History

My Time in Panama

 

The Major’s Marauders Private First Class Edward DeFreest kneeling in front.

The Major’s Marauders
Private First Class Edward DeFreest kneeling in front.

I was born at the Palmer Hospital on a cold morning in December 1963, and grew up in Chickaloon, Alaska, the grandson of a hunting guide. I spent my summers in the Talkeetna Mountains with my grandfather preparing hunting camps for the upcoming seasons. My father’s father was a flight instructor in the Navy and my uncle served in Vietnam. I admired them both and loved hearing their stories. As I grew up, I enjoyed our hunting and fishing lifestyle. Today I am still awed by the beauty of this state I call home. My family has always loved Alaska, but I was raised with an unshakeable sense of national pride and patriotism, and I knew that when I came of age I would enlist in the Navy like my family before me. I joined the Navy when I was 17, and served for four years.

He placed a round brown
felt hat on his head, and I realized
I was talking to another drill sergeant.
I said quite audibly, “Ah crap.”

Finding a job after my service was complete proved to be difficult. I had been out of the Navy about two years, and still hadn’t found a job. Without any good prospects for future employment, I joined the Army. When I stepped off the bus in Fort Benning the heat hit me like a wave of hot water, and I began sweating immediately. The drill sergeant started his routine of hollering, referring to us as maggots. After I lugged my duffle bag into the barracks, I was given time to go to the chow hall to eat. I got a tray of food and proceeded to look for a place to sit. The tables were all full except one that had the word “CADRE” painted on it. I didn’t know what cadre meant, and didn’t care. It had been a long bus ride and I was tired so I sat down and began to eat. Quite suddenly there was a soldier standing over me screaming that I couldn’t eat at his table. I quickly determined that I was not going to be bullied. I shouted back, “Who the hell are you to tell me where I can and cannot eat?” He placed a round brown felt hat on his head, and I realized I was talking to another drill sergeant. I said quite audibly, “Ah crap,” and silently hoped that this wasn’t an indication of how my stint in the Army was going to go.

After a few months I settled into a comfortable routine. Physical exercise first thing in the morning, a shower, breakfast, and then off to whatever activity was scheduled for the day. I was a mechanized infantryman in 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, at Fort Polk, Louisiana. I was part of HHC (Headquarters and Headquarters Company). While standing in morning formation one day, the word was given—everything we had been training for would be tested and it was time to earn our pay. We were going to war! I felt excitement, anticipation, and apprehension all at once. A buzz of “electricity” ran through the ranks as we were dismissed to pack and prep. After packing my duffle bag, I reported to the motor pool to start prepping my M113 APC (armored personnel carrier) for transport to Panama. It seemed somewhat chaotic, seeing the APC crews running about trying to get everything in order. I thought to myself, is this really happening? How many of us will make it home?

With our APCs loaded on rail cars, we boarded military transport flights to Panama. The noise of the engines was so loud we couldn’t hear each other, even when we were hollering, so we sat in silence all the way there. Each of us was engrossed in our own thoughts, contemplating what lay ahead when we arrived. I stepped off the plane and joined my company in formation. We marched off the airfield carrying our gear to the waiting trucks that would take us to Camp Gator. It was a very sobering moment for me. I knew then this was the real deal, and I might not come home.

There wasn’t time to worry about what my future might be—as soon as we piled off the trucks, a flurry of activity began. There were tents to erect, sand bags to fill, perimeter defenses to build, and so on. It seemed like weeks of constant work to get the camp in order. Companies would alternate turns going to the live fire range, and in-country training maneuvers. I think the maneuvers were more of a show of strength than anything else. Someone wanted Noriega to know we had come to fight.

Noriega had everyone involved in the coup attempt killed.
Now I wished to fight—
I had found justification
beyond just following orders.
These people needed us.

Construction crews erected an inflatable barracks with revolving doors. The troops called it the bubble. We moved in overnight, and divided it into company and platoon sections. We soon settled into a routine, but one cannot keep a group of men on edge indefinitely—monotony began to set in. I became known as the company clown, always looking to make someone laugh. I got my hands on a magazine and carefully cut the best looking girl out and laminated the picture. I put the picture in a frame and stuck it in my foot locker. Whenever anyone would walk by, I would open my footlocker like I was looking for something. Invariably they would look at the picture and ask, “Who is that?” I would reply, “Just an old girlfriend.” I had everyone thinking I was quite the ladies’ man. I strung this along for more than a month. One morning a new guy showed up, and everyone told him to check out my girlfriend. He took a look and replied, “Yeah, she’s mine too.” He then showed them the same magazine I had cut her from. We laughed so hard our ribs hurt.

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Someone higher up the food chain must have seen our need for rest and recreation because Charlie Pride came to Camp Gator to sing for us. He drove up in a grey limousine, if my memory serves me right. He was given a grand tour of the camp. We were thirsty for any kind of entertainment, and he put on a great show. There was a cute blonde entertainer with him. I have nothing against Charlie Pride, but I was more interested in her. I’m sure all the other guys were checking her out too. Then, just as quickly as they came, they were gone.

I was the major’s APC driver. One afternoon while doing routine maintenance I heard explosions coming from Panama City. I started looking toward the noises and could see smoke rising. The major came out of the bunker to look. It was October 3, 1989; I asked him what was happening. He told me there was a coup attempt under way. As we watched the smoke for a while, I had a sudden realization. I said, “They’re going to die, he’s going to kill them all.” I started to cry, and asked the major, “Why don’t we help them?” He quietly replied, “It isn’t time yet.” I didn’t understand, but I would … later. Noriega had everyone involved in the coup attempt killed. Now I wished to fight—I had found justification beyond just following orders. These people needed us. I would learn later to be careful what you wish for. There was a bustle of activity in the camp soon after that.

A convoy arrived in the night with cargo that was kept secret. The section of the camp where the cargo was unloaded was off limits. The officers didn’t want anyone to know what was there, although I would find out soon enough. The tension in the camp was higher than ever; it became obvious to me that something was about happen. I couldn’t sleep well anymore. Word eventually got out that we had tanks in camp. They were M551 Sheridan Airborne Assault Vehicles equipped with a 152mm main gun. Essentially, they are a light tank. The Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) had nothing that could meet this head on and survive. It was made clear that this had to remain a secret. I never heard anyone talk about it again.

The PDF had already killed one marine and severely beaten several Navy personnel. We were doing mechanized patrols nearly every day and night. They were called Sand Flea exercises. The idea was to get the PDF used to seeing the U.S. Army patrols so they would become complacent and drop their guard. The tension between Panama and the U.S. was quickly reaching critical mass, and I could feel it. On the evening of December 17, 1989, Operation Nimrod Dancer ended and Operation Just Cause began. I thought we were loading up for another Sand Flea exercise. As I drove the APC down the road, my sergeant said, “This is for real, the war has started.” I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach, and my heart started pounding. I could hear gunfire and explosions and was ordered to drive straight into the thick of it.

The sergeant yelled back, “Get us out of here!”
I drove my APC through a short retaining wall.
The impact broke the grenade launchers
off the front of the APC,
and covered me in powder from illuminating grenades.

After I drove off the east end of The Bridge of Americas, I came to an intersection. My sergeant hollered into the mic, “Left turn.” I was a bit frazzled, and started turning right. I heard him yell again, only louder this time, “Your other left.” I turned left and drove over some concertina wire that was strung across the road. The concertina wire hooked onto my front bumper. My major was afraid that the wire would decapitate someone. I had seen a figure in front of me on the road dive into the ditch. I missed him by inches. I must have drug that wire half-a-mile before it finally came loose. It was dark out, the sound of explosions was deafening, and I had no idea where I was. I drove exactly where the sergeant told me, when he told me. He in turn, concentrated on navigating.

Following his directions, we linked up with some other APCs. They were all in a line on the road, and not moving. The major tried to raise them on the radio, but no one would answer. I could hear shots being fired, but I didn’t know where they were coming from. I heard the sergeant say, “Sir, we can’t stay here.” The major ordered us to find a way around. I drove the APC into a drainage ditch to the left of the road. After driving several hundred meters, I steered back to the right and bounced back onto the road. I looked over my left shoulder, and saw a line of APCs behind me. “Oh crap, I’m in the front,” I muttered. I heard someone say, “Just keep driving.” At that point I didn’t know where we were, but I heard we lost one of our own there. I didn’t have long to think about it—soon we were off on a different mission.

Modelo Prison. We were to provide security for another detachment whose mission it was to rescue a man held prisoner there. The noise was intense; I’ve never heard so much gunfire. While surrounded in chaos, I noticed a line of tracers that were coming straight toward me. The bullets missed since I was protected by just enough of the corner of the prison to deflect the rounds. I saw a shadow, a flash of fire, and then the tracers stopped coming. I got the order to drop my ramp and moments later personnel were being loaded into the back of my APC. They were a team of Delta Force whose helicopter was shot down. I was given the order to move out, but at the same moment a power line pole was shot in half, right where we needed to go. “I can’t, there are hot wires on the road,” I yelled into the mic. The sergeant yelled back, “Get us out of here!” I drove my APC through a short retaining wall. The impact broke the grenade launchers off the front of the APC, and covered me in powder from illuminating grenades. It gave me the appearance of having smeared white camo under my eyes. The APC wasn’t slowed by the impact, and I made it back onto the road heading in the right direction to bring the Delta Force team to safety.

A small detachment was formed with two APCs, and a marine LAV-25 (light amphibious vehicle). My APC had the team of Delta Force on board. The other APC and the LAV-25 each had their own fire teams. We had been tasked with finding Noriega. While the rest of the battalion was fighting in various locations, we were on the hunt, motoring from place to place. We captured an odd mix of vehicles. Our little convoy began to grow. We had a deuce and a half, a pick-up truck, and Cadillac 300 (LAV300). All of these were PDF (Panamanian Defense Force) vehicles, so we began calling ourselves the Major’s Marauders.

We were directed to Noriega’s personal home. I drove my trac thru the gates of his estate. When we went into his house there was a smoking cigarette in an ashtray, but nobody was there. We must have just missed him. While clearing the building, I went into the bathroom and saw a clear toilet seat with gold inlay. I couldn’t believe that someone could have so much money that they would own something like that. I came out and said, “You’ve got to see this. What do you do with a seat like that?” Someone tossed me a roll of toilet paper. I started to laugh.

We left the house, and continued our mission, searching for Noriega. Everywhere we went, humanity seemed to have turned against itself. There was widespread looting, buildings were set ablaze. People would line the streets as we drove by, tossing cigarettes and soda to us. Some even told us where Noriega was last seen, then the chase would be on again. With every tip, it seemed we were always just a step behind.

I raced my APC to the designated LZ (landing zone),
where they were to be off loaded.
I dropped the ramp, and seconds later
heard a loud explosion in the back of the trac.

After nearly 30 hours of driving, I was having trouble staying awake. The major got us about four hours to sleep. I climbed out of the APC, and nearly fell down. My legs were numb from sitting so long. As I was pulling my rifle from the vehicle, I noticed a stranger approaching. I pulled the slide on my M-16, flicked the safety off and went to intercept him. I met him about 100 meters from my APC. “ALTO,” I barked at him with the most commanding voice I could muster. I had my rifle aimed at the center of his chest. I became aware that he was drunk when he started rambling in Spanish. He was staggering, and almost tumbled in the street. I yelled at him. “VAMOOSE, ANDELE.” He started to cry, then turned and staggered away. I thought to myself that my performance must have been pretty good to have frightened him so much. When I turned around, I found the whole Delta Force team had been standing behind me, with their weapons zeroed in on the stranger. It is an unnerving feeling to be looking down the wrong end of an automatic rifle. Turns out it wasn’t me he was afraid of, but rather the guys backing me up. I was promptly informed that my job was driving, and not perimeter security.

It was nighttime, but the sky was lit up as we rolled into old Panama. The old part of the city was burning. The streets were narrow as if they were closing in on us, and I could feel the heat from the fires. It was like driving through an oven. I saw a young woman standing on a balcony clutching an infant, screaming for help. The fire was intense, the sounds of gunfire and explosions were close. There was no way for me to help her … I drove on. The memory still haunts me today.

As the sun began to rise, the scene became clear. It seemed there were charred vehicles, burned out buildings, and rubble on every street. We drove from place to place, following every tip searching for Noriega. As we approached the Panamanian Military Head Quarters, I could smell the carnage before I saw it. The “La Comadoncia” was completely destroyed. The fighting there must have been intense. The M551 Sheridan and .50 caliber machine guns had blown it apart. I knew no one had made it out of there alive.

That night our chase led us to a residential section of the city. The major needed someone to scout ahead and shoot out the street lights, thus giving us the element of surprise. I volunteered to do it. My hands started shaking so bad I couldn’t hold my rifle still enough to hit my target. The suggestion was made that if I couldn’t shoot out the lights, to throw rocks at them. I slung my rifle over my shoulder, and started throwing rocks. The lights started going out one at a time. The whole detachment erupted into laughter. So much for the element of surprise. Either we got a bad tip, or someone heard us coming, because we didn’t catch Noriega that night.

The Major got a radio call and we were diverted from our original mission and ordered to pick up some Navy Seals who had been injured in a firefight. I got to the point of contact and dropped the ramp in the back of the APC. They were quickly loaded into the trac. I was in the driver’s seat and I could not tell how bad off they were, but I knew it was ugly. I raced my APC to the designated LZ (landing zone), where they were to be off loaded. I dropped the ramp, and seconds later heard a loud explosion in the back of the trac. One of the seals had a flash-bang grenade hooked on his flak vest. As the major was picking him up to evacuate him, the grenade inadvertently went off. I exited the driver’s seat to see the Major holding his chest. He was saved from the concussion by the flak vest he was wearing. When his vest was removed, he had a large bruise over his sternum, but he was okay. The seals were loaded on a helicopter and evacuated to safety.

The major and the rest of my team loaded back into the APC, and we were off again. We continued our search for Noriega, but we weren’t having much luck. At some point in the day, we ended up across the street from the Vatican Embassy. We had Noriega trapped inside, and now the waiting began. There were large speakers placed around the Embassy, and loud rock music was played 24 hours a day. After a few days Noriega surrendered to U.S. Marshals. It seemed to be over as fast as it started.

Very quickly I was stateside again. Not long after Operation Just Cause ended, Desert Storm began. Many units were headed to Kuwait. I remember that our unit was placed on alert for the duration. I knew that if they needed another unit we would go. Faster than anybody had expected, Desert Storm was over. The Army started asking for volunteers to leave service, because after Desert Storm the Army had too many troops.

My best friend was haunted by memories of Operation Just Cause and got a Dear John letter. He tried to kill himself, and got a medical discharge. I started having nightmares, and asked for a discharge shortly thereafter. For me, my friend was the last casualty of Operation Just Cause. I don’t know if anyone remembers me, but the 4/6 is forever burned into my memory. I will never forget my brothers, or the experiences we shared. Our good times and our losses will always be with me. I re-live every moment every night when I close my eyes. Some things do not fade with time …

 

 

Story by Edward Defreest

 

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3 replies »

  1. Thank you for your writing. I was part of the 1/133 field artillery attached to you guys. I was in Bravo Company.. you were in Charlie? I think Joe Layton (one of my field artillery buddies is in your photo on the far right holding up his M16 with his mustache! I have recently been scouring the Internet in search of Panama Invasion stuff. Wow. What a memory and poignant but a a quick flash of my life. I was in the M113 that hit another M113 and the track flew off and so we had to bail into the streets. Anyway, long story. thanks for sharing as I’ve not seen anyone write about this that was as close to it all as you, like me…

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    • Like Chris, I was one of the FIST from 5/1 FA cross-attached to 4/6 INF ( I was attached to Delta Company). I was also a 113 driver. We were on Ancon Hill the first night helping direct the AC-130 and mortar fire, then spent a few days up the street from Carcel Modelo and the Commandancia before heading to the Papal Nuncia and, eventually, the Balboa police station. Good to hear from you Chris! #kingfish

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