DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY
XVIII AIRBORNE CORPS
FORT BRAGG, NORTH CAROLINA
US ARMY CENTER OF MILITARY HISTORY
WASHINGTON, D. C.
JOINT TASK FORCE SOUTH IN OPERATION JUST CAUSE
Oral History Interview
COL Michael G. Snell
Commander, 193d Infantry Brigade
Commander, Task Force BAYONET
Interview Conducted 1 January 1990 at Building 200, Fort Clayton, Panama
Interviewer: MAJ Robert K. Wright, Jr.
JOINT TASK FORCE SOUTH IN OPERATION JUST CAUSE
20 December 1989 - 12 January 1990
Oral History Interview JCIT 007
MAJ WRIGHT: This is an [Operation JUST CAUSE] interview being conducted at the headquarters of the 193d Infantry Brigade. The interviewing officer is MAJ [Robert K.] Wright, the [XVIII Airborne] Corps historian. It's 1 January ; the time is 0820[R] hours. And I'd like to proceed, sir, and begin. If you would give us full name, rank, serial number and your duty position, sir?
COL SNELL: Snell, Michael G.; colonel; Commander, 193d Infantry Brigade; ***-**-****.
MAJ WRIGHT: And, sir, if you would, sort of kick off by giving your perspective of Operation JUST CAUSE, beginning with the build-up phase and just take it down the road the way you see it going, sir.
COL SNELL: Okay, well, let me talk about five distinct phases; two of them pre-assault and three of them after we've started the fighting.
Back in the summer, in July and August and into the beginning of September, the main emphasis of actions here in Panama revolved around freedom of movement and [Panama Canal] Treaty implementation. So the main thrust of our activities was movements to various locations; small-scale unit exercises; and some large-scale unit exercises. All designed to show the PDF [Panamanian Defense Force] that we were aware of our treaty rights and that we were going to emphasize our treaty rights. Consequently, during that period of time, small unit training was de-emphasized for the sake of these operations.
With the change in the CinC1 and the 3 October  coup, the thrust of what we were doing down here began to change. And intervention became more likely. The thrust of our preparations began to change. We began to put a lot of emphasis on small unit training, especially small unit live-fire training. And of course, LTG [Carl W.] Stiner2 came down as the JTF commander and we began the planning process for the operation. That became more and more intense as we went through the latter stages of October and November, really culminating in the 'great bomb scare' after Thanksgiving when we thought that some narco[tics] terrorists had maybe targeted some US forces down here because of the interruption of the Medelin cartel drug trade.
In December: December was supposed to be a personnel maintenance month and we were supposed to kind of stand-down from some very, very heavy op[erational] tempo that we had and kind of kick back. And we were all looking forward to the beginning of the new year with the treaty calling for a new administrator in the PCC [Panama Canal Commission]. And we thought there would be a lot of civil unrest, civil disorders over the fact that the United States had rejected the Panamanian nominee to head up the PCC. Of course, the death of the Marine lieutenant3 on the Saturday4 night preceding the invasion changed all that.
As combat operations begin, I'm going to divide them into really three phases, the assault phases, which lasted the first and second day. What I'll call a mop-up phase, which was on Days 3 and 4. And then a nation-building effort that began on about the fifth day and which we're still involved in and I anticipate will go on for some months.
In preparation for the plan, we had developed a task force plan utilizing four maneuver elements. 1st [Battalion (Airborne)] of the 508th Infantry; 5[th Battalion (Light)], 87[th] Infantry--those are the two organic infantry battalions to the 193d. The 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry, a mechanized infantry task force down here OPCON [under 193d Infantry Brigade operational control] from the 5th I[nfantry] D[ivision]. The 519th M[ilitary] P[olice] Battalion: that was a battalion headquarters and one MP company from Fort Meade, [Maryland], as part of the rotation--augmentation--that had been coming in here. And he also had four other MP companies OPCON to his control. Of course, the 59th Engineers [Company] and the battery, [Battery] D of the 320th Field Artillery. So that comprised the Task Force BAYONET in the planning stages.
Our main thrust was to address those PDF forces which were in the old canal operating area.5 And to assist SOF [Special Operations Forces] forces in a rescue mission in the [La] Comandancia prior to seizing the Comandancia. So we began the operation with seven distinct targets. They were: the PDF dog compound, the place where PDF trained and maintained their sentry dogs, dope-smelling dogs, etc.; two DENI6 stations, that is, police stations; the DNTT,7 the highway patrol, if you will, of Panama (the headquarters); the Comandancia, of course, the Pentagon of the PDF; the 5th Company, the 5th Infantry Company,8 which is stationed at Fort Amador, a post that is half Panamanian and half US; and any patrol cars that we found in the area who normally sat out at strategic points to watch and report on US movements. Those were the objectives we were assigned.
We developed a brigade plan. Of course the battalions developed battalion plans; and carried the process through to the development of company battle books. Brought our company commanders in, got them interim T[op] S[ecret] clearances and brought them in fairly early in the process. As we developed the plans we conducted TEWTs (tactical exercises without troops), we walked the ground. We could, of course, look at all of our objectives. We ran some command post exercises and some things we called 'Jeep-Exs,' which were moving vehicles around, testing communication nodes. And then in the guise of the freedom-of-movement operations, we did some timings, some small operations that tried to rehearse little parts of the plan in order to assure that the timings all fell according to the time schedule.
Our main goal was to fix all the PDF forces in their current locations, to give them an opportunity to surrender, because we felt a large portion of them would not fight for [Manuel Antonio] Noriega, and then if they would not surrender, to go ahead and attack and seize. Now, that was true for every objective but the Comandancia. The objective of the Comandancia, of course, was to rescue Mr. [Kurt] Muse, a U.S. national who had been held there for some time; and to cordon off the Comandancia; and to attack and seize the Comandancia.
Besides the planning effort, which included having all the company commanders develop a detail plan and then they'd back-brief me--every one in the presence of all the other company commanders. So everybody had a very thorough understanding of the plan. One of the battalions even ran a Janus war game a couple times, testing out various drills.
Our training all was focused on specific company objectives. So each company knew exactly what it had to do and it tailored its training program, its live-fire exercises especially, to exactly what it is it had to do on its target. And the platoon leaders and most of the NCOs [noncommissioned officers] and the soldiers weren't aware that they were training for a specific target; but the company commanders, as they set up their problems, were.
Of course, like everyone else, we got the decision to go, I knew about it on Monday. Monday night at 1800--let me get my--when was the 20th? The 20th was -- we attacked Wednesday morning, didn't we?
MAJ WRIGHT: Wednesday morning, sir.
COL SNELL: Tuesday night at 1800 we brought in the platoon leaders and briefed the platoon leaders on the operation. Now they sat down for about two or three hours with the company commanders going very thoroughly through all the battle books we'd prepared. And at 2100 hours we brought the soldiers in and issued orders. The plan was to launch--LD [line of departure] time was at 0100. A decision was made at the JTF level to commence the Comandancia portion of the operation 15 minutes early so that kicked off at 0045. The rest of the operation for my brigade forces kicked off of at 0100.
It may be pompous and a little dangerous to say that it went like clockwork. Everybody moved where they were supposed to move, got into position. We had absolutely no problems. The fight went on at the Comandancia, which was rather spectacular if you got a chance to sit on the hill and watch it. Mr. Muse was rescued and about 4:15 in the morning or 4:30, Task Force 4/6 was chopped back to my control as the assault forces that rescued Mr. Muse were withdrawn.
So the position we found ourselves in at first light was, we had all of our objectives fixed and we'd been trying to talk out the PDF at several of the objectives. We had scarfed up all of the watchers that were out at PDF cars; they were either dead, wounded or in our control. The cordon around the Comandancia was very incomplete because when the SOF forces pulled out, they pulled out seven tracks--APCs [M-113 armored personnel carriers]
--to assist them in follow-on missions and that was something that was decided at the last minute. So our first order of business was to attack again and reestablish the cordon around the Comandancia. We did that with the brigade reserve at first light.
MAJ WRIGHT: Who was your brigade reserve, sir?
COL SNELL: I had a mech[anized] infantry company (minus); a company headquarters and two mech platoons. It was designed primarily to block any forces coming in from the Panama City side of town if the other forces did not address them in time. I was particularly concerned about the PDF force at Panama Viejo, which reacted very quickly to the 3 October coup and the fact that they were not going to be addressed until an air assault by the 82d [Airborne Division], which was going to take place sometime around H+2 hours. So if they wanted to react, there was time for them to react and influence the fighting down here. It turned out that they did not react and the 82d fixed them, so I was able to use the brigade reserve at the Comandancia.
The remainder of Day 2 [i.e., 20 December] was seizing all the objectives. PDF did not come out, although we subsequently found that many of the soldiers would have come out but they were afraid of some of their leaders. In each place there was a small, hard core of people who decided to fight us. One of the big surprises that we had in the operation. And we systematically reduced all the objectives during the course of the day. By about 1730 or 1800 hours we had all the objectives secured and we could reconsolidate. That really ended Phase 1, which I'm going to call the assault phase.
We did have a large firefight on Day 2 [21 December] down in the vicinity of DNTT when Mr. [Ricardo] Arias [Calderon], the First Vice President, was talking to former members of the PDF who he was enticing to change their loyalties and join the new government. They were fired on by what we estimated was maybe a ten- or twelve-man element. We had to attack again to eliminate that element. And that really ended, there on the second day, by the evening of the second day, the major fighting that went on in the task force area.
Days 3 and 4 I'll call the mop-up operations. We had several sniping incidents. We had what's come to be known down here as drive-by, that's cars driving by shooting at US soldiers. We also received several mission downtown in Panama City to either block entrance into three embassies (the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Libyan embassies) to prevent Noriega from seeking political asylum there. We guarded various governmental buildings downtown: the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health. We also had what was the strangest mission we were given, which was to secure a suitable location for the swearing in of a president, to orchestrate the ceremony (and don't screw it up, I think, was the guidance). So we ...
MAJ WRIGHT: Which day? Was that Day 3, sir?
COL SNELL: That was the night of Day 2, morning of Day 3, as I recall. So we went down and seized the Legislative Building about midnight and went in with the protocol people and vacuum sweepers and PA [public address] systems and got the place set up. Got security established; got some MPs out of the field and cleaned up in guyaveras with handguns; and orchestrated the ceremony that Mr. [Guillermo] Endara who proclaimed himself president.
Days 3 and 4 saw us primarily dealing with trying to reestablish a climate of law and order downtown and to insure that no renegade elements of the PDF got into our housing areas or the rear area. As the reinforcements began to flow in, we lost a large area of downtown to the 82d, who assigned it to 1st Brigade of the 7th Infantry Division (which is actually the 9th Regiment). And we ended up in the old former canal operating area and the Chorrillo-Santa Ana-San Felipe area--as our areas to secure and do the nation-building effort.
And that's where we've been really since Day 5, in the nation-building effort. Our activities primarily have been trying to stand up the police force or assist in standing up the police force; trying to assist them in getting back out in the area. Ensuring that public utilities are there and functioning--a huge effort in trash collection because there was a lot of looting on Days 2 and 3. Ensuring that the medical and health services are standing back up again. And (hopefully) in the next two or three days, as they get a magistrate and there's some due process brought into the area that we're in, we'll be able to withdraw the infantry from down there and turn that area back over to the Panamanian authorities. It's my hope--today's the 1st--it's my hope that by the 3d or 4th of January that that will be effective.
What's going to happen in the future, well, they did a tremendous job here in rebuilding the institutions, the military and police institutions here. I assume we'll play a major role in that. As the forces start to pull out of here that came in from the contingency forces, somebody's going to have to be ready to go out and get the renegade elements if there are any. I assume that that's a role that we will assume. It is my fervent hope that the main effort downtown, as the fighting stops and we get the guns off the street, it will be a military police effort, and that I will be able to keep the infantry in and go back to infantry training in stand-by operational reaction missions. As opposed to remaining downtown as part of the essentially police function.
I guess the only other thing I want to mention right up front is while all this was going down--going on--we were implementing the CinC's guidance on family draw-downs. So in the last two months, we have returned to the States early over 100 brigade families. And, indeed, during the fighting we were still shipping families out who were scheduled to leave during December. So there were a lot of balls in the air at one time.
MAJ WRIGHT: It strikes me, sir, that it was an incredibly complex operation and yet one, apparently, that the planning gave you enough flexibility so that you were able to adjust to time sequencing. So that you weren't locked in totally tight--that, you know, if so-and-so wasn't on Corner X at 001, then the whole plan doesn't go down the tubes.
COL SNELL: Well, it was very complicated but we enjoyed two or three great benefits. We were on the terrain where we were going to fight. So there was a great amount of leader knowledge about how to get from Point A to Point B. As I mentioned, we had rehearsed all those movements, so we knew exactly how long it took. And the distances involved are not great. So if you were a minute or two minutes missing an LD time, all you did was speed up a little bit to get down to your objective area in time.
The trickiest part of the operation in my mind was ... our defensive plans called for the mech battalion to secure the Quarry Heights-Balboa area. Of course, our offensive plans, when we executed it, called for them to launch out and seize the Comandancia. They had to hand off the area around Quarry Heights and Balboa to 5/87 while the infantry battalion was coming in behind them. And that handoff--of insuring that we didn't uncover the US population that was there, but yet we didn't impede the attack--was the trickiest part of the operation. And was one that we had talked about in great length, all the leaders. And as I said, my role was to sit up on the hill and watch this. I really didn't have to do very much, it went very, very well.
MAJ WRIGHT: Overall assessments, sir, of the quality of your troops?
COL SNELL: The soldiers here did an exceptionally good job. Just to give you an indicator, we were shipping all these families back and we went down and voluntarily asked officers and NCOs to extend, ship their families back and remain in Panama. We had over 30 senior non-commissioned officers who voluntarily did that, which are your platoon sergeants (your bread-and-butter), first sergeants, some of our squad leaders, some of our staff NCOs. It speaks volumes about their dedication. I don't think that we have a cross-section of the Army significantly different than any other unit in the Army. They're good kids and they did a good job.
MAJ WRIGHT: NCOs given a lot of responsibility under this plan in the individual assaults on objectives?
COL SNELL: Well, any time you fight the NCO is given a lot of responsibility because that's his job. I mean, you can't function with officers trying to lead squads. So the answer is yes. But again, the train-up program, I think, gave them the confidence that they knew exactly what they were doing. Their familiarity with the area made them comfortable with it. And so we had no problems with NCOs doing what they were supposed to do, showing initiative in doing it, doing it smart.
If I had to make one critical comment overall, I think in some cases our company commanders, as anybody in combat the first time, has to be assisted in making that final assault. What they want to do is pound the objective, use firepower. I was the same way as a kid in Vietnam. That's the first, I think, natural instinct. And they had to be prodded a bit to get on with it. We had given them the opportunity to surrender, they're not going to surrender, so let's get on with the assaults.
MAJ WRIGHT: Speaking of the Vietnam experience, sir, did you have much in the way (across the brigade) of combat experience or was it almost nonexistent?
COL SNELL: Very, very thin. Most of the first sergeants; a smattering of other people that had been maybe to Grenada. But by and large I would say we didn't have more than 30 or 35 combat vets in the entire task force.
MAJ WRIGHT: When you worked up your team, sir, to seize each objective, did you ... how did you use your engineer assets, your MP assets? Did you cross-attach extensively or did you try to keep them centralized?
COL SNELL: No, we extensively cross-attached. We've got this sapper company9 here that consists of two platoons. Well, we gave each of them ... one of the platoons to each of my assigned light infantry battalions. The 4/6 came down with an engineer slice from the 5th Division, so they had theirs.
The MPs, each battalion had MPs OPCON to it in different roles. Some of them had roadblocks and indeed, one of the heaviest areas of fighting was one of the MP platoons that set up a roadblock down around the Comandancia. They also had MPs to try to secure US personnel in housing areas, to evacuate some houses that we knew were likely to receive fire. And then in the rear area I assigned the 519th, an MP battalion, an AO [area of operations] and made him an area commander with the bulk of his MP forces, which is a non-traditional, non-doctrinal role. But it was something we felt we had to do given the objectives we had and the size area we had. And it worked out well. The MPs performed magnificently.
MAJ WRIGHT: Communications go well?
COL SNELL: We are familiar with this area. Communications in major cities is a problem. There are three or four major hills around here, we have to put out additional radio relays. We had no problem with commo, but it was something that a unit coming in not knowing the area could have had problems. Again, an advantage of being here.
MAJ WRIGHT: Any logistics problems?
COL SNELL: The in-place forces here are not set up to function like a division, there's no DISCOM [division support command]. There's an area support group10 which has both a theater function and a tactical support function. It is in the process of organizing; it's very heavily manned by civilians. We had identified most of the problems ahead of time and worked through them. There are a lot of innovative, non-doctrinal solutions.
But the fight just didn't go on long enough to really stretch the logistical tail. We didn't fire up any basic loads. And, indeed, I think about 30 or 35 percent of a basic load was the most any task force expended in the first two days. So, no, we had no problems; but I'm not sure it was a fair test.
MAJ WRIGHT: To what extent did you have on-call tac[tical] air or Army aviation?
COL SNELL: We were well down the pecking order in priorities for fire support. During the initial assaults we had none. 4-6 had some that the SOF had that they were able to utilize. And then in the second day [i.e., morning of 20 December] as we went back into the Comandancia to actually seize it, we did get some fire support in the form of an AC-130 [Spectre] and some AH-64s [Apaches] with some Hellfire missiles. But we used fire support as sparingly, because of the collateral damage, the criteria the CinC had established.
MAJ WRIGHT: Your people pretty much were comfortable with the rules of the engagement?
COL SNELL: Yes, we had been operating down here, as I mentioned, for months under a very tense situation. We had several face-offs with the PDF where everybody was locked and loaded. We had firing incidents with them. That's one of the things that we've been beating into the soldier for a long time now, so we were very comfortable with the rules of the engagement.
MAJ WRIGHT: Spanish speakers pretty much across the board?
COL SNELL: Yeah, I would guess conservatively maybe 20 or 25 percent of the soldiers here in the brigade speak Spanish. So having Spanish speakers was not a problem.
MAJ WRIGHT: You didn't have to go through any of that prior cross-leveling that the 82d did to ensure that they had somebody in every platoon?
COL SNELL: No, every platoon has a half a dozen or a dozen Spanish speakers.
MAJ WRIGHT: Trying to think through on some of the lesser issues. What about intel[ligence] support? Did you rely primarily on in-house assets here in country?
COL SNELL: Although there was a great amount of intel support from CONUS [Continental United States], tactical intelligence was primarily developed by in-house assets. We did learn a couple things in the IPB [intelligence preparation of the battlefield] process.
As a result of the 3 October  coup, Noriega was conducting a major shake up of the PDF. And we found out that personalities are very important. By following those leaders who had been very loyal and quick-reactive during the 3 October coup, we could make some conclusions about what forces would fight, what forces Noriega considered important. For example, as you probably know, the 7th Infantry Company,11 the Macho de Monte, was the force that primarily put down the 3 October coup.
Well, by watching where that company commander (who got promoted to major) went, it gave you a real indicator where Noriega considered a very important unit or a very important function. Something that the IPB process does not emphasize is personalities. And in this type of an environment, personalities became our greatest indicator.
Some other things that we did, I think, greatly assisted us. In late November we got 90mm recoilless rifles back down here. That was the infantry's mobile artillery, the direct fire weapon, into these heavily-constructed buildings that are 50 years old. Probably the most valuable weapon at the platoon level that we had. It was the final arbitrator in all the little fights that went on. And then we used a 105[mm M-102] howitzer in a direct fire role down at 5th Company at Fort Amador. And it was the final arbitrator there. In combat in cities, our AT weapons systems with their shaped charges, just have marginal utility. And the old 90 is a great weapons system and indeed, if I could have got my hands on some of the old 106[mm recoilless rifle]s, I would have brought them down here too.
MAJ WRIGHT: You had pretty good support then during the final build-up, say the last two months? If you identified a requirement that had to come from out of theater, you were getting it?
COL SNELL: We had great support, the best I've ever seen in my days in the Army. While we were adjusting all of these DEROSs [date eligible to return from overseas] for all the soldiers and we accelerated family departures--which also included accelerated DEROSs for all the soldiers--we were able to maintain a C-2 strength at about ... one battalion was at 83 and when we started the battle the other was at 86 percent. And we had projections that showed us going as low as 60 percent in 11Bs.12 So I know that was a tremendous effort by the personnel community.
The log[istical] community: if we asked for it, we got it. We got it quickly. I'll give you some examples. I wanted the little American flags13 that you see that we put on. I wanted to do that because some of the PDF forces are equipped with the same clothing, the same Kevlar helmets that we are. And a block away you can't tell friend from foe. Ten days later after we asked for a couple thousands of those, they were here. The 90s. Ammunition: I shot up 70 percent of my annual training allocation in 16 days in November. I was told don't worry about it, if you need more ammo, we'll ship more ammo in. So a tremendous logistical effort. As I said, the best I've ever seen.
MAJ WRIGHT: Marksmanship training: because of the collateral damage issue, did you go into a lot of one-shot-one-kill stress or ... ?
COL SNELL: We stressed at our marksmanship training, first of all, we went back to the book. I have a ... one of my battalion sergeant majors was in the SOF organizations for a number of years, he was a sniper there. He's forgotten more about marksmanship than most of us will ever know. And so we took his expertise along with two NCOs that are down here in USARSO [United States Army South] from the Army Marksmanship Unit. We went back to the ... F[ield] M[anual] 23-9 and laid out a very systematic program to insure soldiers had the confidence that they could hit what they aimed at. So that was Item 1.
And then Item 2 was the selective use of firepower. Because we felt that a large portion of the PDF would not fight; or, if given the opportunity, would surrender. We did not want to use firepower indiscriminately and kill a lot of people who didn't want to fight us. With all that that entails--creating families that are going to hate the United States because their son, husband, father was killed, knowing that he was not going to fight for Noriega. So we worked on fire discipline during all of our live fire. To return fire from where it was being received and not to hose down an entire building. We had surrender targets. For example, on all our target arrays and if a unit went through training and put a bullet hole in a surrender target, then they were no go and they had to go back and do it again.
We had no fire areas. At Fort Amador General Omar Torrijos' tomb is there. A lot of people in this country still view him as the George Washington of Panama. We wanted to make sure as we assaulted 5th Company that we didn't damage his tomb because that would create a cause for dissident elements to rally around.
[END OF SIDE ONE, TAPE ONE]
MAJ WRIGHT: Anything you think maybe we need to go back and look at in the way of our LIC [low intensity conflict] or MOUT [military operations on urbanized terrain] doctrines?
COL SNELL: Well, I would say that from all that we've been able to read, we don't have LIC doctrine. Certainly not at the tactical level. We searched out the books. To give you an idea, we talked a little bit about how to change the IPB. There's no doctrinal publication that we could find that really helps you get into applying the IPB process in this environment. And it's the same thing across the border. A lot of people are working on it, we've had a lot of groups come down here and talk to us about it, but when you want to go to a manual to help you put all this together, you find that there isn't any. It's a great void, in my opinion, in the Army right now. So you kind of have to make this up as you go. I would hope out of this experience here that lessons-learned and some of the manuals are going to be produced. But we always hear from TRADOC14 action officers, that "well, that one's going to be published in '91 or that one's going to be published in '92."
MAJ WRIGHT: The fact that you were on the ground and you've had a lot of people across the brigade with local community contacts: did that give you a lot of low-level collection ... intelligence asset?
COL SNELL: Yes. And it's been especially valuable in what I'll call the nation-building efforts. People calling in to the brigade because they know us, saying that so-and-so has weapons, this is a bad guy, come police him up. I had a large number of noncommissioned officers who lived out in town and officers that lived out in town for a number of months, developed friendships in the communities. That has paid dividends for us as far as phone calls coming back in from former neighbors with information that is almost always reliable when it comes in. My S-3 sergeant major has been responsible for two or three major weapons cache seizures in the 82d's area because he owns a house downtown, he's lived down there for a number of years, intends to retire here. And his neighbors and his personal knowledge of what was going on down there assisted greatly in identifying those.
MAJ WRIGHT: Did you get into any situations where you felt somebody was trying to feed you a false report to set you up for anything? I'm thinking here particularly like Day 3, Day 4?
COL SNELL: No, I don't think so. Of all the leads we had, I would guess that less than five percent proved to be accurate. But I don't think there was a deliberate attempt to set us up. I think it was just the confusion, the misinformation, and some element of people getting even with other people.
We did have one incident on Day 3 after we had seized the legislature where we had a guy come up wanting to give us five truckloads of ammunition and two armored cars. He wanted us to go with him into then what was a totally unsecured part of town. So we told him to bring back one truckload as an act of good faith and then we'd follow him down there. Of course, he never showed up again. That could have been a set-up or it could have been he just couldn't produce what he thought he could. But no, I don't think that the PDF was that organized nor the Dignity Battalion was that organized to actually attempt to lead us into ambushes.
MAJ WRIGHT: Can you give me an assessment of the different ... what you feel now (after everything has gone down) with the relative strong elements within the Panamanian forces and which ones were sort of less combat-capable and more just, you know, armed thugs?
COL SNELL: Well, in our objectives, all of our initial objectives addressed the PDF. So they were all forces, organized forces. They were not the Dignity Battalion types. I guess two facts stand out.
Number one is that the leadership booked before the battle. We've proven conclusively that people like CPT Cortizo, the 5th Company commander, left Amador at about 11:00 (2300 hours) the night before the battle; that he had some either advance warning or indication that something was going to happen. We only captured one officer in all the fighting that we did; and he was a medical officer who told us that he was given the opportunity to leave at about 11:30, quarter of 12, but felt it was his responsibility to stay with his soldiers.
Some of the NCOs forced some of the soldiers to fight. And that surprised us. We thought if the officers were gone, that the vast majority would just walk out and surrender. The numbers weren't large but they were large enough to preclude any mass surrenders. So the intensity with which they fought initially surprised us. And the fact that we had to go in and root out people out of buildings who would not surrender and who were killed in buildings surprised us. I did not foresee that that was that kind of dedication even on an individual level--not within the PDF.
MAJ WRIGHT: The PSYOPS [psychological operations] loudspeaker teams that went in with your columns, any feelings on whether that worked?
COL SNELL: Yeah, the HB [heavy broadcast] teams, we had been using them down here for some time. So we were comfortable with them, a great asset. They didn't ... they were not successful in talking them out, but in the subsequent phases, in the mop-up and in the nation-building, for example, the buying arms program, the food distribution program, the get-the-bad-guys-off-the-street program have proven to be invaluable. Because you can cruise up and down the streets, get your message out; you know it's getting out. They're much, much more effective than a bullhorn. So it's been a very good asset and an asset that's been heavily used.
MAJ WRIGHT: [M]-113 better than a [M-2] Bradley for the type of operation that we had to go down with here?
COL SNELL: Surprisingly enough, yes. For only one reason though. You would think that an assault of a built-up area would be a horizontal battle, in that you're fighting down streets. But given the nature of the construction around the Comandancia, a high-rise, a lot of three-story buildings, several very large multi-story buildings, the PDF chose to defend the Comandancia not by fighting from the Comandancia but occupying the buildings that surrounded the Comandancia. So they were in the upper stories firing down on the APCs. So as the mech column rolled in to establish the cordon the fight was PDF shooting down; the
[M-2] .50-cal[aliber machine gun]s and the soldiers shooting up. Well, the .50-cal. was on a free-swinging pivot, very easy to shoot up in the air. Now I'm told that the Bradley, that there's a manual manipulation much like a machine gun T&E [training and elevation] mechanism, to get the ...
MAJ WRIGHT: [25mm] Bushmaster.
COL SNELL: ... the weapons system up and down. So the fact that it was a free-wheeling gun, it allowed them to address the targets vertically faster than the Bradley would have done. And for that reason, and this is the mech battalion guys would know, telling me that they were very glad they had the 113 and not the Bradley.
MAJ WRIGHT: What about the Hummer [M-998-series High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle]? How did it stand up?
COL SNELL: We only had, I think, two incidents that I'm aware of where it actually came under intense fire. And they were MP vehicles both times. The bullets penetrated in some cases; in some cases did not. The flak jacket and the helmet had proven invaluable. We had a young MP who was standing up in the turret of an MP gun jeep, was hit with a round about one inch below ... or one inch above the rim in the back of the Kevlar helmet. Lifted him entirely out of the vehicle and sprawled him all over the hood. Took a big chunk out of the helmet and that was all. He was not wounded in any way. The doctors, as I visited the hospital every night, told me that there was a very low percentage of chest wounds. And we're talking less than four percent of chest wounds ... was attributed to the flak jackets. So those two pieces of equipment, everybody in this brigade is a believer in it.
MAJ WRIGHT: Did you use any of the AT-4s [84mm anti-tank weapons]?
COL SNELL: Yes, we used the AT-4s primarily to put a round in a window; as a suppressive weapon as we were conducting assaults. It kept their heads down and that's really all we wanted it to do.
MAJ WRIGHT: You had alluded to the 50-year-old buildings and that they were very difficult construction. I know from talking to others that some of our MOUT doctrine developed for Europe caused problems out in the outlying areas where the buildings weren't constructed that way and people took casualties by throwing the grenade in and flattening against the wall and forgetting that we're not talking about a thick wall.
COL SNELL: Well, you have to remember that I was G-3 in Berlin so we had been through combat in cities, which is a sub-set of MOUT, quite a bit. But you got to remember, if you're dealing with modern construction and you throw a hand grenade in a room that's only got plasterboard there, you're likely to receive some of your own fragments back through the wall.
MAJ WRIGHT: But for most of the key target buildings, we're talking about solid construction. So that wasn't a tremendous issue?
COL SNELL: It was an issue. Most of these buildings, as you mention, are old, they're two or three foot thick walls, exterior but they've been renovated on the inside. So you had to watch as you got inside. The old walls are thick concrete; the new walls where they'd been partitioned, we had the same problem everybody else did. And we had a lot of people with minor little fragment wounds in the legs and I'm sure that some of that was caused by the way we teach--or the way we taught soldiers to clear rooms.
MAJ WRIGHT: What about the ... your overall assessment of the morale? You had pointed out for the last three years the brigade's been taking a lot of guff. I would assume initial reaction was a very, very positive one on the part of the troops that we finally get to give some back. But then in the sustainment phase, the nation-building phase, thinking back to our time in Vietnam, that's real hard-to-sustain morale.
COL SNELL: Well, we tried to do some things early on. You're right. The soldier had been frustrated down here, he has stood in a riot-control formation while people have spit on him, while people have thrown balloons full of urine on him. He stood out there in the sun day in and day out. He's been abused downtown. So they were glad when it finally went down, they were finally doing something and they were anxious to do it.
One of my major concerns was to insure that the soldier understood that our fight was not with the Panamanian people. This was not World War II, the invasion of Germany. And we took some very overt acts very early on to do that. I think that Task Force BAYONET ... we were the first ones to come out of helmets as a signal that once we concluded the mop-up phase, that we were not making war on the Panamanian populous; that we were into the law and order, the police functions. We came out of flak jackets for the same reason, for the psychological message. We only did that after three or four days of absolutely no fighting at all. But we were still, I think, on the leading edge of doing that.
Also starting on the fourth day, I started taking a platoon out of every battalion for twelve hours. We'd bring them back to the barracks, give them a couple beers, let them wash their clothes and get eight hours sleep. And we have continued that. Today is the ... will be ... every unit will have rotated out of where they're located, got back into their cantonment area and had an opportunity to do that. I think that contributed to it.
On Day 5 I took the rounds out of the chambers. I did not want an isolated sniping or firing incident to cause a unit to overreact in a very heavily populated area and needlessly harm a bunch of civilians. So we have tried to deliver messages to the soldier and psychological messages to the populace to preclude an overreaction of kids who get keyed up. And I shouldn't say just kids get keyed up; we all get keyed up. If there's not an element of apprehension of everybody as we do this, then I think people are lying to you. It's there, it doesn't matter how old you are or how much you've done it.
MAJ WRIGHT: Basic impressions of how the Panamanian people reacted?
COL SNELL: In our area the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. They were very forthcoming with information immediately. All they wanted to do was to assure that you were in an area to stay, that you weren't coming in and leaving again. Because they ... but once you were there 18 or 24 hours, they came out and gave us a complete run down of the area: where to go, where not to go, who was a bad guy, where weapons were stored.
Of course, after the looting and the trash build up, we started with soldiers cleaning up trash as an example to try to get them out on the streets to help us. They did that. We began to run MEDCAPs15 in that area that we're in. It's a slum area. It has not received adequate medical care for a long time. So that was a very positive thing. Little things like Tylenol for the baby and the sick call types of things.
People are smiling, they'll try to hand you a beer. I've been invited into these little hovels for dinner two or three times. The kids come up to you on the street, like kids everywhere, and want to sit down and talk to you. There was some apprehension as we began to put the new PSF [Panamanian Security Force], police forces, back on the streets. We occasionally get, you know, the sullen glance again because these were essentially the same people we pulled off the streets to start with. I've had old ladies come up to me crying, saying thank you, it's the best Christmas present we could have. So it was a very, very positive reaction.
MAJ WRIGHT: You talked about your MEDCAPs, it raises an issue I probably should have brought up earlier. How was your medical support during all of this?
COL SNELL: Well, again, distances were very short. We were concerned at the beginning of the operation, because the number of surgeons assigned to Panama is three. And had casualties been very heavy, then we could have had a problem with the number of surgeons. I know that the JTF brought in a very heavy medical package. It was across the Bridge [of the Americas]. Medevac would have been time-consuming for us. Of course, we operated right around Gorgas Hospital. I don't think any unit was more than a mile from the hospital.
We had five killed in the brigade and they were all instantaneous deaths. I think we had 54 wounded, of which 28 were medevac'd to CONUS. Four or five serious injuries. We had one kid I'm not sure he's going to keep his leg. But the medical support, all the fears we had did not pan out. It has been very good. The hospital staff worked long, long hours. The triage at battalion aid stations was good. The more serious wounded we could take directly from the battlefield to the hospital.
MAJ WRIGHT: I think that pretty much covers just about everything, sir, other than to sort of tell you that from what I've seen, I mean, this was one heck of an operation. Just ... it was so good it's going to take me a long time to talk to everybody. And I'll keep you posted, I'll keep your XO [executive officer] up to speed on what I'm doing, where I'm going. Do you have any recommendations on who I need to talk to first?
COL SNELL: Given the way that we put the plan together, you need to recognize that if you want to talk about the planning effort, you're talking to company commanders, selected battalion staff officers and battalion commanders. If you want to talk execution, of course, you can talk to anybody. All the kids were out there executing.
The nature of the battle was that some units saw very heavy fighting; some units saw virtually no fighting. So as you go around, you need to be aware that perceptions are going to be 180 out. Some people are going to say, well, hell, we didn't do anything. Others are going to say, boy, it was really bad here. I think that's the only thing I would give you advice is, probably start with the company commanders up, if you want to talk about the planning and the training, train op.
MAJ WRIGHT: Okay, COL Snell, I thank you very much for your time and you'll be on the distribution of all the stuff that we start pulling together, sir.
COL SNELL: Thank you very much.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
.GEN Maxwell Thurman succeeding GEN Frederick Warner as Commander-in-Chief, US Southern Command [CinC, SOUTHCOM].
2. Commanding General, XVIII Airborne Corps, and Commanding General, Joint Task Force SOUTH [JTF SOUTH].
3. 1LT (USMC) Robert Paz.
4. 16 December 1989.
5. Pacific end of the former Panama Canal Zone.
6. Departamento Nacional de Investigaciones.
7. Direccion Nacional de Transito Terrestre.
8. Quintal Compania de Infanteria 'Victoriano Lorenzo.' Actually a military police company rather than an infantry rifle company.
9. The brigade's 59th Engineer Company was organized under the light engineer or sapper configuration.
10. 41st Support Group (Area).
11. Septima Compania de Infanteria 'Macho de Monte'. The Macho de Monte is a fierce wild boar native to Panama.
12. Military Occupational Specialty 11B is infantryman.
13. American flag shoulder patches were one of the identification measures adopted during the operation.
14. US Army Training and Doctrine Command.
15. Medical civic action patrols, a Vietnam-era term.