Grenada, 1983 Operation Urgent FuryPosted on September 10, 2022
By Capt Michael A. Hanson, USMC
The 133-square-mile island of Grenada became embroiled in turmoil just five years after gaining independence from Great Britain. In 1979, Maurice Bishop and the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation, seized power in a coup following the unpopular rule of Prime Minister Sir Eric Gairy. The new order sidelined the island’s representative to the British Monarchy, Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon, while diminishing Grenada’s democratic foundations and exchanging them with Marxist institutions. Bishop cracked down on critical forms of media, canceled elections and annulled the constitution, thus solidifying his role as dictator. The United States became alarmed as he increasingly steered Grenada toward alignment with the Communist Bloc by signing arms and trade deals with the Soviet Union and other communist countries.
Despite its veneer, Bishop’s regime was marred by a power struggle that resulted in a coup against him by hardliners in the Grenadian Communist Central Committee. On Oct. 12, 1983, Bishop was put under house arrest by Bernard Coard, his deputy prime minister. Bishop’s confinement was short-lived, however, and after only a week he was freed by a crowd of 3,000 supporters. With his cohorts, he marched on Grenadian army headquarters at Fort Rupert to reassert his authority. Armored personnel carriers and troops under General Hudson Austin, the commander in chief of the Grenadian Armed Forces, opened fire on the crowd, killing around 40 people and he took Bishop prisoner once again. Rather than detain him, the troops executed Bishop along with other civic leaders who remained loyal to him.
In response to the failed counter-coup, General Austin abolished the government and assumed authority of the country as head of a Revolutionary Military Council. With the Iranian hostage crisis fresh in their minds, senior American officials worried about the welfare of American citizens in Grenada, specifically, 600 American students at St. George’s School of Medicine.
On Oct. 17, the United States’ Regional Interagency Group (RIG) of the National Security Council (NSC) requested the military begin planning to evacuate the American citizens from Grenada. The RIG met again on Oct. 19 and recognizing the threat of several hundred armed Cubans on Grenada, recommended to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to plan for a worst-case situation—an evacuation against armed resistance from Grenadian and Cuban military forces. Later that night the JCS ordered planners to “submit alternative courses of action for a three- to five-day noncombatant evacuation operation to include one or more of the following options: seizure of evacuation points, show of force, combat operations to defend the evacuation, and post evacuation peacekeeping.” As plans began to be devised, forces began to be allocated for the operation.
Late on the night of Oct. 20, the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) consisting of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (2/8), Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 261, and MAU Service Support Group 22 embarked aboard the ships USS Guam (LPH-9), USS Trenton (LPH-14), USS Fort Snelling (LSD-30), USS Manitowoc (LST-1180), and USS Barnstable County (LST-1197) received orders to change course and head for the Caribbean Sea. The 22nd MAU had deployed from Morehead City, N.C. only two days before for a peacekeeping mission in Beirut, Lebanon. At 10 p.m. on Oct. 22, the MAU was ordered to make for Grenada. In addition, the USS Independence Battle Group, also on its way to the Mediterranean, changed course as well. Twenty-one American warships carrying 2,000 Marines steamed toward Grenada.
American intelligence agencies estimated 1,500 Grenadian People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) soldiers, 3,000 Grenadian militia, 400 police, as well as several hundred Cuban troops to be on the island. Though this was primarily a light infantry force, it did possess six BTR-60 armored personnel carriers, four ZU-23 23 mm antiaircraft guns, and several 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns with well-trained crewmen. Intelligence analysts concluded these forces were capable of offering stiff defense on the small island.
These estimates necessitated changes to the operational plan. “Given the uncertainty, the JCS determined that a military operation should be a coup de main … a surprise attack with overwhelming force. While catching the enemy off guard, such an operation could perform rescue missions and seize key military targets vital to the enemy’s command and control of defensive operations.” However, the forces organic to the MAU would not be enough to conduct an operation of this scope alone and the operation was expanded to include rapidly deployable forces from the U.S. Army. Special Operations Forces, 22nd MAU, and two Army Ranger battalions would form the forces used to seize key terrain and evacuate the American citizens while elements of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived immediately in transport aircraft to assume control of the island and conduct peace-keeping operations.
As the 22nd MAU approached Grenada, its Marines devised plans for the noncombatant evacuation operation. The Marines were tasked to take Pearls Airport and its nearby town of Grenville up north. Oct. 25 was designated D-day and H-hour was set for 5 a.m., little more than 24 hours away.
The Marines planned to land at dawn in a simultaneous operation using helicopters and amphibious vehicles. Hours before the assault was to begin, Navy SEALs performed reconnaissance of the beaches near the airport. Judging the surf conditions, the SEALs reported that, “amphibious tractors might land with great difficulty and other landing craft not at all.” In fact, the seas were so rough that a SEAL team was lost at sea. The amphibious assault was postponed, and landing plans adapted for an assault on Pearls Airport and Grenville by two rifle companies flown in by helicopter.
Shortly before sunrise on Oct. 25, 1983, Marines landed on Grenada. CH-46 Sea Knight transports, escorted by AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, achieved surprise. The initial wave landed unopposed as the men of Company E, 2/8 quickly secured their landing zone and prepared to move onto their objective, Pearls Airport. Two Grenadian 12.7 mm antiaircraft guns located in the hills above the landing zone fired on a successive wave of helicopters but were immediately dispensed with by 20 mm canon fire and 2.75-inch rockets of the AH-1 escorts. By 7:30 a.m. Pearls Airport was under the control of Company E after a quick engagement between the Marines and Grenadians guarding the airstrip. The Grenadians fired on the Marines breaking through a chain link fence and bolted as soon as the Marines returned fire. Shortly afterwards, the Marines captured two 12.7 mm antiaircraft guns and a weapons cache in the hills nearby. The Grenadians manning the position did not resist; instead, they ran off into the countryside.
Immediately after inserting Company E, the helicopters returned to USS Guam to bring in Company F for the seizure of Grenville. Company F landed unopposed and by 6:30 a.m., secured Grenville. The Marines received a hearty welcome from the Grenadian people, who, “Far from regarding them as invaders, welcomed them as liberators from the rule of Hudson’s military council, which many Grenadians were describing as a gang of criminals and thugs.” Citizens assisted the Marines in identifying Grenadian troops that had shed their uniforms and sought to blend into the civilian population. They took the Marines to weapons caches and provided intelligence.
Meanwhile, events had not gone according to plan on the southern part of the island. Delays caused the Rangers to parachute onto Salines Airport in broad daylight under significant groundfire from Grenadian antiaircraft units. The Rangers landed, scattered, and took casualties from Cubans defending the airfield. However, the two Ranger companies overcame this resistance and accomplished their mission of seizing the airport, capturing 250 Cubans and enabling two battalions from the 82nd Airborne to land within 30 minutes. Furthermore, within just a few hours, the Rangers evacuated 138 American students from St. George’s University Medical School’s True Blue campus which was close to the airport. Unfortunately, the Rangers learned that more than 200 Americans were at a school annex in Grand Anse.
As the Rangers fought for control of the Salines area, Marine AH-1 Cobras were dispatched to provide close air support to them. Under direction from Army forward air controllers, the gunships engaged Grenadian forces inside Fort Fredrick. After four attack runs, one gunship, manned by Captain Timothy Howard and his copilot/gunner Captain Jeb Seagle, were shot down by antiaircraft fire. Both crewmen survived the crash, although Capt Howard was seriously wounded. As Grenadian troops closed on the downed Marine pilots, the other gunship strafed them with 20 mm canon fire and 2.75-inch rockets. This suppressed the Grenadian troops long enough for a Marine CH-46 to land and rescue Capt Howard, although Capt Seagle was killed by the Grenadian troops. Capt Seagle later was awarded the Navy Cross, posthumously. As the CH-46 lifted off with the wounded pilot aboard, the remaining gunship was shot down and crashed into the sea, killing both Major John “Pat” Guigerre and First Lieutenant Jeff Sharver who would each be awarded the Silver Star posthumously.
Despite these losses, Marine air support to the Rangers continued. When the Rangers ascertained the location of the remaining 200 American students at Grand Anse Beach, HMM-261 assisted in their rescue and evacuation. Marine helicopters carrying Rangers landed under fire on the beach while artillery, mortars, and fires from American aircraft rained down on Cuban and Grenadian positions. The Rangers secured the annex and began the evacuation of the students to the waiting Marine helicopters under fire, rescuing 224 American students without any casualties.
While the Marines experienced only sporadic resistance up north, St. George’s and Point Salines proved to be where the majority of the defenders were deployed. Navy SEALs encountered heavy resistance in St. Georges as well while attempting to rescue Governor-General Scoon, who had been placed under house arrest by Grenadian forces. They managed to reach the residence and even wrest the Governor-General from his captors, but soon the mansion was besieged by Grenadian forces with heavy machine guns and armored personnel carriers. The SEALs held out, but it was unclear how long they could last.
Company G, 2/8, still aboard ships after their amphibious landing near Grenville had been postponed, received a new mission: land at Grand Mal Bay and lift the siege of the SEALs at the Governor-General’s mansion. The amphibious assault vehicles came ashore in the dark, establishing a beachhead by 7 p.m. Navy landing craft brought in tanks, jeeps, heavy weapons, and other equipment as Marines and Sailors worked through the night to consolidate their foothold ashore. HMM-261 brought Company F in from Grenville before dawn as well. The two companies of Marines, led by tanks and amphibious assault vehicles, pushed toward St. George’s as the sun rose meeting minor resistance from rocket propelled grenade fire. When the Marines captured a Grenadian officer, he told them that his men had fled upon hearing the sound of the oncoming Marine tanks in the dark.
The Marines pressed on toward the Governor-General’s mansion where they successfully relieved the SEALs, Mr. Scoon, and his family. The Marines then turned their attention to Fort Frederick, taking it without a fight. In addition to many abandoned weapons, the Marines found discarded uniforms lying about the place. They also discovered valuable intelligence documents describing defending forces on the island. A Grenadian major they captured explained that Grenadian forces, “did not expect a combined helicopter and surface assault at night and did not expect an attack of any sort north of St. George’s.” Furthermore, “This combined night assault was a psychological shock to the PRA, whereby the few remaining senior officers present opted and agreed to pass the word to lay down their arms and return home.” Within 72 hours of the invasion, the mission reached a turning point. Resistance on Grenada could be characterized as fleeting engagements as American forces consolidated their positions and shifted into stability operations. However, the Marines did encounter some friction.
With three companies spread across the island and unit sectors continuing to expand, the 22nd MAU needed more Marines on the ground. The battalion landing team’s organic artillery battery was sent ashore as a provisional infantry company. The artillerymen contributed immensely to operations ashore by relieving two infantry companies tied down in St. George’s. Furthermore, this provisional infantry company captured important members of the Grenadian regime in hiding, specifically Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard. These former officials were identified with the help of Grenadian locals that did not want them to return to power.
Since D-day, paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division continued to arrive and occupy battlespace, growing to 6,140 men on the island. The main island of Grenada was secure, but the attention of the expeditionary force shifted to the nearby island of Carriacou. Intelligence efforts noted a Grenadian military headquarters there and gathered reports that some Grenadian forces had fled to Carriacou, where they remained armed. Therefore, the amphibious task force received a follow-on mission to seize Carriacou in a “combined surface and air landing.”
Marine forces on Grenada were relieved by paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division and immediately turned to their next mission. The Marines and all of their gear returned to their ships by 8 p.m. on Oct. 31, and prepared for the next landing, scheduled to occur in less than 10 hours. Company F touched down in helicopters at 5:30 a.m. while Company G went ashore in assault amphibians. Carriacou was taken without a shot fired, and the locals welcomed the Marines once again.
The seizure of Grenada was achieved in just over one week. During the course of Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S. military suffered 19 killed and 89 wounded in action. The Army took the brunt of the casualties with 12 dead and 71 wounded. The Marines lost three killed and 15 wounded while the Navy had four dead and three wounded. Grenadian losses were 45 killed and 377 wounded, including civilians. Cuban forces on the island suffered 24 killed, 29 wounded, and 600 captured. American objectives were achieved with the successful evacuation of 599 American citizens, none killed or injured. Free elections were held in Grenada on Dec. 19, 1983, four days after the last American troops left.
Author’s bio: Capt Hanson is Wpns Co commander of 3rd Bn, 4th Marines at Twentynine Palms, Calif. He is a contributing editor of The Connecting File, an online newsletter dedicated to infantry tactics, techniques, procedures and leadership.