Operation JUST CAUSE: Navy SEALs in Panama

Operation JUST CAUSEOn the night of 19 December 1989 the United States invaded Panama. During the invasion, U.S. Navy SEALs were tasked with two missions: (1) disable a boat in which President General Manuel Noriega might use to escape; and, (2) disable Noriega’s Learjet at Patilla Field – to also prevent him from escaping.

The boat attack went well – it was indeed “disabled.” In typical SEAL fashion; however, so many explosives were placed under the hull that one engine was never found!

The airfield raid succeeded; however, sadly four exceptional SEALs were killed and eight seriously wounded.

As a part of Operation JUST CAUSE, three SEAL Platoons were deployed on a mission to deny use of Panama’s Punta Paitilla Airfield to General Noriega and key Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) personnel. The SEALs were assigned to disable General Noriega’s personal Learjet and other selected aircraft, and to hold the airfield until relieved by conventional forces at H+5 hours (“H” hour was the established time when all coordinated military operation would begin).

As nightfall settled over Panama the SEALs deployed using support craft from Special Boat Unit 26 and Zodiac F-470 combat rubber raiding craft. They began infiltration at the southern end of the airfield at 2315 (11:00 p.m.). As the force clandestinely moved ashore, sounds of artillery fire began to fill the air from battles unfolding in and around Panama City.

The platoons continued with all possible speed to reach the PDF hangars on the northwestern side of the runway. At that point the SEALs had determined that General Noriega’s jet had been moved into one of the hangars. The two squads took up position the within 100 feet of the hangar, when they received several long bursts of fire.

In the initial volley, eight of the nine SEALs were wounded. House guards across the airfield also began to fire upon their position; putting them in a deadly cross-fire. Several SEALs were now dead, and those that weren’t were having a hard time dealing with wounds and getting out of their heavy man-packed equipment.

ENC (SEAL) Don McFaul came to realize that the men from one squad were not responding to orders and were, in fact, all lying wounded in exposed positions; most barely able to operate their weapons. McFaul immediately responded to help the numerous wounded. As he urgently began pulling fellow SEALs to safety, he was himself hit and mortally wounded by enemy automatic weapons fire. Surviving SEALs began dragging casualties away, several becoming casualties themselves in the process. An order was given for the Learjet to be taken out by rocket, which hit the aircraft cleanly, destroying any chance of it being used to escape.

U.S. Navy SEALs killed at Paitilla airfield were LT John Connors, ENC Don McFaul, Torpedoman’s Mate 2nd Class Issac Rodriguez, and Botswain’s Mate 1st Class Chris Tilghman.

During the intense gun-fight, Don McFaul intentionally laid himself across a Teammate to protect him, and was recognized by posthumous award of the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart Medals. USS McFaul (DDG-74) is an Arleigh Burke Class destroyer named in honor of CPO Don McFaul.

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