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Rangers at Point Salines

Operation Urgent Fury, Grenada, 1983

Lt. Col. Wes Taylor and the 1st Battalion, 75th Infantry (Ranger), were late. They were already off schedule as a result of other delays and a bizarre time zone snafu. Still, everyone took the problems in stride. In the last-minute intelligence briefing that the aircrews of the 8th Special Operations Squadron received, they were informed that they should take the enemy by surprise and that resistance, if any, would be minimal. Furthermore, they were told, only two 23mm anti-aircraft guns were on the island of Grenada, and neither of them were located at Point Salines. To many of the pilots, the mission seemed to resemble a typical Special Operations training exercise where the primary foes were weather and the assorted things that can go wrong in performing the mission, and not a human enemy on the ground.

The original Rangers’ deployment plan called for the 1st Battalion to lead the assault on the new airfield at Point Salines in six MC-130 Combat Talon transports organized into two assault flights of three planes. This would be followed by a landing of the 2nd Battalion. The 1/75 was scheduled to land on the airfield and seize it well before dawn. But, after almost all the planes were airborne, the pilots received a message saying that there were objects on the airfield designed to prevent a landing. The Rangers were quickly informed that they would have to parachute in. Hurriedly, the men began rigging their chutes. Taylor requested that the Combat Talons fly over the airfield at an altitude of 500 feet, limiting the time the Rangers would hang in their chutes to about 10 seconds to cut down their exposure to enemy fire.

“A searchlight came on and shined on the airplane.” His co-pilot looked at him and said, “This ain’t going to be a surprise!”

As the airplanes neared the southern tip of Grenada, the lead MC-130 Combat Talon of the first flight, carrying Air Force Lt. Jeff Buckmelter, his combat controllers, and the Ranger runway-clearing team, lost its inertial navigation and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems. This meant that in the pre-dawn gloom of Oct. 25, 1983, the pilot and co-pilot couldn’t see or find their objective, the airfield on Point Salines. The first wave of three planes would have to break off, and the assault sequence would have to be reversed. Inevitably, this caused an additional delay as the pilots made their adjustments. Compounding the problem was the fact that, instead of a calm sky with scattered cloud cover, the six Combat Talons found themselves trying to keep formation 75 miles west of Grenada in the middle of a tropical thunderstorm. The lightning was rendering the pilots’ night vision goggles all but useless. As 8th Special Operations Squadron commander Lt. Col. James Hobson later said, “Every time there was a bolt of lightning, you couldn’t see shit for five minutes.”

Originally, Hobson was the leader of the three-plane second wave. Now he was the leader of the first wave. About a mile from the airfield, Hobson later said, “A searchlight came on and shined on the airplane.” His co-pilot looked at him and said, “This ain’t going to be a surprise!” Seconds later, they were over the airfield. The 45 Rangers in Hobson’s Combat Talon began leaping out of the airplane. Suddenly, the loadmaster called out over the aircraft’s intercom, “They’re firing rockets at us!” In his excitement he was mistaking 23mm tracer rounds for rocket fire. The other two Combat Talons in Hobson’s flight quickly made their drops. One transport wound up with a “hung” jumper, and the dangling Ranger had to be pulled back in.

Operation Urgent Fury

A pilot’s eye view of the Point Salines airfield. U.S. Department of Defense photo

As the Rangers of 1/75 descended, the red and green tracers of enemy fire rose to greet them.

Operation Urgent Fury, the joint operation to liberate Grenada in the fall of 1983, could just as easily have been code named Operation Murphy’s Law. It was a campaign in which, if something could go wrong, it did go wrong. Organized in haste, hampered by joint command, control, and communications problems at every level, and executed with little, no, or completely incorrect intelligence (even accurate maps were unavailable), Operation Urgent Fury was launched under circumstances and conditions designed for disaster. Air Force Col. John T. Carney Jr., who had a variety of responsibilities in the operation and was one of the Joint Special Operations Task Force planners during Operation Urgent Fury, and Benjamin F. Schemmer, in their book No Room For Error, scathingly wrote, “[Operation Urgent Fury] blatantly contradicted every one of the six principles of special operations – simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose.”

“[Operation Urgent Fury] blatantly contradicted every one of the six principles of special operations – simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose.”

And yet, it was a success.

It delivered on every one of its stated goals. As the Operation Urgent Fury study written by Ronald H. Cole and issued by the Joint History Office of the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1997 observed, “The eight thousand soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines rescued nearly 600 Americans and 120 foreigners, restored popular government to Grenada, and eliminated the potential strategic threat to U.S. lines of communication in the area.” Equally important, the report added, “Urgent Fury reinforced awareness of weaknesses in the joint system and helped prod Congress to undertake the fundamental reforms embodied in the Goldwater-Nichols DoD Reorganization Act of 1986.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...