Panama’s leader, General Manuel Noriega had been indicted in an American court for drug offences and after surviving a failed coup d’etat, went so far as to issue a ‘declaration of war’ on the United States on the 15th of December 1989. Hostilities started on the following day when a US Marine Corps Lieutenant was murdered by Panamanian soldiers at a roadblock.
The American response was rapid. Operation Just Cause commenced in the early hours of Wednesday 20 December 1989, when US Navy SEALs attacked Paitilla Airport, where Noriega was reported to keep a possible getaway Learjet. AC130H Spectre gunships of the 16th Special Operations Squadron attacked key targets including a Panama Defense Forces (PDF) fortress known as the Comandancia, and the Puma battalion barracks just outside Omar Torrijos Airport.
The initial American assault consisted of 7,000 (of the 22,500 American troops eventually deployed for the operation) ground troop divided into five groups, airlifted into Panama by a fleet of seventy-seven C-141B Starlifters, twenty-two C-130 Hercules, and twelve C-5 Galaxy Transport aircraft. Task Force Red, spearheaded by an Army Ranger battalion and 82nd airborne troopers, made a parachute assault on Torrijos Airport and the Puma barracks, whilst a second Ranger battalion parachuted into Rio Hato, where some of Noriega’s most loyal units were based. More troops and equipment were then brought in by a second wave of forty C-141Bs and thirteen C-5s. Task Force Pacific in twenty C-141B formed a second wave parachuting into Torrijos Airport.
Meanwhile, two F-117A Nighthawks from the 37th TFW flying non-stop from Nevada , with the aid if air refuelling (the first combat use of the type), dropped 2000-lb Laser Guided Bombs on a field next to the Puma barracks to frighten the occupants and destroy AA positions.
After the first day, fighting was sporadic and scattered, though some PDF personnel continued to resist in places. Noriega took refuge in the Vatican Ambassador’s residence, before surrendering to the US Forces on the 3rd of January.
Total Casualties during Operation Just Cause consisted of 23 Americans and 200 Panamanian combatants killed, plus some 202 Panamanian civilians caught up in the fighting. A number of Panamanian aircraft were destroyed or damaged. Numerous US aircraft were also damaged including eleven C-130s and one OH-58, with three AH-6s being completely destroyed.