DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY
XVIII AIRBORNE CORPS
FORT BRAGG, NORTH CAROLINA
JOINT TASK FORCE SOUTH IN OPERATION JUST CAUSE
20 December 1989 - 12 January 1990
Oral History Interview
DR. (MAJOR) ROBERT K. WRIGHT, JR.
Historian, Joint Task Force SOUTH, and
Historian, XVIII Airborne Corps
Interview conducted 6 April 1990 at Building AT-3060, Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Interviewer: Major Robert Cook, Commander, 326th Military History Detachment
JOINT TASK FORCE SOUTH IN OPERATION JUST CAUSE
20 December 1989 - 12 January 1990
Oral History Interview JCIT 046
MAJ COOK: [This is an Operation JUST CAUSE interview being conducted in Building AT-3060, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, by MAJ Robert Cook of the] 326th Military History Detachment. This is 6 April . Dr. Wright could you give me your full name, Social Security Number and your job position?
DR. WRIGHT: I'm Dr. Robert K. Wright, Jr., Social Security Number ***-**-****. I am the Historian for the XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.
MAJ COOK: Thank you. How you became first aware of Operation JUST CAUSE and what role you played in that awareness?
DR. WRIGHT: I had ... . You've got to understand going back to the situation as it was [in] the middle of December . There was the tension down in Panama with the shooting on Friday, the 16th of December ... or no I guess it was Saturday, the 16th of December, I guess is when the lieutenant was shot and we had a situation here at the Corps where I was off that weekend and going back ... . My family lives up in [the] Washington, D.C., area, so I had been gone that weekend and hadn't really been tracking what was going on.
I came back down the night of Sunday the 17th; reported for work on the morning of the 18th; and was not even notified that the 82d Airborne Division was starting its EDRE [Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise]. That was the cover story. I work out of a building in what's called the 'Old Division Area' which is right over by Pope Air Force Base. And I noticed an unusual volume of aircraft traffic in and out of Pope that day, but that was the first day of the Christmas holidays and we'd gone on to the half-day schedule. So I really didn't pay much mind to it; I thought 'well maybe it's the Air Force doing something related to moving aircraft around for the holidays.'
On Tuesday the 19th I started getting some hints that something was afoot and people started telling me 'you need to go up to Corps Headquarters, you need to go up to Corps Headquarters.' So I left early from work that day and went on up to Corps Headquarters, and went up to the G-3 [Operations] Office and said 'hey, you know, folks have said that I need to come up and talk to some people--get read in on something.' And they said, 'well, you need to go up to the third floor of [the] Corps Headquarters building,' which is the plans area.
And I walked up to the head of the staircase, and there were two armed MPs [military policemen] there. And they said 'O.K., who are you and what do you want?' And I said 'well, I've got all the clearances; I need to go in there and talk to somebody.' They said 'well, who do you want to talk to?' Not having the name of anybody in there as a point of contact, I said 'well, just call somebody out from [the] G-3 [Plans Directorate].' And they called a major out and I discussed it, and he said 'jeeze, you're not cleared to come in here; I can't let you in.' And I said 'well, you know, how about if I get myself vouched in tomorrow morning?' And he said 'oh, no problem.'
So I went home that night aware that something was going on, but didn't put two and two together and didn't suspect that it was Panama--didn't suspect that it was anything for real. I just went on my merry way, went home that evening. I don't have a TV set or a radio, so I sat there in blissful ignorance all night.
Got up the next morning and was planning how I would plot my revenge with the people for not letting me in and thinking that this was all sort of silliness. Came up on post, turned the corner from Reilly Street on to Longstreet. Right as I was making the turn at that stoplight the half-hour news came on on the car radio and they said 'U.S. troops continue to make great progress in the invasion of Panama,' and I extricated myself from the ditch on the side of the road. Continued on here to my office where we have a TV set that's hooked up to Cable News Network [CNN]. So I sat there and watched the TV for about half an hour to get a sense of what was going on and then hot-footed it up to Corps Headquarters complete with an authorization letter to allow me access to everything.
Got up there and found that the operation had kicked off and that they had moved out of the War Room in the vault area [on the third floor] down to the secure but not vaulted Emergency Operations Center [EOC]. And beginning at about 1000 hours on the morning of the 20th, I was ensconced in the EOC as the only civilian that was allowed in there to begin [BREAK IN TAPE]. And I continued to work out of that building through until I guess the evening of the 23d, at which point the decision had been made [that] I would be activated and deploy down to Panama to initiate the historical coverage [as the Joint Task Force] historian.
I went back up to Washington for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Collected up a couple of items that I figured I'd need out of my National Guard Armory. I command one of the CAPSTONE Units that belongs to the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 116th Military History Detachment. So I went over there to draw my [M-17 protective] mask and a couple of other items, came back down about 0200 on the morning of the 26th and began my preparations then to actually deploy downrange to start covering the combat operations down there.
MAJ COOK: Let me back up just a minute and could you elaborate a little bit more on your role as historian and also as a mobilization asset. Was this purely because you're the 116th commander?
DR. WRIGHT: No. When ... . This Corps was the last of the corps in the Army to create a historian's position and I only reported for work on the 26th of June of 1989. I spent the previous fifteen and a half years up at the Center of Military History in Washington, and doing the creation of the job down here, unlike the others this corps had specified that historical coverage was a priority in the corps commander's mind and therefore that job position was coded and was advertised that the incumbent must be combat deployable.
MAJ COOK: I see. Let me move back then to where you're gathering the gear. At this time what was your vision of an historian's role in an active theater?
DR. WRIGHT: Well, having had the advantage of having begun my military history career in Viet Nam as the NCOIC [noncommissioned officer in charge] of the 18th Military History Detachment, which operated with the 25th Infantry Division ... I went over there in 1969 and 1970. I had a pretty solid understanding of the nature of historical coverage. It is not always an immediate priority in an operational commander's mind and you become, in effect, his conscience. And we had discussed at Corps staff fairly extensively as we were making the decision to deploy me that I would be going in with great confidence that the units were going to be keeping the paperwork. In Viet Nam, my principle concern had been guaranteeing that units didn't destroy paperwork, but I was very confident that our programs here at Corps are very good and I had arranged for message traffic to be originated out of the Corps rear, back here, to remind the units to preserve the paperwork.
So I was not concerned about that, I was concerned about doing oral history interviews and about photographic coverage. Because I had been very aware on the 20th--beginning on the 20th--that photographers had not been a priority on deployment and that the Army was going to be hurting for photographs to illustrate this, so I deployed with my own personal camera equipment which is compatible with standard 35mm cameras that--Cannon-series cameras--that are standard equipment for military history detachments. So I had that with me, and then I had a small standard cassette recorder and a stock of blank tapes, and I policed up what I believed to be a goodly stock of film.
I was told I would be totally self-contained. I was allowed my rucksack and the camera bag and a map case and that was it. So, as I did my combat loading the night before I left, I got into a situation of do I get to take a change of underwear or do I have to put in more blank tapes. I opted across the board to consistently use the space to take equipment. Unlike most of the guys who deployed on Operation JUST CAUSE, I had a chance to make a trip to the PX [Post Exchange] and I got a carton of cigarettes and a bag of hard peppermint candies and a stock of chewing gum and as many Slim-Jims as I could cram into one of the outside pockets [of the rucksack] to guarantee that, you know, when things got bad, at least I'd have something to munch on. And I went down there ... I was told not to worry, it's a quick deployment, you'll be home in five days. So, I took one change of uniform and I think I took about eight pairs of socks, four changes of underwear, and off I went--came back eighteen days later smelling kind of ripe.
MAJ COOK: Tell me about the actual flight itself. Did you have to go through a POR [prepration for overseas replacement] screening or ... ?
DR. WRIGHT: Fortunately, and this was great good fortune, we POR in my unit in the Guard on an annual basis. I had gone through my POR screening and had all my shots updated and everything two weeks before Operation JUST CAUSE kicked off so I felt real good. I had everything up to speed, all the X-Rays, I had just been HIV [human immunization virus] tested, the whole nine yards. So in that sense it was ... the timing couldn't have been better.
MAJ COOK: So, tell me about the flight down and what you did upon arrival?
DR. WRIGHT: Well, basically, I had projected that I would be going down on the 26th of December, the day after Christmas. In point of fact, when I got back here and reported to the EOC on that day, which was a Tuesday, I was told 'no wait, you're not going down right away, we're going to hold you. There's a team from Center for Applied Lessons Learned [CALL; actually Center of Army Lessons Learned] out of Fort Leavenworth that's coming in and we're going to send you down in the same aircraft they go down with.' So I was held here at Fort Bragg an extra two days waiting for that team to assemble.
They actually came in on the 28th--late on the 27th, they were there on the 28th--and we had a meeting in the Corps Battle Simulation Center to go over some methodology. I was subjected to some mixed emotions on this. I had been involved, going all the way back to 1985, in discussions to figure out if what those folks do and what we do in the military history business are completely compatible. And I had thought that by and large it made logical sense for us to work together. But I was a little concerned that a historian's methodology of insuring extensive coverage with all sources being for attribution is a little bit different than the way they like to work, especially in this kind of situation with a mission statement, as I discovered, that they were to do first impressions only and were not to be doing things for attribution. I was also a little concerned, initially, about the fact that I might be looked upon as their adjutant to provide them with all the 'care and feeding' things because the Corps was the key player. And I was concerned that that might impair my ability to do my work.
Some of those fears were allayed when I discovered that the team leader was COL Frank Akers, whom I've known at a distance for quite a few years.
[Tape Stopped for Interruption]
Yeah, I guess pick up a little bit with the CALL team. It was COL Frank Akers, who had just given up 3d Brigade here in the Division, the 82d Airborne Division, he was out at Fort Leavenworth in the BCTP [Basic Combat Training Program] office out there. There was COL Dave Archer, who is the Director of Combat Developments for the Quartermaster School and also the Director of Subsistence Excellence, and he had come in from Ft. Lee; LTC Marsh Helena, who is the Chief of the Lessons Analysis Division from the CALL; MAJ Dave Schoer, who is the Special Forces Representative at the CALL; MAJ Dave Buckley, who is from the Low-Intensity Conflict Department at Command and General Staff College; and then CW2 Gary Fulton, who is from the Low-Intensity Conflict Task Force at the Intelligence School out of Fort Huachuca. And the sort of common denominator of all those guys was [that] all of them had just arrived at their current TRADOC assignments from assignments with the forces that were engaged in Panama. Dave Schoer had come out of 3d Battalion of the 7th Special Forces Group, Chief Fulton had come out of the G-2 section at USARSO [United States Army South], COL Archer had come out of 7th Infantry Division (he had just been the DISCOM Commander), and all the rest of them were recent arrivals from the 82d Airborne Division. So the team had obviously been put together with people in it who would have instant 'face recognition' with the people they were going be covering. So that immediately took a big hunk of my concern away, just the fact that no I wasn't going to be responsible for the care and feeding of these guys. They were perfectly capable of doing that by themselves.
And the second thing was that I had known COL Akers professionally, although we had never met face-to-face, for probably about fifteen or sixteen years--since he was a captain. So I had a great deal of confidence that since he has a Ph.D. in history from Duke University, he would understand where I was coming from and that we could work well together.
We actually physically departed at 29 December which was a Friday. [We] went over and married up over at Green Ramp, which is the personnel departure area and marshalling area over at Pope Air Force Base. I drove in that day, picked up a .45[-caliber] pistol from the marksmanship training ... I hand-receipted from the Marksmanship Training Unit #1 which is located here at Fort Bragg, works in the DPT area and felt real happy about that. I was given my choice of any weapon to carry. Since I normally carry a .45 and have qualified on it for the last eight years, I felt 'go with something you're familiar with,' rather than the newer 9mm pistol. I also harbored personal reservations about the 9mm as a weapon of choice and preferred--I knew I wasn't going to be engaging targets at 500 yards, so I wanted something guaranteeing me, with my marksmanship, I could put the guy down. Not that I anticipated firing a round, I figured, you know, you don't take chances. And then was pleasantly surprised when I got a match grade competition .45, which I probably could have shot things at 500 yards with.
Drove in here in my car, not having my family here, there was nobody to leave me off or no way for me to leave or get a ride someplace or secure my car, so I took a colossal gamble and I drove over to the Corps Headquarters parking lot and just locked it up in the parking lot and made sure the lights were out so I wouldn't have a dead battery and then hoped nobody broke into it while I was gone. And trudged with my rucksack, which I'd say probably--I was travelling fairly light, I'd guess sixty, sixty-five pounds in the rucksack and then maybe, what, about fifteen pounds worth of camera bag and then all my LBE [load-bearing equipment] and steel pot and everything. I went over and got the Corps Headquarters Company commander to give me a lift over to Green Ramp in his POV [privately owned vehicle].
So I got over there about 9 a.m., linked up with the CALL team ... . And I had coordinated with them to make sure there hadn't been rules changes on how much you could bring. I said I was told, you know, 'just a rucksack' by Corps and keep yourself completely self-contained and self-mobile. They said "oh yeah, yeah, that's exactly right." And I got over there and they had packing crates and foot lockers and everything else. I mean they had like about six times as much as I did so I stewed a little about the notion that if anything happened and we stayed longer, they were going to be able to do it and I was going to start hurting fairly quickly.
I guess about 11:30 we got on board a C-141B, it was flight A-771, the tail number was 660199. It was an aircraft out of the 438th Military Airlift Wing, and being the good historian that I was, I dutifully kept a notebook and logged all this stuff down so I could remember these critical details in the future. It was grey painted, by the way, it wasn't camouflage one. So I felt things weren't--and I had known from monitoring operations in the EOC for about...I guess I was pulling about 16-hour days in there keeping track on it so I knew things were nice and quiet. Jumped into the aircraft. Figured it's a four-and-a-half to five hour flight, be there in plenty of time.
We lifted off from Pope, flew to Charleston Air Force Base; landed. We were told initially that it was to pick up a critical spare part and it would be just a touch and go. I think on this aircraft there were the eight of us going down and I think we had one guy who was returning to Panama that had been on holiday leave, he was going back to rejoin his unit. And then we had two mobile field kitchens and their drivers and that's what we had on the airplane. Door opened, guy handed in a small parts package, the crew chief said "secure your weapons, dismount the aircraft." So we wondered what was going on. They were taking a lunch break so they went over to the Burger King or someplace for lunch and we sat for two hours in the terminal building waiting, trooped back out, got on.
Landed about 1905 at Torrijos-Tocumen Airport, came off the aircraft in the dark, proceeded into the international terminal--were carefully segregated from the departing personnel, because they had started back hauling people at that point, because they had gone through a customs check and everything so they were keeping us apart. And we were told to "just go over there and stand and wait 'till we can screen you in." I wandered back over to the people we'd been told to stay away from, because I immediately spotted several battalion commanders, so I went over an started madly distributing business cards and telling them "look when we get back I want to talk to you." There was [LTC Wayne Hall] the [313th Military] Intelligence Battalion commander; [LTC Larry Gottardi] the artillery battalion commander; some of the medical personnel that were no longer needed. Then went back over to our baggage area. A customs officer showed up--U.S. customs officer--and just asked us were we smuggling anything into the country, we said no, he said fine, and then he said "oh, by the way, I confiscated the Panamanian immigration service stuff, anyone want their passports stamped." Well, two of us had thought to bring passports so we both got them stamped and figured, you know, that was our little souvenir of the trip. Then they came and policed us up with, I guess it was an [M-]880 truck and we got hauled up to the military end of the terminal to await helicopter transportation to Fort Clayton.
We sat there and sat there and sat there and sat there and eventually they got one [UH-1H] Huey that couldn't take all of us at once so part of us stayed back. I just took the rucksack off and slept and chit-chatted and things like that. I noticed it was fairly quiet, although, you know, it was obviously a combat zone because people were wandering around armed and we had seen some Panamanian prisoners being moved about. They were handcuffed and being made to sit against walls and stuff like that, being watched by armed guards.
Second lift of the helicopter came back in, picked us up and we started loading the stuff on. And at that point I was cursing again at the Leavenworth guys because after we got all our stuff on--our personal stuff on--then we all had--I had to keep helping them pick up these like 900-pound chests, load them on to the aircraft. And then they brought a Panamanian prisoner in handcuffs and they heaved him on the other side of the helicopter than I was on. Got back over to Fort Clayton about midnight, had a point of contact there that then took us over and got us settled into the quarters in the [Valent] Recreation Center. We got cots; crashed.
Got up, oh, the next morning, I guess maybe about 5 a.m., went over to the mess hall and had a hot breakfast, which kind of surprised me. Then reported in to Building 95, which is the headquarters building; checked in with the Corps staff to let them know I was there; and started going over concept of how I would start working.
The plan we worked out was I was sort of double reported. I reported to the Joint Task Force SOUTH J-3 Plans Director, LTC Tim McMahon, for my military control and to LTC Ned Longsworth, who was the Joint Task Force PAO for coordination with his people, because he'd finally gotten 49th Public Affairs Detachment in a couple of days--maybe about two days earlier. And the idea was that I would work with his photographers to insure historical documentary coverage--historical record coverage--and at the same time I would be available to Colonel McMahon. Give him a daily back-brief on what I had been out and observed and seen so that they could start feeding that instantly into the planning process.
Pretty much each day I would coordinate with both of them first thing in the morning to see if anything had come up. I'd have a plan of who I would go to cover on that given day that I would have set up the night before with the liaison officers and then I'd get out by hook or by crook to the unit that I wanted to cover. We'd given priority consideration while I was down there, I would concentrate on covering the in-country forces and I would worry about the Bragg guys after I got back here--recovered back to here. That system worked quite well. Came out very nicely, too, that because the Public Affairs Office had been slashed to get helicopter support, which they really rarely used.
Each day, when I did my morning check-in, it would be "have we got a bird for today?" If we did, I'd say "do you need it?" And usually, I think about five or six times when I asked that, they said 'no, it's yours.' So then I would load on the bird with a couple of the photographers from the Public Affairs Detachment or other public affairs people that needed to see something. And then we'd count how many spare seats we'd have. Then we'd call up to the G-3 in the EOC and say 'O.K., I've got two seats, I've got three seats." And then they'd spring junior enlisteds who had been working up there to come down and sit on our bird and get to see some of Panama. So we used that--if we had the extra space--we used it as a morale-type thing.
And then I just went around and started really doing the coverage of the 193d Infantry Brigade. I identified those folks as early-on the ones I needed to get to most. And it was fairly easy to get to those guys because they were principally located there at Fort Clayton. So I could just report to a designated building and if the people I needed to talk to were off-post, it would be no problem. I'd get a lift over or I'd be told to go to Fort Kobbe or Fort Amador or someplace like that. Then I'd just fall back on my old Viet Nam technique and I'd go out and hang around the helicopters and find one that was heading in that direction and ask them if they could drop me off.
After I'd finished covering the infantry guys I started working on the aviators. And that became a little more of a problem because they were all flying out of Howard--the Howard Air Force Base/Fort Kobbe area. But ground transportation was opening up by that point and I got lucky. The civilian historian for USARSO, newly-hired, reported for duty on (let me double-check my notes) I guess probably about Monday the 8th of January. And she was a native of the Canal, the former Canal Zone, and had lived all her life in Panama City; had a car. So to help get her into her job, she went off and ... . I said, 'come on, watch how I do interviews, and oh, by the way, let's drive over too.' So that's how we did it.
MAJ COOK: And what was her name?
DR. WRIGHT: Dolores De Mena. She was not a trained historian and she was very concerned about that. So, at the request of the Center of Military History, during the breathing periods when I slipped back to Fort Clayton to get into air conditioned comfort and out of the humidity, I'd sit down with Dolores and give her a little quick O.J.T. [on-the-job-training] on how does a one-man shop in a command history program really function. So it's kind of heaving me back and forth, trying to change hats.
Usually, like I said, I worked maybe about eighteen, sixteen [to] eighteen hour days down there. We'd usually go out--spend all day out in the field. Come back in. Try to get back in in time for dinner (and not always successful), and if I missed the mess hall--the mess hall was serving only breakfast and dinner and you drew an MRE [Meal, Ready-to-Eat] for lunch. So on those days when I couldn't make it back in in time, then it was sit there and munch on an MRE.
MAJ COOK: Let me ask, when you were working with the units of the 193d, those who had been actively engaged, what sort of preparation did you use, or did you have access to, to find out who was doing what and where they were, and then maybe did you pick an order to go after them, or were you subject to their schedules? Maybe you can describe how you collected the information from some of the units?
DR. WRIGHT: Basically in my experience the only way ... you do not dictate an agenda. You are purely in a reactive mode, and you go where you can get at somebody. I was shocked at how willing the units were when initially contacted to say 'well, when do you want to talk to us; we'll make the people available.' I think that ... in that sense, I think I was fortunate in that the tempo of operations had subsided and we were into stability operations--which made it possible to spring people.
Pretty much what I did was [that] I outlined real quickly when I got down there, based on what I had seen up here ... having read all the INTSUMS [intelligence summaries] and SITREPS [situation reports], and been monitoring it on a daily basis, I had a pretty good handle on 'who shot John' in terms of units. I did not know people; I did not know which companies of units had done things. So, when I got down there I immediately started talking to the liaison officers, to the staff duty officers, and particularly to the operations sergeants. As a former NCO I really play the NCO channel a lot worse than maybe I should. But they started tipping me off to where things were, and then I made up a sort of priority intelligence requirement [PIR] list. Not anything really written down as much as it was in my mind. And tried to take it in a logical fashion: top-down. Start with the senior commander and then start interviewing down. And go down as far as I could.
The five days quickly stretched out, like I said, to eighteen. And I experienced a couple of problems from that. One, I ran through my basic load of tape and film, and communications back to Fort Bragg, or back to anywhere in the United States, were virtually nonexistent without priority, and I didn't have priority. So I was panicked about how was I going to keep going. I was afraid I was going to have to fall back on a stubby pencil and notebooks. Fortunately, I had brought a lot of spiral notebooks and I had a whole box of pens just in case that happened. What turned out was that there was the best TASC [Training Aids Support Center] that I've ever seen in the Army right there at Fort Clayton and I went over and talked to the head of the TASC and drew additional tapes.
At this point I was beginning to get a little nervous about the sheer number of tapes and film canisters that I was starting to accumulate, and wondering how I was going to get them back. But when we 'hit the wall' on running out of clothes, one of the CALL guys had got access to ground transportation to go over to the clothing sales store so I gave him some money and told him 'buy underwear, and, oh yeah, by the way buy me a flight bag too.' So I got a flight bag, which, as it turned out, worked beautifully because for the return back I had to loan my rucksack to one of the officers that had infiltrated down early and did not have a rucksack with him, so he could not get to make the jump back--he needed to get his jump in for the month to qualify for pay. So I loaned him my rucksack and I came back dragging this, at that point, fairly cumbersome and heavy flight bag.
I also ran into the problem that I was down there without support too long, and I was starting to loose effectiveness. Had some really great interviews and would up with a pen knife ... literally jabbing a pen knife into my arm while I was conducting the interviews to try to get some stimulus and stay awake so that I could finish the interview out. And I'm not sure, you know ... I'd have been in trouble except for the fact that the officers and NCOs I was interviewing were just so incredibly professional that they carried the ball for me. All I had to do was ask them a leading question to get them started and, you know, sit back, and they'd take it for me.
MAJ COOK: Were you able to ... did you do work with any units other than the 193d; with any of the support or combat service support?
DR. WRIGHT: Yeah, I tried. I had been very conscious from the get-go, and had probably bored everybody in the Army history community to tears for the last ten years talking about what a miserable job we did in Viet Nam about paying attention to combat support and combat service support.
And my guidance on my collection was give to me before I went down by the Deputy Corps Commander who was in charge back here at the rear: MG Will Roosma. And he said 'remember the movie The Longest Day?' And I said 'yes, sir.' And he said 'plan for that, gather data for that.' So, based on that guidance, and my own concern about getting combat service support stuff, I really tried desperately to get an 'across the battlefield' picture, and programmed in all kinds of combat support and combat service support interviews--not so much that were conducted there because USARSO was rather bare-bones in terms of what they had on the ground, most of the stuff we used in those arenas came from CONUS [Continental United States]. So I would just make contact with the units and say 'here's my card, when we get back I'll be getting in touch with you.' And we've proceeded on that agenda ever since.
Down to ... we've talked to protocol. We've talked to guys, believe it or not, that became a very key player. We had one fifty-man Congressional delegation and another one of three United States Senators. And when they hit, they sucked up all the airlift assets in country. I think when the fifty-man delegation came in we suspended a number of airmobile operations because we had to give priority to those persons.
Also, that Eagle flight of literally twenty [UH-60] Blackhawk helicopters with gunship escorts soured me because I was up in a UH-1[H]. I had control of a UH-1 on that particular day. I was trying to fly overhead and get overhead photography of downtown Panama City, and they apparently were operating on a similar agenda because they literally chased me out of the sky. My pilot finally told me, he said 'major, we gotta to pull pitch and get outta here and go back to Fort Clayton; I can't raise these guys on the radio; and they're turning every time I turn and they're forcing me out of the air--for safety's sake.' So I said 'O.K., don't risk the lives of any of the guys--go back.'
But it was a very good effort. I ... personally in evaluating the thing, feel I was handicapped; we should have brought in more historical asset. I feel definitely my effectiveness was impaired personally not by having my NCOs with me. I think I do a pretty fair job of reminding everybody when I start off an interview, if they're enlisted, that I'm an ex-enlisted man, and breaking some of that barrier down. But I know enough to know that it doesn't go down completely.
It also left me in a situation where I would have to make choices on a given day--I could do A, B, or C, but only one of them. And I'd have to prioritize, and if I'd had had my people with me, the way we trained, or if I'd had any other Reserve Component MHD [military history detachment] that was trained, I could have dispersed them around. And we've talked since we've been back that probably I need to go down not late, but I need to deploy with the Main CP [command post]. And then we've made provision now to get follow-on force. And we probably ... . You know, I've never seen an aircraft in the military yet that didn't have one or two empty seats on it. And we'll just pull people in and try to feed them in in 'onesies and twosies.' And they can rally on me when we get to the location, and I can take care of the 'care and feeding' stuff. And that would give us a lot more coverage.
MAJ COOK: Let me ask, to pick up ... we last left the CALL team as you were humping their equipment for them. Once you start to become operational and were moving about and doing your interviews, did you have any more interface, say at your cutting edge, with the CALL team?
DR. WRIGHT: Yeah. I would get together whenever they were having meetings. I would be told to go sit in on their meetings and share everything I had seen that day with them. And we got into a regular habit. Probably every other day or so (average) we'd have a meeting. Meetings could last up to about three hours. That got a little frustrating for me because they got into their methodology and I felt that I could share with them in a less formal structure what I had seen. And that was really lost time for me. Frequently because we tended to meet late at night it was lost sleep time for me. I also tend to run 'hot wire' and I need some time to decompress before I go to bed.
But in particular CW2 Fulton and I coordinated very, very closely. Every day (just about every day) we'd spend an hour or two in the evenings sharing our experiences and because I was talking to a lot of S-2s and he was particularly interested in the intelligence side of it, he pretty regularly debriefed me on that.
MAJ COOK: You had mentioned ...
DR. WRIGHT: And then ... let me just finish that thought. They then got a new mission beyond their collecting of their initial impressions. They got a mission to go find vignettes. And I got tasked to go through my material and see if I could come up with a vignette for them, which I did. And then I wound up, since a couple of them were not typists, when we found a computer that we could use, I wound up being the keyboard enterer for a couple of theirs. And ate a disk on them--they got mad at me.
MAJ COOK: You had mentioned that you were also, in the evenings when you came back from the field, [you] were briefing an individual at the Corps G-3 shop. From those briefings was ... did you have any insights on the applicability of history sort of in real-time and its uses now in the present operation, rather than when we usually think of it as being done?
[End of Side 1]
DR. WRIGHT: Resuming with Side 2. Yeah. This was the kind of an operation where the decision matrix tree that they had developed really didn't have many branches after the initial twenty-four hours. And really what they were using there was more confirming. And it wasn't just the one individual--I reported to him, but I would actually talk to the whole group, and they'd interrogate me. Confirming what they had done right and what they had done wrong, and filing it away for, really, future operations rather than influencing the current one.
I think it would have worked beautifully, and it's something I had never thought about. It just happened. To this day I don't know whether we just got lucky or it was conscious on the part of COL Needham, the G-3, or somebody, but it worked, and it worked rather beautifully. Had we been in a real ongoing operation thing, it would have ... I have no doubt in my mind [that] they would have used it immediately. It also gave me a real insight in[to] the give-and-play, to get a good handle on how they had conceptualized the operation. So each day the debriefing process was also preparing me for the next day, adding to my basic question list of things I wanted to go out, when I talked to battalion or brigade commanders, and really hammer on, on the planning process. On that side, it's excellent.
I also found that working with the Public Affairs Office--and I attribute that to just the personalities of ... . The PAD [Public Affairs Detachment] commander, CPT Mike Edrington, and the PAO, LTC Longsworth, were both extremely conscious of need to do historical documentation photography. And that was something that had evolved from back here at Fort Bragg on exercises and other things. We had been working together anyhow and getting their people helped me in a sense. I think I'm a good amateur photographer; CPT Edrington is probably the finest photographer in the Armed Forces. And I was able to get up and point him at what he needed to do. He didn't have the ... anywhere near the experience or the access to the information I was getting to know what was of significance.
And the upshot on that was [that] we got spectacularly good target coverage up to and including ... . We had some classified targeting imagery that was used for planning the operation, and I inquired of the G-2 would I be able to use those [pictures] in any historical publications. And I was told 'no, not in our lifetimes.' And I said 'well, how do I get it?' And he said, 'well, look, you just tell me which ones that you're interested in looking at, and we'll get out all the images. You look at them, and then you've got a helicopter, just go position yourself in the same place and duplicate the picture--but this time we can do it in color.' So that's exactly what we did. And the Public Affairs Detachment shot literally thousands of frames of footage. So we've got great stuff. What we don't have is people shooting one another. And that hurt.
MAJ COOK: Did you ... were you able to become involved in any of the stability operations that were ongoing while you were there, as opposed to the coverage of things that had happened just before you got there?
DR. WRIGHT: No, I pretty much only had time ... had I had the assets, I would have deployed them. But my bill-payers are the 'killers,' so I went to cover the 'killers.'
MAJ COOK: Before I lead up to what determined the ... your pull-out on the eighteenth day, is there any significant event or insight that you had during the ... ?
DR. WRIGHT: Other than contrasting my experience in Viet Nam with my experience in JUST CAUSE ... a couple of salient differences that really struck me awesomely. One: going to war as an O-4 [major] as opposed to an E-4 [specialist] was a hell of a lot more fun: you get more respect, you eat better, and, you know, I had a helicopter. That's not my Viet Nam experience.
But the second thing was the quality of the interview was totally unexpected. In Viet Nam my average interview ran fifteen minutes if I was lucky, and it was like pulling teeth to get information. The quality of the individual [that] I interviewed from LTG [Carl W.] Stiner on down to PFCs is fundamentally--light years beyond what we had in Viet Nam. My average interview, both down there and since I've been back here is probably about two hours, and then it's [more] a function of me trying to shut them off than them not wanting to talk any more. And what I'm getting is uniformly good information. I have not yet gotten one 'John Wayne' story; I have not gotten anything that is at all suspicious. In fact one of the problems that I've had with some of the guys is reminding them that this is intended to be an unclassified interview. They've wanted to talk for the record about things that I know they can't talk about on the record unless it's classified.
Also, I had tended to assume that the sort of surrealistic atmosphere of Viet Nam with everybody having radios and there being TV, and sort of the civilian life continuing on around you while you conducted a military operation, was atypical. And it was the same thing down in Panama. We had in the Recreation Center ... the employees that maintained it voluntarily kept coming to work, and in fact set up a twenty-four hour rotation so that we had pool tables, we had a large-screen rear-projection TV set with a VCR [video cassette recorder], and a raft of movies. We used to watch ... they had nightly movies. I had sort of figured that that was an aberration in Viet Nam, but we had it again here. We also had the strange situation of walking in and out of Building 95 in full field gear, with a weapon, with a magazine in the weapon; and concertina--triple strand concertina [barbed wire] up around the building; changing the ... where the gate was in the wire, where the gap in the wire was, every twenty-four hours they changed it. And it would get frustrating if you were in the building at the time and came out in the night with all the lights out, walked to where the gap had been, and you walked right into barbed wire. But having all that, at the same time watching dependents float in and out of the snack bar--sweet young things in short-shorts and tank tops--watching the helicopters land and take off on the parade ground, little things like that. So maybe what I'm saying is ... maybe the bizarre is in fact the norm.
MAJ COOK: As an experienced and practicing historian, what do you think was maybe your major 'lesson-learned' for the history community?
DR. WRIGHT: We have to be extremely pro-active. I think [that] the climate ... . In Viet Nam there were relatively few commanders who paid much credence to history. I was very, very fortunate in the 25th Division that we had a sequence of division commanders while I was there (MG [Harris W.] Hollis and MG [Edward] Bautz) who were very supportive and who believed in history. So I had an easy time of it, but as I've talked to the guys who have stayed active in the field who were there at the same time with MHDs in support of the divisions on either side of us, they did not experience that.
Today's senior officers believe in history. One of the things that made working with the plans guys so easy was [that] that whole group are SAMS [senior advanced military studies] graduates. They all are educated in military history, they all believe in it. The climate is there for us to do our job. We don't have to spend all the time on salesmanship that we used to.
And we need to be far more aggressive about getting ourselves in. We're talking about small units, we're talking about a real easy way to get people in. It's not a complex logistics thing. We need to really push it and push it from the top down.
We also need to have a much better mechanism for coordination amongst ourselves. Coordination for the historical coverage of JUST CAUSE started off on the morning of December 20th with a series of phone calls between myself, the FORSCOM historian (Mr. Bill Stacy), and I used as a point of contact at CMH Mr. Steve Everett who is in the Oral History Activity. Largely knowing I was going to be doing a lot of oral interviews [and] knowing [that] I have no admin[istrative] support here, I needed transcription assistance, so the three of us cut a deal: all my tapes would be sent up to CMH and CMH would take care of transcribing and distributing them. I got lead from FORSCOM ... that I would have FORSCOM lead on this.
But other than Mr. Everett, and MAJ Tom Popa when he got detailed to (probably late February when he got detailed to) start working on this, I haven't had any contact from CMH. I'm responsible for the tactical and the operational monograph as a Corps responsibility and a FORSCOM responsibility. CMH should have done a better job of getting its collective act together.
And in this sense of while here at Corps we had learned every lesson from [the 1983 invasion of] Grenada, because I went looking, using [Operation] URGENT FURY for lessons, that's what I started for to see what was 'broke.' We had fixed all of those things, we had other things show up and we always will--there's no such thing as a perfect operation--but they're all small-change things. All the big things that were broken in Grenada are fixed now. And I compared the historical coverage of JUST CAUSE and the historical coverage of Grenada, and it's broke. We haven't improved one iota, other than individuals fighting the good fight. For example, the very fact that you're here now doing your mission comes from the fact that we've got good people who took initiative. But it's junior people taking initiative and getting it done instead of the top-down system working the way it should. We should have had by COB [close of business] on Wednesday December 20th a master plan in place, orchestrated and coordinated out of CMH, giving out the turf and assigning responsibilities. Here we are at the beginning of April [and] that still hasn't happened.
MAJ COOK: Could you describe how you exited country?
DR. WRIGHT: Yeah. Chomping at the bit wildly to get back out, as my clothes started wearing out, I finally got some word. Again, working with the planners, I was starting to watch the reverse flow of the troops, the planning for the reverse flow of the troops and realized that we were going to have the big jump back at Bragg on January 12th. Oh, about the 8th I guess it was, I then ... .
Going to the evening shift change briefings in the EOC as a regular part of my intel[ligence] collection effort. And the supreme irony [was that] I was put on the briefing schedule in the EOC shift change brief; I came after like Civil Affairs and Graves Registration and everything else. But I mean I ... LTC [John] Schornick [the Corps G-3 Chief of Current Operations] who ran the shift changes would always call out 'historian, [got] anything?' So I started trying to inject levity into the proceedings and trying to throw out little jokes and whatnot, reminding everybody that they had to be nice to me because in the final analysis who were the good guys and who were the bad guys depended on who the historian said they were.
So I'd been kicking around this particular day. I guess it was finally about midnight or 12:30 as I was getting ready to leave Building 95 and go over to my cot and crash, and I met the Corps G-3, the JTF J-3, COL Tom Needham--COL(P) Tom Needham--walking down the hall. And I suggested 'sir, well, since the jump's going back in on the 12th, I need to backhaul out of here on the 11th so I can be in position at Bragg to take the pictures.' And he uttered a string of expletives the gist of which was not until the NHL [National Hockey League] has a franchise in Hell will I get to leave early, which kind of frustrated me. Because the CALL guys pulled out about that time, and I [had] relied a lot on CW2 Fulton to keep my morale up and everything. So I said 'O.K.' He said 'you're going to stay until the job is done.' So I said O.K., I'm down here 'till March sometime and went off muttering to myself.
Then I guess ... I watched them all marshal up and start going through the shake-down inspection, saying goodbye to all the NCOs that were going back. I was feeling a little concerned about the fact that when Joint Task Force SOUTH stood down it was replaced by Joint Task Force PANAMA. These were people [that] I didn't know, and I potentially was out on a limb. So I said O.K., let's see what happens. And then about that point, I guess about the 11th, COL Needham came by and said come home this weekend. So I said O.K., stay a couple extra days and clean up the loose ends. And then I immediately 'beat feet' up to the Headquarters Commandant (who I knew) to start seeing about getting myself manifested on a flight out. And [I] discovered that COL Needham had given me a reasonably high priority so I knew I'd be coming home, oh, on about the 13th--12th to 13th.
So I patched up loose ends, got my film processed, started doing my ... getting my packing done as much as I could. Then the 13th I finally got told 'yes, your pecking order on the manifesting is such that if you get out to the airport on the 13th, out to Torrijos-Tocumen, we'll get you on an airplane--we don't know which airplane, but we'll get you on an airplane that day.' So I said O.K., great.
I had one last interview to do on the 13th, which was one of the assault company commanders from the mechanized battalion that took out La Comandancia. So I went over and got that interview; they were off at a different location, so I'd gotten a driver to take me over, and I got one of their drivers to take me back to Fort Clayton, to the battalion headquarters. And I'd really gotten to know that battalion--4th of the 6th Mech [4th Battalion (Mechanized), 6th Infantry]--very, very well while I was down there. So I asked the S-3 [MAJ James Donivan] could he get me a ride to the airport? So he gave me an NCO and a driver and a 'Hummer' [HMMWV; M-998-series High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle] and said 'sure, just take the Doc out.'
So we swung by, picked up my gear. I cleared post. And off we went. And we're driving and driving and driving, and I know it isn't that far. Plus, we're going through the jungle. We're going up a paved highway and everything, but passing traffic and whatnot, which is taking forever. And then we went past this one area and I recognized it from aerial recon that I had done in the helicopter photography missions--this was Cerro Tigre, the P.D.F. [Panamanian Defense Force] supply depot. Which was about 120 degrees in the wrong direction from the airport.
So at that point I casually inquired of the driver 'do you know where we're going?' And he said, 'why no, sir, I thought you knew where we're going.' And I turned around and looked at the NCO, and he said 'don't look at me, I don't have a map either.' So I said 'oh, O.K., well, hang a right and we'll keep going until we find the ocean or something and we get oriented.' And we literally wandered around. And I remembered thinking at the time, yeah, I've got seven rounds in my .45 (which, by the way, I didn't have when I deployed; I neglected to remind everybody when I drew the pistol that I needed ammunition, so I spent the first three days in Panama with essentially an expensive club before I found some medics from the mech battalion, because I knew they were on the old equipment cycle, so I knew they weren't carrying 9mm [pistols], so I tracked down the medics and collected some ammunition from them). So here we are, travelling through the countryside and had ... I mean, we were out in the boonies. And had there been a disgruntled P.D.F. guy still running around loose, it was me and my seven rounds from the .45, and that's all we had to protect us.
But eventually we make it out to the airport and I'm able to manifest up on a C-5 and come back. I concluded ... . C-5A [actually a C-5B Galaxy], in this case it was, let's see, flight A-322 and it was a C-5A out of the 436th Military Airlift Wing. I didn't get their tail number. But getting a chance to come back on a C-5A is always much better than going on a [C-]141: they have actual honest-to-god seats and a microwave oven, so we actually had a hot meal.
Pulled in here ... . Took off, I guess, [from] Tocumen ... I cooled my heels in Tocumen for probably about six or seven hours. Then we flew out about 1930 and got in about 2345. Had an interesting time coming back because I travelled with "The Rabbi"--CHAP(CPT) Ben Romer, who is the only rabbi in XVIII Airborne Corps. And since USARSO did not have any rabbis and since this was Jewish holidays as well [as Christmas], poor Rabbi Romer was one of the five individuals from the 24th Mech Division [24th Infantry Division (Mechanized)] that got shipped to Panama.
And I also learned at that point [that] chaplain's kits are extremely heavy. Because I volunteered to help him move some of his junk and tried to pick it up and nearly herniated myself. [So I] decided at this point that a major outranks nearly everybody on that airplane; help can be construed as you pick it up yourself or, what I opted to do, which was to go find myself a lieutenant and tell him [to] get a detail together to get the chaplain's stuff off the bird.
We got back and I felt kind of bad about missing, you know, the big welcome back. Figuring oh boy, this is my second 'war' in a row I've missed a welcome back ceremony for. But much to my surprise we got in to Green Ramp and a voice yelled out 'anybody here from Corps Headquarters?' So I yelled 'yeah.' And it was a driver--and they had a vehicle meet every aircraft just on the off chance that somebody from Corps Headquarters would be coming back. They loaded our stuff up and hauled us back to the parking lot. Found my car, hubcaps still in place. Got in, fired it up. When I saw the engine would turn over I told them 'thank you, you can go.' Then I took the chaplain back over to the B.O.Q. [Moon Hall, the Bachelor Officer Quarters] and deposited him there. Went back to my apartment; it was about 2 in the morning. Took a shower, went face-down, went to bed.
Got up the next morning, which was Sunday the 14th of January, and headed on back to go see my family, including three puppies that had been born the morning that I deployed to Panama. I had said goodbye ... the night before we left I had said goodbye to my wife and kids and everything. And then as I was heading out the door with my rucksack on my back that morning the phone rang and it was my wife. And I said 'what are you calling me for?' And she said 'your damn dog had puppies between midnight and six o'clock this morning, and where the hell were you?'
So it was a pretty good deployment, all told. And its been one of the highlights of my professional career. You know, my getting a chance to get in and do that and getting in on the ground floor.
MAJ COOK: Thank you very much.
DR. WRIGHT: Got one funny story. You didn't ask me the funny story question.
MAJ COOK: I didn't ask you the funny story.
DR. WRIGHT: I've got one, what I think, is a hysterically funny story. Went off to Rio Hato on one of my helicopter flights. This was the target that was taken down by the Rangers. It was about a forty-five to fifty minute helicopter flight from Fort Clayton, and I was bringing a couple of enlisted men along with me. And one of the objectives was to see the bomb craters caused by the F-117A Stealth fighters.
So [we] pulled in about 2,000 feet over the airfield to get some nice aerial photographs and went through the orbiting procedure. Got chased out of the way a couple of times by C-130s [Hercules transports] landing and taking off. And figured I had enough major pictures, so I called on my headset to the pilot and said 'call the tower and find out where the bomb craters are.' So they gave us ... told us where they were located. So we flew over to that area and looked and couldn't see the bomb craters. I knew these were 2,000-pound bombs and there were some big holes in the ground. So I said 'they've got the grid backwards, find out where they really are.' [INTERRUPTION] The upshot was [that] we had to go down to about 200 feet to find the bomb craters because they had come in, apparently, at low level and skipped them in under the trees.
So get down--they put us down in a field. There was nobody to coordinate with on the ground. There were 7th I.D. [Infantry Division] guys running around, but nobody seemed to care that we were there, nobody seemed to know. So I told the helicopter crew 'go on over to the field, fuel up, and shut down and we'll meet you back there.' And then we started walking around. I wanted to get pictures of the buildings and whatnot.
The troops start looking around and the first thing we do is find some P.D.F. military busses that had been graffitied up by our troops: some in Spanish, some in English. And I had to translate for the kids as to what exactly it was that they had said about Noriega's mamma in Spanish. And there was one Viet Nam veteran E-8 that was with us, pretty experienced. And they said 'there's stuff lying all over the place and sir ...'. I said 'understand that they're shaking everybody down leaving country, but if you've got something you think you can get back, I don't care if you try it.' So they went souvenir hunting and I started wandering around. I looked to see if I could see anything, [but] no, I didn't see anything. I came out of this one building and said 'there's a bunch of stuff in here, but you're not going to find anything--it's been picked over for a couple weeks now.' And they came out a few minutes later loaded down with T-Shirts and baseball caps and all kinds of other stuff. I thought 'well, so much for my intelligence-gathering skills.'
We went over [and] took a picture of the bomb crater. I had one of the kids go stand in it. Did our thing and were starting to head back when we found what had been the admin[istrative] office and day room area for the 6th Mechanized Infantry Company. There, in classic US Army fashion, was a butcher block with the little flip charts for some kind of a briefing. And I said 'I know M.I. [military intelligence] has been through this area and we gathered up that [chart] and presented it to the J-3 Plans Section as their planning memento. And that's become the sort of sacred relic up in their area.
That was just my version of the funny story, that I knew that we were able to come up with that. And then the helicopter ... getting the helicopter crew to let us take it on board. And then the flight back. I was feeling pretty comfortable and relaxed. The helicopter pilots started paying attention to the young ladies that were out sunbathing. That part of the Pacific coast of Panama is apparently dotted with rather wealthy residences, all of them with swimming pools and whatnot. And they started ogling the bikinis as they were going back. The difficulty is that it's right on the coast, and the pelicans were right on the coast, and Panama has the most suicidal batch of pelicans that I've ever seen in my life. So about half way back on the flight I was convinced that they were either going to crash us into something because they were looking at the girls, or they weren't going to notice that the pelicans that were kamikazing at the windshield, and I figured I was going to ... that my family would get the note that your husband/father has been killed by an outraged pelican in Panama.
MAJ COOK: Do you have anything else?
DR. WRIGHT: That pretty much covers it, other than I wish to heck that I had about nine more MHDs with me on this, because it would have made life a whole heck of a lot easier.
MAJ COOK: We'll come back to that.
DR. WRIGHT: Promise.
MAJ COOK: Thank you very much, Dr. Wright.
END OF INTERVIEW