OPERATION JUST CAUSE
1989 - 1990
(continued from page three)
Task Force BLACK
TF BLACK was activated 18 December 1989 under the
command of Colonel Robert C. "Jake" Jacobelly,
who also served as commander of Special Operations
Command SOUTH (SOCSOUTH). Before H-Hour, SOCSOUTH
personnel and the headquarters unit of 3rd Battalion,
7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) [SFG(A)] moved
to Albrook Air Force Base and together served as the
TF BLACK headquarters and staff.
The 3rd Battalion, 7th SFG(A), commanded by LTC Roy
R. Trumbull, formed the core of TF BLACK and was reinforced
by Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th SFG(A) from Ft. Bragg,
North Carolina. TF BLACK had use of five MH-60 helicopters
from the 617th Special Operations Aviation Detachment
and two UH-60 helicopters from the 1st Battalion,
228th Aviation Regiment. Air Force AC-130s from the
1st Special Operations Wing were available to provide
At H-Hour, IT BLACK was to perform two reconnaissance
and surveillance missions. The first, conducted by
a Special Forces team from Company B, 3rd Battalion,
7th SFG(A), was to observe the PDF's Battalion 2000
at Fort Cimarron. By the time the team was in place,
however, Battalion 2000 had already left the fort.
The second mission involved watching the 1st PDF Company
at Tinajitas. These Special Forces did not see or
hear anything except for two mortar rounds being fired
early in the morning.
Another reconnaissance mission was changed to direct
action: seize and deny use of the Pacora River Bridge.
The IT BLACK element, commanded by Major Kevin M.
Higgins, consisted of 24 men from Company A, 3rd Battalion,
7th SFG (A), and 3 helicopters. The bridge was the
best place to prevent PDF Battalion 2000 from moving
out of Fort Cimarron to Panama City. At ten minutes
after midnight, small arms fire broke out at Aibrook
AFB while the troops were preparing to load onto their
helicopters. Higgins and his troops dashed to the
waiting aircraft and departed under fire.
As the helicopters neared the bridge, the lead helicopter
pilot spotted a column of six PDF vehicles approaching.
It was now 1245, the new H-Hour, and the mission had
become a race between the SF troops and the PDF convoy
to see who would take the bridge first.
After the helicopters landed, Major Higgins yelled
orders to his men to move up the steep slope and establish
the ambush position by the road, but his men had already
seized the initiative. The first man on the road looked
straight into the headlights of the convoy's lead
vehicle (which was already on the bridge) and fired
a light anti-tank weapon. He missed, but the next
two Special Forces soldiers did not. Then Special
Forces gunners armed with squad automatic weapons
(SAWs) opened up on the column with automatic weapons
fire, and M203 gunners started firing grenades into
With the column halted, the Air Force Combat Controller
contacted an AC-130 and directed fire onto the PDF
column. The AC-130 responded with devastating fire,
forcing the PDF soldiers out of the trucks, and this
circling aircraft provided vital intelligence on enemy
movements. A second AC-130 was called in, providing
additional firepower and surveillance, and the Special
Operations Forces successfully repelled all PDF attempts
to cross the bridge or the river.
At daybreak, the TF BLACK quick reaction force arrived
to reinforce Higgins' element. Major Higgins and his
troops controlled the bridge while the quick reaction
force under Major Gilberto Perez cleared the east
side of the river. They captured 17 PDF members. The
TF BLACK elements returned to Aibrook AFB that evening.
The fourth TF BLACK H-Hour mission was to take Panamanian
TV Channel 2 off the air. The mission was given to
Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 785, commanded
by CPT John M. Custer and augmented by technical experts.
At 0050 on 20 December, the eighteen-man team fast
roped from two helicopters near the TV broadcasting
complex in the mountains northeast of Panama City.
The PDF guards fled, the team took control of the
complex, and the technical experts disabled the station.
By 1500, the team had returned
POST H-HOUR MISSIONS
The first three missions after H-Hour focused on
stopping pro-Noriega radio broadcasts. After the invasion
began, Radio Nacional's AM and FM stations had begun
playing a recording of Manuel Noriega exhorting his
followers to fight the Americans. Company C, 3rd Battalion,
7th SFG(A), commanded by Major David E. McCracken,
got the mission to silence the radio broadcasts. Thirty-three
Company C soldiers deployed in three helicopters and
arrived at the Controlaria building, the location
of the transmitter and antenna, at 1850 on 20 December.
The security element controlled traffic into and
out of the target area. The assault teams fast roped
onto the roof. One element blew up the electronic
junction boxes controlling the antenna, and the rest
of the assault force made its way to the 7th floor
where they blew the AM station off the air. The assault
teams could not find the FM transmitters.
As soon as the force returned to Albrook AFB, they
were briefed on their next target: the FM transmission
antenna located on the outskirts of town. MAJ McCracken
and his 19 men launched about 2015, and though conducted
after dark with very. little planning time, the mission
went smoothly. By 2045, the Company C element had
destroyed the FM antenna, silencing Radio Nacional.
On 21 December, ODA 785 went back to the TV transmission
tower it had disabled the day before and replaced
its damaged components. About this time, pro-Noriega
forces began intermittent radio broadcasts from this
area. On 24 December, the rest of Company B, 3rd Battalion,
7th SFG(A) arrived to reinforce their teammates and
to search for the phantom radio station. The large
number of Spanish speakers in the company and their
long experience in Panama helped them to gain the
trust of the locals. On the 25th, local civilians
led them to a cache site containing weapons, ammunition,
and medical supplies. Following up on information
received from Panamanians, a patrol found the PDF's
radio transmission site and destroyed it on 29 December.
During the initial invasion, U.S. forces had captured
Panama City, its airport, the areas near the Panama
Canal, and Rio Hato, but in the countryside the PDF
still had nominal control. PDF forces were scattered
throughout the countryside in small garrisons ("cuartels");
no one knew what these PDF forces would do, as each
cuartel was on its own. The Americans could have easily
crushed these posts, but this would have produced
many casualties, destroyed Panamanian villages, and
alienated the populace. The U.S. instead developed
a strategy of capitulation missions, with American
forces contacting the PDF enclaves and offering them
the opportunity to surrender before being attacked.
Complicating the situation, PDF officers on the "most
wanted list" commanded some of the major cuartels.
The ideal capitulation scenario was for the PDF to
remain in position and then surrender to the U.S.
forces as they spread throughout the countryside.
Once the PDF had surrendered, the Americans would
separate PDF members into criminals and non-criminals.
TF BLACK played a critical role in this capitulation
effort, one of its most significant contributions
to the success of Operation JUST CAUSE.
Capitulation missions had not been included in the
plans for Operation JUST CAUSE, but from 22-31 December,
they dominated TF BLACK's activities. The typical
method used was to attach a small Special Forces element
(with Spanish speakers) to a larger force (either
the 7th Infantry Division or the 75th Ranger Regiment)
to coordinate the PDF capitulation. The Special Forces
commander would call the cuartel commander on the
telephone and tell him to put all of his weapons in
the arms room, line up all of his men on the parade
field, and surrender to the U.S. forces that would
arrive shortly. Because of the heavy reliance on telephones,
these missions were nicknamed "Ma Bell"
During this ten day period, TF BLACK elements were
instrumental in the surrender of 14 cuartels, almost
2,000 troops, and over 6,000 weapons without a single
U.S. casualty. Several high-ranking cronies of Manuel
Noriega who were on the "most wanted" list
were also captured in Ma Bell operations.
After each cuartel capitulated, the task of rebuilding
the town began. TF BLACK generally left small Special
Forces elements in each town to support the rebuilding
process and assist the U.S. conventional forces. The
Special Forces soldiers' language skills, cultural
awareness, and expertise in low intensity conflict
proved invaluable in leading U.S. patrols, coordinating
with local officials, gathering information on weapons
caches, reestablishing Panamanian police forces, and
performing a myriad of other tasks that sped the process
of transforming Panama into a more democratic nation.
These operations were a textbook example of how Special
Forces should be used in low intensity conflict.
In the last days of December 1989 and the first days
of January 1990, TF BLACK continued its transition
from the combat missions of Operation JUST CAUSE to
the stabilization missions of Operation PROMOTE LIBERTY.
In order to accomplish its new missions, the Task
Force was reinforced by the 2nd Battalion, 7th SFG(A),
a Naval Special Warfare Unit, and an Air Force Special
Operations Detachment. With the assignment of SOF
units from the Air Force and Navy, TF BLACK became
Joint Thsk Force BLACK. The commander and staff from
7th SFG(A) also arrived to take command of the Army
Special Operations Forces in Panama as a subordinate
of the JJF BLACK commander. The additional Army Special
Forces battalion gave JTF BLACK enough personnel to
conduct stabilization operations throughout Panama.
The Air Force Special Operations assets gave JTF BLACK
the transportation to get troops into remote locations
and support them once they were out there. The Naval
Special Warfare Unit conducted patrols along the coast
and rivers, investigated possible weapons cache sites,
and assisted the Panamanians in re-establishing their
maritime security force.
On 16 January 1990, Operation JUST CAUSE officially
ended, and JTF BLACK ceased to exist. Some JTF BLACK
forces returned to the continental United States or
to the control of U.S. Southern Command. The rest
remained under the control of JTF BLACK headquarters,
renamed Joint Special Operations Task Force Panama,
and continued PROMOTE LIBERTY operations. Throughout
Panama, SOF continued the difficult and delicate task
of restoring peace, security, and democratic government
to Panama one village at a time.
JUST CAUSE demonstrated just how far SOF had come
since Desert One: not only with regard to internal
enhancements to SOF capabilities and command and control
structures, but also with regard to the manifest close
integration of SOF and conventional forces. SOF were
subordinate to the Joint Task Force South; so all
SOF plans and operations were fully complementary
of the theater campaign plan. JUST CAUSE clearly validated
how SOF were trained, equipped, and organized. This
operation showcased joint SOF capabilities, the high
training standards for operators and staffs alike,
their quality and professionalism and the value of
interoperability procedures. PROMOTE LIBERTY planning,
and post conflict strategy in general, still needed
work. In particular, there were problems with integrating
nationbuilding plans into the campaign plan, incorporating
CA and PSYOP planning with operational planning, and
mobilizing crucial Reserve Component CA and PSYOP