12/20/2023  MyRangerBiz.com

The Invasion of Panama, 1989: The Role of Airborne Rangers and Casualties

Background and Prelude

On December 20, 1989, a major military operation, later known as Operation Just Cause, was initiated by the United States in Panama. Ordered by President George H. W. Bush, this invasion aimed to address several key issues, including the protection of American citizens, the restoration of democratic governance, the elimination of drug trafficking, and the capture of Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega.

The Role of Airborne Rangers

Among the forces involved in the operation were the U.S. Army's Airborne Rangers, an elite Airborne infantry unit of the 75th Ranger Regiment. These aren't the Ranger school graduates. This is the elite special operations fighting unit of which few have served.  These Rangers played a crucial role in the invasion, conducting high-risk airborne assaults, jumping out of C141 aircraft at 500 feet and securing key objectives. One of their primary missions was the assault on the Panamanian Defense Forces’ barracks and command centers, which were critical to crippling Noriega’s military capabilities. The skill and bravery of these Rangers were instrumental in the rapid success of the operation, showcasing their expertise in executing complex and dangerous missions.  Every year, Rangers pay homage to this day and our brothers who were lost.  

Casualties and Losses

The invasion, while successful in achieving its objectives, came at a significant human cost. Among the U.S. forces, 23 service members were killed in action, including several Airborne Rangers. These losses underscored the perils of the operation and the sacrifices made by those involved. Additionally, more than 300 U.S. personnel were wounded during the conflict.  Though Rangers were the main fighting force, it should be noted there were many who participated in various capacities.  See list below.

The Panamanian civilian casualties were also substantial, though the exact numbers remain a subject of debate. Estimates range widely, with some sources claiming hundreds of civilians lost their lives as a result of the invasion. These civilian deaths and the associated destruction in Panama City and other areas sparked controversy and international debate about the operation's conduct.

The Capture of Noriega and Aftermath

The operation culminated in the surrender of General Noriega, who sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy before giving himself up to U.S. forces. He was subsequently tried and convicted on drug trafficking charges in the United States. In Panama, the invasion paved the way for the establishment of a democratically elected government.

International Reaction

Internationally, reactions to the invasion were mixed. While some countries viewed it as a necessary step to restore democracy in Panama, others criticized it as a violation of international law and an unjustified use of military force against a sovereign nation.

The invasion of Panama, with the critical involvement of the Airborne Rangers and the subsequent casualties, remains a complex and contentious event in history. It highlights the challenges and ethical dilemmas inherent in military interventions and continues to provoke discussion about the use of force in international relations.

We honor the memories of those Rangers killed in action:
1st Ranger Battalion:  PFC James W. Markwell 
2nd Ranger Battalion: SPC Phillip S. Lear, PFC John M. Price
3rd Ranger Battalion: SSG Larry Barnard, PFC Roy D. Brown JR 
As well as all the Service Members who were killed:
The following is a list of names of U.S. service members killed in Panama while participating in the U.S. military operation "Just Cause" in December 1989.
BranchRank & NameHometown
 SSG Larry BarnardHallstead, PA
 PFC Roy D. Brown Jr.Buena Park, CA
 PVT Vance T. CoatsGreat Falls, MT
 SPC Jerry S. DavesNorth Carolina
 SGT Michael A. DebloisDubach, LA
 PFC Martin D. DensonAbilene, TX
 PFC William D. GibbsMarina, CA
 SPC Phillip S. LearWestminster, SC
 SPC Alejandro Manriquelozano*Lauderhill, FL
 PFC James W. MarkwellCincinnati, Ohio
 CPL Ivan M. PerezPawtucket, R.I
 PFC John M. PriceConover, WI
 PFC Scott L. RothKilleen, TX
 PVT Kenneth D. ScottPrinceton, WV
 1LT John R. HunterVictor, MT
 CW2 Wilson B. OwensMyrtle Beach, SC
 CW2 Andrew P. PorterSaint Clair, MI
 PVT James A. Taber Jr.Montrose, CO
 LT(JG) John ConnorsArlington, MA
 BM1 Chris TilghmanKailua, HA
 ENC Donald McFaulDeschutes, OR
 TM2 Issac G. Rodriguez IIIMissouri City, TX
 Cpl. Garreth C. IsaakGreenville, SC

The U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard participated in Operation Just Cause.

Ground forces consisted of:
  • combat elements of the XVIII Airborne Corps,
  • the 82nd Airborne Division,
  • the 7th Infantry Division (Light),
  • the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne),
  • the 75th Ranger Regiment,
  • Tactical Air Control Parties from the 507th and 602nd Tactical Air Control Wings and the 24th Composite Wing
  • Combat Controllers from the 1721st Combat Control Squadron
  • a Joint Special Operations Task Force
  • elements of the 5th Infantry Division
    • 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment
    • 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment (replacing 1/61st in September 1989)
  • 16th Military Police Brigade (Airborne), Fort Bragg North Carolina
  • 503rd Military Police Battalion (Airborne), Fort Bragg
  • 21st Military Police Company (Airborne), Fort Bragg
  • 65th Military Police Company, Fort Bragg
  • 108th Military Police Company (Air Assault), Fort Bragg
  • 519th Military Police Battalion
  • 1138th Military Police Company, Missouri Army National Guard
  • 988th Military Police Company, Fort Benning, Georgia
  • 555th Military Police Company, Fort Lee, Virginia
  • 534th Combat Military Police, Fort Clayton, Panama
  • 193rd Infantry Brigade
    • 5th Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment
    • 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment
  • 8th Ordnance Company (Ammo), Ft Bragg, NC (Select detachment attached to SOUTHCOM)
  • Marine Security Forces Battalion Panama,
  • Company K, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment,
  • Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams,
  • 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion,
  • 2nd Marine Logistics Group 39th Combat Engineer Battalion Co C.
  • 511th Military Police Company, Fort Drum, New York
  • 9th Infantry Regiment (Fort Ord, California, United States)
  • 63rd Security Police Squadron, Norton Air Force Base, California
  • 401st Military Police Company, Fort Hood, Texas

Air logistic support was provided by the 22nd Air Force with air assets from the 60th, 62nd, and 63rd military airlift wings.

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