OPERATION JUST CAUSE
1989 - 1990
(continued from page two)
Task Force WHITE
On 19 December 1989, TF WHITE, the Naval Special
Warfare component of the JSOTF; established
operations at Rodman Naval Station on the west side
of the Panama Canal. The task force consisted of five
SEAL platoons, three patrol boats, four riverine patrol
boats, and two light patrol boats (22-foot Boston
Whalers), which were divided among four task units.
Each task unit had its own H-Hour mission: Task Unit
(TU) Papa, the largest unit, was to deny use of the
Paitilla Airfield; TU Whiskey was to destroy a Panamanian
patrol boat in Balboa Harbor; TU Charlie and TU Foxtrot
were charged with securing, respectively, the Atlantic
and Pacific entrances to the Panama Canal.
The Paitilla Airfield assault force, TF Papa, had
a 62-man ground force comprised of three SEAL platoons
(Bravo, Delta, and Golf platoons), Air Force combat
controllers to perform liaison with an AC- 130R gunship,
and a command, control, communications, and mortar
element. A 26-man support team included surveillance
forces, a signals intelligence team, a psychological
operations team, and boat crews.
At 1930 on 19 December, 15 combat rubber raiding
craft, carrying the ground force, launched from the
Howard AFB beach, eight miles from Paitilla, while
two patrol boats left from Rodman Naval Station. At
2330, with the rubber boats waiting off the airfield,
two SEALs swam ashore to reconnoiter the landing site
and mark the beach with a strobe light.
At 0045 on the 20th, coming ashore near the end of
the runway, the ground force heard firing and explosions
from the attack on the Comandancia. The element of
surprise had been lost. The SEALs hurried up the trail,
through a hole in the security fence, and formed into
platoons near the southern end of the runway. Learning
of a report that Noriega was about to arrive in a
small plane, Delta platoon set an ambush halfway up
the runway for a few minutes, before advancing toward
the tower. The other two platoons, Golf and Bravo,
had moved up the grass apron on the west side of the
By 0105, the SEALs were in front of the three
northernmost hangars. Panamanians guarded the middle
hangar, which housed Noriega's jet, and the hangar
to the north. Golf platoon was in the lead, with one
of its squads moving toward the northern edge of the
tarmac. After an exchange of demands between the Americans
and guards, a SEAL opened fire on a PDF guard who
had assumed a firing position. A short but fierce
firefight ensued, and within a matter of a minute
or two, eight SEALs were wounded, five seriously.
The Golf platoon commander called for assistance on
his radio, reporting heavy casualties. The ground
force commander ordered other platoons to reinforce
these SEALs. Two SEAL reinforcements were wounded
as they maneuvered to engage the PDF in the hangars.
The combination of SEAL fire discipline and superior
firepower soon took effect, however, and after three
firefights, the remaining PDF defenders withdrew at
The SEALs reported the airfield was secure at 0146,
and a MEDEVAC helicopter finally arrived at 0205 to
recover the wounded. By 0315, the SEALs had set up
a more defendable perimeter on the southeast side
of the airfield. The reaction platoon from Rodman
arrived a few minutes later. An AC-130H gunship, unable
to establish reliable communications with the ground
force, was replaced by an AC-130A at 0324. At dawn
a patrol conducted a reconnaissance of the hangars,
while other SEALs dragged airplanes onto the runway
to block its use. The relief force did not arrive
until 1400 on the 21st, when five CH-47 helicopters
delivered a Ranger company. The SEALs left aboard
the same helicopters. A planned 5-hour mission had
turned into a 37-hour operation. Four SEALs had died
and eight others were wounded.
Subsequent to their operations at Paitilla airfield,
TU Papa conducted several search and seizure missions
looking for arms caches and Noriega followers. The
unit was disbanded on 1 January 1990, and members
returned to tne United States the next day.
The Balboa Harbor Mission
TU Whiskey's H-Hour mission was to destroy the Panamanian
patrol boat docked in Balboa Harbor by having SEALs
place demolition charges on its hull. Around 2300
on 19 December, two combat rubber raider craft left
Rodman Naval Staflon, cut across the canal, passing
vessels, and tied up in a mangrove stand near the
docks. The first craft took two SEALs closer to the
pier, where they slipped overboard for the swim to
the Panamanian patrol boat, Presidente Poras. The
next swim pair entered the canal five minutes later.
The SEALS used Draeger underwater breathing apparatuses
which left no trail of air bubbles. Reaching the boat,
the SEALs attached haversacks of explosives to the
propeller shafts, set the detonators, and swam to
their extraction point. At 0100, an explosion ripped
a hole in the Presidente Poras, and it sank.
As the SEALs swam, they passed near a firefight between
American and Panamanian forces; despite the hazards,
the SEALs returned safely. This mission marked the
first successful combat swimmer demolition attack
by U.S. forces.
Following the Balboa Harbor mission, TU Whiskey participated
in the seizure of Noriega's yacht on 20 December and
the capture of the Balboa Yacht Club the next day.
On 23 December, TU Whiskey members helped repel PDF
forces trying to board the merchant ship Emanuel
B in the Panama Canal. Its last mission called
for it to seize Noriega's beach house on Culebra Island
on 25 December. TU Whiskey redeployed back to the
States on 2 January 1990.
TU Charlie, assigned to secure the Caribbean side
of the Panama Canal, worked closely with TF Atlantic.
The task unit had eight SEALs, twelve soldiers, two
riverine patrol boats, and two Army mechanized landing
craft. On the night of the invasion, TU Charlie blocked
all ships from entering the Canal from the Caribbean
side and patrolled the shipping channel near Colon,
preventing the PDF from commandeering boats and protecting
the canal from sabotage.
After conducting patrols all night, at 0930 on 20
December, TU Charlie received a report that about
30 PDF members had boarded a German merchant ship,
Asian Senator, in Cristobal. Once at the pier,
the SEALs saw men in civilian clothes running down
the Asian Senator's brow and other men on the
ship throwing weapons onto the pier for them. One
of the mechanized landing craft and the two riverine
patrol boats fired at the brow. The Panamanians on
the ship, shaken by this firepower, surrendered. The
SEALs came under fire as they were searching the PDF
prisoners. As the volume of fire grew, the SEAL evacuated
their prisoners to their boats. During subsequent
patrols of the harbor and coastline, TU Charlie occasionally
exchanged fire with PDF on the shore. TU Charlie later
detained and searched a Colombian vessel, which yielded
a cargo of looted electronic equipment, but no drugs
or PDF. On Christmas Eve, the SEALS searched
31 boats moored in the Panama Canal Yacht Club. TU
Charlie was deactivated on 26 December.
TU Foxtrot, the fourth task unit, conducted maritime
patrols along the Pacific Ocean approaches to the
Panama Canal. At H-Hour, SEALS in three patrol boats
guarded the waters around Howard AFB, and
two riverine patrol boats covered the approaches to
the Bridge of the Americas. SEALS in a cayuga canoe
searched the small islands off Howard AFB for infiltrators.
For the remainder of the night, the patrol boats searched
and detained Panamanian fishing and pleasure boats
found on the local waters.
On 21 December, the SEALS located and searched Passe
Pone Tout and Macho de Monde, two of Noriega's
sport yachts, capturing 18 Panamanians and large quantities
of small arms and ammunition. TU Foxtrot continued
its maritime interdiction operations, and beginning
on 26 December, it guarded the waters adjacent to
the Papal Nunciature, the last refuge of Noriega.
No incidents took place during this mission, and TU
Foxtrot was disestablished on 2 January 1990.
Naval Special Warfare forces successfully executed
all their missions during Operation JUST CAUSE. Success
did not come easily, as four SEAL died and eight more
were wounded during the fight for Paitilla airfield,
but TF WHITE accomplished its other missions without
casualties. These operations underscored the value
of forward-basing these units.