Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Army I Knew: Grenada 5, or, The Accidental Tourists

Our correspondent young Doc Chief just spent his first full day on the Spice Island of Grenada, and a full day it was; wandering about other people's scuffles as a sort of combat tourist, baffled and more than a little afraid. Let's catch up with him as he wakes up on a Grenadian hilltop, cold, wet, and still unsure as to what the hell is going on.

In case you're joining the party late, this month we're revisiting my all-expenses-paid Caribbean Vacation from October and November, 1983. It you want to review the other installments before we go on, Part 1 is here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 is here.

As before, this is from a letter I wrote in November, 1983. My original account is in blockquotes; where my older self has added comments or explanations they will be in normal text.
Friday, October 28

At first light we secured the gravel pit. An anticlimax after the day before; the only signs of resistance were slogans painted on a diesel tank: "We will defend to the end!" and a crudely painted soldier. Tim G (3rd Platoon's radioman) and I added some graffiti before we set in with the rest of the company.

Here the trucks brought our rucks up, along with the first meal we'd had in a day. Along with the usual C-rations we had cans of beef from Romania and pork from the USSR, and fruit juice from Cuba (the pork and juice were good - the beef looked and tasted like Alpo).

By ten o-clock we were moving again - out a peninsula called (I think) Manse aux Epines - in search of the American students."
In case you're confused, here's a map of where I think I was, and went, the first two days younger me talks about in the letter:

Note that the name of the peninsula we headed out towards on Friday was "Lance aux Epines"; I won't pretend I knew better at the time. Anyway, here's young me again:
"We moved out in long columns, dusty green on the gravel roads, dun objects moving amid the wild profusion of colors of a tropical island. The red and violet of flowers, yellow, blue, and gold, green-gold of bamboo, bannai, and hyacinth, trellis of flowers against dull khaki walls.

All through the day we spread out, searching houses and buildings. About noon, at a pleasant little pseudo-Norman-cottage pub called the Red Crab - diamond-paned windows and half-timber, very quaint - when we started coming across the first of the American students.
They came down the road towards us, many carrying bags or valises, one and two up to groups of half a dozen. Many drove up in cars.

The contrast was amusing; the road filled with suntanned post-grad students in the tee-shirt-and-shorts or halter-top-and-skirt (or shorts) that passes for national dress here, while on either side are files of green-dressed soldiers crouching behind their weapons.
All the young people were very happy to see us, jollier than old Saint Nick to be going home and in an almost indecent haste to be gone.

We ogled the pretty girls (almost to a woman Jewish as were many of the guys. Don't know why.)
(I don't remember why I wrote that; possibly because many of the students were darkavised and had the sort of glossy look I associated with my college pals from Hillel House. But in fact many of the students at St. Georges University med school were wannabe doctors from nice suburban families in the Jerseys whose medical entrance exam scores were too low to get into a U.S. medical school.

I understand that the Grenadian university has raised its standards since then, but at the time I seem to recall that the med school at SGU had a rap as a place for wealthy dummies too bone-lazy, entitled, or boneheaded to cut it in a real medical school.

And, I should add, that the real tell that the entire Grenadian expedition was really about Regime Change and not about "rescuing" anyone was there here were hundreds of these supposedly-threatened gringo kids hanging out in the Lance aux Epines neighborhood for a week as defenseless as a pod of baby harp seals and not a scratch on their glossy suntanned hides. Had the PRA really wanted to whack these people the entire peninsula would have looked like the suburbs of Damascus after a government gas attack.

But the didn't, of course. The medical students were a license for Grenada to print money; no Grenadian, even the stupidest, even the most ideologically nuts Commie, would have voluntarily set fire to their wallet.

Anyway, they were happy to be out of the whole silly business, and so made for a pleasant day. Young doc Chief continues:)
The entire advance became a kind of (Roman) triumph, crowds of cheering students waving and yelling at us, people offering water and coconuts to us, the bulk of us surprised and wary having heard gunfire just the day before; being pelted with sodas and food was a surprise.

We crossed and recrossed the peninsula all day, secured the whole thing before we returned to the quarry that night to sleep."
(I didn't know it at the time but the "fighting", what fighting there had been, had ended the previous day. Nobody bothered to tell us; we continued with our war faces on for the next couple of days, as you'll see...)
Saturday, 29 October

We moved from the quarry about eleven. A Company spent all day moving up the road towards Calvigny (sic) Point, clearing houses. One sniper fired at us; no casualties.

We halted on top of a high ridge at the base of Calvigny (sic) Point - obviously someone had used this area extensively to graze his herds with the resultant leavings. Hence the name; Horseshit Hill."
I can't believe I forgot to write in what happened that night, 29/30 OCT.

We settled into a 360-degree perimeter for the night, digging our Ranger-grave scrapes in the hard, crumbly volcanic soil. What we hadn't bothered to do was really recon the vicinity or we'd have figured out that the cow- and horse-droppings weren't just relics. Some time not long after dark one of our LPs called back on the land line to report movement to their front. The platoon behind them - I can't recall who it was, just not my Third Platoon - immediately went to 100%, the GIs straining to see what the hell was moving out there in the dark.

Someone saw something - or thought they saw something - and started firing, and within minutes the entire perimeter was lighting up the landscape.

I recall that the firing went on for no more than a couple of minutes before A Company's First Sergeant came roaring along the line of scrapes roaring "Cease fire! Cease fire, goddamn it! Fucking CEASE FIRE!!"

Once he had got the shooting stopped he called out to the LP to report what they had heard or seen. They called back to say that the rustling had turned out to be a couple of Grenadian cows that had bolted as soon as the mighty Black Panthers had filled the evening with lead; none of them had managed to get turned into hamburger for all that heavy metal thunder.)
"Sunday, 30th October

We pushed out to the end of the point, occupying a deserted ruin of a former Cuban/Grenadian training facility. The A-7s and the gunship had purely torn the hell out of it; the wooden barrack blocks were splintered and knocked about, walls leaning crazily, huge holes in many of them. The supply room had been shattered, and torn uniforms and dented helmets lay everywhere.

The entire compound was littered with papers - records, manuals, literature, reams of socialist material for the nurturing of young revolutionaries - as well as other discarded stuff.

Most macabre were the smashed tail assemblies of a pair of UH-60s, marking the spot where four Rangers had died in a raid the night before last. Many more were wounded. Bits of American equipment was scattered thereabouts.

That evening I heard Mass. We spent the night there."
(Calivigny was a genuine clusterfuck, and I had no idea how bad at the time. Here's the account from the Atkinson (2011) article:

"After assembling his Blackhawks on Barbados, Seigle received orders on Thursday, October 27, to send his helicopters into the Calivigny barracks complex on Grenada’s southeast coast. The 82nd pilots considered the mission, apparently ordered specifically by the Joint Chiefs, to be suicidal, because PRA and Cuban defenders were believed to be firmly entrenched at Calivigny. “Guys, we don’t know what’s out there,” Seigle told his crews. “Just remember that your primary job is to fly that aircraft until it won’t fly anymore. Concentrate on that.”

The Blackhawks would carry a company of Rangers in the assault. After Navy bombers, AC-130S, and Fred McFarren’s artillery tubes had pounded the target, the first flight of four helicopters — Chalk One, Chalk Two, Chalk Three, and Chalk Four — swooped across Westerhall Bay at 4:15 P.M., just about the time that the znd Brigade TOC was being accidentally strafed. From satellite photos, the only suitable landing zone appeared to be in the middle of the compound. But when the pilots veered over a steep coastal embankment at eighty knots, they suddenly spotted the landing zone directly below them, half a mile short of where they expected it. As the Blackhawks decelerated, the Rangers — who had not trained with the 82nd pilots and were accustomed to leaping for the ground before the helicopters actually touched down — began jumping out. It was too soon. Several tumbled twenty feet; at least two suffered broken legs.

Chalk One landed, hard but safe, followed by Chalk Two. As Chalk Three was slowing, ground fire from the weeds near the barracks struck the tail rotor. The Blackhawk began to counterrotate out of control, smashing into Chalk Two. In a violent spray of metal fragments, the two helicopters flung chunks of rotor blade back and forth at each other, leaving four Rangers dead in a bloody mangle.

In a desperate effort to avoid the carnage below, Chalk Four veered 90 degrees to the right. The Blackhawk slammed into the ground so hard that the rotor blade flexed down, slicing out a section of the aluminum tail rotor drive shaft. When the pilot, unaware that his tail was gone, pulled up to leave a moment later, the Blackhawk spun wildly. After two gyrations, the Chalk Four pilot deliberately crash-landed his helicopter.

The second flight of four Blackhawks set down without mishap south of the barracks. The Rangers quickly swept through Calivigny, where they found the camp largely deserted. Like most of their comrades elsewhere on the island, the Cubans and PRA were dead, captured, or hiding in the hills. Bob Seigle spent most of the next twenty-four hours trying to mollify the furious Rangers and salvage what was left of the three shattered hulks lying at the edge of Westerhall Bay."

One nameless guy with an AK-47 destroyed three multimillion-dollar helicopters, killed four people and injured - in many cases horribly - dozens.

I know I've said this before. But it's important to remember that in war many people, possibly MOST people, who die or are ruined do so in spectacularly pointless, worthless, or idiotic fashions.

Grenada just made sure that this pointless death was the result of a dog's breakfast of an expedition that might as well have been done by a Dade County SWAT team and half a dozen bail bond thumb-breakers.

That's really it for the "fighting"; the rest of Grenada is young me walking about in the tropical sun. We'll talk a little about that in the next post and wonder if thirty years has done anything to tell us what the hell it all meant.
Next: Grenada 6, or, War - What Is It Good For?


Leon said...

Chief you were fooled, those were clearly commie cows doing some recon before they sent in the Leninist assault bull. That gunfire saved the entire regiment/battalion/division/brigade/army/squad.

As for the heli assault, who the hell thought putting the LZ in the middle of the compound was a good idea? Was it "bring your cadet to work day" at JCS?

FDChief said...

Grenada made it clear that the Army in particular had lost a hell of a lot in the wreckage of the post-Vietnam VOLAR. The air movement plan for the Calivigny raid was no worse - but no better - than a hell of a lot of the planning and execution of the Grenada operation.

In Part 6 I'll talk some about how the slickness of the Second Gulf War operations in '91 owed a hell of a lot to the AAR from Grenada that produced the Goldwater-Nichols reforms of 1986.

And at the time I remembered an old Bill Maulden cartoon that had Willie down behind his still-smoking .30cal machinegun telling his pal Joe "I coulda sworn a couple Krauts wuz usin' that cow for cover. Joe, go wake up the cooks."

Lisa said...

I just watched the film "Restrepo", and they actually DID kill a cow and enjoy its steaks, though we hear the Capt. saying over radio that the cow was "almost dead already" as he'd wandered into the wire. Right.

"One nameless guy with an AK-47 destroyed three multimillion-dollar helicopters, killed four people and injured - in many cases horribly - dozens." -- we will always be on the losing end of that sort of "asymmetrical warfare", no?

rangeragainstwar said...

We ogled the pretty girls (almost to a woman Jewish as were many of the guys. Don't know why.)
How did the students get id'd as Juden? Did they have J's in their passports or were they stealing babies, or whatever?
Just curious?

FDChief said...

Lisa: Old as warfare, that. There's an old Bill Mauldin cartoon where Willie is leaning over his smoking .30 cal machinegun and is saying to Joe; "I coulda sworn a coupla Krauts wuz usin' that cow for cover. Joe, go wake up the cooks."

jim: I went to a school in the central East coast that was, for some reason, insanely popular with a certain demographic of nice Jewish boys and girls from the NJ/NY/Conn area. The med school students were practically their identical twins except bronzy tan instead of pasty Pennsylvania white. Dark Semitic good looks, thick Joisey or Noo Yawk accents, the little Magen David or chaim pendant on the gold chain.

One very short gal, I remember, even had a Hillel House T-shirt from Rutgers. I noticed it not because of the shirt but because of what was inside; she was truly...gifted...and also clearly wearing little, if any, structural support. And, yes, I know I am a hound.

My guess would be that not many of the students were so obviously Jewish, but because of my history I noticed the ones who were and as such they became "the med students" in my mind. Probably a clear case of selective memory, but there you have it - this isn't "history" but MY history...

zorro said...

Do you know if the land in & around the facility at Calivigny was mined or contained landmines? Thank you in advance for your reply

zorro said...

Also, would you know the latitude and longitude of the Cuban barracks at Calivigny, Grenada?

FDChief said...

zorro: So far as I know no functional war materials - mines or otherwise - was found at the Calvigny barracks. The AC-130 had hit it one the first morning and the FA had fired its one and only mission at it (tho I understand that all but one round went into the sea) plus the usual pre-LZ prep from the tac air, so the barracks and everything around them were pretty much flattened. Like I said in the post - when we got there the place was a mess. with nothing but wreckage of one sort of anotherall over hell.

And, no, I don't know the coords for the old barracks. 1983 U.S. Army mapping puts this post not on the cape called "Petit Calivigny" but on the next cape to the west and identifies it as "Calivigny Barracks at Egmont"; here's a link to a map showing the location:

Google Earth gives the Mercator coords for the large eastern spur of this cape as 12 00' 23"N, 61 41' 17"W. I'm not 100% positive, but I think that's close enough for government work.