While today the US Navy’s Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) units have become household names for taking down Osama Bin Laden and Somali pirates, there was a time when their exploits were much more in keeping with their reputation as Silent Professionals. In 1989, during the invasion of Panama (Operation Just Cause), a team of SEALs played a quiet, but integral role to the success of the invasion.
Although Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega had been a US ally in the early 1980s, his relations with the US took a chilly turn in the late 1980s. Fueled by disputes over the Panama Canal Zone and the War on Drugs, tensions escalated between the US and Panama until December 20, 1989 when President George H.W. Bush ordered that Operation Just Cause be set into motion.
One of the primary objectives of the invasion was to secure Manuel Noriega and bring him back to the United States to stand trial. The SEALs were tasked with preventing Noriega’s escape by capturing, disabling or destroying his private jet and gunboat. A team of four SEALs used a combat rubber raiding craft (CRRC) to approach within swimming range of the gunboat. The team then silently approached the gunboat, but were detected and attacked with grenades. Despite this minor setback, the SEALs successfully planted their explosives and exfiltrated out of the area. The gunboat was destroyed and, even though the plan had originally been to merely sever the propellers with explosives, in the aftermath of the attack one of the gunboat’s engines couldn’t even be located because so much explosives had been used.
Meanwhile a team of three SEAL platoons moved on Noriega’s private, but unfortunately took 12 casualties including 4 KIA in a firefight surrounding the hangar. The jet was destroyed with rocket fire and the SEALs’ objective of sealing off Noriega’s escape routes was accomplished. Operation Just Cause concluded less than 2 weeks later when Noriega, who had holed up in the Vatican Embassy, surrendered to US forces.