Urgent Fury revisited

20 Oct 2000 | Sgt. Sharon G. Angell

Grenada, a small independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, is just 133 square miles, roughly a tenth of the size of Rhode Island.  Yet, its strategic geographical placement was valuable to Cuba's military strategy, and its importance set off a chain of events that reverberated worldwide and added the idyllic tropical island to the annals of Marine Corps history..

Grenada's government was led by Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, who had overthrown the previous regime in 1974.  Grenada's government soon embraced communism and copied Cuba's model  of "revolutionary government.".

The Cuban government took notice of Grenada's geographical placement and wanted to use the small nation as an arsenal and stopover for Soviet forces.  Their objective was to transport troops, weapons, military equipment and ammunition via a major airport they were building there.  

Political tensions were high in 1983.  Bishop's deputy, Bernard Coard was pushing for more widespread socialism, while Bishop was considering holding elections.  On Oct. 13, Coard took control of the government and placed Bishop under house arrest.

Further political unrest erupted Oct. 19 when thousands of Bishop's supporters freed him.  His freedom was cut short, however, when Coard's troops executed him and other political leaders who sided with Bishop. 

The new government enacted a 24-hour, shoot-on-sight curfew from Oct. 20 to Oct. 24.  The airport and businesses were closed, and looting and riots broke out putting the country on the brink of chaos.  Neighboring countries and the U.S. felt something had to be done to restore order.

On Oct. 25, Eastern Caribbean nations and the United States joined forces, but were criticized by other countries that felt the U.S. was invading merely because they didn't like the government.

Despite this criticism, Urgent Fury was planned as a rescue mission to help restore law and order on Grenada and to rescue U.S. citizens trapped in the turmoil.

American military forces were mobilized.  Marines of the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit were diverted from their original mission - relieving the Marines of the 24th MAU in Beirut, Lebanon, - to assist in the evacuation of students and to help restore peace.

"There was political unrest. The government that had been friendly had been taken out of control and people were getting killed," said 1st Lt. Dave Wassink, corrosion control officer and CH-53 pilot at the time.  Wassink left the Marine Corps as a major in 1994 and is now a military analyst.

The 22nd MAU arrived in Grenada Oct. 24 and began a predawn launch the following morning, according to Lt. Col. Edward Walsh, commanding officer for Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-266, Marine Corps Air Station, New River.  Walsh was a first lieutenant during Urgent Fury and flew a CH-46.

Missions were varied during Urgent Fury for both the Marines and the soldiers.  The Marine pilots' missions included supporting Army Rangers and the 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers, as well as saving American lives.

"I flew in the rescue of the American students," said Wassink.

The fighting covered much of the coast of the island, including St. George's, Grand Anse Beach, Point Salines and Fort Frederick.  Rangers were dropped over Point Salines to secure the area. Other Rangers were given orders to secure True Blue campus, but they were ambushed and requested assistance.  The Marine pilots traveled over much of the island carrying out various missions

One group of Marines captured Pearls Airport .  The capture aided supply missions, and the airport became a support facility.  They renamed the airport Marine Corps Air Station Douglass after Sgt. Maj. F.B. Douglass, who was killed just days before on Oct. 23 in Beirut when the barracks were blown-up by a terrorist bomber, according to Walsh.

Other missions weren't as successful.  On one, three Marine pilots wre killed. 

A group of Marine pilots were conducting fire runs over Fort Frederick and on a nearby cluster of buildings they thought were Cuban headquarters.  Unknown to them, the Cubans had moved their flag from the real headquarters building to a nearby mental hospital to trick them, according to an article from All Hands magazine from 1984.

The Cubans armed patients with automatic weapons and forced them to fire on the aircraft passing over them.  They also installed a BTR-60 armored personnel carrier in the trees near the hospital to fire on the Americans. 

For the pilots, determining where the ground fire was coming from proved difficult.

One of the pilots flying over the hospital was Col. Timothy B. Howard, who at the time was a captain and a member of the AH-1T Cobra attack helicopter squadron providing air support for the troops. He recalled the tops of all the buildings were painted green which made it difficult to decipher where the heaviest fire was coming from.

Howard and his co-pilot, Capt. Jeb Seagle, were assisted by another Cobra manned by Major John "Pat" Guigerre, the pilot and 1st Lt. Jeff Sharver, the co-pilot.

On their fifth run over the area, Howard and Seagle received fire from anti-aircraft from somewhere on the ground.

Howard was severely injured, losing most of his right arm, and Seagle was knocked unconcious.  Despite his horrific injury, Howard managed to land the Cobra safely.

Seagle came to after they landed and helped Howard out of the aircraft.  Seagle then called for assistance on their radio, and set off on foot for help.  Howard was later rescued by a CH-46 crew that received the call for help.

Guigerre and Sharver, in the second Cobra, assisted the CH-46 during Howard's rescue.  However, they were shot down in what was believed to be a "fake run" to draw fire away from the CH-46 as its crewmembers rescued Howard, according to Walsh.  Guigerre and Sharver died.

Seagle was later found dead on the beach a few hundred yards from where he and Howard landed. He was killed while trying to reach help for Howard.

"It was hard anytime you lost anybody, but it is especially hard when you lose three guys at the same time. It touches you in a little different way," said Wassink.

In the next several days, the Marine pilots and soldiers continued their missions, rescuing U.S. students in the process.  By the third day, the majority of the missions were accomplished, and the 22nd MAU left for Beirut to relieve the 24th MAU as originally planned.

American soldiers stayed behind, and by Nov. 3, all military objectives were secured, and the Grenadians began rebuilding their country.