Operation Urgent Fury — Part 1

The Invasion of Grenada

Introduction

Grenada was (and continues to be) a member of the British Commonwealth, but that didn’t stop President Reagan from ordering a military invasion of that island in 1983.  To achieve the President’s objectives, the U.S. Department of Defense employed the following military and naval units:

U.S. Army Units

  • 1st and 2nd battalions, 75th Ranger Regiment
  • 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment,
  • 1st and 2nd Battalions, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment,
  • 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 508th Infantry Regiment,
  • 27th Engineer Battalion,
  • 548th Engineer Battalion,
  • 1st Battalion, 320th Artillery Regiment,
  • 160th Aviation Battalion,
  • 269th Aviation Battalion,
  • 1st and 2nd Battalion, 82nd Airborne Regiment,
  • 65th MP Company,
  • 118th MP Company,
  • 411th MP Company,
  • 35th Signal Brigade,
  • 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion,
  • 319th Military Intelligence Battalion,
  • 9th Psychological Operations Battalion,
  • 7th Transportation Battalion,
  • 44th Medical Services Brigade, and
  • The 82nd Finance Company.

U.S. Air Force Units

  • Detachment, 136th Tactical Airlift Wing
  • Detachments, Air National Guard Tactical Fighter Squadrons
  • Detachment, 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing 
  • 26th Air Defense Squadron, NORAD
  • 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing
  • 437th Military Airlift Wing
  • 1st Special Operations Wing
  • Detachment, 317th Military Airlift Wing 

U.S. Naval Units

  • U.S. Navy Independence Carrier Battle Group
  • 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit.

At the end of the first day, U.S. Marines from the 22nd MAU controlled 75% of the island’s 135 square miles.  It was a condition that prompted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Army General John Vessey, to inquire of Major General Edward Trobaugh, Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division, “We’ve got two companies of Marines running around all over the island and thousands of Army troops doing nothing.  What the hell is going on?”

Background

Erick Gairy (1922-1997), Chief Minister of Granada, could have been a stand-in for American actor/comedian Eddie Murphy.  Gairy was a trained school teacher and served in that capacity from 1939-1941.  For several years afterward, he worked for Largo Oil and Transport Company on the Island of Aruba.  By the time Gairy returned to Granada, he’d become a political radical of the Marxist bent.

In 1957, Gairy’s radicalism prompted the British government to ban him from political activity until 1961.  Popular among the people of Granada, however, Gairy returned to politics in the election of 1961 and, owing to his party’s majority in the legislature, became Chief Minister.  When Gairy’s party lost the election of 1962, Gairy became the legislature’s opposition leader through the end of the legislative session of 1967.

In 1967, Gairy won the general election and formed a new administration as Premier of the Associated State of Grenada, which he led until 1974.  When Grenada achieved its independence from the United Kingdom in 1974, Gairy became the Island’s first Prime Minister.  A series of civil disturbances marked his administration.  His so-called Mongoose Gang (a secret police organization) used violence and threats of mayhem to intimidate voters and political opponents alike.  Despite international observers declaring the election fraudulent, Gairy was narrowly reelected in 1976 by a thin margin, and the civil violence continued.  Gairy’s primary opponent in 1976 was Maurice Bishop, who formed and headed the New Jewel Movement (NJM).  Maurice Bishop led an armed revolution and overthrew the government when Gairy was out of the country.  Bishop suspended the constitution and ruled by fait accompli until 1983.[1]

Contentious Issues

In 1954, the British government proposed the construction of a new international airport.  The project was a cooperative effort involving Great Britain, Cuba, Libya, and Algeria; the project took shape under Bishop’s administration.  Canadians designed the airfield, the UK funded it, and a London firm won the contract for building it.

The United States objected to the airport’s construction because the 9,000-foot runway could accommodate large Soviet aircraft and facilitate Soviet-Cuban military buildups in the Caribbean.  In the view of the U. S. Secretaries of Defense and State, the Point Salines Airport would easily facilitate the transfer of weapons from the Soviet Union to Cuba and several Central American rebel groups.  CIA sources confirmed that Granada was receiving regular arms shipments from the Soviet Union, which was part of a communist scheme to destabilize the region.  Unsurprisingly, California Democrat Ron Dellums (another black radical) traveled to Grenada (at the request of Bishop) and publicly announced that, in his opinion, US concerns were unwarranted.

In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued a series of warnings about the Soviet Union’s threat to the United States and its Caribbean allies.  CIA analysts concluded that the Point Salines airport did not require an excessively long landing strip or quite as many fuel storage tanks to accommodate regular commercial air traffic.  Nevertheless, the airport became operational in May 1983, officially named Maurice Bishop International Airport.

In October, Granada Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard initiated a coup d’état and placed Bishop under house arrest.  Mass protests facilitated Bishop’s escape, enabling him to vocally reassert his authority.  Bishop, however, was tracked down and murdered along with his conjugal partner, several government officials, and loyal supporters of the labor union movement.  With Bishop out of the way, General Hudson Austin, head of the People’s Revolutionary Army of Grenada, seized power and established himself as the head of government.[2]  Austin placed British Governor-General Paul Scoon under house arrest.

On 23 October, Governor Scoon sent a secret message to the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) asking for help.  The OECS, Barbados, and Jamaica made a joint appeal to the United States for assistance in dealing with “the current anarchic conditions, the serious violations of human rights, bloodshed, and the consequent threat to the peace and security of the region.”  Beyond these conditions, approximately 1,000 American medical students attended St. George’s University Medical School.  General Austin isolated them as hostages against any action the United States might take against his regime.

Military Intervention

Captain Carl R. Erie, U. S. Navy, served as Commander, Atlantic Amphibious Task Force.  His command included Amphibious Squadron-4 (PhibRon-4) and the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit (22ndMAU).[3]  Colonel James K. Faulkner, USMC, commanded the MAU, which consisted of a ground combat element (GCE), an air combat element (ACE), and a combat service support element (CSSE).  The GCE was Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8) under Lieutenant Colonel Ray L. Smith, USMC.  Serving as the ACE was Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 261 under Lieutenant Colonel Granville R. Amos, USMC.  Major Albert E. Shively commanded the CSSE.  The task force was en route to the Mediterranean as part of a regular US presence there.

Once the U.S. National Command Authority decided that military intervention in Grenada was appropriate and warranted, the Chief of Naval Operations directed Captain Erie to take up station at a point five-hundred miles northeast of Granada and await further instructions.  After consulting with Colonel Faulkner, Erie assumed that the mission, if directed, would involve a non-combat evacuation operation (NEO).  At that time, Erie had no specific information about the number or location of potential evacuees.

On 23 October, the U.S. military had no worthwhile information about Grenada.  None of Captain Erie’s ships had maps of Grenada.[4]  USS Guam did have outdated nautical charts produced by the United Kingdom in 1936, but their usefulness to a modern navy was marginal.  However, Commander Richard A. Butler, USN, who was then serving as Captain Erie’s chief of staff, did have personal experience as an amateur yachtsman in the waters surrounding Granada, and he was somewhat familiar with the area — including an awareness of coastal features, tides, surf, and beaches.  It was also fortunate that Lieutenant Colonel Smith had studied Granada while an Armed Forces Staff College student.

However, until Captain Erie received specific orders, there could be no planning because a NEO requires names and national affiliations of potential evacuees.  Beyond the estimate of “about 1,000 medical students,” Captain Eric was not receiving any information from the U.S. State Department.  Faulkner’s planning would encompass more than force landing, force security, and force extraction if the amphibious group were ordered to conduct something beyond a NEO.

Captain Erie finally received instructions to dispatch a helicopter to Antigua to pick up “advisors” and return them to PhibRon-4.  Still anticipating a NEO, senior Navy and Marine Corps officers assumed these people could be State Department representatives.

At 22:00 on 22 October, Captain Erie received another message directing PhibRon-4 to proceed to Grenada; a supplemental message provided general information on Grenadian military forces’ expected strength and disposition.  Erie was told to “stand by” for intelligence updates.

Ultimately, Captain Erie learned that the Grenadian military numbered around 1,200 men.  Military hardware included 12.7mm and 37mm anti-aircraft batteries provided by the Soviet Union.  Intelligence analysts warned Erie that a Grenadian reserve/militia force of between 2,000-5,000 men and 300-400 armed police could be expected to back the Army.  US intelligence also estimated between 30 to 50 Cuban military advisors, an unknown number of Cuban civilians, and around 600 Cuban construction workers.[5]

Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, serving as Commander, U.S. Second Fleet (COMUSSECONDFLT) (serving also as Commander, Joint Task Force 120) (CJTF-120), messaged Erie to advise him that land operations, whatever they might entail, would fall under the authority of the U. S. Army commander.[6] An airborne assault would involve the 82nd Airborne Division, reinforced by U.S. Army Rangers.  Given this new information, Colonel Faulkner assumed that any mission handed to the Marines would be in support of Army forces, possibly in reserve.

When Erie’s helicopter returned from Antigua on 23 October, no state department personnel were onboard.  Instead, the aircraft’s passengers were U.S. Atlantic Fleet intelligence officers carrying updated information about Grenada and a draft operation order identifying Admiral Metcalf’s operational components: the 82nd Airborne Division, reinforcing components, and the Navy/Marine Corps Amphibious Force (Task Force 124).[7]

The urgency of the intervention compressed the time frame for the operation.  Still, much of the information Captain Eric needed to plan an amphibious assault remained unknown.  To Colonel Faulkner’s surprise, the operation order directed TF-124 to seize the Pearls Airport, the port of Grenville, and neutralize any opposing force within that operating area.  Army units (TF-121 and TF-123) would secure points on the island’s southern end, including the Bishop International Airport at Point Salines.  The carrier battle group (Task Group 20.5) and the U. S. Air Force elements would support the ground forces.

Colonel Faulkner, Lieutenant Colonel Smith, and Lieutenant Colonel Amos received Admiral Metcalf’s guidance a mere 30 hours before “H” Hour.  Faulkner intended to employ a combined air and surface assault to seize his assigned objectives, but he still didn’t have sufficient information to complete his assault plan.  The MAU operations officer wanted to give the GCE maximum strength and flexibility so that Smith could deal with whatever opposition might be waiting ashore.  Still, there remained questions about the suitability of a surface landing on the eastern beaches due to high winds and heavy surf.

Admiral Metcalf decided that D Day would occur on 25 October but added one constraint: no landing would occur before 0400 on D Day.  Colonel Smith and Colonel Amos wanted to launch their assault at first light to minimize the anti-aircraft threat; Metcalf’s restriction simply made that window even smaller.  Moreover, Admiral Metcalf’s rules of engagement (ROE) restricted gunplay to “… only those weapons essential for the mission’s success.”  Metcalf’s instructions ordered ground commanders to avoid disrupting the local economy as much as possible.  Marines were told to establish friendly relations with the Grenadian people whenever possible.  Colonel Smith emphasized this to his company commander: “We are liberating the Grenadians, not attacking them.”

The Marines completed their operational planning on 24 October.  Early that morning, Metcalf met with his boss and the Army commanders.  From this meeting, Admiral Metcalf changed H Hour to 0500.  PhibRon-4 rendezvoused with TG-20.5 off the coast of Barbados, and Metcalf arrived onboard USS Guam at 1745 to assume direct command of the joint task force.  Metcalf approved the operation plan.

At midnight, Navy SEALs went ashore to conduct beach reconnaissance operations.  The task force entered Grenadian waters at around 0200.  At 0400, SEALs reported a marginal beach for landing craft and tracked vehicles.  Accordingly, Captain Erie decided that the primary landing force would go in vertically.  Helicopters would land two rifle companies on the East Coast to seize Pearls Airport and the town of Grenville.  Once these Marines were “feet dry,” Erie would entertain Faulkner’s recommendation for an amphibious landing if the Marines could find a suitable beach.  As the MAU operations staff made last-minute preparations, grunts watched a film on the mess deck — The Sands of Iwo Jima.

(Continued Next Week)

Sources:

  1. Adkin, M.  Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada: The Truth Behind the Largest U.S. Military Operation since Vietnam.  Lexington Books, 1989.
  2. Cole, R. H.  Operation Urgent Fury: The Planning and Execution of Joint Operations in Grenada.  Washington: Pentagon Study, 1997.
  3. Dolphin, G. E.  24 MAU 1983: A Marine Looks Back at the Peacekeeping Mission to Beirut, Lebanon.  Publish America, 2005.
  4. Moore, C.  Margaret Thatcher: At Her Zenith in London, Washington, and Moscow.  New York: Vintage Books, 2016
  5. Russell, L.  Grenada, 1983.  London: Osprey Books, 1985. 
  6. Spector, R. H.  U. S. Marines in Grenada.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1987.
  7. Williams, G.  US-Grenada Relations: Revolution and Intervention in the Backyard.  Macmillan, 2007.

Endnotes:

[1] Maurice Bishop was a Marxist revolutionary and head of the Marxist/Leninist/Black Liberation Party.

[2] Austin had the tacit approval of the Soviet government to proceed with the coup d’état and take over the government.  Contrary to Congressman Dellums’ assessment, the threat to the United States and Caribbean allies was real.  Austin also had close ties to Communist Cuba, as did several members of the NJM movement, including Bishop, Coard, and Scoon.

[3] Today, Marine Amphibious Units are referred to as Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs).  MEU commanders exercise operational and administrative supervision of battalion landing teams (BLTs) (reinforced battalions task organized for a specific type of mission) and composite air squadron (with vertical lift aircraft), and an expeditionary service support (logistics) group.

[4] USS Guam (LPH-9), USS Trenton (LPD-14), USS Fort Snelling (LSD-30), USS Barnstable County (LST 1197) or USS Manitowoc (LST-1180).

[5] In reality, Cuban military forces included around 800 men, a quarter of whom were regular military.

[6] Major General Edward Trobaugh commanded the 82nd Airborne Division; Major General Jack B. Farris serving as deputy commander XVIII Airborne Corps exercised overall command of ground operations during Operation Urgent Fury.

[7] On Sunday morning, 23 October 1983, terrorist bombers attacked International Peacekeepers in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 U.S. Marines and Navy corpsmen, 58 French military, and 6 civilians.  The Marines and Corpsmen were members of BLT 1/8, sister battalion of the GCE of the 22nd MAU (which before the Grenada warning order, were en route to relieve 1/8 on station Beirut.


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Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

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