In the eighty or so years following independence from Spain, Panama was a province of Gran Colombia, a free association begun in 1821. From that point onward, the people living in Panama made several dozen attempts to withdraw from their Colombian alliance, including the so-called Thousand Days War (1899-1902). For the Panamanians, it was a struggle for land rights more than an issue of sovereignty. Observing these machinations and with a growing interest in constructing a canal across the Isthmus, the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt began to engineer the separation of Panama from Colombia.
In November 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia. To constrain Colombia from sending naval and ground forces to Panama, the United States re-introduced a Marine Corps presence in Panama under future commandant, Major John A. Lejeune. Of course, this was not the Marines’ first deployment to Panama. In 1856, Marines went to Panama to guarantee the security of American fortune hunters while en route to California via the Isthmus.
Given Roosevelt’s interest in constructing a canal, Major Lejeune realized that a Marine presence in Panama would continue. So, with that foresight, Lejeune established a permanent barracks there in 1904. Between 1904 and 1911, the principal mission of the Marine Corps was to safeguard the canal while under construction (and its workers/executive managers). Marines established a permanent barracks at the US Navy’s submarine base at Coco Solo in 1923 — known simply as Marine Barracks (MB), Panama. From that year forward, the size of the barracks expanded and contracted according to the needs of the Navy.
In February 1945, the MB had 36 officers, three warrant officers, and 1,571 enlisted men at its peak strength. The Marines also experienced several “re-designations” and relocations. In 1943, Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) consolidated all Marines serving in Panama under the Marine Barracks, Fifteenth Naval District, Rodman, Canal Zone. In 1987, HQMC renamed the barracks as Marine Corps Security Force Company (MCSFC), Panama.
Responsibility for the Canal Zone (CZ) security fell to the U. S. Army under the Commanding General, U. S. Army South (CG USASouth), headquartered in San Antonio, Texas. USASouth became a subordinate command of the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), headquartered in Miami, Florida, as one of eleven unified combatant commands. The mission assigned to the Marine Security Forces was in providing security for U. S. Navy installations in Panama.
Panama — US Relations
The agreement between Panama and the United States vis-à-vis the canal was that the United States would lease a twelve-mile swath of land across the Isthmus for 100 years, construct the channel, and control it as sovereign US territory during the period of the lease. Over time, with technological advances in ship sizes, the canal proved no longer adequate for the largest naval and maritime vessels. Within this period, relations between the US and Panama were not always amiable. Marine battalion landing teams infrequently went to Panama as a show of force and a demonstration that the United States intended to exercise its control over canal zone operations, particularly during periods of political and civil unrest.
By agreement between Panama and the US in 1977, complete control of the Panama Canal would shift to the Panamanians in 2000. In 1981, however, General Omar Torrijos, then serving as “Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution,” the man who negotiated this treaty, died in a plane crash — which opened the door for General Manuel Antonio Noriega to succeed him as a revolutionary leader and de facto head of state in Panama. During Noriega’s tenure, five men served as puppet heads of state to give Noriega’s dictatorship international credibility.
General Noriega consolidated his power in Panama by seizing control of the armed forces, renaming them as Panamanian Defense Forces. By 1988, Noriega controlled the national police, the army and paramilitary organizations, the air forces, and the small naval force — in total (on paper), around 15,000 men. In terms of combat troops, Noriega could field roughly 3,500 men organized as two light battalions in each of Panama’s thirteen military zones, ten independent companies, a cavalry squadron, and a handful of “special operations” forces. Noriega’s air force consisted of 50 aircraft, and his navy operated twelve small vessels. He also controlled 14 battalions of civilian laborers, the so-called Dignity Battalions, which consisted of unemployed workers shepherded by low-ranking officers and NCOs.
Manuel Noriega was a caudillo in the finest tradition of post-Spanish petty dictators. He was arrogant, corrupt, dangerous, and stupid. His arrogance led him to misjudge the United States’ continuing interest in the Canal Zone (CZ). While the United States turned a blind eye to Noriega’s involvement in narcotics, Noriega’s time was fast running out. In January 1988, two federal grand juries in Florida indicted Noriega on racketeering and drug trafficking charges. Subsequently, puppet-President Eric Arturo Delvalle attempted to depose Noriega, but Noriega engineered Delvalle’s dismissal. Civil disorder one more returned to Panama, with threats made to the lives and safety of American personnel and military installations.
The Culture War
As relations between the US and Panama deteriorated, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) issued a warning order to various military commands ordinarily responsible for the security of the canal zone. Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, began updating their contingency plans for Panama. With only one MCSFC in Panama, a platoon from the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion (at Norfolk, Virginia), known as a Fleet Anti-terrorist Security Team (FAST), was quickly dispatched to reinforce the Marines of MCSFC Panama.
Of course, the FAST platoon was an inadequate measure, but the National Military Command Authority (NMCA) or JCS had yet to decide what to do about Noriega. With so few men to provide security to naval installations, Major E. A. Keith, CO MCSFC Panama, had to prioritize his security concerns. With the concurrence of the Commander, US Naval Forces (South), Keith identified the fuel storage facility, known as the Arraijan Tank Farm (ATF), as his first security concern.
The ATF is located within two square kilometers of rolling grassland, surrounded by dense jungle, which provided excellent avenues of approach should Noriega’s PDF attempt to seize the ATF or threaten the adjacent Howard Air Force Base. Major Keith did not have a sufficient number of men to maintain a formal defense perimeter around the ATF, so his only recourse was to employ irregular area security patrols.
Patrol leaders almost immediately reported the presence of PDF forces dressed in black field uniforms using night vision goggles (NVGs) and evidence of recently prepared foxholes in the jungle areas surrounding the ATF. When Marines reported this intelligence up the chain of command, US Army South dismissed it out-of-hand, claiming that US troops prepared the fighting holes during recent training exercises. US Army South also emphatically denied that Noriega’s PDF had any NGVs. Subsequently, however, Navy intelligence officers learned that the Army had not conducted any training exercises adjacent to the ATF for several years; moreover, that the Army had (in fact) transferred NGVs to the PDF.
Despite the Army’s lack of interest in further reinforcing the MCSFC, the navy requested that the Marine Corps ready a combat brigade for possible deployment to the Canal Zone. Accordingly, the 6th Marine Brigade (6thMEB) was issued a warning order. In developing his operation plan, the Brigade Commander suggested an “all or nothing” approach. Either the Brigade deployed as a fully functional combat brigade (two battalion landing teams, two combat aircraft squadrons) or not at all.
Even as the JCS fretted about a proper response to deteriorating conditions in Panama, 6thMEB received a “stand up” order on 31 March 1988. While this was going on, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic (CG FMFLant) ordered an advance combat element to proceed to Panama to reinforce the MCSFC. The Marines viewed this advanced element as a nucleus for a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) around which a brigade might later form, although one without any air support.
Why was there no aviation support for the Marines? Given the amount of Army and Air Force assets stationed at Howard Air Force Base, COMUSSOUTHCOM did not see a need for additional Marine Corps combat aircraft. SOUTHCOM didn’t see a need for any Marines at all, but at that stage, the employment of Marines wasn’t up to SOUTHCOM if their mission was to reinforce security for naval installations.
The unit assigned as the brigade’s advance element was Company I, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines (India 3/4), under the command of Captain Joseph P. Valore. Upon arrival in Panama on 6 April, Valore reported to Rear Admiral Jerry G. Gnecknow, Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Command. Colonel William J. Conley, who served as brigade chief of staff, accompanied Captain Valore to Panama. As part of the advance team, Conley’s mission was to arrange logistical support for the brigade, should it actually deploy. Admiral Gnecknow assigned Colonel Conley as Senior Marine Officer, Naval Forces, Panama, when the brigade’s deployment did not appear likely.
The selection of India 3/4 (Reinforced) to serve as the brigade’s advance element was that the brigade earmarked its parent battalion as one of the brigade’s battalion landing teams and because the company, who at the time was the 2nd Marine Divisions air alert/rapid response team, had completed extensive pre-deployment training. The 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines reinforced India Company with an 81mm mortar section, a Sensor Control and Management Platoon (SCAMP), a counterintelligence team, and a squad of combat engineers. Colonel Conley assigned responsibility for securing the ATF to Captain Valore, who embraced Major Keith’s aggressive patrolling strategy. Suddenly, on 9 April, operational control of India Company passed from Admiral Gnecknow to the Commander, Joint Task Force (JTF), Panama — who also served as Commander, U. S. Army South.
At the time of his deployment, Captain Valore felt obligated to address two issues affecting his company’s performance in Panama. The first was a standing policy decision that precluded armed Marines from chambering a round in their weapons until fired upon, and the second involved rules of engagement. Captain Valore correctly believed that sending Marines into harm’s way with unchambered weapons was foolish; indeed, it is. He raised this issue with Colonel Conley, who agreed with Valore and authorized the Marines to patrol with chambered weapons. As to the rules of engagement, Conley allowed Valore’s Marines to “return fire if fired upon.”
What made these two issues “hot button” topics was the 1983 Beirut bombing incident. Because of the restricted weapons policy, Marine sentries were unable to stop the bomb-laden truck that drove through the security perimeter and kill 241 American servicemen. As to the rules of engagement, no one fired on the Marines standing guard that day — the terrorist simply drove through the perimeter at a high rate of speed. Thus, Conley’s cautionary instruction, to “return fire if fired upon,” was woefully inadequate. There are occasions when initiating hostile action is unquestionably appropriate.
But COMJTFPANAMA/COMUSARMYSOUTH had a different perspective. He did not want Marines firing on Panamanians. The mission, he argued, was to safeguard American interests in Panama, not make the deteriorating political condition worse. In his view, the Marines — by their very presence — were making matters worse by their aggressive behavior. At this point, one may wonder, what would be the purpose of arming military personnel to guard US installations if the men charged with executing that mission weren’t taking their responsibilities seriously?
This particular kerfuffle leads one to consider the cultural differences between the U. S. Army and the United States Marines. There is a unique and very distinctive Marine Corps culture that sets the Marines apart from every other branch of service. First, Marines never lose sight of their primary mission: winning battles. Locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy is at the forefront of every Marine Corps mission. It is the only reason Marines exist. Second, a bended knee and/or erring on the side of caution in a kinder-gentler world is not a Marine Corps tradition. Marines are warriors — it is their ethos. There is something very different going on inside the heads of (too many) senior army officers.
So, while senior Army officers berated the Marines for doing what they’re best at, senior Marine Corps officers remained adamant: they would not employ a lethal combat company and then tie its hands by ridiculously simple-minded restrictions.
Moreover, in 1988, a bolstered Marine presence in Panama resulted from the PDF’s aggressiveness, not the cause of it. It may be true that army personnel in Panama were serving a fantasy tour, accompanied by their families, enjoying an exotic and leisurely lifestyle, but that wasn’t what India Company was doing in Panama. India Company arrived in Panama in combat mode.
A test of each of the preceding presumptions transpired during the night of 10-11 April. Soon after the arrival of India Company, unknown intruders began probing Marine positions at the ATF. Early in the morning of 11 April, a Marine patrol operating in the northeast sector contacted an unknown number of intruders. The patrol leader, Corporal Ricardo Villahermosa, determined to apprehend these unknown trespassers. To accomplish that, Villahermosa split his force, intending to envelop them. The jungle was pitch black, and the only sound was an occasional snap of vegetation, which suggested human movement. A short time later, a flare accidentally “popped,” emulating the sound of the discharge of a weapon, and then ignited. Marines from the split force opened fire, and Corporal Villahermosa was mortally wounded. It was a frightful accident — but one that prompted a renewal of the ‘weapons ready’ debate.
Major General Bernard Loeffke, U. S. Army, CG USASouth, also serving as JTF commander, critically challenged the Marines at a meeting on 12 April. Major Alfred F. Clarkson, the operations officer of the MEB’s advance element, rigorously defended the “weapons ready” policy, informing General Loeffke in no uncertain terms that the Marine chain of command would not deny the use of weapons to their troops. Doing otherwise, he said, was morally indefensible. Colonel Conley concurred and made certain that Loeffke’s concerns did not impede Marine combat operations.
Shortly after nightfall on 12 April, remote battlefield sensors alerted Valore’s Marines that approximately 40 unknown persons were approaching the ATF perimeter. SCAMP Marines confirmed the presence of these unknown persons, and a USAF AC-130 gunship provided the third verification. Captain Valore immediately consolidated his force in the center of the ATF. Soon after that, Marines received and returned fire into the line of tracers aimed at them from this unknown force.
To the west of the company, a SCAMP detachment reported another probe. The detachment NCOIC, Sergeant Michael A. Cooper, requested illumination, revealing well-armed hostiles were moving toward his position. Captain Valore approved Cooper’s request for a mortar fire mission, and sixteen HE rounds were dropped on the approaching hostile force. Valore also authorized Cooper to return fire. As Cooper engaged the hostiles, an additional force assaulted Valore’s company. The Marines returned fire with an M19 chain gun that spits out 220 rounds of 40mm grenades, and the enemy withdrew.
At around 2200, General Loeffke arrived at Valore’s position in civilian attire, demanding to know what had transpired. After Captain Valore briefed Loeffke, the general ordered him to cease fire and not re-engage unless first fired upon. Loeffke also ordered the Marines to remain in place and allow the intruders to withdraw from the area. Loeffke assured Valore that he had contacted the PDF command structure, who assured him that there were no Panamanian forces in the area.
In compliance with Loeffke’s order, Valore moved the SCAMP detachment back from the perimeter. Through the use of NVGs, Valore witnessed several intruders administering first aid and evacuating casualties from the jungle. Marines from the MCSFC, who had established a roadblock on the Pan American highway and observed the PDFs evacuation of dead and wounded, confirmed Captain Valore’s after-action report.
In the aftermath of this incident, Valore and his Marines were set upon by a bevy of Naval Investigative Service (NIS) and Army Intelligence Service (AIS) agents. The repetitious questioning lasted several days. Additionally, Loeffke ordered Valore and his Marines to submit to urinalysis testing — all of which were negative.
More than anything else, Major General Loeffke and his JTF Staff wanted to discredit Captain Valore, India Company Marines, and the U. S. Marine Corps. Loeffke publicly stated that the Marines had fired at ghosts and shadows. General Noriega and the anti-American Panamanian press exploited this opportunity and began planting stories about drug abuse among the Marines. For their part, the Marine hierarchy closed ranks around Captain Valore and his Marines. Colonel Conley rejected Loeffke’s and Noriega’s nonsense and may have even confided some concern about Loeffke’s loyalty to his superiors.
Undeterred, Loeffke replaced India 3/4 at the ATF with an Army battalion. On 14 April 1988, Army sentries guarding the ammunition supply point came under fire from an unknown size of PDF forces. The same night, an Army patrol of the 7th Special Forces Group operating west of Howard AFB came under fire. It, therefore, became apparent to everyone (except General Loeffke) that the Marines did not imagine the PDF assault at the ATF. In retrospect, the Marines developed the appropriate response to PDF aggression, and Loeffke’s general incompetence as a field commander countermanded it.
Over the next several months, the PDF continued to initiate aggressive actions against US forces in Panama, but nothing on the scale of the firefight in April 1988, which suggested that Captain Valore’s response had the desired effect on PDF activities. Between April and December 1988, the US decided on diplomatic maneuvers rather than military.
This period of calm allowed the Marines to undergo additional jungle training and exercise command and control systems, particularly between the Army and Marines. COMUSSOUTHCOM formally appointed Colonel Conley as commander overall Marine forces in Panama and Army units temporarily attached to the Marines for training. Under Conley’s direction, Marine intelligence assets began to revise contingency plans based on needed updates to the “enemy situation” in Panama.
In mid-May 1988, India 3/4 went back on the line for another two weeks. In addition to regular patrolling (day and night), the Marines improved their hardened observation and listening posts surrounding the tank farm and ammo depot and rehearsed rapid reaction operations. Operations Purple Storm and Purple Blitz were joint-service exercises designed to improve command and control procedures between Marine and Army units and combat casualty evacuations. Army and Air Force dog teams joined the Marines during their security patrols. Army specialists installed a loudspeaker system designed to inform intruders that they were on US government property. Air Force C-130 gunships flew nightly missions in support of the Marines.
Lima Company 3/4 relieved India 3/4 in June 1988.
- Crandall, R. Gunboat Democracy: US interventions in the Dominican Republic, Granada, and Panama. Rowman & Littlefield Publications, 2006.
- Donnelly, T. Operation Just Cause: The storming of Panama. Lexington Books, 1991.
- Reynolds, N. E. Just Cause: Marine Operations in Panama 1988-1990. History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1996.
- Yates, L. A. The US Military Intervention in Panama: Origins, Planning, and Crisis Management, June 1987-December 1989. Army Center of Military History, 2008.
 On 9 January 1964, grievances between native Panamanians and the “Zonians” (Americans living within the US-controlled Canal Zone) boiled over into a series of anti-American riots that resulted in an evacuation of the US Embassy in Panama City, assaults on US citizens — including the lynching of several US Army personnel — widespread looting and substantial damage to US-owned property. The United States responded to this unrest by dispatching the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (BLT 2/8) to Panama to protect American lives and property. At the time, I had the privilege of serving as a rifleman in Company E (Captain William R. Wildpret, commanding). Echo Company was assigned responsibility for the security of the naval base at Coco Solo.
 The density of the jungle limited Marine patrols to about 500 yards over two hours.
 At this time, security for Howard Air Force Base was not a Marine Corps responsibility.
 USMA graduate in 1957, Loeffke has a degree in engineering, an MA in Russian language and Soviet Era studies, and a PhD in international relations. He is a combat decorated officer, served as the Army Attaché with the US Embassy in Moscow, served on the White House staff, served as the Defense Attaché with the US Embassy in China, befriended Chinese general Xu Xin, is fluent in Chinese, and is a self-professed expert on Sino-American affairs. After leaving the Army in 1992, Loeffke earned a medical degree and served as a physician in Bosnia, Haiti, Kenya, Iraq, Niger, and Darfur. According to Loeffke, China is not the United States’ enemy. While instructing at the USMA, Loeffke urged his students to increase their understanding of the Chinese and Russians as they are just like us.
 It normally takes an army regiment to replace a Marine rifle company.
 Documents uncovered after the December 1989 invasion of Panama confirmed the PDF assault on the Marines at the ATF. Analysts subsequently concluded that the ATF was not the focus of the PDF, but rather the Marines themselves, as perpetrated by Noriega’s 7th Rifle Company, also known as Macho de Monte, one of Noriega’s few elite units, possibly reinforced by a few members of the Special Anti-terrorist Security Unit, and that they were likely augmented by several Cuban military advisors.