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Operation JUST CAUSE

Cold War

December 20, 1989
Operation JUST CAUSE

On December 20th, 1989, SSgt Bob Kinder and SSgt Brad Baxter from the 1724th Special Tactics Squadron (STS), were "FIRST THERE". They inserted via helicopter just prior to P-Hour, to control the initial tactical airdrops.


Col Craig Brotchie received approval for DZ markers to be emplaced the next night by MH-6s flying out of Howard AFB, Panama situated several miles southwest of Panama City and the most important US air base in Latin America. At H-hour minus 12 minutes, a four-man team led by TSgt Robert Kinder and including SSgt Bradley Baxter, TSgt Robert Martens, and a PJ, SSgt Ishmael Antonio, placed two TPN-27 zone markers at the approach end of the intended runway.


Overall, the invasion of Panama went like clockwork. Two key airfields, Rio Hato AB and Tocumen International Airport, were captured simultaneously in the two largest mass tactical airdrops since World War II. 


Army Rangers and Combat Controllers flew directly from the U.S. and jumped directly into a firestorm at Rio Hato Air Base. It seemed as though all 400 Panamanian soldiers stationed at Rio Hato were firing as they descended under their parachutes. For some of the combat controllers, the ride down from 500' seemed to take forever. 


Retired CMSgt Mike Lampe, a veteran of the Vietnam War, Desert One, and Grenada, later commented that the Panamanians put up a "hell-of-a good fight." The AC-130 gunship and Army helicopters were able to quickly dispatch the heavy weapons and armored personnel carriers, but the airfield continued to receive sniper fire for several more days.


Tocumen International Airport


Another contingent of 13 combat controllers from the 1724th STS jumped into Tocumen International Airport, Panama's International Airport and coordinated fire support aircraft and MEDEVAC helicopters into the chaos surrounding the airfield. Additionally, they established a drop zone for the follow-on force that consisted of the 82nd Airborne Division and additional Combat Controllers.


Combat Controllers from the 1721st CCS parachuted in with the 82nd Airborne Division. Their mission was to relieve the 1724th STS and establish a long-term airhead. The teams provided around the clock ATC service. In addition, they coordinated evacuation flights for wounded soldiers and those killed in actions (KIAs).


"We suited up completely, trucks and everything, boarded the plane, and then sat for eight hours until it was time to jump."

- SSgt Joe Santor, 1989 - Special Operations Joint Task Force


Combat Control was involved in every significant operation during the Panama invasion. Controllers were attached to both Army and Navy units. SSgt Dave Schnoor was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor for his heroic leadership during a mission evacuating American Civilians. One of the friendly helicopters was shot down during the operation, SSgt Schnoor, assisted in the rescue of the helicopter coordinated and controlled the MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation) helicopter all while under sniper fire. SSgt Schnoor remained calm and directed AC-130 fire suppressing the snipers.


"Just doing my job"

- SSgt Dave Schnoor, 1989


Other controllers were attached to select Special Forces "A teams" as close air support and communications specialist. One of those was TSgt John Eklof who, under enemy fire, directed AC-130 fire decimating Panamanian troops attempting to cross the Pacora Bridge and attack the arriving 82nd Airborne.


CCT/PJ members who made the combat jump into Tocumen International Airport: Capt John Koren, TSgt Ray Cooper, TSgt Lucky Cook, SSgt Fred Wulff, TSgt Duane Stanton, MSgt Scott Fales, SSgt Steve Borbee, SSgt Stan Braxton, *TSgt Jim Lyons, SSgt Steve Cast, SSgt Joel Getzug, TSgt Harvey Perriott, *MSgt Tim Brown, SSgt Dave Holcomb, SSgt Dan Rivera, SSgt Chuck Hibbard, *TSgt Rick Caffee, SrA Paul Lawrenz, MSgt Ed Lundberg, TSgt Dave Pickering, SSgt Adam Pope, TSgt John Scanlon, and TSgt Ron Taylor. (* denotes second combat jump for three members who previously jumped into Grenada). Det. 6 members were Cooper, Fales, Lawrenz, Pickering, Pope, and Stanton.


CCT/PJ members who made the combat jump into Rio Hato: TSgt Gary Lantrip, Sgt Jim Holloman, SSgt Gordy Tully, **TSgt Jerry Thomas, CMSgt Wayne Norrad, Maj Mike Longoria, Capt “Jeff” Schuldheiss, *CMSgt Mike Lampe, SSgt Chet Ebeling, TSgt “Carl” Casey, **SSgt Rex Frericks, MSgt Bernie Oder, **SSgt Tim Ryan and SSgt John Thompson. (* denotes making their second combat jump; ** denotes PJs).

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