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
1LT Robert E. Gagnon
Audio-Visual Platoon Leader
8th Psychological Operations Battalion
Interview Conducted 5 April 1990 at Hardy Hall, Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Interviewer: MAJ Robert P. Cook (326th Military History Detachment)
JOINT TASK FORCE SOUTH IN OPERATION JUST CAUSE
20 December 1989 - 12 January 1990
Oral History Interview JCIT 070
MAJ COOK: This is an Operation JUST CAUSE interview. I'm MAJ Robert Cook, 326 Military History Detachment, on the 5th of April 1990. If you would please give me your full name, rank, serial number, unit, duty position and your duty position during JUST CAUSE please?
1LT GAGNON: 1LT Robert Gagnon; Social Security Number ***-**-****. I am the HHC, 4th PSYOP Group1 .... I'm the Group S-3 (Air). During Operation JUST CAUSE I was the Audiovisual [AV] Platoon Leader for 8th PSYOP Battalion.
MAJ COOK: Tell me, 1LT Gagnon, when did you first become aware of Operation JUST CAUSE?
1LT GAGNON: My unit was alerted at approximately 11:45 on the 18th of December . We were alerted ... we were told to go to the motor pool. Get out equipment and report to the motor pool to prepare our vehicles. And we weren't really sure what was going on. We had been on standby for ... we weren't told what we were on standby for, for several months. And we got to the motor pool and we were told we were going to take part in an exercise with the 82d Airborne Division. And my platoon and I picked up some augmentees from various units within the group. [We] prepared our vehicles and we moved over to the PHA or Personnel Holding Area over on ... near Pope Air Force Base and ... where we linked up with our unit which we were going to support.
Upon reporting in to our units we were made aware that ... we weren't told Operation JUST CAUSE, we were made aware that we were going to be going to Panama to ... we were going to make the parachute assault on Tocumen Air Field or Omar Torrijos Air Field. And later on that night we received a brigade order and we received further instructions ... we were ... with our follow-on missions.
MAJ COOK: How many people in your platoon?
1LT GAGNON: In my platoon that I took with me? I took myself and I believe an eight-man team. But when we got down to Panama after the jump there were some problems with reorganization and I ended up working with ... on my site about 10 different people but no more than five or six at any one time.
MAJ COOK: Did you have any heavy equipment dropped in?
1LT GAGNON: I dropped in three HMMWVs.2
MAJ COOK: Okay. What unit of the 82d were you supporting?
1LT GAGNON: I was attached to 1st Battalion, 504th Infantry regiment.
MAJ COOK: Is that a normal attachment for you or did that just come up during the course of the alert?
1LT GAGNON: That just came up during the course of the alert.
MAJ COOK: Okay. The ... the ... describe for me some of the activities and events that went on at PHA and about how long you were in that area?
1LT GAGNON: We arrived in PHA at approximately 1400 hours on the 18th of December. The first thing we did is we moved our vehicles over to the heavy drop rigging site where they were rigged for drop. I linked up with my unit and my soldiers ... I got them linked up in an area where they could sleep and do their proper maintenance and get their equipment ready and prepare for the operation. Myself, I worked with the S-3 and the S-2 in the operations center preparing the orders, writing my assistance to them both in regular S-3 operations and in PSYOP and how we can incorporate my PSYOP support element into their plan. We went through the order. We published the battalion order. We went through a rehearsal. We had a couple of meals. It was cold. The next day we moved out to the airfield--on the 19th of December. And we ... we also received all our ammo.3 In the PHA you receive everything that you need to accomplish a mission. Your maps, your ammo, your rations, anything like that you're going to need.
MAJ COOK: Were there sufficient maps available?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir. Well, for the initial ... for what we did there was sufficient maps for platoon leaders and platoon sergeants and stuff like in the command element. Excuse me. When we got into Panama and broke down into smaller-sized elements for missions we were ... we did receive a whole bunch more maps and it did help--the maps--after the initial assault and everything the maps were in kind of rough shape.
MAJ COOK: What was the ammunition load that you drew?
1LT GAGNON: I drew full basic loads for an M-16.4 No grenades. Drew ... we ended up with a total of 210 rounds per person of 5.56[mm] with bullets a 4:1 mix of tracer to straight ball. In our vehicles we had additional ammunition. Plus we had ammunition for M-60 (7.62 link)5 supplied to the unit we were supporting as they needed it 'cause our ... we didn't ... the amount of vehicles that went in ... we put as much stuff on the vehicles to support our unit as possible.
MAJ COOK: When did you all move over to Green Ramp6?
1LT GAGNON: We moved over to Green Ramp around 1500 on the 19th of December. We were supposed to load the aircraft at 1900 and we had problems with the rain and the ice storm. A lot of people got frostbite. I got frostbite and several of my soldiers got it. What we did is ... we couldn't rig and get into our air items and stuff while we were out there in the rain. We rigged ... the jump masters ... several of us went on the airplane, we'd bring soldiers on and we'd 'chute them up and JMPI7 and sit them down. It took us a while to get the whole plane filled.
MAJ COOK: Did you loose rig on the 'chute-up?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir, we did loose rig and set the rucksacks. And about two hours out we finished rigging.8
MAJ COOK: What was the general morale and troop morale at the time?
1LT GAGNON: Still kind of a state of disbelief even though we did have live ammo and we were getting on the airplanes. And nobody had ever seen this many [C]-141s9 so close at one time. They were cold and wet and just kind of disbelief, but there was a real state of camaraderie and euphoria. It's real hard to describe. They knew that this was something that they had trained for for a long time but you never really get the opportunity to execute something. And these guys were starting to figure out that they were going to put the rubber where ... the comb where the rubber meets the road.
MAJ COOK: What Chalk number10 were you in?
1LT GAGNON: I was in Chalk number 10--[correction], Chalk number 9. I was the 24th jumper out of the aircraft.
MAJ COOK: Okay. What was the flight like?
1LT GAGNON: It wasn't like any of the flights around here when we do low level. On [C]-141s around here you've usually got a lot of people getting sick. We didn't have anybody getting sick. I spent most of my time rigging people. I didn't rig up myself until about 20 minutes out. And I was really dehydrated and ... from just all the adrenaline; running around all the time I neglected to drink as much water as I should have. It showed when the doors opened up.
And the doors opened up and we were going in at 500 feet. We didn't have our waistbands on. We had our reserves on. The reserves ... the only reason we had our reserves on was in case there was a co-jumper. At 500 feet a reserve isn't going to do you a hell of a lot of good, but if you're a co-jumper they aren't they aren't going to pull you back in the aircraft, they're going to cut you away and that's the only reason we wore reserves. But we didn't wear our waistbands and we didn't safety wire the reserves so you could get out of them quickly.11
When they opened the doors up I was dehydrated. I had cotton mouth. And then it really hit because my tongue swelled up and I couldn't talk at all. We were crammed in there in the aircraft and everybody is excited. And then the flight got a little rough and then the loadmasters passed back that the LZ12 was still hot and the DZ was still hot and then people got real excited. And you could have heard a pin drop in the aircraft even though the doors were open and the wind was rushing by at 120 knots and the engines are cranking, you still could have heard a pin drop. Because there was ... nobody was making any noise.
MAJ COOK: About what time did you jump?
1LT GAGNON: I hit the drop zone at 2:10.
MAJ COOK: Did you go out on the green or the red?13
1LT GAGNON: Green.
MAJ COOK: Did everybody clear the plane?
1LT GAGNON: In my aircraft, yes, sir.
MAJ COOK: Where did you land?
1LT GAGNON: I landed about three and a half to four clicks14 north of where I was supposed to land. North and west in the swamp.
MAJ COOK: How as the jump itself? To the landing?
1LT GAGNON: It was very fast. Probably the best landing I ever had because I landed in the elephant grass. And until I tried to stand up my feet never touched the ground. There was no such thing as a PLF.15 I just landed in the elephant grass. And then when I was sitting there on the Drop Zone the 'pucker factor' was pretty intense. You can hear all kinds of stuff going on around you but you can't see two foot in front of your face because it's dark and you've got the elephant grass right there and trying to recover your rucksack and your gear and your 'chute and get ... because I didn't know where I was in relationship to the runway. And one of our major concerns were that we needed to keep the 'chutes away from the runway for follow-on aircraft for the air landing the next day. If we had 'chutes on the runway it would cause a lot of ... it would get caught up in the aircraft. And there was a problem with a 'chute getting caught up in one of the rotary-wing aircraft that was supporting the operation the next morning.16
MAJ COOK: So once you got your equipment together then what?
1LT GAGNON: I got my equipment together. I got my bearings and I started moving towards the assembly ... towards the runway so I could find ... figure our where I was going to be towards my assembly area. I started moving towards the runway and I linked up with my Platoon Sergeant, SFC Parmelee, and we moved a little further out and we linked up with some guys from the 1st of the 504 which is the unit we were jumping with.
We got our bearings and figured out that we were north of where we were supposed to be. And we started moving towards where our assembly was supposed to be. At this time we realized that only 10 of the 20 aircraft had dropped at 2:00. And we figured that everybody was on the ground. And the first person ... the first people we saw when we went out towards our assembly area was the CTT17 guys. They scared the shit out of us. They were laying in the grass and we were coming up and all of a sudden these heads popped up. And they said something to us and we were pretty lucky. Everybody was real edgy and nobody popped any rounds off at each other. And then we started moving ... we started moving in the direction down towards where we needed to be and more and more of us were getting together from our unit the 1st of the 504.
About this time we started to see some green tracers. There was aircraft supporting ... covering ... tactical aircraft18 supporting the drop after we were on the ground. And they took ... they more or less eliminated the sources of the green tracers for us. We continued to move towards our assembly area. And we ... we got down approximately where it was supposed to be and we set up a perimeter and we waited for a while. About an hour later is when more aircraft started coming in. We didn't know who the hell it was.
MAJ COOK: About ... I want to catch up on the time sequence. About how long did it take you to get from where you dropped up to the assembly area?
1LT GAGNON: To where ... from where I dropped to where we went into the perimeter was about an hour.
MAJ COOK: Okay, okay.
1LT GAGNON: Well probably a little less than an hour. Probably between 45 minutes and an hour. At about that time ... we got into that perimeter and several more [C]-141s came in and dropped. We thought that all 20 aircraft had dropped at one time. Nobody knew what was going on. And they dropped and everybody was very apprehensive about who was dropping out of all these aircraft but mostly we figured out ... it's not hard to identify a [C]-141, even a silhouette at night. And people were coming down around us and we figured out that they were Americans. What was real interesting is to see the dispersion of the aircraft coming over the drop zone. Some of them were coming, flying right on track where they were supposed to be dropping them, and some of them were flying way off, you know, putting people where they weren't supposed to be going. We had people landed on fences. Right where we were, which was on the other ... about a click away from where I landed--a click east of where I landed--and people on the other side of where I landed. But it looks a little bit different at night from 500 feet and it comes a little quicker.
MAJ COOK: Have any ... did you get all of your people?
1LT GAGNON: I didn't link up with all my people. The next morning19 I was still missing two. I had ... of my team I had two guys who were making their sixth jump20 and one person was making their seventh jump. And one of the requirements here on Fort Bragg is you don't jump with combat equipment or a night jump until your seventh or eighth jump. And some of these guys were going in ... they had never done anything like this before and they were a little confused and it took them a little longer to link-up. I didn't seem them until ... I didn't see them the next morning and I didn't see them until several days into the operation.
MAJ COOK: How about the equipment that dropped?
1LT GAGNON: I didn't see my equipment for three days into the operation. It was dropped so slow. And some of it had to be recovered. One of the vehicles we recovered and the other had to be located with helicopters.
MAJ COOK: So your at the assembly area. What was your laid-on mission and how did you carry it out now that you were short some people [and] short vehicles?
1LT GAGNON: My mission was to provide tactical PSYOPS to report to the 1st of the 504. Our ... the 1st/504th's mission after securing Tocumen airfield was to move to 1st Infantry Company's ... their ... at Tinajitas, their military facility.21 That was their military facility. That was our objective. I had my platoon sergeant and two 250-watt loudspeakers at this time. I was short one and two personnel.
MAJ COOK: Did those drop in with you?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir, they did.
MAJ COOK: Okay.
1LT GAGNON: We jumped our loudspeakers in our rucksacks.
MAJ COOK: Okay.
1LT GAGNON: And in our vehicles we dropped vehicle-mounted systems.
MAJ COOK: Okay.
1LT GAGNON: We dropped ... my teams jumped in. Each two-man team had one 250-watt loudspeaker and each vehicle had one 450-watt loudspeaker system. As for supporting to the 1st of the 504th, we continued to support them with just two loudspeaker systems but that's not what happened.
We came ... it was an air assault mission into Tinajitas. The first lift of helicopters went. We got into PZ22 posture after the whole battalion had assembled. It took a lot longer than expected because of the problem with only half the aircraft dropping at once and being scattered all over the drop zone.
We all assembled. We got into PZ posture. The 2nd of the 504th air assaulted on their mission before ... prior to us. We air assaulted after them. We had two different objectives. Our first lift went in and they went into a hot LZ. And the lead aircraft got shot up pretty bad. They came back and we sat on the ground for a few minutes and we had some problems and some pow-wows.
I went in with the assault CP23: with the S-3 and the S-2, basically the alternate command group. I had a team that was supposed to go in with both Alpha Company and Bravo Company of the battalion and supposed to work with the company commander. Except the Bravo Company team was going to come and work for me. We were going to work directly for the battalion commander24 on the objective.
Because of the excitement created by the hot LZ, the infantry first sergeants--the company first sergeants--pulled the loudspeaker teams off the aircraft and put more infantrymen on. We got to the LZ and we were overlooking the objective and getting ready to go into our mission, to execute the mission the way we had planned and practiced and rehearsed it, and the battalion commander asked me where my loudspeakers were. And we couldn't locate them. We didn't find out until later on that they had been taken off the aircraft by the company first sergeants. And basically I became a ... my PSYOP role was diminished because I didn't have my assets there. I became a runner, assistant aid man, I helped out whatever I can. Did whatever we needed to do. Carried the radio. I just became a basic grunt25 again.
MAJ COOK: How about the rest of your troops? Did they fall into a similar detail?
1LT GAGNON: No, sir, they ... once they were pulled off the aircraft at the PZ, they were rounded up by CPT Boys.
MAJ COOK: Oh, so they came off with the speakers?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir.
MAJ COOK: So you went out there without them?
1LT GAGNON: I was out there without any assets.
MAJ COOK: Where was the platoon sergeant?
1LT GAGNON: The platoon sergeant was back there too.
MAJ COOK: He was back there? Okay, all right.
1LT GAGNON: They pulled off the aircraft with their equipment and CPT Woods who was my higher headquarters--my liaison officer with the brigade where I was the liaison officer with the battalion. He rounded them all up back there at the airfield and parceled them out as the situation dictated. Every time ... no plan survives first contact intact, and we had improvised. We still supported the missions as best we could with what we had. And he used his ... he took those people and put them to the best use possible. We had to react to whatever situations we had to react to that needed to be supported, and that's what he did rather than keeping those people sitting around. He used them to recover ... find and recover vehicles, support other units that needed a lot of support at the time. It would have made a difference on my objective if we would have had the loudspeakers, but we accomplished the mission without them also.
MAJ COOK: Now about what time did the ... you and the rest of your platoon get separated? So about what time did the speakers get pulled off?
1LT GAGNON: We air assaulted around 0800.
MAJ COOK: Okay. And about what time did you find out that you didn't have them?
1LT GAGNON: Around 1000 hours.
MAJ COOK: All right, so somewhere between those two time periods when CPT Woods was policing your platoon back up and getting redirected?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir.
MAJ COOK: Okay. How long did you stay on the assault?
1LT GAGNON: I stayed at Tinajitas for 24 days, sir. We were told it was going to be a 72-hour mission and that was always a big joke between myself or anybody on the hill.26 Day 22, day 23 in a 72-hour mission. [LAUGHTER]
MAJ COOK: What I was trying to get at, when did you link back up with your platoon?
1LT GAGNON: My platoon linked back up with me on Day 2, sir.
MAJ COOK: Okay. All right, at Tinajitas where you had been?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir, there was still a mission. We secured the objective but we had not secured the local vicinity. And we got ... the first sergeant got a dismounted a loudspeaker team. Actually it wasn't Day 2, sir, it was later on. No, it was Day 2. Later on ... early the next day when a convoy came up, a resupply convoy got up to us. My first dismounted team got up. I got a three-man team up there instead of a two-man team and then 48 hours later I got the rest of part of my team plus a vehicle with a mounted 450-watt loudspeaker system27.
MAJ COOK: What was your ... try this one more time. When was your first actual audio mission?
1LT GAGNON: As soon as I got my loudspeaker team on top of the hill was when they performed their first PSYOP mission.
MAJ COOK: So that would be the first group that came up to you?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir.
MAJ COOK: Okay.
1LT GAGNON: There was ... there was ... other teams were already executing their missions. There were two other sections that jumped in with me with the 82d who were ... they didn't have the same problem that I did and they were executing their audio missions from the get-go.
MAJ COOK: Once you got cranking with the mission was that ... were those pretty much the missions that you had laid out in planning and rehearsals, or by now were you doing ... were you making modifications and ... ?
1LT GAGNON: We were making modifications ... everything was ... we didn't ... . Of the preprinted scenarios or preprinted scripts and preprinted tapes, we didn't use any of them, sir.
MAJ COOK: Okay, you had I presume, linguists?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir.
MAJ COOK: Were they ... they had been with the platoon, or were they organic to you?
1LT GAGNON: No, sir, 8th Battalion is not a ... our area of expertise is not, or was not, that scenario.
MAJ COOK: Okay.
1LT GAGNON: We have linguists. Our linguists are not Hispanic linguists.
MAJ COOK: Okay.
1LT GAGNON: We received linguists from the 2d [Battalion, 504th Infantry]. We used native Spanish speakers from within the infantry battalion.
MAJ COOK: Okay, so you prepared material; they spoke?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir.
MAJ COOK: Okay, all right. Did it work?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir, it worked very well. Being that we had the linguists there and we could come up with a script off the battalion commander's guidance and the situation, we had the flexibility that if we had tape or had to read off a written one that was already preprinted that wouldn't have supported the situation, we had the flexibility to support each situation individually and pass the messages that we wanted passed. And it worked very well.
MAJ COOK: What was the nature of the particular missions that you were doing at this time? Once you got your script and you got your Spanish-speaker, what were the kinds of things you were saying and how were you supporting the 504th?
1LT GAGNON: We would use our loudspeakers to ... if somebody was holed up in a house. We would use it to talk them out of the house. The cash or the money for weapons campaign that was going on at the time ... we would broadcast information on that: where they could turn in the weapons and receive their money for payment. We would use the loudspeaker to tell people that we were there for them, and that we appreciated their support and with their continued support we would leave as soon as possible. And we also used it to publish various news items. Noriega going into the Papal Nuncio; Noriega surrendering himself. There wasn't a lot of ... the area we were in was the slums of Panama City. And it's not a very wealthy area at all and a lot of electricity was out at the time. Most electricity in the area was out. So by us putting certain news items out, that was the news that the people were getting.
When we put out that Noriega surrendered to the Papal Nuncio or turned himself into the Papal Nuncio the whole village ... we were in the valley and the hills surrounding the valley where all those people were living ... it more or less exploded with cheers and white flags and American flags. And the valley was white with people waving sheets, pillowcases, American flags. They were cheering and screaming and it was really incredible.
And we continued to support the remainder of the operation how we were pulled out. We continued to support the infantry battalion with local policing actions. People ... we basically became the local authority until we could get the Panamanians back in place there. We used it to tell them how to receive food and how to receive medical care. When they had problems ... we had people ... robberies and stuff like that, how we should ... how we talked them out of the house. How to turn in somebody who was a member of the Dignity Battalion28 or a suspected member of the Dignity Battalion.
One time (before we ever said anything about turning anybody in from the Dignity Battalion) the Panamanians brought some people who were members of the Dignity Battalion and turned them into us. Seeing that they got turned into us led us to believe that we needed to put out something otherwise they wouldn't live too much longer because these people were beaten and thrashed and hog-tied and dumped off and they told us that these people were Dignity Battalion members. You know, we had to ... they weren't afraid of reprisals at the time, but the reprisals did happen from that, and we had to slow the Panamanians down so there were no reprisals on themselves--so they didn't keep bringing us members of the Dignity Battalion beaten to a pulp.
MAJ COOK: You had said earlier that you took the missions that the 1st of the 504th battalion commander had and executed them. When you work in this support relationship, do you provide technical PSYOPS advice to him?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir. What would happen is we would sit down and plan an operation and I would tell him how best ... what certain things he needed to avoid when dealing with people and what kind of things I could do with my loudspeakers to support him to make the mission easier and to make things quicker. Various things. You don't want to portray yourself as an intimidator. And we had to be careful in some cases of what ... some of the things we did. The battalion commander and the battalion S-3 were real easy to work with and they were enthusiastic about our ability to help them.
MAJ COOK: Had you had an opportunity in training exercises to work with the battalion that way? Work for ... ?
1LT GAGNON: This was ...
MAJ COOK: ... instant staff planning?
1LT GAGNON: Myself I had never done quick interaction staff planning like that, but there are other people who have done it. And I had never supported a conventional unit ... conventional infantry unit like that before.
MAJ COOK: But it went well?
1LT GAGNON: Oh, yes, sir, there were no problems.
MAJ COOK: And I take it that the battalion you worked with had something more than just an average familiarity with you and what you could do? It wasn't ... ?
1LT GAGNON: Not the unit as a whole, sir, but the S-3 was very familiar.
MAJ COOK: Oh, the staff was.
1LT GAGNON: The S-3 had been a PSYOP officer prior ... in one of his previous tours here at Fort Bragg. He had been in one of the battalions. He was familiar with what we could do and the battalion commander was familiar with some of the things from his Vietnam experience.
MAJ COOK: Did you stay in support of that battalion right on through until you came back?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir, I was there the entire time. That was my unit at the time.
MAJ COOK: And so the missions were pretty much the same, or did you get new things even though you were supporting the same battalion?
1LT GAGNON: The battalion mission changed and as the battalion mission changed so did mine, sir.
MAJ COOK: Okay. Let me back up a bit. And how was supplies for your people in terms of water and in food?
1LT GAGNON: My section--the people that worked with me--received the exact same thing that the infantry soldiers that we were working with. We received all our support from them. And when they ate, we ate. There was a problem the first 48 hours or so with the rations. A lot of rations that were heavy dropped in for the first three days were not recoverable. There were times where an infantry squad split an MRE29 between themselves. We in the staff section, we split an MRE between five or six people.
The water was never a problem. The water on the site was potable. We always had plenty of water after the initial assault. On the initial assault when we air assaulted in we ran out of water. We were drinking IVs, IV solutions right out of the IV bags. We had quite a few heat casualties in the unit as a whole. And after the first couple of days ... the first three days or so when the logistics problems worked out, we ate just as good as everybody else did. And several days after that the battalion XO30 being a very ... ingenuity ... a battalion XO like he was, got MKTs31 up there to us and we started feeding hot meals, which meant that we knew we were going to be there longer than 72 hours. [LAUGHTER]
MAJ COOK: How many ... did you bring in a full set of uniforms or just what you wore?
1LT GAGNON: I had one spare uniform in my rucksack. I had about ... I quite a few extra pairs of socks and extra pair of tee-shirts but when I air assaulted we left our rucksacks. We went in combat light, which means just LCE32 and weapons and whatever else you need. You don't take your rucksack. My rucksack arrived with me at the location about eight or nine days into the operation. There was one pair of socks left in it and a spare uniform and no extra tee-shirts. But tee-shirts got taken off the first day and we didn't put them on till we came home. I wore the same pair of socks about 18 or 19 days before I finally got another pair of socks. I was going from frostbite to immersion foot walking through the swamps. I didn't have any callouses left on my feet.
MAJ COOK: Did you have, and if so about when did you start, did you get any access to any TVs or commercial radios?
1LT GAGNON: We took a portable stereo as part of our TOE33 equipment that we used to transcribe tapes and stuff like that. And we also found some ... located some on the site there. When we took ... when we had seized the objective up there, they took off. They left everything strewn all over the place. And there was TVs and stuff like that up. We rigged them ... we worked off of batteries and we started to monitor like the Southern Command [Network (SCN)] radio stations (the military one), and the TV stations getting news. That's another thing that my loudspeaker teams did. We would take and make tapes of the news and we'd play it in English for the battalion so that the soldiers in the battalion knew what was going on. We would do that twice a day. At first it was just the news on Panama and then the world news. Then they wanted sports stories. [LAUGHTER] We became very diversified.
MAJ COOK: Did your unit take any ... your platoon take any casualties?
1LT GAGNON: Not my team, sir. The only casualties that we took were our HMMWVs. They were kind of beat up in the drop and one of them got some kind of a wrap-around shot through the hood of it. But as far as my people that jumped in with me and worked for me, no casualties.
MAJ COOK: Had you stayed day after day, the ... were you getting any official or unofficial rumors on when you were going to be pulled out?
1LT GAGNON: I'll tell you the unofficial rumors, sir. Your go from soldier to soldier in the foxhole and he ... you heard all kinds of rumors. Until about four days before we pulled out we didn't know when we were going to pull out. When we started getting replaced by 7th Infantry Division, that's when we figured out that we were going to be pulled out.
MAJ COOK: Tell me about your actual withdraw. How you ... when you got the actual alert to move, how you packed, how you came back, how you brought the rest of your equipment back.
1LT GAGNON: I got the word from my brigade LNO34 to report to him at 1500 hours down at the [1st] Brigade, [82d Airborne Division] TOC35 with all my people: lock, stock and barrel. We had one HMMWV and five people on the site with me at that time. I believe I still had five left. It might have been less than that. And we all just threw our rucks in the back of the HMMWV and made sure we had all our equipment and said goodbye to the battalion commander and the battalion S-3. And we drove down to the brigade TOC and linked up with the brigade LNO, CPT Woods. There we consolidated everybody that was supporting the 1st of the ... the 1st Brigade. And we moved from there to Corozal to link up with the main PSYOPS elements.
MAJ COOK: And then what?
1LT GAGNON: Then we ...
MAJ COOK: To Howard [Air Base]?
1LT GAGNON: No, we didn't leave. We stayed there for I believe two days--one or two days, sanitized all our equipment and got our vehicles ready to go. Our vehicles stayed behind a couple of extra days because of the air flow. We went down and went through customs; got the big shake-down to make sure we weren't trying to take anything back illegally.
We got on a C-141 and we talked real nice to the load masters to make sure that they wouldn't make us get off the aircraft. And flew in. We arrived back here at Pope about 2230 the night prior to the 82d jumping back in. We had originally been scheduled to jump back in. And our battalion had become kind of attached to them, attached to us and we became attached to them. And they wanted us to jump back in with them but it didn't work out that way. We ended up air landing about twelve hours prior to their drop. When we got home that night we turned in our equipment and we went home. We were all under the impression that they were going to drop in the next morning at 10:00 at Sicily [Drop Zone]. But they jumped in at 8:00 and we wanted to be out there and we missed it. We weren't real happy about that but we got over it.
MAJ COOK: Let me back up a second. When you pulled up stakes and left your battalion, you had five people?
1LT GAGNON: I believe I had five left with me on the site, sir.
MAJ COOK: What did ... where were your troops back here with them?
1LT GAGNON: We lost teams to go support other units.
MAJ COOK: Oh.
1LT GAGNON: Units without ... units outside the brigade. Units from the 7th Infantry Division, 7th Special Forces Group, the 193d [Infantry Brigade]; whoever was down there. There was only a limited amount of loudspeaker support teams throughout the whole thing. And as the mission required ... my mission requirements for my loudspeaker teams diminished less and less as we establish control and the people got into a normal routine. Mainly I had one team working with people collecting weapons and one team on standby in case anything happened. And as I ... the requirements that I didn't need them, they were pulled back to brigade to be parceled out to somebody who did need them. Just perform the same kinds of missions that my guys were at on my site.
MAJ COOK: When did they catch back up to you?
1LT GAGNON: At Corozal.
MAJ COOK: At Corozal? Is your unit normally or even abnormally TOEd with cameras--35mm or ... ?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir, each AV Platoon has a 35mm camera.
MAJ COOK: Okay, did anybody bring personal cameras along?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, there was one personal camera taken along.
MAJ COOK: Did you all get good pictures of events ... that were good for the unit?
1LT GAGNON: Some are. I haven't seen all the pictures, sir. Usually whenever I deploy on any kind of exercise I take my own personal camera. And I just came back from an exercise about two weeks prior to this. It had been a week. Two weeks prior I came back from an exercise and went on another exercise for a week -- a TOC exercise. And my stuff was ... I had repacked my ruck for the contingency mission but I hadn't taken the time to put all the things that I usually take with me. One of the things that I forgot was my camera. I was very upset with myself to be down there and not have my camera.
MAJ COOK: When you look back on it, what was--overall from the time you left to the time you got back--what was the one or maybe two most memorable stories of humorous events within the platoon, humorous events as part of the missions or part of working with the battalion you were supporting?
1LT GAGNON: The most humorous thing ... I didn't find it humorous at the time. We performed duties both as PSYOPS support and civil affairs support because they didn't have civil affairs support down at the battalion level. I was passing out MREs to the community one day and they told me that there were going to be 15,000 MREs and I was supposed to pass out two per person. And they said go out and broadcast this the day before so the people know to come there. The day before we all broadcast and we told them that we were going to start passing out MREs at 10:00 in the morning. And the MREs were supposed to arrive at 7:00, but we wanted to have time to get set up and establish ourselves.
Well about 5:00 in the morning the Panamanians started lining up outside. We were passing out MREs from a school yard which is kind of like a courtyard. It's got ... the school runs in a "U" shape and then there's a fence on one end. We were going to pull our trucks in there and pass out MREs from in there. I had a squad of engineers, a scout platoon, and then my own guys. I didn't initially start off with the scout platoon. I started off with my team and the squad of engineers. About 5:00 in the morning I found out that there was about a mile-long line of Panamanians. About 7:00 when we established ourselves down there, set up the security and set up our loudspeaker, and prepared to receive the MREs we found out that the MREs weren't going to be there for quite some time. We also found out that the mile-long line was continuing to grow at a phenomenal rate. And not only were people in line, but people were crowded all around the front of the school yard.
About 9:30 the MREs showed up and it was like a London soccer riot. We got control of the people and we got the MREs in and we unloaded MRES. As we were working on unloading the MREs off the trucks so we could get the trucks pulled away and start passing them out, the battalion commander comes down to check on things and that's when he sends for the scouts. The scouts come down and support us because we didn't have the personnel to support and control the lines.
And he goes back up to the top of the hill and comes back down and I didn't have idea what was going on. We had just gotten the people cleared out and we were receiving sundry packs at the time with our razors and stuff like that. But in the sundry packs they were also shipping a lot of candy and stuff. He brought all this candy--several cases of Skittles and Starbursts--down, and he pulled right up in front of the place where we were handing out MREs and he started passing this candy out. And I thought that the HMMWV was going to disappear because people swarmed from all over to start to get candy. I thought that he was going to die from asphyxiation from being crushed. I was in a state of panic at this time because the people were just converging and the fence was starting to creak and give away from people being pressed against the fence.
Now it's funny. At the time I didn't think it was funny at all.
MAJ COOK: Did the ... how did you disperse the crowd? Just by the distribution process?
1LT GAGNON: We became very vocal with the loud speaker and we had something ... when you use a loudspeaker and you become authoritative on it ... it really conveys authoritativeness. And it took quite a long time using the loudspeaker and using some of the new Panamanians that were in the police force that we had established (or that had been established)--there were several down there--to go out and control the people and push them back into line and get them under control. It took about 20 minutes to re-establish some sense of order.
And we told them that we weren't going to pass out the MREs until they were back in some kind of order. I had 15,000 MREs and I was supposed to give two MREs per person. I had about 30,000 people. I passed out about 10,000 MREs when I realized that these people didn't really need these MREs. They were just here because the Americans were giving away something free and they wanted to see what the hell it was.
Well, what we finally ended up doing was we established contact with the local ... one of the local churches. A priest told us that with 5,000 MREs he could feed the couple of needy families that really did need the food. He could determine much better than we could ... until they could get back on their feet again. So that's what we ended up doing was shutting the pass-out line and taking them to the church and turning them over to the church. We did that throughout several communities over the next couple of days. We took the MREs to the church to be distributed that way, because very Catholic--very, very Catholic communities were down there. And the people would go to church with their problems and the church knows better than we would how to support the people. And that's how we established ourselves. And it was really interesting is [that] we would go to churches to secure the MREs in churches. The Panamanians would come up and help us to unload them and they would offer to take us to their homes and feed us lunch, and they were buying us sodas and bringing fruit. That was one of the real nice things. We found a bakery that was down there and we would go to the bakery on a regular basis in between missions ... on the way back from quite a few missions. We would be driving along the road broadcasting and people would be giving us pineapples. It was--a lot of the things that we did down there would really give you ... seeing people react to you like that. It's not like anything you ever get to see here in the States. People react differently and it gives you a warm feeling down inside.
MAJ COOK: Let me ask, because that's a good story, do you recall the date and school or area in Panama where the ... your distribution story happened?
1LT GAGNON: I think the school was St. Michael's and I don't recall the date, sir.
MAJ COOK: Okay.
1LT GAGNON: It was just 24 days to me now. I remember the first day and up through Christmas I remember day-by-day because that's when most of the fighting took place. And I think Christmas day was the last day we were mortared, but after that it's all one time period to me.
MAJ COOK: Did you get any chance--speaking of Christmas--was there any incoming mail or outgoing phone calls that you or your platoon were able to ... ?
1LT GAGNON: Yes, sir, we did establish phone lines and I talked to my parents sometime in that time frame and all of my soldiers talked to their parents or their wives. We did start to get mail and we were mailing things back. We had the free mail system. I mailed things back to my family and I mailed things back to my battalion. I talked to my battalion commander36 several times at home back here at Fort Bragg. The biggest ... something that was really interesting ... the 19th of December was my birthday, I turned 26. And it was kind of an extraordinary birthday present. I told everybody that was my birthday present.
MAJ COOK: What ... is there anything in particular or even a menu of things that in terms of ... if you had to take a similar type of platoon and do a similar type of mission, would you ... what kind of modifications, if any, would you be making on your local platoon training?
1LT GAGNON: I would ... there is quite a bit that I would do to ... modifications that I would make. Being that I am a grunt and these guys are all supposed to be grunts because they are support grunts ... they can do their loudspeaker missions rather well, but they needed a little more ... they could use a little more training that way. They are good soldiers, don't get me wrong. And they do a good job. But because of so many requirements we have here to support different missions, we don't get time and we don't get the budget to train the way we should on some things. And it's never going to change. It's like that throughout the entire Army.
The main thing is just the time to train more. We know the things that we need to train [on], but we just don't have the time. And to be an HB37 team takes a certain mentality. You can't be ... you have to think like a grunt. And in PSYOPS, in the 96F MOS38 there are not a lot of grunts that want to do that. Not a lot of PSYOPers want to do that--that grunt kind of stuff. It's a special breed in PSYOP. Personally I think that they are better soldiers. There are the more motivated soldiers, more physically fit soldiers, and more intense soldiers, because you have to be all those things.
You have to be able to think on your own. Because I sent a lot of loudspeaker teams out, HB teams out. And with a Spec 439 working for an O-5.40 And not any Spec 4 can do that and do it well and be able to talk to him and tell him what he needs to know and how to utilize that Spec 4. But the Spec 4s and the E-5s and the E-3s that are in HB, they are quality soldiers and they can make that adjustment. They are good soldiers they just need a little guidance.
MAJ COOK: Super. Is there anything else that you would like to say about the unit, the mission, what you did or what some of your people did? Any spectacular things that your people did ... above and beyond?
1LT GAGNON: No, sir, they just did their job and they did it well. And they didn't shirk any responsibility. They've got a reason to be proud for what they did but they can't let it go to their heads. I tell them that now all the time. You're not a hero yet. All the real heros are dead. You don't need to be a hero. But they've got reason to be proud of what they did. Most of them do. They are good soldiers.
MAJ COOK: Thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
1. Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Psychological Operations (PSYOP) Group.
2. M-998-series High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicles (nicknames "Hummers").
4. M-16 5.56mm rifle.
5. 7.62mm belted ammunition for the M-60 machine gun.
6. The departure point at Pope Air Force Base adjacent to Fort Bragg. For JUST CAUSE the PHA was within walking distance.
7. Jumpmaster parachute inspection, the mandatory safety check for any paratrooper preparing to make a jump.
8. I.e., while in the air two hours from arriving over the drop zone.
9. C-141 Starlifter transport airplanes.
10. Each of the 20 C-141s was assigned a sequence number or Chalk number.
11. The use of reserve (second) parachutes on this low-level jump was a significant question in planning. Under normal training jumps conducted at higher altitudes an initial malfunction where the release does not open but leaves the jumper hanging in the air is handled by the jumpmaster pulling the individual back into the airplane; for the low-level combat jump the cord is cut and the jumper has to have an emergency back-up.
12. Landing Zone. More properly Drop Zone (DZ).
13. Reference to the door light. The light is red until the pilot switches it to green when he is over the Drop Zone.
15. Parachute landing fall. A rolling maneuver to lessen the shock of impact with the ground.
16. This is a time-compression error by 1LT Gagnon. A helicopter was subsequently damaged at Torrijos-Tocumen by having a parachute entangled in its rotor, but it was during clean-up, not as part of the air assault operations.
17. US Air Force Combat Tactical Control Party.
18. Special operations helicopters rather than Air Force fixed-wing tactical aircraft.
19. I.e., the morning of 20 December.
20. Parachute qualification school involves five training jumps, to this means that those individuals were making their first jump since completing the Airborne Course at Fort Benning, GA.
21. The cuartel at Tinajitas was home to the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) 1st Infantry Company ("Tigres"), which was equipped with 120mm mortars.
22. Pick-up Zone.
23. Command post.
24. LTC Renard H. Marable.
25. Slang expression for infantryman.
26. Tinajitas cuartel is located atop a very steep hill.
27. Also see JCIT-078, -082, -083, -092, -094, -095, -096.
28. Noriega had loosely organized his supporters and others into a semi-militia system of so-called Dignity Battalions.
29. Meal, Ready-to-Eat.
30. Executive Officer.
31. Mobile Kitchen Trailers, used to prepare T-Pack heated field rations.
32. Load-carrying equipment (or Load-bearing equipment [LBE]); also known as "web gear."
33. Table of Organization and Equipment.
34. Liaison officer.
35. Tactical Operations Center.
36. LTC Jeff Jones.
37. Heavy broadcast.
38. Military occupational specialty.
39. Specialist, pay grade E-4. "Spec 4" is old slang.
40. Lieutenant colonel.