OPERATION JUST CAUSE: PANAMA, 1989-1990 // Featuring: Night jumps under fire from 475 feet, enemy-infested jungles, urban warfare, and bravery and badassery from American paratroopers, including the one pictured here.
This incredible war story features the father-in-law of ONE OF OUR VERY OWN guys here at CIVVIESUPPLY, SGT Wes Howell of the 82nd Airborne (pictured above). It’s a wild story with some bumps along the way, so get ready, patriots.
It was December 18th, 1989, and it was snowing at Fort Bragg. PT and showers were done, and 19-year-old Wes Howell, an enlisted paratrooper with the 82nd, had just finished off a classic breakfast of Army “scrambled eggs.”
That’s when his CO busted into the room, and announced to his unit that they were on the move: “You have two hours to pack, and don’t bother with your snivel gear.” Things were about to get tropical.
Howell went home to his new wife and broke the news that he’d be away for the holidays. He couldn’t tell her the location, even if he knew, only that it was somewhere hot.
So he arrived back on base with the rest of his unit. Gathered together for the mission brief, you could have heard a pin drop. Their CO explained that they’d be jumping into Panama that night. General Manuel Noriega, the infamous dictator of Panama, had refused to relinquish power after losing a democratic election, and he was gunning to stay in power so he could keep his international drug ring up and roaring. The Panamanians were disgusted by his regime and all the corruption and violence that came with it. The US — to say the least — didn’t stand for his methods, either.
They’d arrive by air that night, a one-way ticket from Bragg to the steamy night air above the jungles of Panama. Howell can still hear the words of his CO ringing in his hears: “You’ve been jumping from 800-1,200 feet. Tonight will be different. You’ll be jumping from 475 feet. And for any of you dumbasses who haven’t done the math yet — that’s too low for a reserve chute to open in time. So you won’t be issued one. Gentlemen, I recommend you start praying now to whatever God you believe in.”
It was a quiet ride in the belly of the plane. Each soldier did what he needed to do to prepare. It would be a short jump, and they had received word from the ground that the Rangers sent ahead had hit some snags. The Drop Zone was hot.
Howell’s plane veered off in search of safer skies, but there wasn’t any such thing. They’d have to settle for the jungle.
Suddenly, enemy fire rattled the walls of the plane. The 82nd heard the thud of each shot as they lined up to jump out of the one thing between them and the bullets. The Jump Master called out, “One Minute!” The unit echoed, “ONE MINUTE!” The fire increased.
“Thirty Seconds!” They repeated the call. Howell glanced over to see a buddy cross himself — even though this solider claimed to share occult beliefs with his favorite heavy metal bands. They locked eyes and Howell’s comrade quickly gave him the finger. “Ten Seconds!”
“TEN SECONDS!” Howell watched jumper #1 take a deep breath. The light above them turned from red to go. The door slid open, and jumper #1 immediately took a bullet. They pulled him away from the opening; jumper #2 was up. It was dominoes from then on.
Howell threw himself into the light of a full moon. A bullet cut the air inches from his left ear. But there was nothing to do but keep falling, and wait for the ground. It wasn’t far away anyway.
The static line caught and his chute furled open the second his legs crashed against the jungle canopy. It was broken branches all the way down until he slammed against a hill and rolled to the bottom, his momentum finally coming to a hard stop in a dark creek. Howell waited for his breath to come back and his night vision to kick in as he stood waist-deep in the water. Enemy fire echoed over the air as howler monkeys made their mile-long shouts heard across the night.
He was alone, in the dark, behind enemy lines.
It was pitch black. Howell stood there in the waist-deep water and attempted to catch his breath, the screams of the howler monkeys mixing with the rat-tat-tat of automatic rifle fire. He was a long way from Fayetteville.
Howell pulled out a compass and a machete and began hacking his way to the rally point. The elephant grass cut back against his arms as he cleared a path for himself. Reaching the original Drop Zone, he met six Rangers, one with a broken back, on a tarmac that was still smoking from the firefight. Just before dawn, several more of his brothers in arms appeared, including the secret Catholic, and as the sun rose over the steamy Panamanian jungle, they formed up and checked their weapons. It was time to charlie mike.
The next month was a blur. Howell raided a fort held by the Panama Defense Forces, patrolled urban streets (like the one pictured below), dodged shots from a sixth floor sniper, and — eventually — joined in the celebrations after the capture of the infamous dictator they had come to defeat, General Noreiga. Howell remembers finding rubber hoses spiked with nails for whipping prisoners — the remnants of Noreiga’s reign, and an affirmation that they had come at the right time.
The 82nd Airborne would fly home in January of ’90, jumping into Fort Bragg — this time from a reasonable altitude — on legs that were still bruised from breaking branches in the jungle a full month ago. SGT Howell’s body ached, but his lungs welcomed the cold air of home. He was met by the warm embrace of his wife, and they left to celebrate a late Christmas together. The battle was over, the mission successful.
We love celebrating America's Airborne troops — their inspiring action and the legacy they’ve left for paratroopers like us who have come behind them. It’s been an honor to share the story of our buddy’s father-in-law, SGT Wes Howell. The world would be a different place if he hadn't jumped into Panama that night. May your skies be clear and your landings smooth, patriots. AATW!
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