSON: We're on half-day schedule. And I felt like that would really provide the least signature you could expect.
DR. WRIGHT: Were you concerned ... were you concerned there that the troops would start grousing that the half-day schedule had just been basically aborted?
MG JOHNSON: No. Troops, when they ... I knew that once the troops knew that this was for real, they could care less about the half-day schedule or the Christmas holidays or anything. They would not want to miss a real-world deployment. So that was not a concern. I was really mainly concerned about creating a signature and compromising the exercise.
What happened, however, is that the Air Force, because they're now not working eighteen hours but they're working forty-eight hours, see, they needed forty-eight hours to assemble the armada. And they began right the night before when the President made the decision. Sunday evening their clock started. And they were going to start arriving here Monday afternoon around noon, ready to load. And there was a need for us to up-load the heavy equipment aircraft, of which there were twenty-eight C-141s and three more C-141 CDS [containerized delivery system], to be loaded and moved to Charleston. Then the twenty PAX [passenger] aircraft, the twenty C-141s would come in here.
DR. WRIGHT: On the 19th?
MG JOHNSON: Yeah. On the night of the drop. So inasmuch as we had to load earlier than our eighteen-hour sequence would permit, we decided in the morning to go ahead and initiate the EDRE at 9 o'clock, with an N-plus-2 meeting at 1100 hours. So indeed that's what we did.
And I called the ... I asked the commanders, had all the brigade commanders up here at 9 o'clock, to brief ... to tell them that this was a real-world operation, not to be discussed with anyone, that we would be running an EDRE to cover the operation, that we would brief our troops at battalion level and below once we got into the marshaling area.
So 11 o'clock came along, the N-plus-2 time, and we briefed it just like ... used the same scenario at the one that we ran in the rehearsal to be executed here at Fort Bragg, just your normal EDRE, and just treated it as a normal training and readiness exercise using the troop list; that which was to be rigged, and that way we got the rigging started, and that way we got the troops down in the marshaling area isolated, so that we could then brief them and begin the troop-leading procedures and rehearsals, the issue of ammunition and MCI [mission contingency] items, pre-jump training, and all the rest that goes into a real-world deployment.
DR. WRIGHT: Now, in comparison, say, to Operation URGENT FURY [the 1983 invasion of Grenada], what I have been able to pick up so far is that the whole procedure on loadout went infinitely smoother, despite the adverse weather. Everything ran pretty much like clockwork. Is that a valid conclusion to draw?
MG JOHNSON: I hate to compare it with URGENT FURY because that was a different time, different place, different mission. But the fact, what you say is right. URGENT FURY, actually they got a head start on N-Hour, and yet the division was still two hours late making stations time. And they didn't have anything to rig that I recollect.
But we did not, on this Operation, JUST CAUSE, we did not cover ourselves in glory in some of the rigging areas, particularly in the upload of the [M-551] Sheridan tank with live ammunition. And that's a problem that we're going to have to deal with. We had some difficulty there.
But if you were to ... and I was, I guess, uneasy because I wanted to move faster than really our readiness procedures called for. We were in fact, normally, you know, our outloading procedures are such that we are ready to load at about N-plus-14, N-plus-16. I was asking them to be ready to load beginning at N-plus-6 and N-plus-8, N-plus-10. And we had pre-rigged some of the loads.
Tremendous improvement over URGENT FURY, but I mean that was six years ago, and if we didn't learn from that, then shame on everybody. So I think it's as it should be. I believe all of the services, the Army and all of the services, our whole ... anyone who is in this profession, learned from URGENT FURY. If not, we ought to all be fired.
DR. WRIGHT: Weather at this time is deteriorating rapidly. We've got a cold front, we've got sleet, rain. So you've got people that are used to cold weather, you've got people that are basically wearing sweaters; cold weather, the temperate weather BDUs [battle dress uniforms]; and whatnot. How do you get them transitioned to be prepared for the 90-degree temperatures in Panama?
MG JOHNSON: There's really not a hell of a lot we can do. We, to get them prepared for that transition, I tell every new trooper who comes into this division, personally, it's a question of physical fitness. That's about all we can do is to ... you know, it takes a physically fit man or woman, I think, to be able to make that kind of adjustment. And even so, it's tough. It's going to take you two or three days once you're down there.
Indeed, it was freezing. It was in the 20's. It started to drizzle, rain. We had the icing problem on the wings of the aircraft just about the time as we're loading personnel aircraft. We were blessed during the period of the heavy outload. That went very smoothly, uploading and the movement of the aircraft to Charleston. And aircraft had no problem getting out of Charleston.
But at just about the time that we make load time easy, station time, troops are ... I don't think the troops were ... you know, they took their snivel gear off and left it, or else put it in their ruck[sack], got on board. There's heat on board the aircraft. So I wouldn't say the outloading, that that was a problem at all for soldiers. It was a major problem for the aircraft, the icing problems.
DR. WRIGHT: The plan had been to take a single air column of twenty C-140s, C-141s for the PAX.
MG JOHNSON: Right.
DR. WRIGHT: And then we run into the icing problem. So how did the aircraft actually stage out of Pope [Air Force Base]?
MG JOHNSON: We left, you know they were kind of in like formations of threes, and the air mission commander who's on my aircraft told me the problem. I told him 'let's get airborne with what we got, get going and see if they can catch up as best they can.' Which is what we did.
And so we left with the initial eight or ten aircraft, and then the others came in increments of six or eight, five or six at a time, as they could get airborne and catch up.
The Air Force for their part did everything they possibly could to de-ice. They started with maybe four trucks, ended up with six, eight, ten of them by the time we were trying to get out of here. I think those that were planning, the Air Force guy, mission planners and the air mission planner went days, maybe three straight days without any sleep, trying to pull all this off. So I commend them. I have nothing but the highest respect for Military Airlift Command and those that were involved in the outload of us from here, both the heavy equipment and the personnel aircraft.
But, you know, it was kind of an act of God, the problems that they were faced with. You know, legally I don't even know if they should have been taken off. It was a safety thing. They had to meet ... once airborne, there would not be a problem, but just getting off the ground here at Pope was the problem, and it had to be done almost onesies and twosies at a time.
DR. WRIGHT: You were in Chalk One?
MG JOHNSON: Chalk One.
DR. WRIGHT: And the air mission commander was the command pilot on that aircraft?
MG JOHNSON: He was not piloting, but he was on board, riding up front, and he would occasionally come back and keep me abreast of the situation, COL Jim Galyen from ... who is the DO, the Director of Operations, 21st Air Force.
DR. WRIGHT: O.K. In Chalk One, you've got all your aircraft, combat cross-loaded. So who did you have in that aircraft from your own Headquarters element?
MG JOHNSON: We didn't do it the way we normally do. I separate myself usually from the brigade commander and separate myself from the Division G-3. I take with me an Op[eration]s officer and the G-2 and communications specialist so that I can communicate. And I've got both seat comm[unication]s with the brigade commander and battalion commanders, and I've got TACSAT [tactical satellite] comm[unication]s with the ABCCC [airborne command and control center] in the objective area, and the corps commander, the JTF commander, on the ground.
Before I forget, Bob, on the ... what we do on the transition from cold weather to hot weather, I need to tell you that we made a conscious decision to go light from the beginning, as light as possible. We did not issue flak jackets. We did not issue water wings, even though we're flying over water, once the doors open you're over water until about forty, forty-five seconds out. A three-minute warning, and when the door opens at three minutes, we're over water till forty, forty-five seconds. We did not issue grenades and a lot of other, a lot of ammunition that wasn't going to be absolutely essential right away was dropped by bulk to be issued later.
And the troops carried ... went as light as possible, again to try to ... knowing that it was going to be tough on the ground if we had overloaded them, and they'd never get there. So they were rigged in a way that they were traveling light and could drop the rucks if necessary to go, depending on what the task was, the mission assigned.
I didn't really fully answer the question you asked me earlier. I wanted to plug that in.
DR. WRIGHT: But ample water?
MG JOHNSON: Yeah. Water and three days' rations.
DR. WRIGHT: Would you specify four quarts per man, or ... ?
MG JOHNSON: I did not specify. I think the minimum was two, and many people carried four. We jumped in a lot of bulk water, too. To my knowledge, that was not a problem--water.
But just the philosophy of going light from the very beginning was a conscious decision that we made; to cut back on carrying extra things that we knew we weren't going to need: our [M-18A1] Claymores, other kinds of mines. We didn't carry [M-72A2] LAWs [light antitank weapons], and we carried mortar ammunition, as well as a man's basic individual weapon and crew-served [weapon] ammunition, but much lighter loads than we would normally jump in.
But getting ... your question was again?
DR. WRIGHT: Oh, on ... on the com ... . Well, as you were configuring your crew to get who was going to be on Chalk One as you start down then, you've got comms with both MG [William] Roosma in the ABCCC and LTG Stiner at Fort Clayton?
MG JOHNSON: Right. I'm talking to both, and I'm talking to the brigade commander. And I can reach, had all the battalion commanders that were airborne as well in the initial flight of eight or ten or whatever it was. So I knew I had the leadership in the air, and I knew I had the supervision, what was necessary to get on the ground and begin to build combat power and to get off to get a mission accomplished. So I was very confident that we had what it took to get the job done, even though it may be done incrementally instead of simultaneously.
DR. WRIGHT: But you had the flexibility in your plan to adjust to the unforeseen act of God?
MG JOHNSON: Simple plan. You know, we could do it incrementally if we had to.
DR. WRIGHT: No comms problems all the way down then?
MG JOHNSON: I thought we had real good ... again, this is the way we trained routinely in our EDREs and normal kinds of comms packages, the normal cross-loading pattern of leaders. And we learned some things on the EDRE. We ended up with one battalion commander not getting on the ground because of where he was in the chalk [order]. So I think you get smart, you know. The more you train, the more you can rehearse something, the smarter you get at it.
DR. WRIGHT: The three-minute mark, then ... . Oh, one question, I guess. Once you realized that the air flow was going to be a staggered air flow, you were airborne, you were en route, you notify the CG [commanding general]. Do you get any guidance on O.K., go ahead?
MG JOHNSON: I asked him if he wanted to, or I may have requested him to delay the drop. See, in my mind, I wanted to drop the whole force simultaneously. I did not want to go in incrementally if I could help it.
His guidance to me was 'no, proceed with what you've got.' Ant that's ... which, you know, was his ... he's on the ground, he knows the situation and the urgency and the fact, you know, what I did not know was he had already determined the plan had been compromised and that we had moved up H-Hour. I did not know that.
If we had an option to delay, then my preference was to delay so that I could put the whole force on the ground at the same time. But that was not an option, given the fact that we had already really commenced the thing. So, having understood that guidance, we proceeded.
DR. WRIGHT: Three minutes out, door opens, you're number one in the jump order on which side of the aircraft, sir?
MG JOHNSON: Left door, first aircraft. And my intent was to delay somewhat at the PPI [personnel point of impact; the point at which the first jumper is to touch ground] because I did not want to ... if the PPI was right at the edge of the fence, I wanted to make sure that I could ...
DR. WRIGHT: Clear the fence?
MG JOHNSON: ... clear the fence, see the runway. However, I noted that we were already, by the time I picked up the runway, we were way off to the east and already significantly beyond the southern end of the runway, so I went right away.
DR. WRIGHT: You had commented earlier it was pitch black, moon obscured by clouds.
MG JOHNSON: Right.
DR. WRIGHT: No lights on the runway. But could you see the terminal building, lights on in the terminal?
MG JOHNSON: No.
DR. WRIGHT: They were out at that point?
MG JOHNSON: I could see it once I went out, but it was obscured by the wing from where I'm standing in the door. You know, we're at the southern end and you could not see, standing in the door, all the way up to the International Airport. Once I was out the door I could see. And I could see and hear firing and explosions.
DR. WRIGHT: At the International, or up at the military end?
MG JOHNSON: No. I don't know which. One or two or both, I don't know.
DR. WRIGHT: Tracer fire?
MG JOHNSON: Little bit of that. Nothing significant.
DR. WRIGHT: Red or green?
MG JOHNSON: Red.
DR. WRIGHT: In other words, as you're coming down, waiting for your canopy to deploy, you've pretty much assessed that it isn't a completely secure area, but it's not gone to hell in a handbasket either?
MG JOHNSON: There was no fire down where we were at. It was all up at Tocumen or the Torrijos International. Down where we were at, there was no fire. I saw no fire directed toward the aircraft whatsoever. And it was all considerably at a distance. But you could hear and you could ... you know, you could hear some firing going on.
DR. WRIGHT: Your canopy opened?
MG JOHNSON: Yeah, perfect canopy opening. No twists. And I looked around to make sure I was free from everyone, and then looked down and saw that I was kind of straddling the fence. And so I, to the best I could, slipped to the west side of the fence, picked out a spot to land, noted that there appeared to be nothing but elephant grass. I could see the heavy equipment out there, of course, all the heavy stuff. Of course, it was just well beyond me. And also to the right, everything was to the right, considerably to the right of the runway. And then landed in the grass.
DR. WRIGHT: Good PLF [parachute landing fall]?
MG JOHNSON: Good. No problem, you know, like landing in a bowl of feathers.
DR. WRIGHT: Get out of your harness and start to the assembly point?
MG JOHNSON: I began to move to the runway, picked up a signal [corps] captain along the way, and I'm quite confident that he and I were the first two out on the runway, because I saw no one else. I came out on the runway, moved all the way down, walked the entire length of the southern end, and the only people I ran into were the CCT [Air Force combat control team] that had dropped in with the Rangers. They had taken one of our vehicles along with the signal guy, so I told him to take the vehicle and go on about your job.
The first people I ran into were scouts from the 2/504 [2d Battalion, 504th Infantry] at their assembly point. We're talking now very early, you know, from the drop. And as I move back up almost to the airport terminal, still didn't run into anybody. So I started back down it again, and that's when I began to pick people up.
I got over there pretty fast because I didn't have to climb the fence.
DR. WRIGHT: What were you carrying as a personal weapon, sir?
MG JOHNSON: Just a pistol.
DR. WRIGHT: Nine mm.?
MG JOHNSON: Yeah.
DR. WRIGHT: And forty-five rounds, three magazines?
MG JOHNSON: No. I just had what was in the pistol. I figured if they were going to depend on me, then we were in big trouble. Really not concerned about personal security. I knew that the Rangers had already dropped and were up doing their thing and drawing attention. At this time, all that was going on. You could hear the explosions and a little bit of fire going on. I was only concerned about assembling our people and getting on with the mission.
DR. WRIGHT: How quickly, by the watch or by your estimate, does it take, or how long does it take, to start achieving a critical mass of your key planners and whatnot?
MG JOHNSON: Well, the first thing I did was to try to get the Assault CP [command post] together at our predesignated location. And I'd say within, you know, twenty, thirty minutes or so they started assembling: the radio operators and the key people, the op[eration]s, intel[ligence], and the G-3 himself showed up. And [I] got up on the net and called LTG Stiner and told him that we were operational.
I'd say in thirty to forty-five minutes we were operational. And once our reports started to be submitted and go in and so forth, I left the Assault CP and began to walk the drop zone to see how the assembly was going with the other units, particularly the 2/504 which was the first one to assemble.
You know, it was tough because all that stuff was out there in the swamp, our equipment. We knew that. And many of the troops were having difficulty assembling as well. But the 2/504, by 3:30, 4 o'clock, had sufficient combat power to probably get on with the mission.
DR. WRIGHT: At that point did you call in to LTG Stiner and request the pickup?
MG JOHNSON: Yeah. We asked, I think about 4 o'clock is the first time we asked for the airlift assets. And we asked for a C&C bird to command and control aircraft first, to come over to review the air mission brief. But my recollection is that the aircraft were not available. Then there was some concern about bringing them in because there were still aircraft to be dropping personnel. You know, we're talking, we had a drop at about 2:00-2:15 was the first drop of people. Then about 3:00-3:15, we had another, maybe it was 3:30. And then maybe 4:30, and then maybe 5:00. I forget the times, but they kept coming over. And so there was concern about sending them in for whatever reason. So we continued to assemble.
DR. WRIGHT: First light, you get a visual then of the situation at the airfield and you can pretty much tell, just by looking up and down the runway, how many people you've got assembled, the percentage of your force?
MG JOHNSON: At 4:30, the 2/504 was ready to go. They had reported ready to go. But by the time we got the airlift in here and the AMC [air mission commander] and the brigade commander who was going to fly [in] the C&C, fly the mission, they got their coordination together, it was like 6:30 before they actually launched; 6:15, something like that.
And indeed they did ... to Panama Viejo. Not a perfect operation. Some of the lifts ... . Both B Company and C Company got split into different LZs [landing zones] than they were supposed to go into. But, you know, they were able to work through that.
The other two air assault operations into Tinajitas and to Fort Cimarron were less complex and very well supported as far as putting down in the right landing zones.
DR. WRIGHT: The first flight heads off of what? I guess two lifts went down to Panama Viejo; did it in two lifts? You were positioned at your Assault CP.
MG JOHNSON: Yes. I had taken it at the Assault CP on the drop zone. Then we picked up and moved right after the first lift had gone, or just before they left; I guess right after they had left. We moved to the building where we were going to locate, the maintenance bay in the Eastern [Airlines] Building, where we continued to monitor the progress of the assembly of both the ground forces and the conduct of the air assault operation.
DR. WRIGHT: Any concern on the conduct of the assault ... the Panama Viejo assault operation with the reports coming in of some firing and of problems of starting to discover that there aren't a whole lot of people there?
MG JOHNSON: They didn't take a lot of fire going into Panama Viejo. They did take some fire. But they were able to get in, particularly down near the water, Panama Viejo itself, without getting shot at. Up at the northern LZs, BOBCAT I think it was, they did take a good deal of fire from the buildings, from the built-up area just to the north. But no causalities resulted from that.
DR. WRIGHT: So at that point you're feeling O.K., that they have been assembled.
MG JOHNSON: Yeah. We were able to get them in. You know, it was going as scheduled. We got them on the ground. The aircraft returned to pick up the 1/504 [1st Battalion, 504th Infantry] going to Tinajitas. I'm trying to refresh my memory here. There were actually three lifts that went into Panama Viejo: LZ LION there on the coast, three lifts of four [aircraft each]. And then to BOBCAT we had a lift of five and a lift of four.
And that was [PAUSE]. A Company had the mission at Panama Viejo, LION. B and C, B was supposed to isolate and block from the north going into BOBCAT, and C was to move toward the garrison from the north.
They kind of got role reversal up there because of the mixup of forces, and a platoon from Bravo and a platoon from Charlie then went into LION on the coast were attached to A Company to help them accomplish their mission. A Company was able to seize a garrison without any time at all. In fact, when they got in there, there was nobody there. They had all left. There was, though, some shooting that took place up north up there at BOBCAT as they worked their way down. But the takedown of Panama Viejo really was not a cause of great concern.
Tinajitas, though, was another case, because as I mentioned before, it was a very hot LZ.
DR. WRIGHT: When do you learn that it is a hot LZ? Are you monitoring the radio net as the traffic is actually being generated, or is it being relayed to you?
MG JOHNSON: It's being relayed by reports. You know, it's really a brigade commander's fight. He is up there, he's looking at it, he's got the resources there to deal with it both in terms of [AH-1G] Cobra escort. He's got AC-130 [Spectre], plus we had [AH-64] Apaches by the time we got to Tinajitas. We did not have Apaches supporting us at Panama Viejo. We were supposed to, but we didn't. It was the one team that wasn't available at Tinajitas. And they were used. So he had the resources to deal with whatever they were going to run into, and I wasn't trying to monitor or tell him how to do that. We were prepared to resource him as necessary where he needed help. But COL [Jack] Nix did a superb job of putting in each of the three battalions, and the aviation guys did a great job of getting in there without losing any aircraft.
I was kind of, mostly, I guess my attention was toward ensuring: one, that we had a good link-up with the Rangers; that the airfield there at Tocumen-Torrijos was properly secured; that the air assault operations were in progress and working; that they were properly resourced with direct fire and column cover; and that we had whatever was necessary to provide the firepower we needed. And also to get the ground convoys moving. We wanted to do that as quickly as possible.
As you know, we kicked out shortly after noon. In fact, we secured Panama Viejo around noon, about the same time we kicked out the first ground convoy. Neatly having passed through the Ranger passage point and moved on to about 500 meters, [it] ran into an ambush where we had a soldier killed out of the 2/504.
DR. WRIGHT: And they fought their way through that ambush?
MG JOHNSON: Yeah, eventually, and moved on.
So that was just a great concern of mine, was not only to get the battalions out on those three objectives, but to crank up the ground forces that were to move to link up with [them], so that we get ... so that we would have connectivity with our three objectives as far as sustaining them. So that's kind of where my attention was going. Then making sure that reports were coming, and keeping the JTF commander informed.
DR. WRIGHT: By, say, mid afternoon now, you've got all three of your assaults are in, you've got the convoys or the initial ground movements rolling to all three of the sites. You've had a chance to start getting some assessment from your people on recovering the CDS, recovering the remaining heavy equipment. What's your feeling at about, say, the mid afternoon point on D-Day? [Is] everything coming together well, or ... ?
MG JOHNSON: Of course, I was very disappointed that we were not able to launch all this during the hours of darkness, which was our preference. And we're running, we're having ... I'm also very disappointed that we're having trouble recovering a lot of our equipment and people. And accountability for people and equipment was a major issue.
We did not have a significant number of casualties to deal with, but the casualty collection point was up quickly, the division evacuation casualty collection point, as well as the EPW [enemy prisoner of war cage]. All that was working, and our linkage with the 1/75th Rangers [1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment] was in place and working. And, you know, we were up on all the comms nets and reporting, so that aspect was O.K.
But I was concerned [that] one, what ... have we got everybody out on the ground, but then we didn't have very good communications with them, particularly out at Fort Cimarron. We did not have good communications at up to Tinajitas. Not too bad to Panama Viejo. So comms is always a concern. And then the stuff that was stuck over there in the swamp was a concern. Those were my major concerns.
DR. WRIGHT: When does COL Nix deploy his CP down to Panama Viejo? Is it on the 20th, or does he wait a while?
MG JOHNSON: I think it might have been that night. I think he may have spent the night down there. And then the same thing the next ... you know, the first couple of nights when we started to get missions down in the city, having taken the objectives, the next thing was to occupy these warehouses, go down to Marriott and rescue sixty-four Americans (it turned out to be 123 noncombatants in total).
You know, Panama Viejo became the focal point as we began the transition into urban operations. And so he located himself down there because it was ... had good communications, could influence the action, and it was secure, a good base of operations. So there was no need really for him to stay at the International Airport because I was there. So he and his [S]-3 moved forward kind of as a Tac[tical] CP. There wasn't much he could do as far as assembling stuff. And then the XO [executive officer] ran the convoys, kicked them out.
But that became a critical point, and it's good that he was there because I think he was able to influence the action in the city, and that's when we started to get other missions to go down and relieve the SEALS at Patilla Airfield. For that I took a company of Rangers, because they were available, and ultimately relieved them with the
... put the whole battalion, the 4/325 [4th Battalion, 325th Infantry] in there because we began to get other missions like securing the warehouses and supermarkets, so that they could put a stop to the looting and the loss of law and order that was taking place in the cities, and protect the food so the people would have a place to go to eat.
And then we got the other missions to secure the Ministries of Defense, the residences of key people, and all of the public services: the TV towers, radio stations, anything that was a public service that was needed to keep ... . So we didn't have to take a chance on it getting destroyed and then rebuild it, we went and secured it.
This quickly became a decentralized ... .
DR. WRIGHT: I was going to say how ... you can't preplan that sort of thing?
MG JOHNSON: No. None of that was preplanned. It was not a mission that we expected to get. But, again, I would say that I think our troops really responded superbly, particularly our junior leaders: squad leaders, team leaders who very often didn't have a chance to plan and prepare, just go seize this tower and secure it.
DR. WRIGHT: I believe you used some of your air defense assets at one point, what? Because they were available and weren't being used for air defense?
MG JOHNSON: It wasn't so much that they weren't being used as that we were running out of people. I think it was Cerro Azul that there was a different TV tower, I can't remember which one. But we did use about twenty, thirty air defenders with a captain in charge to go up and secure it.
DR. WRIGHT: How did you ... how did you handle this decentralized arrangement? Did you basically try to break into geographical areas and concentrate your battalions that way?
MG JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. We gave each battalion an area of operations. From the beginning that was part of the plan. They knew what area they'd be working. Of course, that changed when we brought the 4/325 into the city.
But we just carved out an area, and then if it falls in your area you go take care of it. And as we transitioned from initial combat operations to stability operations, what that called for was a lot of patrols, both day and night, foot and mobile. It called for roadblocks and check points to stop people and vehicles as we attempted to recover all arms caches that we could put our hands on, and also detain and evacuate suspected P.D.F., particularly those that were on the black list that we could identify.
DR. WRIGHT: And you get at, what, you said about [D] plus 4 is when you get the additional brigade placed under you from 7th I[nfantry] D[ivision] to give you additional manpower because those kind of urban operations you've described are incredibly manpower-intensive?
MG JOHNSON: Exactly.
Now, I did not mention this earlier, but BG [Joseph] Kinzer ... . I sent two planners down initially on Sunday night with the Corps ADVON [advance detachment]. When LTG Stiner deployed, I guess Monday afternoon, I sent BG Kinzer and five or six people with him as sort of my advanced command and control node to help stand up, you know ... . If the 193d [Infantry Brigade] and the Marines or anyone else was to come under my operational control under Task Force ATLANTIC [i.e. PACIFIC], I wanted him there to help facilitate that. And also to provide liaison with the JTF.
As it turns out, he was very useful, when I picked up the brigade from the 7th Infantry Division, in coordinating their arrival at Howard Air Force Base and moving into the city and link up with us; as opposed to if he had come into Torrijos-Tocumen, it would have been very easy for me to integrate him into our area of operations. Coming from the other direction, not having a chance to face-to-face, it was a little more complex. Having BG Kinzer able to assume that role was helpful.
We put them immediately down in the city, the "9th Regiment" (the 1st Brigade, 7th Infantry Division) and linked up with them so that in the city you had the 193rd at the southernmost part. Then as you move east: a brigade of the 7th Division that worked for me, the 4/325, the 2/504, and then the 1/504 north of the Pan American Highway.
DR. WRIGHT: And then basically remains stable that way until you get the alert for redeployment?
MG JOHNSON: Yeah.
DR. WRIGHT: At what point do you move ... ?
MG JOHNSON: And the Rangers out at Tocumen-Torrijos.
DR. WRIGHT: Yeah. At what point do you move your CP from the airport to Fort Amador?
MG JOHNSON: I'd say that was about Christmas, or the day after Christmas, something like that. After ... it was the day after Christmas.
DR. WRIGHT: And that reflects simply the shift of the operations into the city?
MG JOHNSON: Yeah, into the city. By this point we're totally in the city, and the battalion that we had had out at Cimarron was in the city. The 2/504 and 1/504 were already in the city, and we're picking up another brigade from 7th Division that's going to work in the city, so that's why we got down there--to be closer to the action.
DR. WRIGHT: In your judgment as a commander, were you surprised that the P.D.F. did not take to the woods and try to resist from in the woods?
MG JOHNSON: Yeah, I think ... my opinion, though, is that they are not dedicated enough or professional enough to be guerilla fighters. Noriega and his henchmen are too accustomed to the easy life and were not about to go to the hinterland to fight a sustained campaign of any kind. I think what they opted to do was just blend into the civilian populace, try to come back to be reincarnated as a friendly P.D.F.
Most of the people, you know, when you have a have/have not situation, which we do in Panama and many other underdeveloped countries in the world, they don't care necessarily who's in charge. You know, they just ... they're trying to survive. And they're going to go with whoever's in charge, that's who they're going to go with. And so I don't believe there was ever--there's a lot of nationalism, no doubt about it--but I don't believe that they were organized to carry on a long-term campaign. Now time will tell. There may ... could very well be communist-inspired internal ... potential for an internal guerilla situation. I don't know.
Does it surprise me? I'm not sure that we know yet that they ... that we got everybody out. Sort of doubt that we did get everybody. But how well we do in the aftermath in terms of taking care of the people, the population, and how their economy goes, will determine what success or lack of success any communist-inspired guerilla campaign might succeed. I think it's going to be a function of how well we rebuild the nation.
DR. WRIGHT: In terms of the resistance you faced, the Panamanian level of training, the Panamanian level of leadership, and whatnot--about what you expected?
MG JOHNSON: There was more resistance than we expected. I thought that perhaps when they saw the overwhelming combat power, they would flat surrender. And indeed that is what happened out to the west and to the east, you know, out away from Panama City. But back where the leadership structure was still in place and people could make a reasoned judgment, decide and do something. What we saw, however, in Panama City itself, in initial combat was, there was no leadership. The leadership fled, and ...
[END OF SIDE 2, TAPE 1]
DR. WRIGHT: O.K., resuming briefly with Side 3. You were commenting, sir, on the absence of leadership on the part of the P.D.F., and then requiring, sort of, leaving the individual soldiers to continue fighting.
MG JOHNSON: Yeah.
DR. WRIGHT: It's sort of a situation there that nobody was in charge, so nobody could surrender?
MG JOHNSON: Yes, I don't ... I think that they had been fired up, I guess by Noriega. What we saw was fairly determined resistance by those that were left, but doing dumb and stupid things, such as ... . First of all, we encountered nobody in a P.D.F. uniform, of course, they were all in civilian clothes--at least half were ... they were wearing [blue] jeans for the most part. But approaching you in a vehicle with AK-47s, firing at you, coming right up to a roadblock. Did not use any kind of tactics that you would normally expect to be able to win a firefight. They were mostly firing to harass.
You know, just no leadership or discipline whatever. But very determined to make us pay a price. It was kind of the impression I got [from] the initial combat. All that disappeared very rapidly when, I think, they saw what the outcome was going to be.
DR. WRIGHT: In terms of equipment, whatnot. How is your overall feeling ... of what we brought ... how well did we choose what to bring? Did we bring the right things; did it all work the way it was supposed to?
MG JOHNSON: Yes. I think we made the right call in focusing on the light armor (the Sheridans). The .50-cal.-mounted HMMWVs were very helpful. The HMMWV proved itself as a superb vehicle. While we did not fire a lot of field artillery (we only fired, in fact, two 105[mm] rounds), I'm glad we brought it. The, I think, the risk of going without it was just not worth it. We did fire some mortars (both 81[mm] and 60[mm]). The antitank weapons, particularly the AT-4 and the LAW, proved very effective.
Really pleased by the role played by the Apache attack helicopter; superb weapons platform, surgical fires with the HELLFIRE. The Blackhawk proved to be a very airworthy aircraft. Almost every one of them [with] anywhere from five to twenty-five holes in it and yet we did not loose one. We had some go down, that did not fly all three air assault missions as a result of hits that were taken, but none that were hit so badly that they could not get back to base. And I'm sure they can give you more exact results of all that.
But I was very pleased with the results of the decisions that we made on also grenades, flack jackets, and all the other things--contingency items that we took. I can't think of anything that we did that cost us.
DR. WRIGHT: How was the rear support back here, in terms of being able to get materiel from ... I guess you have BG [R. F.] Timmons back here?
MG JOHNSON: We left a very strong rear detachment. The tendency is [when] something like this happens everybody wants to go. And all your leaders get on the first thing smoking and there's no one left back here to take charge of anything.
I felt very comfortable knowing that BG Timmons and my chief of staff, COL George Crocker, were here--both experienced in this sort of thing at both ends. Especially COL Crocker with his experience in the 82d. We were well supported by the outloading brigade, COL Ron Rokas' 2d Brigade. And those that did not go: COL Jack Von Kaenel, the DIVARTY [division artillery] commander ... you know, just superb support. He and COL Boyd Bryant, the DISCOM [division support command] commander ... [I] could not be more pleased with the ... their assistance in helping us to get out of here.
And then while we were gone, our family support group system, once again, proved itself as being an element of combat power that we don't ever give enough credit to. Because it was just something that the troops didn't have to worry about. They knew that their families were going to be taken care of.
DR. WRIGHT: Relative to that, I know MG [Carmen] Cavezza had used his SATCOMs to conduct briefings to the [7th Infantry Division] family support groups. Did you do the same thing?
MG JOHNSON: No. I noted that that might be a good idea, you know, on just a training deployment, but I don't think ... I don't necessarily want my commanders diverted from the war at hand to be talking to dependents back here. I'm not sure that that's useful. Maybe, but I think our system of keeping the families informed back here through the chain of command and the rear detachment commander--I'm real pleased with the way that works. I know that we published an op[eration]s summary every day that was very detailed down to what every platoon was doing. And I'm not sure that it's prudent to have brigade or division commanders getting on the horn talking to people back here, trying to answer questions. I believe that that can be very dangerous--where you raise people's expectations and then you're not able to satisfy them. Nor ... I'm just not sure that was the right thing for us to do; now, maybe it was for the 7th Division, a different situation.
DR. WRIGHT: Yeah.
MG JOHNSON: But I was busy and so was COL Nix.
DR. WRIGHT: You redeploy back. Any significant problems in staging back out of ... I guess you staged out of Howard [Air Force Base] or out of Tocumen?
MG JOHNSON: Out of Tocumen.
DR. WRIGHT: No particular problems?
MG JOHNSON: We were well-supported. You know, I guess it's well-chronicled that many of the troops wondered why we were down there so long. You know, many would like to have thought that our role was over and that we should have come back earlier than we did. That, I would say, perhaps we didn't do as good a job as we should in keeping our troops informed about our role that we were playing, the ultimate purpose. They could not see a need because of all the pacification that was going on. It was a return to normalcy before their very eyes all day, every day. It's kind of hard to justify. So maybe we didn't do a good job of motivating our troops to just take it easy. You know, 'we're going to do this and do it right.' And then you had some who, again when they finally called back here and were talking to their wives, bitching and moaning, some things get into the media that perhaps were unfortunate. I don't think that it represents, though, the mainstream of most of the soldiers ... .
DR. WRIGHT: I was actually rather impressed at the quality of the troops' understanding. I ... compared to other operations dating back to Viet Nam. As I wandered around Panama I did not see much grousing. I think the troops ... we've got a better quality of soldier, maybe, that he can think some of these issues through more?
MG JOHNSON: Yes. There's no doubt about that. They're very highly motivated. And I think that they were encouraged by the wide acceptance of the Panamanian population to them, to what we had done. They had provided freedom and restored democracy and freedom. And the troops had to be satisfied, and they were I think. When you talked to them, I'm sure, Bob, that they really sort of [drew] an inspiration. Try to get all of that good feeling about what they did down there. It was a ... we do have just a tremendous young man in the Army today. They ... they want to do more. But I think they're proud of the role they played--I sure hope so.
DR. WRIGHT: And the ceremony when they came back, when you made your jump back here out at Sicily [Drop Zone]. Conscious decision? Who made that decision to go with that 'welcome home,' and was it, in fact, influenced at all by concerns about post-traumatic stress and some of those other issues?
MG JOHNSON: Well, I think LTG Stiner's probably the one who wanted to come back that way. It's been ... it's sort of a tradition. We came back that way from [Operation] GOLDEN PHEASANT [the 1988 deployment to Honduras], and I think he knows that I support that because it's a great feeling to be participating in a return like that. You know that you're being welcomed home properly. I don't know that it had anything to do with post-traumatic syndrome; I never even thought of that as an issue. And then I'm not even sure that it is in this case. But more than that, it gives those that participated a great feeling to be able to jump back and be welcomed home in that way. That's one point.
The second point is that it gets them back here a lot faster. To airland back would take days if not weeks to generate the air flow. And when you come back in onesies and twosies, then you don't have the opportunity to welcome [them] back as a group with the wide publicity that they deserve. So they get their recognition for their accomplishments.
So it's just a way of patting the troops on the back. There's some risk associated with that. You know, if you get somebody hurt. In fact, I had one letter in particular that ... the writer thought that I should be relieved and thought that all that was was machoism and bravado and ego on the part of me, and had nothing to do with taking care of soldiers. When actually it was just the opposite. So not everybody agrees with that decision to do that. I would give credit to LTG Stiner for both the notion and the resources to get the job done. Which almost anything that we do down here is because he's supported it and resourced it.
DR. WRIGHT: How long after you're back before you feel that you have completely reconstituted and you've got a fully deployable division?
MG JOHNSON: It took us until ... three weeks. Three weeks to focus solely on accountability of people and equipment; clean up; take care of awards and leaves, block leaves, all that kind of stuff. Give people a chance to celebrate Christmas and New Year's that they'd missed. And it's only now, I think, in the month of March, that we're able to get back to business as usual. So, the end of January and February was a reorientation, but we're back on track now and maintaining a normal schedule.
DR. WRIGHT: Ready to go again?
MG JOHNSON: Good to go. Everybody want's to know 'where's the next mission?' That's all ... and then peace is breaking out all over, we're going to have to be very innovative here, because paratroopers really are looking to serve. They want to show what they can do and serve their country. A very motivated group of guys, and we love them.
DR. WRIGHT: Anything else that hits you, sir?
MG JOHNSON: Well, I think that we've covered the thing, covered the whole thing, Bob.
DR. WRIGHT: I appreciate you taking the time, sir. Thank you very much.
MG JOHNSON: Not a problem at all.
[END OF INTERVIEW]