Armed Forces Expeditions:
Panama Campaign

Armed Forces Expeditions: Panama Campaign streamer
Streamers: Light blue with a narrow blue, white and red stripe in the center. On each edge is a narrow green, yellow, red, and black stripe.
Panama 20 December 1989-31 January 1990

Panama 20 December 1989-31 January 1990. The 17 December 1989 decision to invade Panama reflected a decade of worsening relations between General Manuel Antonio Noriega, commander of the Panama Defense Forces (PDF), and the United States government. The two prior years, however, had been especially tense with numerous documented cases of PDF harassment of U.S. military and civilian personnel. On 16 December 1989 - the same day Noriega had himself declared "maximum leader" of the country - PDF guards fatally shot a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant. The next day President George H. W. Bush authorized the invasion of Panama and the removal of Noriega - a contingency that had been studied since 1987 and trained for since the fall of 1989.

American planners knew the response needed to be swift and thus prepared to rapidly deploy in excess of 26,000 Soldiers and Marines from positions in Panama and the United States. Operating directly under the U.S. Southern Command, Joint Task Force SOUTH - the tactical command headquarters from XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina - was divided into four conventional task forces: PACIFIC, BAYONET, ATLANTIC, and SEMPER FI.

At 0045, 15 minutes before H-hour, 20 December 1989, Task Force PACIFIC inserted a Special Forces team onto Pacora River bridge east of Panamá City just in time to stop a convoy of PDF vehicles approaching from Fort Cimarron. Assisted by an AC-130H "Spectre" gunship, the team prevented the convoy from crossing the bridge. Task Force PACIFIC also had responsibility for seizing Omar Torrijos International Airport and the adjacent Tocumen Military Airfield to prevent Noriega from using them to flee the country. This mission fell to four companies of Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment who were later joined by elements of the 82d Airborne Division and the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 504th Infantry.

The 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry, organized under Task Force BAYONET, had the responsibility of taking the PDF headquarters, La Comandancia, located within Panamá City. The task force, supported by four M551 Sheridans and four Marine light armored vehicles, captured the PDF nerve center by the afternoon. BAYONET also had to protect the Americans living on Fort Amador from the PDF soldiers also stationed there. After ensuring the safety of all friendlies, the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry (Airborne), supported by a 105-mm howitzer in direct fire mode and a Spanish recording calling on the PDF to surrender, convinced most of the enemy to voluntarily leave their barracks - thus preventing much unnecessary bloodshed on both sides.

In the Canal Zone interior, Task Force ATLANTIC (3d Battalion, 504th Infantry) secured Madden Dam, a vital piece of infrastructure that regulated much of the water draining into the canal, and ensured the safety of 160 American Panama Canal Company employees in the nearby town of Gamboa from the local PDF garrison. It also freed two Americans and some Panamanian political prisoners held in Renacer Prison and captured the Cerro Tigre electrical distribution center which doubled as the PDF's logistical heart. In addition, Task Force ATLANTIC had responsibility for objectives on the Caribbean seacoast. The 4th Battalion, 17th Infantry, quickly captured Coco Solo Naval Station. Unfortunately two gunboats escaped following a scuffle at the gate between the Panamanian guards and American military policemen that alerted the boats' crew. Shortly thereafter a company from the 4th Battalion, 17th Infantry successfully blocked the road leading to nearby Colon, preventing its PDF garrison from escaping. At Fort Espinar the 8th PDF Company put up a spirited defense prior to the 4th Battalion, 17th Infantry, spraying their position with Vulcan machine gun fire and calling on them to surrender. The Americans also occupied France Field to prevent Noriega using it as another possible means of escape. Under the cover of darkness, two battalions of Rangers jumped onto Rio Hato Military Base, an installation 50 miles from the Canal Zone and home to over 500 PDF soldiers. By sunrise on 20 December the Rangers had fought and won a 360 degree fight against a determined enemy. Later that morning, the 4th Battalion, 325th Infantry executed the final air assault mission of the day against Fort Cimarron, home of PDF Battalion 2000. Most of the unit's 200 men were loyal to Noriega and followed their orders to slip away into the jungle. Those who remained put up a stubborn resistance, which prevented the Americans from declaring the fort secure until after midnight on the morning of 21 December.

Throughout the operation, the question of Noriega's whereabouts lingered.. Initial U.S. military attempts on 19 and 20 December to capture Noriega were unsuccessful and the ousted "maximum leader" managed to avoid forty separate efforts over the next several days to capture him. Finally, on Christmas Eve, he was found taking refuge in the Vatican Embassy. After some persuasion, Noriega quietly surrendered himself on 3 January 1990 to U.S. authorities who flew him to Miami, Florida for arraignment. Two years later a U.S. federal court convicted him on eight counts of racketeering, drug trafficking, and money laundering and sentenced him to forty years in prison.

Numerous small-scale missions, police duties, and reconstruction assistance occurred for a few weeks after the end of major operations on 21 December 1989 . American forces found the rapid shift from combat to peacekeeping especially challenging - a situation exasperated by initial shortages of civil affairs personnel. However, these deficiencies were quickly rectified, and in many cases U.S. forces helped improve the Panamanian peoples' quality of life. Through careful planning and execution by the U.S. military, Operation JUST CAUSE enabled the Panamanians to rise to the occasion and take control of their country without fear of reprisal from Noriega.