An intense, if also much briefer, conflict awaited America’s special operators in Grenada, a 133-square-mile mound of volcanic ash in the eastern Caribbean. The island was home to 110,000 people, and to the peaks and craters of the volcanoes that had brought it out of the seafloor 2 million years earlier. In 1979, the Marxist-Leninist Maurice Bishop had seized control of the island’s government by coup d’état, and thence had become a recipient of Soviet and Cuban military largesse. Although Bishop’s hostility to the United States was plain, he permitted American faculty and students to remain at St. George’s University Medical School, an institution established by four American entrepreneurs to serve Americans who had failed to gain admission to medical schools in the United States. Approximately six hundred Americans were at the school when the crisis erupted in October 1983.
The war, if it could be called that, sprang from a coup at the beginning of October. While Prime Minister Bishop was visiting socialist brethren in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, one of his Communist rivals, Bernard Coard, convinced members of the Grenadian Party Central Committee to turn against him. Upon Bishop’s return, the committee stripped him of his powers and put him under house arrest. Ten thousand of Bishop’s supporters showed up at his house, compelling the guards to hand the prime minister over, but then a column of armored military vehicles drove into the mob and gunned their way to Bishop, whom they executed.
The new regime rounded up suspected enemies and imposed a shoot-on-sight curfew. Americans at the medical school were confined to their dormitories, their communications with the outside world severed by the snipping of telephone wires. To President Reagan, it had all the makings of another Iranian hostage crisis. Unlike Carter, whose fear of provoking others always inclined him toward diplomacy rather than force, Reagan had few qualms about responding in the way that leaders of great powers traditionally responded when challenged by an ant-sized adversary in their own neighborhood—squashing the ant under a boot heel.
Reagan directed the Pentagon to invade Grenada in just a few days’ time. The ultimate objectives, the White House stated, were the rescue of the Americans and the replacement of the Communist government with a democratic one. Owing to uncertainty about the strength of the Cuban and Grenadian soldiers defending the island, American planners decided that the operation demanded more than just special operations forces. US Atlantic Command created an ad hoc organization, Joint Task Force (JTF) 120, to command an admixture of 7,300 special and conventional forces. The task force staff made a concerted effort to assign the special operators missions that capitalized on their special capabilities, tasking Delta Force with rescuing hostages, SEALs with scouting beaches for amphibious landings, and Rangers with surprise assaults on hardened targets. The “Nightstalker” airmen of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion, a unit created in October 1981 to provide the dedicated air assets for special operations that had been sorely missing in Eagle Claw, were slated to make their combat debut in Grenada.
Hours before the invasion began, at the final briefing for Joint Task Force 120 commander Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, representatives from the State Department demanded a change to the operational plan. The task force, they said, needed to seize the island’s Richmond Hill Prison during the invasion’s first hour, rather than later in the day as originally scheduled. By launching the operation at the very beginning of the invasion, the diplomats explained, the United States would deny the Grenadian government time to move or harm the inmates. Under questioning by military planners, the State Department’s representatives could not say who was incarcerated in the Richmond Hill facility or who was guarding it.
General Scholtes, the JSOC commander, recommended delaying the operation by twenty-four to forty-eight hours in order to gain more information on the prison. The State Department overruled him. An intelligence briefer assured the task force that the island defenders would put up little resistance, characterizing the whole invasion as a “walk in the park.” They could expect that the locals would “wave at them” as they flew into the country.
Early in the morning of October 25, at an airfield on Barbados, Delta Force boarded nine Black Hawk helicopters of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion for the assault on the prison. The helicopters were supposed to depart at 1 a.m. so that they could reach the target well before sunrise and take it down under cover of darkness. They did not take off until 6:30 a.m. An official government account attributed the delay to “chaotic planning, last-minute inter-service bickering at senior levels, and Air Force delays.” Given the assurances about the weakness of enemy defenses, though, the delay did not seem especially important.
By the time the Black Hawks had covered the 160 miles between Barbados and Grenada, the Caribbean was glistening sapphire blue under the morning’s tropical sun, and the denizens of the volcanic island were wide awake. The helicopters had nearly crossed the one mile of ground between the sea and Richmond Hill when shell bursts from ZU-23 antiaircraft guns interrupted the steady swishing of helicopter blades. From positions that American reconnaissance had not had time to locate, the Grenadian gunners hit the first six helicopters in quick succession. On board the Black Hawks, smoke billowed from damaged engines and fuel spurted from punctured hoses. One helicopter crashed in flames. In the face of this wholly unexpected resistance, the mission commander ordered the remaining helicopters to turn tail. The American special operators sustained twenty-four wounded and one killed during the abortive raid.
At this same time, two companies of Rangers were assaulting the airfield at Point Salines on the southwestern tip of the island. Their transport aircraft also encountered unexpectedly fierce antiaircraft fire, but most of the Rangers were able to leap from the aircraft and parachute safely onto the airfield. Forming into squads and platoons on the tarmac, the Rangers composed themselves before they had to fight the airfield’s Cuban military construction troops. The Cuban troops were not exactly prime military specimens—many of them were overweight and over forty years of age—but they did bring to bear BTR-60 armored personnel carriers, recoilless rifles, and machine guns. With attack aircraft from the carrier USS Independence providing close air support, the Rangers overpowered the airfield’s defenders in a few hours, taking 250 Cubans prisoner. They then rescued 138 American medical students from campus buildings near the airstrip.
Reinforcements from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived by air at Point Salines to begin the push toward St. George’s, the capital city. Conventional forces took most of their planned objectives over the next two days. They were not, however, able to reach the enemy barracks at Calivigny as quickly as high authorities in Washington desired. At noon on the 27th, the Pentagon notified Admiral Metcalf’s headquarters that the barracks had to be taken before dark. According to intelligence reports, the barracks served as the nerve center of the Cuban military forces on the island, and was guarded by six hundred crack Cuban troops and six antiaircraft cannons. Although the task was better suited to conventional infantry, Metcalf had to call upon the Rangers because all of the conventional infantry were tied up. The Rangers, who had been relaxing at Point Salines in expectation of an imminent return to the United States, hustled aboard Black Hawks for a late afternoon assault.
As it turned out, the much-feared barracks were empty. In the process of landing in the narrow streets, though, three helicopters were lost to collisions or faulty landings. Three Rangers were killed and nearly two dozen wounded.
Tallies taken after the nine-day war revealed that special operations forces accounted for a disproportionate share of American casualties, including thirteen of the nineteen American fatalities. General Scholtes blamed his command’s losses on ad hoc organization and the misuse of special operations forces by conventional commanders. Scholtes advocated a new joint combatant command with permanent standing capabilities and authorities of sufficient size to handle a Grenada-sized crisis on its own. His arguments made a strong impression on several US senators who met with him in closed-door session.
The problems of Grenada served as ammunition for a small but influential group of officials at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill who were campaigning to increase the size and authorities of special operations forces. Within the Pentagon, the reformers encountered the coalescence of opposition at every turn, so they eventually concentrated all of their efforts on Congress. A burgeoning “SOF Liberation Front,” consisting primarily of former SOF officers in the Defense Department or on congressional staffs, pressed the case for change to sympathetic congressmen. The neglect and mishandling of special operations forces, asserted the cadres of the Liberation Front, demanded that Congress create a joint SOF command with a separate SOF funding line.