Flying nonstop from the United States, a swarm of C-130 Hercules and C-141 Starlifter transport planes rumbled through the night. They dipped low over the Caribbean Sea, and the Ranger jumpmasters standing in the doorways felt spray from the surf against their faces.
The pilots were trying to get underneath Cuban radar systems to keep the invasion of Panama secret for as long as possible.
As the lumbering planes nosed toward Panama, their pilots pulled up, climbing sharply. Below came the thuds of laser-guided bombs dropped by F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack fighters out of Nevada’s Tonopah Test Range, missing their targets but sparking a wildfire that blazed across the black sky.
Tracers fired by Panama Defense Forces snaked into the night, searching out the US Air Force AC-130 Spectre gunships and AH-6 Little Bird, AH-1 Cobra, and AH-64 Apache helicopters strafing their positions.
It was nearly 0100 on Dec. 20, 1989, and President George H.W. Bush had ordered US forces to invade Panama to depose its strongman, Manuel “El Man” Noriega, who was wanted on federal drug smuggling and racketeering charges.
Operation Just Cause’s blueprint, OPLAN 90-2, broke the elite 75th Ranger Regiment into two elements, Task Force Red-Romeo and Task Force Red-Tango, and parachuted them simultaneously onto Omar Torrijos International Airport, Tocumen Military Airfield, and Rio Hato Airfield.
The Rangers’ mission was to block Noriega from fleeing the country by air and prevent enemy forces from using the compounds as staging areas when the crucial battle for downtown Panama City kicked off. They would be pitted against the Panama Defense Forces, including Noriega’s elite Macho de Monte counterterrorist unit.
“Thirty seconds!” yelled the jumpmasters to the Rangers hooked to their static lines.
As the seven-hour flight neared its end, some Rangers could no longer hold back their bowels. Others vomited. The stench filled the planes, which began making sounds that confused a 21-year-old Spc. Nick Benzschawel.
“What kind of noise is this plane making? It sounds like there’s about 500 gremlins with huge pipe wrenches that are beating the shit out of our plane,” Benzschawel told Coffee or Die Magazine, recalling that day. “Then our plane starts popping up and down, limping around, and we’re going, What in the fuck is going on?”
What the Rangers didn’t know was the pilots were swerving to avoid groundfire, which makes a “ticking” sound when striking aircraft. Officials later counted 13 troop and heavy equipment transports hit by enemy rounds that night.
Benzschawel’s boots went out the door, and he tumbled toward Rio Hato. He estimated his jump weight at more than 450 pounds, thanks to the rifle, rocket launchers, extra ammo, and other equipment.
He and the other Rangers in B Company, 2nd Battalion, were leaping below 500 feet, giving them no time to deploy an emergency reserve chute if the first one failed.
At least 36 Rangers in the regiment would be injured by the short jumps, and one died, according to the official history of the battle. Pfc. John Mark Price, 22, crashed into some trees and was dead when the Rangers found him, his static line ruptured.
Officials later counted 13 troop and heavy equipment transports hit by enemy rounds that night.
As he plummeted to the ground, Benzschawel’s rucksack separated and smashed him in the face, sending his helmet flying. He landed on a barbed wire fence surrounding a three-story air control tower.
Benzschawel tried grabbing his knife and rifle but couldn’t budge. His parachute lay crumpled to his side, and Panamanian soldiers inside the tower began shooting up his chute. He knew it would be only a few seconds before they realized they hadn’t hit him and would adjust their fire.
“These guys were trying to kill me, and I wish to this day that I could give you some feelings but I can’t even put that moment’s feelings into words,” Benzschawel said. “I can’t. I’ve tried for 30-plus years now. I’ve tried but I can’t. I still don’t know.”
He was saved by another Ranger, who hit the ground hard nearby and broke his back. He was screaming for help, and that redirected the Panamanian soldiers’ attention from Benzschawel.
Benzschawel heard a phrase in Spanish the Rangers had memorized as a verbal challenge. He replied with every possible response he could recall, hoping that the voice belonged to a fellow American and not the enemy.
“Who the fuck is this?” Benzschawel remembered hearing someone say. His squad had spotted him. They rushed up and cut him free.
“All right assholes, now I’m back in the game!” Benzschawel recalled bellowing at the Panamanians. “Okay, you scared me. Now I’m gonna scare you!”
“And I was angry,” he said.
Sgt. Doug Spear was a 21-year-old squad leader in 2nd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, when he jumped into Rio Hato. He remembers watching Panamanian security forces riding trucks around the tarmac with their emergency lights whirling, shooting from their vehicles at the Americans.
He aimed his M72 Light Anti-Tank Weapon at a truck. The missile destroyed the vehicle and everyone in it.
Spear saw a young Ranger falling from the sky, his inverted parachute never fully opening. The Ranger hit the ground and didn’t move, his M67 90 mm recoilless rifle by his side.
Fearing the worst, Spear ran to him. And then the Ranger bolted up, frantic to rendezvous with his squad. Spear tried to help him out of the parachute, only to get a full blast of Get your fucking hands off me, Sergeant! I have to go!
“He fucking pops up, throws his 90 on his back and just fucking rolled out,” Spear said. “I guarantee to this day he has no idea that his chute didn’t deploy.”
Sgt. First Class Taft Yates was 32 when he jumped into Panama as the platoon sergeant for 1st Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
Unlike most of his men, he’d tasted combat. He’d jumped into Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury in 1983.
Yates recalled quickly reaching the predesignated rally point in Panama, accounting for most of his Rangers, and then moving out to seize Rio Hato.
They maneuvered to attack a compound they thought was held by the enemy’s 6th Rifle Company but eerily met no resistance. The Rangers swept through the rooms, noting wet footprints leading from the showers and plates of food abandoned still warm on the dining hall tables.
They weren’t going to be so lucky with Objective Lion, where elements of the enemy’s elite 7th Rifle Company hunkered down behind a fence line, about half of a football field away.
“When we began our assault on that, that’s when all hell broke loose,” Yates remembered.
The first salvo of enemy gunfire killed Ranger Spc. Phillip S. Lear, 21. Two more rounds sliced into the squad leader, Sgt. Ken Howard. Three other Rangers suffered minor wounds.
Yates ordered three machine-gunners to lay down suppressing fire while other Rangers assaulted the compound’s entrenchments and buildings. A fierce firefight erupted. Some Panamanians slouched down, dead. Others fled into the jungle.
“So we suppressed, and some of them left,” Yates said. “Some of them didn’t make it through the night.”
By 0628, Objective Lion was secured. US commanders later estimated the Rangers and their close air support killed 34 Panamanian soldiers at Rio Hato. They captured 362 more.
Over at Torrijos-Tocumen International Airport, 25-year-old Sgt. David Reeves and his Rangers in C Company, 3rd Battalion, watched as a Brazilian passenger plane landed close to their regrouping area.
He and his squad began pushing through the elephant grass toward the terminal.
By dawn, the Rangers had secured all their targets and released the 376 airline passengers being held as hostages.
Reeves recalled hearing passengers screaming because Panamanian soldiers inside the terminal began to separate mothers from their babies. It sounded like the soldiers were taking hostages, an unexpected twist to an already complicated mission.
The Rangers tried the terminal doors, which were locked. They busted out a window, but it was still covered by blinds.
A Ranger gave Reeves a strong boost, and he crashed onto the floor inside the building.
“Thank goodness, no one was on the other side,” Reeves said. “Because that’s how we wound up entering the building, and that gave us access to all the office buildings downstairs.”
The Rangers cleared the first floor of the terminal without resistance and began moving toward the enemy soldiers and their hostages upstairs.
The squad divided into a pair of five-man teams. Reeves and his team spotted a small restroom. They’d been trained to clear it with the point man picking left or right and the others taking the opposite direction as they barged in.
Reeves went first and headed right. A Panamanian soldier to the left of the door spotted him. The Ranger twisted toward the enemy and fired his rifle.
“Next thing I thought in my mind was just, Sorry about that Mom, because I knew I was dead,” Reeves remembered.
He fell to the ground and couldn’t feel or hear anything. The enemy soldier was only a foot away from Reeves when they exchanged gunfire. Reeves counted three blasts from an AK-47 hitting him. Two rounds went through his shoulder; another struck his collarbone. Gunpowder residue from the Panamanian’s rifle muzzle smoldered on his skin.
Reeves wondered how long it would take to fly to heaven. Then his hearing began to return. He listened as two Panamanian soldiers talked. They paid no attention to his body crumpled on the floor.
With his right arm limp, Reeves couldn’t reach his rifle, so he weakly fumbled for a grenade on his left hip.
“And I thought, Well, at least if they come to execute me, I’m going to take them with me,” Reeves remembered.
Before Reeves could tease the pin out of the grenade, the restroom exploded.
One of his Rangers had tossed in a grenade. The others in his team blazed away with their weapons, pushing the Panamanians behind a small cement barrier.
Pfc. Travis Kelly low-crawled to Reeves, unsure if the sergeant was even alive. That’s because the skin around Reeves’ left eye had peeled away, like bark off a burnt stump, making it look as if he’d been shot through the head.
Kelly dragged Reeves out, but not before an enemy soldier shot the junior Ranger’s Kevlar helmet off his head.
The Rangers could hear their enemies cursing in Spanish. One of the Panamanians peeked around a corner. Spc. Michael Eubanks shot him through the neck. The Rangers barreled through the restroom door again.
An enemy soldier fell out of a shattered restroom window and was shot to death by a Ranger M60 machine-gun team below.
The restroom devolved into hand-to-hand combat. Eubanks slammed a Panamanian soldier against the wall, and Kelly finished him off with a shot through his skull.
They’d cleared the room. Reeves’ blood had pooled on the floor with the blood of the dead Panamanians. He and the other Rangers had survived their first brush with battle.
“All we knew about combat was movies or something, or our training, and to see that aggressiveness come over those guys, and the violence with which they fought, was something to see,” Reeves said.
By dawn, the Rangers had secured all their targets and released the 376 airline passengers being held as hostages.
They suffered four deaths — two from friendly fire — plus 27 wounded in action and the three dozen Rangers injured in the parachute jumps.
Spear remembers moving on to a hamlet near Rio Hato that was defended by one of Panama’s Dignity Battalions, paramilitary units fiercely loyal to the dictator Noriega.
His squad detained two of these soldiers but soon realized there were no clear front lines. The Rangers set up a few blockade points to keep others from entering or leaving the neighborhood until intelligence-gathering US personnel could arrive.
The Rangers hadn’t been briefed on what to do when Panamanians drove up to their positions. They tried waving them away. But one of the drivers didn’t obey their commands and picked up speed.
Spear aimed his rifle at the front tires, and a quick blast stopped the Land Rover.
“There’s a fucking 300-pound Panamanian pregnant woman in the passenger seat and a fucking priest driving the Land Rover,” Spear said. “So I’m fucking pissed now because I just got my adrenaline rush for the day. So I arrest the priest.”
Spear tossed the padre into a truck the Rangers had converted into a holding pen for Dignity Battalion soldiers. The Americans were giving water to the pregnant woman when a German TV crew approached to film them.
So Spear threw the Germans in the prison truck, too.
The American invasion wrapped up after one month, one week, and four days of hostilities. The operation left 23 US troops dead and another 325 wounded, but Noriega and his henchman Carlos Duque were replaced as Panama’s leaders by Guillermo Endara.
Endara served as Panama’s president until 1994, abolishing the nation’s military and replacing it with a police force.
Noriega was convicted at a US trial on narcotics trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering charges and sentenced to 40 years in federal prison, which later was reduced to three decades behind bars.
France extradited the dictator in 2010 to stand trial on money laundering charges. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison but was extradited in 2011 by Panama for human rights violations.
Noriega died there on May 29, 2017. He was 83.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine as “Operation Just Cause.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Taft Yates was a sergeant first class at the time these events took place.