Operation Urgent Fury: Here’s what we know about the U.S. Invasion of Grenada
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, October 25, 1983, a small group of United States Navy SEALs quietly landed at the north of St. Georges in the Caribbean island of Grenada. Their mission: to free the Governor-General Paul Scoon from house arrest. That, however, was only a minor part of the U.S. invasion of Grenada.
Codenamed Operation Urgent Fury, the military action was a joint effort between the United States and other Caribbean nations to correct the wrongs of a Marxist-Leninist regime which in, President Ronald Reagan’s words, sought “to export terror and undermine democracy.”
The invasion was ultimately aimed at rescuing U.S. citizens on the island, stopping Grenada’s use as base for the Soviet and Cuban aggression in the Western Hemisphere and restoring the island to the family of Democratic nations. At the time, it was the first and largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War.
Since the invasion, Grenada has continued to enjoy a government based on its constitution and held many democratic elections. Some political scholars across the world however described America’s victory in Urgent Fury as flawed. But was it?
Below, World History Edu discuses the U.S. invasion of Grenada, including the causes and effects of the military intervention.
On the ticket of the Grenada United Labor Party (GULP), trade unionist Eric Gairy defeated the Grenada National Party (GNP) in an August 1967 general elections and subsequently assumed office as Prime Minister of the country. Seven years later, Grenada gained independence from the United Kingdom, ending over 3 centuries of colonial rule. The island then became a member of the British Commonwealth and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.
Eric Gairy’s government
Gairy became independent Grenada’s first Prime Minister. His regime displeased many Grenadians as he turned out to be a dictator, corrupt and merciless in the treatment of his opponents.
He terrorized his critics with his Mongoose Gang, an intimidating private militia group that had been provided by the U.S.-backed Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Under Gairy’s leadership, Grenada saw minimal economic development, high rate of inflation and unemployment, and decreased agricultural production. As a result, a series of violent actions and strikes erupted on the “Island of Spice”.
The bloodless coup d’état of 13th March 1979
The increasing controversies and scandals that marked the Gairy-led government culminated in the birth of a Marxist-Leninist vanguard political party known as the New Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation Movement, or simply, the New JEWEL Movement.
The NJM became an active opposition party in Grenada at a time when the political terrain on the island was polarized and brutal. The organization was led by a well-travelled charismatic young lawyer called Maurice Rupert Bishop. During Grenada’s general elections in 1976, the NJM allied with other opposition parties to decrease Gairy’s majority in parliament.
In the early morning of March 13, 1979, while Gairy was in New York on a United Nations’ appointment, the Bishop-led NJM took over the nation’s radio station and executed a bloodless coup that removed Gairy from power. Known as the first ever revolution in the English-speaking territories of the Caribbean, the coup ushered in the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG).
Maurice Bishop and his Marxist-Leninist ideology
Maurice Bishop served as the Prime Minister of the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada until his death in 1983 (more on this later). His leadership style was inspired by the likes of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Julius Nyerere, and Malcolm X. Bishop named politician Bernard Coard his Deputy Prime Minister and presided over a Marxist-Leninist regime.
During his relatively short tenure as Prime Minister, Bishop oversaw a military build-up of greater proportions for a country that was used to a small army. As a way of ensuring financial support and the security of his own life, he became close allies with Cuba. The Cubans helped train the People’s Revolutionary Army and People’s Revolutionary Militia using weapons provided by the Soviet Union.
Though loved by many of his countrymen, Bishop lost some supporters and won a number of critics since the next general elections did not hold as required. Over the next years, Bishop’s government proved to be just as corrupt as his predecessor’s. The freedom of the press was suppressed to a very large extent and the ruling central committee became autocratic and detached from the people.
The PRG’s socialist policies and its alliance with the communist Soviet Union and Cuba attracted some opposition from Western powers, especially the United States. In spite of these prevalent issues, Bishop was focused on rebuilding an economy which had been left in tatters by Gairy’s administration. He ensured that Grenada opened its doors to the services of Cuban construction workers, doctors, teachers and military personnel.
It must be stated that Bishop’s adoption of a “non-aligned” status was aimed at making Grenada an attractive tourist destination. He also stated relaxing some of the restrictions on the privet sector in an attempt to draw in foreign direct investment.
10,000-foot (3,000 m) airstrip in Grenada sparks tensions with the U.S.
One of the most significant projects that took place during Bishop’s regime was the building of the new Point Salines International Airport with help from Cuba, Britain, Libya and Algiers. Meanwhile, Grenada’s situation had been of major concern to the United States since Bishop took over power and established close relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the then-U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, was highly critical of Bishop’s administration. He considered the construction of the new airport a potential threat to the U.S. He suspected that the Point Salines airport was built to allow Soviet and Cuban warplanes to land in the Caribbean and to help in delivering of weapons into the region. Weapons which the Reagan administration reasoned would end up being used to advance the cause of communism in Central America.
Bishop however insisted that the airport was to enable commercial flights that conveyed the much-needed tourists. President Reagan’s mistrust of Bishop was deepened when he received news about the extremely long 9,000-foot airplane runway and numerous storage tanks. He regarded the news as confirmation that the airport was to serve as a Cuban-Soviet military airbase. The U.S. president consequently started sending out warnings of the potential threat this posed to the U.S. and the stability of the Caribbean.
Overthrow of Maurice Bishop
The Grenadian economy had fallen under a serious crisis by 1983. Even worse were the disagreements among the members of the Central Committee regarding issues of economic failures.
By September 1983, the Committee’s crisis had reached its climax. Bishop came under heavy criticism during ultra leftist Leninists’ meetings. Tensions between him and Coard had reached boiling point. Conrad disagreed with his boss’s policy of encouraging private industry to help foster a thriving economy. It is also believed that Bishop was secretly paving the way for some return to constitutional rule, a move Coard greatly disapproved of.
Bishop was later accused by the Committee of “defying the collective will” of the ruling government and of attempting to rule single-handedly. After several deliberations, he was asked to make a decision between stepping down as Prime Minister or agreeing to a joint leadership with Coard.
The Prime Minister’s rejection of both proposals caused even more internal divisions and turmoil. And so Coard and his supporters moved against Bishop. In the first week of October, Bishop was overthrown in another coup by troops under the command of General Hudson Austin of the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA). Bishop was subsequently placed under house arrest, and Coard took over the reins as leader of the PRG.
Execution of Bishop and seven others
Despite his flaws, Bishop did achieve a bit of success in transforming an Grenadian society within a relatively short period of time. His supporters praised him for restoring hope to the oppressed masses, stating that he distinguished himself with his rare sense of integrity. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he served his people rather than wanting to be served. Owing to these qualities, Bishop was very popular among the large sections of the country.
It therefore did not come as a surprise when after his arrest, demonstrations were held demanding for him to be freed. About 3,000 to 4,000 school children and supporters swarmed his house, chanting words of freedom.
Eventually, his supporters managed to get him released; however, no sooner was the deposed prime minister released than did he get executed along with seven others loyal to him. The executions were carried out by a firing squad at Fort Rupert on October 19, 1983.
Other interesting facts about the execution of Maurice Bishop
- Jacqueline Creft was one of the eight people that were executed on October 19, 1983 by the military. Creft was the Gender Affairs minister in Bishop’s government. She was also mother of Bishop’s son, Vladimir.
- To this day, the circumstances leading to the murders of Maurice Bishop and the seven others are unclear. General Austin had denied there was a military coup and insisted that Bishop had been dismissed from the NJM for refusing to share power with his deputy. He further claimed that Bishop was threatening to bring down the leadership of the armed forces of the NJM and was killed when soldiers invaded the fort.
- In 2000, the government of Grenada set up a truth and reconciliation commission to review some of the disputes of the time. The commission made several efforts towards finding Bishop’s body but was not successful.
Operation Urgent Fury
The invasion, code-named Operation Urgent Fury” by the U.S. Department of Defense, was set off by the internal conflicts within the PRG. It was a collaborative effort among troops of the U.S., Barbados, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.
Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III’s Joint Task Force 120, assumed command of the operation and was assisted by Brigadier General Richard L. Meyer, USAF. Metcalf’s Task Force was made up of the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit, the Joint Special Operations Command and the 82nd Airborne Division. The Grenadian army, on the other hand, was commanded by coup leader, General Austin.
U.S. President Reagan had originally been reluctant about the invasion. He had only wanted to send a warship to the island in case the American citizens there needed to be evacuated.
However, when things took a turn for the worse in Grenada, he had a changed of heart and announced the invasion in Washington, D.C., after about four hours of the US Marines and army Rangers’ landing on the island. He explained that the operation was needed to neutralize “the actions of a brutal group of leftist thugs.”
Elements of the Invasion included the US Army’s Rapid Deployment Force made up of the 1st and 2nd battalions of the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, the 82nd Airborne Division Marines, the Navy SEALs, the Army’s Delta Force and more than 7,000 troops in ancillary forces.
As the U.S military had no maps of their own of Grenada, they used photocopies of tourists’ maps. Since most of the Hercules aircrafts did not have precision navigation equipment, the pilots had to depend on lead aircrafts for operations that happened at night.
At the time of the Invasion, there were more than 700 Cuban nationals in Grenada. Over 600 of them were construction workers and more than 60 were US military personnel. There were also teachers and medical personnel.
First Day of the Invasion (October 25)
The invasion commenced on the morning of October 25, 1983 on the orders of President Reagan. Their primary objectives on the first day was to take over the Point Salines International Airport, the Pearls Airport and to secure the American students and Governor-General Scoon.
The 75th Ranger Regiment was tasked to take over the international airport in order to allow the 82nd Airborne Division and subsequent reinforcements to land smoothly. U.S. troops deployed from Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados before daybreak. American airborne units which arrived at Grenada from bases in the Eastern United States and U.S. Marines were carried to the island from USS Guam offshore. During this time, Canada tried to evacuate its nationals on the island by sending a Boeing 707 from 437 Transport to Barbados. Although the Grenadian government permitted the Canadian aircrafts to land, they were denied clearance to take off from Barbados.
- Securing Students at True Blue Campus
At midnight of October 24, Alpha and Bravo companies of the 1st Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment prepared to perform an air assault landing on Point Salines International Airport. While in mid-air however, they realized that the runway was blocked and therefore had to disembark by parachute landing instead.
A second wave of assault hit Point Salines around 6 in the morning. More than 700 Rangers were dropped by parachutes. The Cubans had received prior directives to not attack the Americans except in self-defense. Grenadian forces however were not under such orders and opened fire at the parachuting Rangers but did not cause any fatalities. When the Rangers landed, they regrouped and began to engage their enemies in savage fighting.
After a few hours of warfare, about 600 Cubans were taken captive and more than 100 Cubans surrendered seeing they were outmatched. Though the Cuban forces were smaller in number, they were more sophisticated than the U.S. had expected. They resisted the Rangers by the use of ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns and other armored personnel carrier. Unfortunately, their fancy weapons were no match for the more advanced M67 recoilless rifles of the Rangers.
The U.S. troops quickly moved to secure the airfield and by 10 a.m. and evacuated the airstrip. This was followed by airplane landings of the 82nd Airborne Division and 325th Infantry Regiment along with their reinforcements.
The soldiers went on to their next objective: to secure the U.S. students at St. George’s University of Medicine. When the Rangers reached the True Blue campus, a firefight ensued between the guards of the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) and the Rangers. After the defeating the PRA, the Rangers called out to the students to come out of their hiding places. The Rangers were surprised to learn from the students that some of their colleagues resided on a second campus at Grand Anse.
During the rescue operation at True Blue, a Jeep-mounted Ranger Patrol had been ambushed and killed by Grenadian forces. In all, 5 U.S. soldiers had lost their lives. Despite the shortfalls, the Rangers succeeded in securing the students.
- Assault at Pearls Airport & Radio Free Grenada
On the night of October 24, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs led by lieutenant Mike Walsh made a reconnaissance of the Pearls Airport. That night, a team of Marines returned to the helicopter carrier, the USS Guam, and flew to the other side of the island where they fought Grenadian forces protecting St. George’s. With the help of low light sensors, they found that the runway was obstructed by Cuban construction equipment and other hindrances. As a result, the aircrafts dropped the troops instead of executing amphibious landing.
Just before the dawn of the next day, about 400 US Marines of the Amphibious Unit got to the south of airport by specialized military helicopters. They were met with little opposition and took over the airport within a short time.
Another team of the Navy SEALs focused on raiding the radio station, Radio Free Grenada, near St. George’s. The raid was to enable Military Information Support Operations (MISO). The radio station was successfully taken by SEAL Team 6 without incident and the transmitter was subsequently destroyed.
Second Day of Invasion (October 26)
- Securing General-Governor Scoon
Paul Scoon was appointed Governor-General of Grenada by Queen Elizabeth II and became the monarchy’s official representative in a British Commonwealth nation. Before his appointment as governor general he was a prominent bureaucrats Wales school was arrested when left it took over the government in the March 1979 acting within his diplomatic rights he invited the United States and Caribbean Nations to intervene we’re literally in order to restore the peace and order in Grenada Scoon was later placed under house arrest when an independent expert examination discovered that he motive for the invitation had not been entirely honorable.
The U.S. Navy seals was tasked with the mission to secure him and his family in their St. George’s home. The Navy SEALs set off from Barbados and walked right into an ambush by the Grenadian forces whose plan it was to trap the SEALs in Scoon’s mansion together with Scoon until they decide their next step of action.
After about 24 hours of siege and deadlock, the Americans received reinforcement from the G Company of the 22nd Marine Assault Unit and were eventually rescued. The SEALs evacuated Scoon and his household on October 26. Before the rescue of Scoon however, 2 Americans had been killed when 2 reconnaissance patrols had been ambushed by the Cubans.
- Rescuing Students at Grand Anse Campus
Next on the agenda was securing the students on the Grand Anse campus which was about 2 miles from True Blue. The Rangers of the 2nd Battalion reached the students at about 4pm. This was a day and a half after the beginning of the Invasion. The delay resulted from the lack of intelligence as well as military maps. As a matter of fact, many historians believe that if the Grenadian and Cuban forces wanted to, they would have killed the American students within the long delay.
Third Day of Invasion (October 27)
- Taking over Calivigny Barracks
On the morning of October 27, the 2nd Battalion 8th Marines charged toward the coasts and captured more towns. They encountered bad luck when a navy A-7 Corsair accidentally bombed the 82nd Airborne 2nd Brigade command post and injured a few soldiers. The U.S. forces sought to capture one last location: the Calivigny Barracks which was about 5 kilometers from the Point Salines airfield.
Upon information that PRA forces had gathered at the Barracks, the U.S. army executed an air Assault after continuous attacks by field howitzers. Due to the lack of tactical intelligence, the barracks could not be taken immediately as over 300 Cubans guarded the site.
Eventually, the Assault Team’s six- army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters advanced towards the barracks. They encountered none of the expected anti-aircraft fire immediately. Then unexpectedly, small arms fire hits one of the helicopters which became entangled with another causing the 2 to crash. The pilot of a third UH-60 attempted to avoid the crash and landed in a ditch. In a bid to take off, his chopper span out of control and its rotor blades killed 3 Rangers and wounded more than 4. The barracks was eventually deserted at medics rushed in to attend to the wounded.
Mopping up and the establishment of an interim government
After consolidating their gains, the US troops aimed at clearing the island. Enemy resistance was diminishing fast and the Grenadians welcomed the Americans as freedom fighters and heroes.
The invaders spent October 28 clearing the rest of the island, arresting PRA officials, destroying large amounts of the Grenadians’ military hardware and ensuring the return of Cuban engineers to their country.
In all, about 550 American students were rescued. The U.S. troops began delegating peacekeeping responsibilities to the Caribbean force and by December 15, had left the shores of Grenada. Scoon established an interim government which organized democratic elections a year later.
The Aftermath of the Invasion
The invasion revealed several U.S military intelligence and communication deficiencies and flaws. Inadequate tactical intelligence of the terrain resulting from the lack of political and military presence on the island and a relatively short planning time caused incidents such as the Air Force’s accidental firing and killing of U.S. ground forces. The American troops had even not been privy to the fact that the U.S. medical students lived on 2 separate campuses.
“Urgent Fury” also encouraged the Department of Defense to focus more on the routing of airlift request since many of these did not go through proper channels for validation. For instance, the 21st Air Force and the Military Airlift Command received some requests directly which caused confusion and delays as they did not go through the right channels of supported command. Various services failed to work in unison because the joint command structures were flawed.
The air forces had used tourist maps which almost resulted in the failure in finding the exact location of the Grand Anse campus. This challenge caused a reorganization in the Department of Defense as well as a significant legislative change in the U.S. military, namely, the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.
In spite of these flaws in the defense department and the U.S. Air Force, the operation was widely considered a success. Operation Urgent Fury not only rescued American citizens, it also eradicated the threat of a Soviet-Cuban base in the Caribbean and ensured democracy in Grenada. This brought a renewed sense of pride in the United States.
In spite of the conflicting reports, it is generally believed that the U S. recorded a total of over 120 casualties, 19 of which were killed and more than 100 suffered various injuries. The Cubans, on the other hand, suffered more than 20 killings and about 50 wounded soldiers. About 15 Grenadian soldiers were believed to have lost their lives. Over 350 Grenadian civilians were wounded. Ironically, over 60 of these wounded victims were treated in U.S. military hospitals in Bethesda, Puerto Rico and Maryland.
The Deputy White House Press Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Les Janka, stepped down 3 days after the Invasion “out of principal” and to protect his personal integrity. He had on many occasions given reports of “no civilian casualties” and rubbished claims of the U.S. invasion of Grenada even when American troops had already landed on the shores of the island.
Reactions to the U.S. Invasion of Grenada
Some historians believe that America’s invasion in Grenada was President Reagan’s way of “flexing the country’s military muscle” after a Marines’ intervention in the Lebanon’s civil war had failed to secure a quick victory.
Nevertheless, the Invasion received applause from many Americans. Time magazine admitted it had “broad popular support.” For a Congressional study group, the Invasion was necessary as most members thought that American students could have been taken hostage like it happened in the past to U.S. diplomats in Iran.
It is estimated that about 86% of the entire population of Grenada were pleased about the American intervention. Their approval was indicated by street signs such as “Reagan: Hero of the World” and “U.S.A Stay.” Presently, October 25 (the day the invasion began) has been set aside as a day of thanksgiving to commemorate the U.S. military rescue from a “communist takeover and restored constitutional government.”
On the contrary, the move was vehemently condemned by the international community. Britain, for example, was outraged because American has attacked one of its Commonwealth members, and the United Nations fiercely opposed the U.S. actions and demanded a cessation of the “armed intervention.” The U.N. Charter forbids the use of force by member states except in cases of self-defense or when acting under the authorization of the U.N. Security Council.
While many nations, including Trinidad and Tobago, agreed that America had acted illegally and condemned the action, Reagan and his allies openly justified the invasion:
They described Grenada as homicidal and anti-American and therefore considered the island a danger to the U.S. as long as it continued to receive communist influences.
President Reagan further explained that the invasion was in response to Governor- General Scoon plea for an intervention. Critics however claim that the letter had been written in Washington, backdated and had been sent to Scoon to sign even before the invasion.
A number of U.S. Democratic Members of Congress called for the impeachment of the U.S. President. The Queen, the Head of State of Grenada, was enraged at both America and the U.K. and demanded answers from then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In Thatcher’s defense, Reagan explained that she had been an unwilling party and continued to insist that they cancel planned landings on Grenada although unbeknownst to her, the invasion was already in progress.
Some scholars share the view that the U.S. victory was made possible because of their large number of well-trained soldiers compared to the poorly trained soldiers of Grenada and Cuba. Others argue that since their opponents were more familiar with the terrain and had sufficient preparatory time, they could have put up a tougher resistance.
Operation Urgent Fury typified what is known as “asymmetric warfare.” It was adjudged by some political historians as a show of force which shocked leftists in Central America and the Caribbean. To most Americans, it was considered a great victory and was followed by a string of self-congratulatory sentiments. More than 8,600 medals were given to participants, the majority of which were people who had manned the desks. Senior officials in the Reagan administration felt a sense of momentum which informed their increased support for pro-U.S. regimes in such countries as Guatemala and El Salvador.
To this day, some critics of the military action felt that that the U.S. could have done better for Grenada after the invasion and could have transformed the island into a “model of Caribbean prosperity.” They believed this would have sold the idea that being captured by the U.S. is favorable and worthwhile.