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Urgent Fury: U.S. Special Operations Forces in Grenada, 1983

Located 1,530 miles southeast of Miami, Fla., the island of Grenada was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1498 on his third voyage.  It changed hands repeatedly between the English and French during the colonial era, becoming a profitable source of sugar grown on plantations worked by African slaves. Only 133 square miles in size, Grenada had a population of almost 100,000 in 1983. It was the world’s second-largest producer of nutmeg, and exported workers to the United States, Canada, and other Caribbean islands. And in 1982, the politics of the island that led to Operation Urgent Fury were, to put it mildly, complex.

Operation Urgent Fury Point Salines from aircraft

An aerial view of Point Salines, as seen from an aircraft approaching the runway during Operation Urgent Fury. DoD photo

Sir Eric Matthew Gairy, the first prime minister, was overthrown in a bloodless coup led by Maurice Bishop on March 13, 1979. His “People’s Revolutionary Government” ruled by decree, and quickly formed close ties with Cuba and the Soviet bloc, much to the displeasure of the Reagan administration in Washington, D.C. An economic handicap for Grenada was the inadequate runway at Pearls Airport: too short for big jets. The lucrative tourist trade went to islands with better airline connections. When the United States and Western nations refused to fund a new 9,000-foot-long runway at Point Salines on Grenada’s southwest tip, Cuba sent construction workers and earthmoving equipment to complete the project. In Washington, military planners worried that Point Salines could become a base for Cuban planes delivering weapons to guerrillas throughout the region, or even for Russian combat aircraft. Another concern was St. George’s University School of Medicine, where some 600 American students were enrolled on two campuses in 1983. In Washington, officials worried that the students could become hostages in a crisis, like the Americans who had been held in Iran from November 1979 to January 1981.

Then, on Oct. 14, 1983, Bishop’s deputy, Bernard Coard, and Gen. Hudson Austin, both hard-line Marxists, led a bloody coup against Bishop, who was executed along with his associates. Events now rapidly spiraled out of control. Fidel Castro, who considered Bishop a close friend, was outraged. He ordered the Cubans on the island to defend their positions if attacked, but refused to intervene or send reinforcements. Some of Grenada’s island neighbors felt differently, particularly Barbados (120 miles away) and Dominica (220 miles away), as President Ronald Reagan stated in an address to the nation on Oct. 27, 1983:

“Last weekend, I was awakened in the early morning hours and told that six members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, joined by Jamaica and Barbados, had sent an urgent request that we join them in a military operation to restore order and democracy to Grenada.”


The Plan

Operation Urgent Fury Point Salines objectives

A DoD-released image of objectives surrounding Point Salines Airfield. DoD/2 Soviet Military Power, 1984.

On Oct. 17, an interagency group met at the State Department to consider options for a “noncombatant evacuation operation” (NEO) in Grenada. By Oct. 20, a White House “crisis pre-planning group” decided that the situation was serious enough to convene the National Security Council’s “Special Situation Group” chaired by Vice President George H.W. Bush. There was no contingency plan on the shelf, no up-to-date intelligence, not even a good map of the island. The best map available was based on a 1936 British Admiralty navigation chart! To reduce the risk of leaks, everything connected with the operation was classified top secret – but these “special category” restrictions would cripple subsequent planning. Since the Caribbean was then in the area of responsibility of the U.S. Atlantic Command, Vice Adm. Joseph Metcalf III, commanding 2nd Fleet, was given overall command of the force designated Joint Task Force (JTF) 120. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., sent Maj. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., to serve as ground operations adviser to Metcalf.

On Oct. 18, the USS Independence (CV 62) carrier battle group and the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit had left port bound for the Mediterranean, where another Lebanon crisis was brewing. When they were diverted to support the Grenada invasion on Oct. 21, the news leaked, eliminating any hope of strategic surprise. Marines, embarked in Navy Amphibious Squadron 4 (Capt. Carl Erie) would seize Pearls Airport, while elements of two U.S. Army Ranger battalions (from the 75th Ranger Regiment – Joint Task Force 123, Army Maj. Gen. Richard Scholtes), parachuting from MC-130s of the Air Force 1st Special Operations Wing, would capture and clear the unfinished runway at Point Salines, allowing six battalions of the 82nd Airborne Division to land in C-141 jet transports. H-Hour was set for 0200 (2:00 a.m.) local time on Oct. 25. Delays and confusion in loading the aircraft caused this to slip to 0400, then 0500 – perilously close to daylight.


Things Start to Go Wrong



Operation Urgent Fury medical personnel

Flight deck crewmen and medical personnel remove a wounded serviceman from a Task Force 160 Little Bird helicopter on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Guam (LPH 9) during the multiservice, multinational Operation Urgent Fury. DoD photo

Navy SEAL Teams 4 and 6 were assigned some of the most challenging preliminary missions of the invasion. One group made a successful reconnaissance of the island’s northeast coast, which convinced planners that the beaches were unsuitable for landing. The Marines would have to go in by helicopter. Another group of SEALs captured Grenada’s radio station, but were driven out by a strong counterattack. They “exfiltrated” to the coast and swam out to be recovered by USS Caron (DD 970). Another vital political objective was the rescue of Governor General Paul Scoon and his family from house arrest. Grenada had never officially quit the British Commonwealth, and the governor general, who represented the queen, was the remaining symbol of legitimate authority on the island. SEALs fast-roped in from helicopters and quickly secured the house and the governor general, but they were soon surrounded and under fire until Marines broke through to link up with them the next morning.

SEALs fast-roped in from helicopters and quickly secured the house and the governor general, but they were soon surrounded and under fire until Marines broke through to link up with them the next morning

But Point Salines was the key objective, and 12 SEALs drew the task of covertly investigating the defenses and delivering four Air Force combat controllers who would set up radio beacons enabling C-130s carrying the Rangers to line up precisely on final approach. The SEALs parachuted into the ocean 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Point Salines with two Zodiac rubber boats. In darkness, high winds, and heavy seas, four SEALs were lost. The rest carried on, evading a Grenadian patrol craft, but the boats were swamped, and when their engines would not start, the mission was scrubbed.


Rangers Lead the Way

Operation Urgent Fury Point Salines Black Hawk landing

A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter lands at Point Salines Airfield during Operation Urgent Fury. DoD photo

About 350 men of the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment,  were originally scheduled to make an assault landing in six MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft of the Air Force 1st Special Operations Wing. A follow-on echelon, the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, would secure the eastern half of the airfield, then regroup to attack overland to secure a Grenadian army base at Camp Calivigny, about 7.5 miles to the east. Then intelligence confirmed the runway was obstructed with vehicles and equipment. This meant the Rangers would have to parachute from 500 feet, exposed to enemy fire for 10 to 15 long seconds. There was additional delay when the inertial navigation system and FLIR (Forward-Looking Infrared imaging system) in the lead aircraft malfunctioned. A tropical thunderstorm added to the confusion as the Rangers hurriedly re-rigged their chutes and gear for the drop.

Operation Urgent Fury Fort Frederick damage

An aerial view of Fort Frederick, in Grenada, showing damage sustained during Operation Urgent Fury. DoD photo

The jump went in at 5:34 a.m. Ground fire was heavy (from Zu-23 and M-53 quad machine guns) but inaccurate due to untrained crews. Not one man was killed by enemy fire during the drop, although one soldier broke a leg on landing. A supporting AC-130 gunship took out some of the enemy guns, but it was almost 90 minutes before all of the Rangers were on the ground. Capt. John Abizaid (later a commander of U.S. Central Command), commanding A Company, 1/75th, ordered his men to hot-wire a Cuban bulldozer and start clearing the runway. Later, the bulldozer was used like a tank to lead an advance against the Cuban camp – a scene immortalized in Clint Eastwood’s 1986 film Heartbreak Ridge.

By 10:00 a.m., the airfield and the nearby True Blue campus of the medical school were secure. At 1405 (2:05 p.m.), the first C-141 starlifter touched down, carrying troops of the 82nd Airborne Division. Planners had not been aware that there was another campus at Grand Anse, north of the Cuban camp, but that would be secured by Marines and the 2/75th Rangers the next day. Later, on Oct. 27, the Rangers staged a heliborne assault on the Calivigny base, only to find the defenders had fled. Tragically, a helicopter collision and crash killed three Rangers and badly injured four more.


The Night Stalkers at Richmond Hill Prison

Operation Urgent Fury Ranger briefing

Members of the 1/75th Rangers are briefed on plans for a night patrol during Operation Urgent Fury. An M60 machine gun, equipped with a night sight, is mounted on their M151 light utility vehicle. DoD photo

Planners knew that Grenada’s political prisoners were held at the fortress-like Richmond Hill Prison, on a ridge above the harbor of St. George’s. Army Delta Force commandos, transported by five MH-60A Black Hawk helicopters of Task Force 160 (today the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment [SOAR], “The Night Stalkers”), would fast-rope down to storm the prison in predawn darkness, relying on surprise. But the attack was 75 minutes late, and the defenders were alerted. The prison was dominated by Fort Frederick, another 18th century stonework on a higher ridge 980 feet across a narrow valley. The Black Hawk helicopter, which was making its combat debut during Urgent Fury, was designed to take battle damage and keep flying, but as flight crews and passengers began to suffer injuries from ground fire, the impossibility of the mission became evident. One helicopter caught fire and later crashed near Point Salines. After another attempt failed, the mission was aborted.

By Oct. 29, Urgent Fury had evacuated 599 U.S. citizens and 121 citizens of other nations. With the mission accomplished, combat operations officially ended on Nov. 2.



By Oct. 29, Urgent Fury had evacuated 599 U.S. citizens and 121 citizens of other nations. With the mission accomplished, combat operations officially ended on Nov. 2.

Operation Urgent Fury Seized btr 60s

Soviet BTR-60 armored personnel carriers seized by U.S. military personnel during Operation Urgent Fury. DoD photo

“Things did go wrong, but generally the operation was a success. The troops did very well. …,” Vessey said on Meet the Press on Nov. 6, 1983.

Approximately 7,300 American military personnel served in Operation Urgent Fury, along with 350 peacekeepers from Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica, and other Caribbean islands. Nineteen Americans were killed, including eight Army Rangers, three paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne, one Army aviator of the 160th SOAR, four Navy SEALs, and three Marines. Wounded totaled 116.

Out of about 1,500 engaged, the Grenada People’s Revolutionary Army suffered 45 killed and 358 wounded. Cuban forces reported 25 killed, 59 wounded, and 638 captured. Unfortunately, at least 24 Grenadian civilians were also killed, including patients at a mental hospital mistakenly bombed by U.S. Navy jets. The date of the invasion is still observed as a national holiday in Grenada. The Point Salines airfield was renamed Maurice Bishop International Airport.

Operation Urgent Fury american student evacuation

American students walk toward an aircraft as they are evacuated from the island by U.S. military personnel during Operation Urgent Fury. DoD photo

Deficiencies in communications, planning, and organization during Urgent Fury and the earlier Operation Eagle Claw (the 1980 attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran), were the final nails in the coffin for the dysfunctional American command and control system created by the National Security Act of 1947. Clearly the future of U.S. operations was going to be centered on the idea of “jointness,” with standardized communications and intelligence protocols for all the services. In addition, the improvements to SOF capabilities since Eagle Claw, while impressive, were shown to still have a long way to go. These lessons learned eventually led to the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act (Public Law 99-433) and the subsequent Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the 1987 Defense Authorization Act signed by Reagan. Within a year, U.S. Special Operations Command was stood up and operational. Just months later, during Operation Earnest Will in the Persian Gulf, and the invasion of Panama in late 1989, the wisdom and effectiveness of those reforms would be proven.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2013-2014 Edition.