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Rangers at Point Salines

Operation Urgent Fury, Grenada, 1983

Despite the incredible array of problems and difficulties that made Urgent Fury a textbook example in how not to run an operation, the resourcefulness, courage, adaptability, and perseverance of the soldiers, sailors, and Marines who fought the battles on Grenada snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. In terms of scope, what may have been the biggest challenge was overcome by Taylor and the men of 1st Battalion, 75th Infantry (Ranger) who were assigned the primary role of the operation – the seizure of the airfield at Point Salines.

Grenada, a former British colony that achieved independence in 1974, is an island about twice the size of Washington, D.C., located just north of Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea and which at the time had a population of just over 100,000. In March 1979, Maurice Bishop, the leader of the Marxist New Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation (Jewel) party, seized power, eliminated the authority and influence of Great Britain’s Governor-General, Sir Paul Scoon, and undertook an alliance with communist Cuba and the Soviet Union. The strategic consequences of the situation were ominous and striking for the United States.

This action effectively made hostages of nearly 600 American medical students studying at the American-owned St. George’s Medical College, and an unknown number of American tourists.

The Cold War was still very real then. Cuba, as the Soviet Union’s proxy, was exporting arms, military advisors, and troops to rebels in Africa and Central America. Now, with Cuba and Grenada as allies, the Soviet Union had sentinels on the north and south sides of the Caribbean Sea. Air and shipping lanes throughout the area that were vital to the United States and its allies could be monitored and threatened. This danger was underscored when, with the help of Cuban engineers and work crews, construction began on a new 9,000-foot runway at Point Salines on the southernmost tip of Grenada. The island government claimed that the new runway was essential for expanding tourism and economic development. Intelligence experts noted that the length also gave the airfield military capability for MiG-23 fighter-bombers as well as other large military aircraft such as transports.

Operation Urgent Fury

A Cuban (Czechoslovakian-made) M-53 quad 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine gun seized at Point Salines airfield, likely used to shoot at incoming aircraft carrying Rangers. Additional captured weapons and equipment can be seen behind the gun. A C-130 Hercules aircraft lands in the background. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The situation remained tense but relatively stable until 1983. After Bishop made overtures to the United States and appeared to be wanting to separate Grenada from the Soviet sphere of influence, the radical element of the Grenadian government, led by Gen. Hudson Austin, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, placed Bishop under house arrest on Oct. 12, 1983. A week later, following an attempt by supporters to free him, Bishop and several cabinet members and union leaders were executed. Austin then established a Revolutionary Military Council, closed the airport, and imposed a four-day, 24-hour curfew, with a warning that any violators would be shot on sight. This action effectively made hostages of nearly 600 American medical students studying at the American-owned St. George’s Medical College, and an unknown number of American tourists.

Operation Urgent Fury

An aerial view of the control tower at Point Salines Airport taken during Operation Urgent Fury. Rangers of B Company, 2/75th, took the hills dominating the control tower and terminal area. U.S. Department of Defense photo by Sgt. Michael Bogdanowicz

As the situation deteriorated in Grenada, alerts were issued to various military commands in the United States to prepare military options. The subsequent sequence of events surrounding planning efforts proved to be so convoluted and chaotic that later accounts, including autobiographies by senior participants and official histories from the Joint Chiefs of Staff Historical Office, contradict each other in significant ways. Even the dates of when the planning was authorized are in dispute. Some accounts state Oct. 19 as the first day planning began; others record Oct. 20. Broadly, what is known is that a number of plans were developed simultaneously, many independent and ignorant of each other, and all were repeatedly revised. All of them had in common the following points: It would be a joint operation utilizing Army, Marine, Navy, Air Force, and Special Operations assets; it would be an invasion of Grenada for the purpose of rescuing and evacuating American students and tourists and other foreign nationals on the island; and it would conclude with the establishment of a new government. Astonishingly, all the plans were prepared with a dearth or outright absence of hard intelligence about conditions in Grenada and the exact number and military composition of the Cubans there (though it was automatically assumed that at the very least the Cubans had some military training). In effect, none of the planners knew exactly where and how many hostages there were; where, how many, and how well equipped the enemy forces were; and whether or not there would be token or serious resistance. Despite all those unanswered questions (almost all of which would remain unanswered prior to the assault), Operation Urgent Fury had to be launched in four to five days.

Despite all those unanswered questions (almost all of which would remain unanswered prior to the assault), Operation Urgent Fury had to be launched in four to five days.

On Oct. 22, in a special meeting, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States requested that Barbados, Jamaica, and the United States join them in sending a multinational peacekeeping expedition to Grenada. Separately, and on the same day, Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon managed to send a message to the OECS requesting that it free Grenada from the Revolutionary Military Council. These requests were forwarded through diplomatic channels to the State Department. President Ronald Reagan now had the diplomatic ammunition he needed to go forward with a military option.

Numerous attempts were made up to the morning of D-day, Oct. 25, to obtain information about Point Salines, Pearls airport (a smaller airport on the other side of the island), the locations of the American students, Governor-General Scoon’s residence, and other objectives. SEALs were assigned to gather intelligence about Point Salines, but tragically four SEALs drowned during the first attempt, a night drop into the waters off the point on Oct. 23, and the mission was aborted. A second attempt, during the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 25, came to naught when the SEALs lost their satellite communications link to the Joint Special Operations Task Force.

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