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The U.S. Invades “A Little Island Called Grenada,” Part II

Planned in secret and executed quickly, the U.S. intervention garnered a mixed and fervent reaction. For the most part, the American public and Congress supported the invasion, mainly due to the need to evacuate the American medical students. However, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others criticized the Reagan Administration’s decision. After the U.S. defeated the Cuban and Grenadian forces, Ambassador Charles Anthony (Tony) Gillespie, Jr. led the effort to establish the first American Embassy in Grenada and restore political stability. The newly instated head of government Governor General Paul Scoon formally broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. It then fell on the United States to fly the Cubans and Soviets off the island.

The American press as well as a Congressional Delegation also came to Grenada to investigate the invasion. Although their initial assessment, based on very limited information, was negative, they later gave a mostly positive few of U.S. action. The UK, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Nations General Assembly all condemned the action as a violation of international law. Moreover, concerns about the poor coordination within the U.S. military branches during the invasion led to a restricting of the Defense Department in the Goldwater-Nichols Act. In his interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in September 1995, Gillespie described his role in these events and defended the Administration’s decision to invade, despite the strong opposition. Read Part I here.


“President Reagan was a reluctant warrior”

The Deputy British High Commissioner in Barbados flew over to Grenada and flew back. He was an interesting guy. He was more concerned than the British High Commissioner in Barbados about the nature of the developments on Grenada…. He brought back an oral message, not in writing, from Sir Paul Scoon (at left) that said, “We need help.” There wasn’t time to write it down and, therefore, it was questionable because this British official had already expressed his concern….

Washington was very concerned, but we assumed that the message from Sir Paul Scoon was accurately phrased and that it was valid. It was at that point that we realized that we had to figure out a way to get some message from Scoon that they really needed help, which would be usable in the event that anything happened. The OECS people took it at face value and said that that was good enough for them.

We said that issues of war and peace would have to be dealt with under Article 51 of the UN Charter. As it turned out, Chapter VIII of the OAS [Organization of American States] charter authorized coming to the aid of a member country. We were trying to figure out if there was a way for Scoon to get that message through British Commonwealth channels. Could he, as the Queens’s alter ego, get that message back through the Secretary General of the British Commonwealth to the Queen, who would then get it to the British Government? This turned out to be very difficult….

Finally, we got the word back from Scoon that they needed help. At the same time Ken Kurze said to me on the phone or otherwise, “Look, this situation has gone past the point of no return. We’re over the threshold. Anything could happen here. We have all of these American students, some of whom are scared out of their wits, and others of whom are not. There are people here with guns and fingers on the triggers. We have students who are drinking and want to go out and fight the Grenadian troops. You can imagine the situation. 1,000 young people, medical students. Some of them are nutty and some of them are not.” He felt that they could do anything. They were living all around the place….

I talked to Assistant Secretary Motley, Secretary of State Schultz, and to other people. I said, “Look, this is the situation with the students. Things have now gone too far. If we don’t move now or are ready to move on a moment’s notice, we will have failed in our responsibilities. We have to be ready to move.”… At the same time the OECS was saying, “Scoon needs help…. You must help us.” At that point Washington said, “Well, we have to be really sure about this.” Several meetings had been held in the White House Situation Room. President Reagan was a reluctant warrior. He did not easily send troops anywhere. On about October 22 the President and his advisers…. decided to send Ambassador Frank McNeill [as a representative]…. In a private meeting with me – in the bathroom – McNeill said to me, “We’ve got to do this. There’s no other way. I’m convinced.”

“Admiral, you don’t have four weeks”

So we figured out what we needed. The consular aspect was being taken care of. Now we had the other political and security aspect…. McNeill had come down to Barbados with Major General George Crist, a rising Marine Corps general who was assigned to the Joint Staff under the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Crist, Ambassador McNeill, Ambassador Bish, and others, including myself, listed what was needed…. Then Major General Crist said, “They’re not going to believe this. We’re not ready to do this. You’d have to put dynamite under the Joint Chiefs of Staff….”

At that point there was already a Task Force in being, designated JTF-120 (Joint Task Force 120)… based in Norfolk and… under CINCLANT…. Admiral McDonald [CINCLANT Commander] said that it would take about four weeks to prepare for this operation.

Well, all of our reporting stated that this situation could blow up at any time. This young Commodore got up and told Admiral McDonald, “Admiral, you don’t have four weeks. You’ve got, at most, five days.” The Admiral just laughed at him. This Commodore looked over at [Deputy Assistant Secretary] Craig Johnstone.

Craig, a good Foreign Service Officer, pounded the table and said, “Admiral, you just don’t understand this, do you? The President is about to issue an order. If you’re not prepared to comply with that order, you’re probably going to be out of the Navy.” It was just amazing.

The way it worked was that there was a Marine Amphibious Unit, a 2,000-man force, on one or more LPHs [Landing Ship, Helicopter]. This unit was already embarked and ready to go to the Mediterranean. They decided to divert that unit for the Grenada operation. This was the first step. Then they began the rest of the process, involving alerting the 82nd Airborne Division, a Ranger unit out in the State of Washington, special operations people, Navy SEAL underwater demolition teams, and all that kind of stuff.

In Barbados I received word back that we were getting ready to go. I was told through very restricted channels that D-Day in Grenada was going to be Tuesday, October 25….

There were only a couple of days left for the planners to complete the details and fold the Caribbean RSS (Regional Security System) and police elements into what would clearly be a joint U.S. military operation…. Meanwhile, there was the usual wringing of hands in Washington, second thoughts, sweaty palms, and who was going to do what… As all of this planning was going forward, there was a lot of discussion in the press about the lack of intelligence on Grenada… CIA had sent down to Barbados its Assistant Director of the Latin American Division, which covers the Caribbean.

He gave me a list of the people whom the CIA believes we should include in the new Government of Grenada. I looked at these names and, quite frankly, I hadn’t the slightest idea of who they were. I only had two resource people available. So I said to Larry Rossin, “You and Barbro Owens look over this list.” They took one look at this list and said, “Oh, hell, these are just the worst crumbumbs in the Caribbean! They’re exiles, some of them belonged to Sir Eric Gairy’s really ‘crazy’ government, and others are believed to be narcotics traffickers and crooks.”… There were a couple of people on the island who were very good. [Governor General of Grenada] Sir Paul Scoon was considered to be very honest….

So, regarding this CIA list, we said, “Let’s not rush too fast to impose a U.S.-made government in Grenada. First, there will be a lot of recovery work.”…

On Sunday, October 23, I had a phone call from Assistant Secretary Motley, who said, “Secretary Shultz and the President insist that there has to be a civilian in charge of the operation there. Someone must go immediately to Grenada and take over. We’ve looked at all kinds of names and we thought we would ask Ambassador Frank McNeill to do that. What do you think?”

I said, “Frank would be very good.” Motley, in his own way, laughed and said, “Frank won’t do it, so you’re it. The President is going to name you as the Chief of Mission.”…

Q: I take it that our primary objective was to get the American students out of there, wasn’t it? In order of priority, wasn’t this objective always the foremost consideration?

GILLESPIE: Yes, at least in my view, this was the absolutely primary purpose and the main reason for doing what we did. I never had the slightest doubt about that in my own mind and, I think, in the minds of nearly everyone else who was at all close to the scene, including some of the Washington decision makers….

“I’m scared to death, but I’ll do it”

So the decision was made to go ahead with the operation. The word that I was getting which helped me set my priorities was that we simply, absolutely, positively must have a request for assistance from Sir Paul Scoon, the Governor General of Grenada, in writing. If we didn’t have that, we would have to accept the possibility that we would have major problems around the world, politically, and in every way, but especially in Washington….

The Washington planners realized that they were going to have to tell Tip O’Neill (Democrat, Massachusetts, at left), the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and other key officials in the House and the Senate what this was all about….

We now knew that the Governor General and his wife were.… under house arrest. The Grenadian Government had stationed a couple of Armored Personnel Carriers with machine guns, blocking his driveway and the other exit from his residence…. We came to the conclusion, in discussion with the Army Special Operations people and the CIA, that we would take a senior CIA officer and Larry Rossin, if he would go…. Rossin had met Sir Paul Scoon in the past….

He and I sat down to discuss this privately. His wife was pregnant, and this operation involved his going into a potential combat situation. I said to him, “Larry, here’s the challenge. Are you willing to go?” He said, “Let me think about it.” He thought about it for, perhaps, half an hour and then came back and said, “Yes, I’ll go. I’m scared to death, but I’ll do it.”…

He was going to get on a Blackhawk helicopter with a team of Special Operations people…. They would fly in over the Governor General ‘s residence. The helicopters would drop big lines. The people going in would have big, leather gloves on and would wear jeans, jackets, and Army fatigues. They would slide about 60 feet down these lines onto the Governor General ‘s grounds. Then, presumably in a hostile environment, they would make their way into the Governor General ‘s residence, and Larry would have a nice, quiet chat with the Governor General. He would ask Sir Paul Scoon, “Would you draft a little letter to the President of the United States?”….

On the morning of October 25, 1983… Larry and his party would drop down into the Governor General’s house before… U.S. troops landed…. We took Larry Rossin out to the airport. I watched him put black camouflage cream on his face and get ready to join the other members of his team. I watched the helicopters carrying them go off. Then I did nothing but worry from then on….

D-Day in Grenada

Larry Rossin and Rooney took off in the dead of night. As they were coming over the Governor General ‘s residence in Grenada, the helicopters were hit repeatedly by gunfire. It was armor-plated on the bottom. Larry later told me what it was like to be in a helicopter that was being shot at. He was holding onto a ring. There were no seats and no doors in this helicopter. Two of the helicopters were able to land the people they were carrying. I guess that they were Navy SEALs. The helicopter with Larry Rossin and Rooney in it could not land.

The pilot was wounded in the arm and was bleeding badly. They returned to the helicopter carrier that was off Grenada and landed on it. Meanwhile, the Navy SEALs got down to Sir Paul Scoon’s residence, which they were unable to leave for 24 hours. They got in and introduced themselves to the Scoons. People were shooting at them, and they were shooting back. It really was a bad scene. A couple of hours later the big landing started and all of those military units began to go to work….

The batteries for the radios, with which the SEAL’s were communicating, began to run down after 24 hours. They decided that they had to leave Scoon’s residence via the back gate. They took Sir Paul Scoon and his wife out with them. Mrs. Scoon made it a point to tell me, Secretary Shultz, and other people, what absolute gentlemen these Navy SEALs were. She said, “These huge, bulking, big men, with their guns and their faces painted just couldn’t have been more gentle and nicer with me.”….

They put Sir Paul Scoon on a helicopter, got him out to the helicopter carrier, where he met up with Larry Rossin. They had a meeting there, and that’s where he wrote his letter requesting U.S. assistance!

On October 26 the Navy took Sir Paul Scoon ashore. They couldn’t set him up in his own residence but took him to another house. I flew in on a C-130 aircraft, landing at the airport at Point Salines, after circling for 45 minutes while a firefight took place at the end of the runway….

As I learned later, two air operations were conducted simultaneously to secure the island. This was an operation in which each of our military services had to shine. So each had to have its own Area of Responsibility (AOR). Evidently, they could not work together…. And the communications, while not a total fiasco, were not good.

It wasn’t easy for one service to talk to another service and tell them what they were doing, why, and how. In any event, the Marines came in on the northern part of the island. Point Salines is down at the southwest tip, where the main assault took place. I believe that that is where the Ranger units came in. They had boarded planes in the State of Washington and then flown down with refueling, never landing elsewhere.

They planned to do a standard parachute drop, which would, I think, have been from 1500 feet, down onto the airstrip. They were to clear the airstrip. Then the planes coming in later with the regiment from the 82nd Airborne on board would land. Everything was timed very carefully.

Well, when they arrived over the Point Salines airstrip, the Ranger aircraft found that the anti-aircraft fire from the ground was tremendously intense. These planes were unable to make the runs which they had planned to make to drop the Rangers from 1500 feet up. However, they also found that the Soviet made ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns could not depress their barrels enough to cover an area between the ground and 1000 feet above sea level over the airstrip. So, for the first time since World War II, American paratroops made a 500-foot drop over the airstrip. That’s a pretty short drop for these Rangers. They all did it, and not too many of them were badly hurt. They came in and immediately cleared the airstrip….

We assumed that it was Cubans [shooting Soviet equipment at the Rangers]. As it turned out later, the number of Cubans on Grenada was probably about 360, and not 1,000 or so. There were about 7,000 troops in the People’s Army of Grenada. The Cubans probably really were in a Construction Battalion. They were not first-line combat troops, as such. But the Cubans all had their guns, their barracks, and places where they had their AK-47s, helmets, and so forth, although they normally didn’t work in uniform.

They fought very hard; 56 of them were killed and some number were wounded…. Calivigny Point, just East of the end of the airstrip… was a major military base for the People’s Army. As it turned out, there is where the bodies of Maurice Bishop and others were taken after they were murdered. That was also where the Cubans were training the Grenadian military forces. There was sporadic and intermittent fighting there, which lasted for two or three days until it could be cleaned up.

Building our first Embassy in Grenada

I flew into Grenada on October 26 and immediately went and met with Sir Paul Scoon…. He said that he was frightened to death that we would never come… [and]  the situation had really begun to deteriorate…. On the night of October 26 an Air Force colonel from JCS, and some three or four State Department communicators set up TACSAT satellite Fax and voice communication links in a house we commandeered near the Point Salines airstrip. We set that up as our little base of operations. That was our first Embassy in Grenada….

Even though the invasion didn’t touch many Grenadians directly, the hospital up on the hill above St. George’s had been bombed because it was perceived to be an enemy strong point. It turned out that this had been a mental hospital and a prison, and there had been people up there shooting. There were Americans who came under fire and were wounded as they tried to clear out the mental hospital, which was defended by Grenadians, not by Cubans. Unfortunate things happen….

There really were no other Cubans on the island beyond the 360 in the construction battalion. Colonel Tortola was the commander of the Cubans…. He happened to have been sent to Grenada on October 21, just four days before this all started, probably because of the difficulties resulting from the murder of Prime Minister Bishop….

As soon as the Cubans found out that they were really up against the might of the United States, Colonel Tortola, rather wisely, was reported to have said, “Come on, you guys, let’s get out of here.” He planned to “get out of here” by going to the Soviet Embassy, which was a large establishment – big grounds, big fences, big walls, located on a hillside.

I learned that one of my first diplomatic encounters as a new Chief of Mission was going to be to get the Cubans out of Grenada. The 82nd Airborne Division had killed or captured most of the Cubans. Now they just wanted to get rid of the remaining Cubans on the island…. The 82nd Airborne had ringed the Soviet Embassy with armored personnel carriers, machine guns, and troops…. We had also ringed the Cuban Embassy….

I kept saying to our generals, “Don’t kill anybody but don’t let anybody move, either.”… We decided who could go into town, what they could do, what they needed, and so forth…. After intense consultations with Washington it was decided that we would get the Cubans out of Grenada…. Another key role of Sir Paul Scoon was that he was, by every legal interpretation – in the United States, in the Caribbean, and in Great Britain – the only legitimate authority in Grenada…. Using his powers, Sir Paul Scoon broke relations immediately with Cuba….

“It is a damned, tiny island, and I’m going to be very glad that you’ve given us an excuse to get out of here”

Our intelligence, which mainly came from a lot of troops watching them, was pretty sure that the Cubans in the Soviet Embassy compound had weapons…. We did not want the Soviet Ambassador to leave his compound. This was easy because, as it turned out, he refused to leave his compound. I went to meet with him at the gates of the Soviet compound. He told me that the reason that he did not wish to leave his compound was that the Cubans were armed. He was concerned about what would happen if he left the compound and relinquished authority to someone else.

I asked him what he wanted to do. He said, “I want to get out of here…. We have burned all of our codes. We have destroyed all of our communications gear because we didn’t know whether you were going to attack our Embassy. Would you be good enough to send a message to Moscow for us?” So I said, “Sure.” So he went back to draft his message. He said that he would write it in English because we would want to read it….

The Soviet Ambassador left his second ranking officer, the senior Commercial Officer, Boris Nikolayev, to talk with me while he drafted his message to Moscow…. Boris and I had been in Mexico at the same time…. [and] he remembered me…. Boris made one of those statements that sort of stick in your mind.

He said, “I remember our days in Mexico City. I’ve really enjoyed my time in this Hemisphere, in the Americas. I love your country. My wife is with me. We don’t have any children. We’ve been on this island now for almost two years. Mr. Ambassador, it’s a lovely island. It’s truly beautiful. The beaches are white, the mountains are high, and the lake is pretty. The people are delightful. However, it is a damned, tiny island, and I’m going to be very glad that you’ve given us an excuse to get out of here.”…

It was decided that the U.S. Navy would send in a couple of DC-9 jet aircraft. They would take out all of the members of the Soviet Embassy…. At the airport I turned to the Soviet Ambassador as the boss of the Eastern European contingent and the Cubans. He knew that I was going to hold him responsible for what happened at the airport…. They had classified material which they wanted to take in a diplomatic pouch. I said…  we were going to have to check to make sure that there was no trouble on these aircraft, which would be carrying a lot of people….

Meantime, the U.S. intelligence people were very concerned about what was inside several bigger boxes and crates which were nailed shut and sealed. However, they were not listed as diplomatic material. There was one box addressed to “The Foreign Ministry, Moscow, USSR.”…

Larry Rossin, who was in charge of this… said… “We think that we ought to take a look inside it.”…  They did. And that’s when we found the AK- 47 assault rifles, actually loaded with clips full of ammunition, with rounds in the chambers of several of them…. We looked at several options. One was to call the whole evacuation off and hold everybody. The other was to go forward but, from now on, open everything, check everything, and don’t let anything go unchecked. We ran through all of this….

When I reported this discovery on the phone to Assistant Secretary Motley, and thus to the State Department, that generated a tremendous amount of activity in Washington…. Motley said, “Look, this is really a hell of a development. There are a lot of people back here who think that we ought to shut the whole evacuation down. This indicates that the Soviets are in complicity with the Cubans in this whole thing. We can shut this down and hold these people, squeeze them a little, and really search everybody and everything rigidly. What do you think, how do you think that that will ‘play’ there?”….

I said, “We want these people off this island. I don’t want them on this island any longer. With or without guns we have 82nd Airborne and Military Police guarding them. We’ve got them out at the airport. Tony, this is going to be a major headache if we stop it.”… As it turned out, Motley was under pressure from these crazy guys over at the NSC. These were these right wing nuts who were saying, “Here’s a chance to stick it to the Commies.” I held as firm as I could and said that it would be a bad idea to hold up the evacuation….

“The military literally put the press, if that’s possible, in a pressure cooker”

Another part of the Grenadian question was the press, which posed a major management issue…. The Pentagon and the commanders on the ground had reached the conclusion that they were going to keep the press totally under wraps. Again, I think that this was part of the sequel to the Vietnam [War]. The U.S. military did not want to have any journalists running around. On reflection, it’s always been interesting to me that the press never really learned of the Grenadian operation before the fact. It was quite remarkable….

In any event, the press was fighting to get into the military operation. There were reporters who got on boats, sailed to Grenada, and actually landed in Grenada to avoid the military controls. Well, by the time I got there the military knew that the press fever was at a tremendously high point. So they said to me, “Good! This is for you to handle.”The military literally put the press, if that’s possible, in a pressure cooker. The pressure kept building and building and building. Then the military took the lid off. The way they took the lid off was to put all of the press people on C-130 aircraft and fly them into Grenada. Then they told me, “They’re yours.”…

When they got off the airplane, they were under the joint escort, if you will, of both the USIA [United States Information Agency] and the military public affairs people. The reporters were skeptical. They were angry, cynical, and doubtful. They felt that this was all a big phony deal. I must say, on behalf of the military public affairs people and the people from USIA, that they had done the best they could to give the reporters the best show that we could provide, under the circumstances….

If I remember correctly, we got all of the students out of there within 48 hours of the time the troops first landed…. The military were doing it. There were students in places that we hadn’t expected them to be. We put out the word through people who went around in jeeps, with bullhorns and all that stuff. Within 48 hours we had collected all of these students…. We said their evacuation was voluntary, but we didn’t want to leave it at that…. The State Department sent a team down from Washington to pick up the students. We had to wait until the airport, Point Salines, was open. They sent in large aircraft….

The press was there for their departure. The students were happy but kind of reluctant to leave…. They wanted to know what was going on and they were curious. However, they all got on the aircraft and left Grenada. Up in the U.S., the first plane landed, the door opened, and the first student came out. He fell down to the ground and kissed the ground! I’ve wondered about it ever since. How did Shapiro [the FSO escort] get this guy to do it? He insists that it didn’t take much urging. It was not totally spontaneous, but the point is that, almost to a person, these [800-1,000] students said, “This was really a bad situation. U.S. intervention was the right thing to do. That place was a mess, and things were going to get worse before they got better.”…

That reaction set this up so that our military and our politicians began to say, “Wait a minute. This is not bad. This is good.” And in typical fashion they said, “Let me touch it, let it rub off on me.” They were all pleased.

The press began to change from being terribly doubtful, cynical, and skeptical about the intervention in Grenada to taking a more positive view of it, particularly as the second team of reporters came in. They were looking for stories to write…

We found Grenadians, and the reporters found more Grenadians, who were willing to tell the reporters all about their experiences. First of all, Grenadians are very nice people…. So if a journalist walked up to somebody on the street and said, “Hello, ma’am, how are you? Good day.” He’d get a friendly reply. The reporter would say, “Well, tell me what life was like, particularly under the New Jewel Movement.” The person told them pretty straight. Many of the people, 90 percent of whom were Catholic, definitely not communist or socialist, said, “Well, the Americans saved our lives! This was better than World War II! You think that the liberation of Paris was great. We are delighted to have the Americans here.”…. So the reaction of the Grenadian people became the story that the press reported. That generated a positive echo.

“They were just going to have to accept that the Grenadian affair was a positive development”

The next big event that happened was that during the first three or four days Congressman Tom Foley, on behalf of Tip O’Neill, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a group of Democratic members of the House came down for a visit to Grenada…. On November 4, CODEL (Congressional Delegation) Foley arrived…. The Democratic members of the delegation were getting ready to do Reagan in….

We started our major show and tell for these guys. They made their inquiries. I would tell them, “Marines were killed here. Helicopters were there. This was the headquarters. This was the hospital that was attacked. This is where this and this incident happened. This was all shot up. This is where Maurice Bishop’s body was found,” and so forth. We took them out to the first arms storage areas or depots that we had found. We had really done nothing to them. They were just as we found them. We had just opened the door, but they were heavily guarded. The guns were just stacked all over the place, with boxes of ammunition containing millions and millions of rounds….

You could sense the beginning of a change in mood here. They began to think, “Hey, this isn’t right. This wasn’t a good situation. These may not have been nice, innocent people who were just sitting here, and the U.S. came in with a force like a whirlwind and whacked them around the head and shoulders to make ourselves look good in an anti-communist way. Maybe there was something going on here.”…

The CODEL met with the [Caribbean] leaders in the same conference center [in Bridgetown] where we had negotiated Caribbean participation in the operation in Grenada…. All five or six of the island Prime Ministers lined up on one side, a pretty impressive and imposing looking group. On the other side were Congressmen Foley and the other Congressmen…. The American Congressmen started asking why did the Americans do this, why did the American administration force you to do that – really hostile kinds of questions.

Prime Minister Tom Adams sat there, and I could see him beginning to react to these questions. Finally, he stood up and said, “Gentlemen, let’s get something straight. This is not your country. We are Heads of Government. We are not your constituents. We are not responsible to you or accountable to you in any way. We are deeply appreciative of what the United States of America has done to help us in an hour of real need. The situation in Grenada had gone bad and needed to be dealt with.” Each of the other Prime Ministers got up in turn and made similar statements.

By the time they finished, the tone of the meeting had changed dramatically. All of the energy had shifted to the other side of the table. That’s the point at which some of the members of our Congress began to change their tune….

It became very apparent that Congressman Foley was going to have to go back and tell Tip O’Neill that he just couldn’t beat the daylights out of President Reagan over this. They were just going to have to accept that the Grenadian affair was a positive development.