~ 720th Military Police Battalion Reunion Association History Project ~
Operation JUST CAUSE
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89th MP
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Last Updated       9 August 2013
720th MP
The Republic of Panama
20-27 December 1989
1988 The Contingency Plan BLUE SPOON was initiated.
February Planning for the Panama contingency began in February 1988, including a series of orders that addressed the defense of the Old Canal Zone, noncombatant evacuation, neutralization of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), and Civil Military Operations (CMO). The operation plan (OPLAN) for offensive operations was named BLUE SPOON.
1989 GEN Noriega overturns the Presidential election and declares War on the United States.
May Panamanian candidate Guillermo Endara was elected President by 62,5% of the vote, against 24,9% of the vote for the party of GEN Manual A. Noriega who refused to recognize the election and annulled the results through his influence over the National Assembly.

August, exact date unknown The 401st MP Company, 720th MP Battalion (Fort Hood, Texas) under the command of CPT Steven S. Rathburn, was deployed to the Republic of Panama as part of a four month security rotation under Operation PRAYERBOOK.

   They were first assigned subordinate to the 504th MP Battalion (Fort Lewis, Washington), and later to the 519th MP Battalion (Fort Meade, Maryland), who would replace the 504th.

504th MP
519th MP

   The 401st performed law enforcement, manned static security posts, jungle patrol, VIP security and short notice Quick Reaction Force (QRF) operations. They also picked up armed mail escorts to Torrijos International Airport, and 24 hour patrols of primary routes between U.S. military installations.

September The Joint Task Force South (JTFSO), revised PLAN BLUE SPOON. It was changed from BLUE SPOON to PLAN 90-2.

3 October The crushed coup attempt by Major Moisés Giroldi Vega, formerly a close supporter of General Noriega, and the immediate execution of the coup participants, caused PLAN 90-2 to be updated when the PDF displayed the capability to quickly reinforce units in Panama City.

   The Company was required to post heavily armed platoons from the company to provide hasty defensive perimeters around the Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) headquarters, as well as the American high school in Panama City.

November As the result of a car bomb threat from the Madeline Drug Cartel against U.S. interest, the company worked long hours of searches and machine gun over watch positions at U.S. installation gates.

17 November On Thanksgiving Day, the military dependants at Fort Clayton went out of their way to ease the pain of the members of the company who were now separated from their families and loved ones.

15 December The National Assembly of Panama elected GEN Noriega as President, declared that a state of war existed with the United States and announced measures to confront foreign aggression.

16 December The 401st was scheduled to end their rotation duty and return home to Fort Hood, Texas so they packed up their gear and equipment. On the same day, Panamanian Defense Forces at a road block in Panama City shot and killed LT Robert Pazz (U.S. Marines) and badly beat a U.S. Navy Lieutenant and his wife.

   The regime of GEN Noriega, the de facto head of state, corrupted by the international Medellin Drug Cartel (Colombia), was barely clinging to power. Deserted by all but a small number of cronies, and distrustful of a shaken and demoralized PDF, GEN Noriega began increasingly to rely on his irregular paramilitary Dignity Battalion's (DIGBAT's) to suppress governmental and civilian decent. The DIGBATs were also running unchecked in the capital city and conducting kidnappings, rapes, robberies and murders at will. The regime's paranoia made daily existence unsafe for U.S. forces, citizens and all other foreign nationals.


   The country was in a state of civil collapse and President George H. W. Bush decided it was time to remove GEN Noriega from power and restore a democratic government in Panama. The administration also offered several additional reasons to launch an armed invasion of a sovereign country including, danger to U.S. personnel, interests under rights created by the Panama Canal Treaty, and an indictment for drug-running charges against GEN Noriega pending in U.S. federal court.

17 December The National Command Authority (NCA) directed the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to execute PLAN 90-2, Code Name: Operation JUST CAUSE.

18 December Joint Task Force South (JTFSO) received the JCS execute order with a D-Day and H-Hour of 20 December 0100 Hours [1:00 AM] local. The operation was to be conducted as a campaign with limited military objectives.

The objectives in PLAN 90-2 (Operation Just Cause) were to:

A. Protect U.S. lives and key sites and facilities.
B. Capture and deliver GEN Noriega to competent authority.
C. Neutralize PDF forces.
D. Neutralize PDF command and control.
E. Support establishment of a U.S.-recognized government in Panama with official recognition of (deposed) President-elect Guillermo Endara.
F. Restructure the PDF.

   At Fort's Bragg, Benning, Polk, Hood, Stewart and Ord, D-Day forces were alerted, marshaled, and scheduled to launch on a fleet of 148 aircraft. The 401st, still awaiting orders for redeployment to Fort Hood was told to ‘Load down,’ for what were at that juncture, unknown reasons.


19 December CPT Rathburn was briefed on Operation Just Cause (Plan 90-2), by the Commander of the 519th MP Battalion. He was further directed not to brief the company leadership until 1900 Hours [7:00 PM].

1900 Hours The Company Staff were briefed on the operation and made ready for immediate deployment to their assignments. Because the PDF weapons, field uniforms and webgear were very similar to that of U.S. soldiers, all members of the company were instructed to wear their MP brassard on the right arm and a white cloth band on the left as part of the operational security plan and to lessen the chance of fratricide (friendly fire).

   The platoon's moved out before H-Hour (2400 hours), fully combat loaded, with the mission to secure key highways, roads and facilities, and to neutralize local PDF patrols throughout their area of operations.

2315 Hours At 11:15 PM, deposed Presidential candidate-elect Guillermo Endara was inaugurated as the President of Panama at an undisclosed U.S. military base before the first troops from bases in the U.S. were scheduled to land.

20 December, D-Day Panama, Operation JUST CAUSE

   Deposed President-elect Guillermo D. Endard and Vice Presidents Calderon and Ford were officially sworn into office to restore a legitimate government, rally the Panamanian people and support the ouster of GEN Noriega.

2400 Hours First strike forces from the U.S. consisting of the 75th Ranger Regiment and 82d Airborne Division conducted airborne assaults to secure key objectives at Rio Hato, and the Torrijos/Tocumen airports to facilitate the landing of additional combat and support units.

401st Military Police Company D-Day OPLAN

First Platoon Led by 1LT Colleen Watson and SSG Jeffery Allison, secured several principal facilities and established two roadblocks near Albrook Air Force Base.

Casualty PFC Scott L. Roth, the 1st Platoon machine gunner, was killed in action during a fire-fight at Check Point-12, Diablo Heights area with a PDF Patrol. The platoon captured two PDF prisoners.

Second Platoon Led by 1LT Robert Byrd and SFC William “Bill” Lee, had one of the two assault missions delegated to Military Police during the operation. The platoon assaulted and secured Pier-18, code name Objective Shark, manned by a small contingent of PDF personnel.

   In the resulting fire-fight, during which the MP’s used their automatic weapons, grenade launchers and light-anti tank rockets, they severely damaged a PDF gunboat, captured seven PDF personnel, over 100 suspected civilian sympathizers, and seized over $300,000.00 in cocaine.

Casualties Two MP’s were wounded during the action, PFC's Eric Jones and Jim Hankins. One was evacuated, the other treated and returned to duty.

Third Platoon Led by 2LT Penny Legner and SSG Philip Grey, secured several important facilities. Part of the 3rd Platoon was also the reserve force, but before the nights activities was over, everyone had been assigned as reinforcements to the other platoons.


The Team of Nopper-Kailanen-White"  PVT Michael D. White, 3rd Platoon, 401st MP Company, 720th MP Battalion, 89th MP Brigade, 1989-1990.

Fourth Platoon Led by SFC Joe Fullen, secured the Mira Flores and Pedro Miguel locks on the Panama Canal and the Swing Bridge, which is one of the two bridges crossing the canal on the Pacific side. The Swing Bridge was vital to the movement of mechanized infantry tasked with assaulting objectives in Panama City. During their mission they experienced hostile mortar file and captured a PDF prisoner.

     " I was only a Specialist, I was a fire team leader (only team leader that was not an E-5). My squad was sent to secure the Pedro Miguel Locks on the Panama Canal. We left Ft. Clayton at 0000 hours and made a right on the road. Along the way, one Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) Car passed us going the other way. Since I was in the lead vehicle, I instructed my driver to drive in the middle of the road and STOP whoever was next.
     The next car was a Panamanian Police Car (Balboa Police). We stopped him, instructed him to get out of his car instead he went for his radio. An immediate threat to us, I instructed the crew to open fire. Good thing it was dark and he ducked, because the approximately twenty M-60 rounds, ten M-16 rounds, and my seven 12 Gauge 00 buck rounds all passed over his head. By this point several other cars started to stop at the scene, one of which had several U.S. service members going back to their base. When they inquired as to what was going on, my gunner yelled back, "You are in the wrong F-ing place at the wrong F-ing time, get back to your unit". We removed him from the vehicle, we were all a little scared, and he was now our prisoner.
     We made to our objective, which was about another 500 yards down the road, and set up our security. It turns out that the prisoner we had captured had a couple of daughters, either dating or married to U.S. service men, and his name was Arthur; we called him Art. To this day I thank god we didn't kill him (as I am sure he is too, we were not the best shots that night). I don't know if I could ever forgive myself knowing what I know now. It wasn't for another couple days I found out Private Scott Lee Roth from 1st platoon was killed in front of Ft. Amador, and two of my friends from 2nd platoon, Specialist Eric Jones and Jim Hankins, were wounded
     It's been almost 24 years and I still remember their names and what happened as if it had just happened. We were out of contact with the unit for at least another 24 hours when someone from 401st HQ finally found our position. We took the only POW 4th platoon saw and possibly one of the first POWs out of the whole invasion." SPC Steven M. Wood, 4th Platoon, 3rd Squad, 401st MP Company, 720th MP Battalion, 1987-1990.
Headquarters Platoon Comprised of food service personnel, mechanics, clerks and other non MP soldiers, delivered barricades to roadblocks while under fire, guarded PDF prisoners, and provided the perimeter security for the company’s Tactical Operations Center (TOC).
   The 82d Airborne Division and 1st Brigade task force made up of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, parachuted into combat for the first time since World War II, landed at Torrijos International Airport, Panama. The paratroopers were joined on the ground by 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment which was already in Panama. After the night combat jump and seizure of the airport, the 82nd conducted follow-on combat air assault missions in Panama City and the surrounding areas.

   They were followed later by the 2nd and 1st Brigades, 7th Infantry Division (Light), while the in-place forces comprised of the 3d Brigade (-), 7th Infantry Division (Light); 193rd Infantry Brigade (Light) and 4-6 Infantry, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), assaulted objectives in both Panama City and on the Atlantic side of the Canal.

    President George H. W. Bush addressed the nation on Operation JUST CAUSE.

   By the first day, all D-Day objectives were secured. As initial forces moved to new objectives, follow-on forces from 7th Infantry Division (Light) moved into the western areas of Panama and into Panama City.

82nd Airborne
7th Infantry
5th Infantry

401st MP Company OPLAN 21 December 1989 - 6 January 1990

First Platoon Conducted house-to-house searches and provided convoy escorts; at Tocumen, they assisted the 1/75th Rangers in a three day sweep through the surrounding countryside; later, they moved to Panama City to act as a reaction force for the 5/87th Infantry.

Second Platoon Conducted house-to-house searches and moved to Torrijos International Airport to assume internal security for the terminal building during the evacuation of hundreds of foreign nationals. In addition, they manned two check points and, in conjunction with the Rangers, controlled external access to the airport. When hostilities ended, they escorted about forty visiting VIP’s, including members of Congress.

Third Platoon Conducted convoy escorts into Panama City and escorted prisoners of war to the main POW camp. They also provided security for the Secretary of Defense, the SOUTHCOM commander, and the Sergeant Major of the Army during his visit. Later they conducted joint patrols with repatriated Panamanian civilian police and assisted with establishing police stations in Ancon and Balboa.

Friendly Fire, 21 December, Day Two of Operation Just Cause  PVT Michael D. White, 3rd Platoon, 401st MP Company, 720th MP Battalion, 89th MP Brigade, 1989-1990.

Fourth Platoon Conducted convoy escorts into Panama City, assisted the police stations in Ancon and Balboa, in addition to providing gate security at Fort Clayton.

Headquarters Platoon Provided TOC security at Tocumen and Torrijos, guarded a warehouse full of captured arms, provided assistance with the numerous unit moves and other needed support services.

Operation JUST CAUSE

6 January The 401st MP Company redeployed from Panama to Fort Hood, Texas.

   During Operation JUST CAUSE, 20 December 1989 through 9 January 1990, its chain of command became fluid. From 19 to 23 December the 401st served subordinate to the 519th MP Battalion, 193rd Infantry Brigade. From 23 December 1968 to 9 January 1990, in addition to the aforementioned units they also served subordinate to the 16th MP Brigade, 503rd MP Battalion, and 82nd Airborne Division.

   The 401st was probably the first military police unit in Operation Just Cause to experience hostile fire.

   For the first time in the Battalions history, female MPs fought alongside their male counterparts against a hostile military force, and all performed superbly.

   The soldiers of the 401st MP Company received three Purple Heart Medals (one posthumously), two Bronze Star Medals, and several Army Commendation Medals.

   For its overall actions, the company was awarded the Valorous Unit Award.

In Retrospect

   The high casualties and use of resources usually associated with all-out urban warfare did not occur. The United States suffered 23 Killed In Action and 324 Wounded In Action, with estimated enemy casualties around 450. There were an estimated 200 to 300 Panamanian civilian fatalities. Some were killed by the PDF or Dignity Battalions, others inadvertently by U.S. troops. More civilians almost certainly would have been killed or wounded had it not been for the discipline of the American forces and their stringent rules of engagement.

   However, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights put the civilian death toll at 500; the Central American Human Rights Defense Commission (CODEHUCA) and the Peace and Justice Service of Panama both claimed between 2,000 to 3,000; the Panamanian National Human Rights Commission and an independent inquiry by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark claimed over 4,000, with thousands injured. NOTE: All of the aforementioned commissions, to include the former Attorney General, have been historically influenced by a Marxist-Socialist ideology especially hostile to the U.S. government and its armed forces.

   As it turned out, the figure of Panamanian dead was large enough to stimulate debate over the need for the invasion to remove Noriega, but not large enough to generate a sense of outrage in Panama or abroad, or to turn the Panamanian people against the US intervention or the nation rebuilding program that followed it.

   The U.S. troops involved in Operation JUST CAUSE achieved their primary objectives quickly, and troop withdrawal began on December 27.

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