It is the anniversary of the invasion of Grenada which took place 30 years ago. The following article, The Guard in Grenada by Dale L. Thompson was first published in Naval Institute Proceedings in November, 1984.
In late October 1983, Grenada was torn by internal revolution. Its Marxist government had come apart, and conditions of anarchy and bloody repression were reported. Concerns for the lives of the U. S. citizens on the island and for stability in that portion of the Caribbean led to the 25 October rescue mission. The invasion force contained personnel from all the U. S. services and six other Caribbean Island states, which made up the Caribbean Peacekeeping Force (CPF). The U. S. Coast Guard participated on the invasion day with two search and rescue platforms, a C-130 aircraft, and the USCGC Chase (WHEC-718). Later, in December, the Coast Guard returned in force to the island.
By November 1983, organized resistance to the combined U. S. and Caribbean Peacekeeping Force rescue mission had collapsed. But an ongoing security presence was needed to give the country time to reestablish order and decide its future without outside interference. Psychologically, the population was still shaken by the events of the previous weeks and cowed by two successive autocratic governments – one right wing, one Marxist.
An interim government had been formed. Led by the former British Crown Colony adviser, Sir Paul Scoon, it was a volunteer advisory council primarily composed of businessmen with little political experience. Their challenges were many. They needed to restart the democratic process, pay a crushing inherited national debt, revive a stalled economy, and reinstitute normal governmental services and organizations. The unemployment rate was more than 30%. Every former member of the Marxist civil law enforcement agencies was either discredited or in jail. Grenadian police, coast guard, even prison guard organizations had to be rebuilt from scratch. Thus, the CPF, supported and equipped by the United States, maintained law and order, acting as agents of the government of Grenada. Ashore, the CPF and U. S. Army commands worked together and dispersed combined squads and patrols throughout Grenada. At sea, a small CPF coast guard contingent was based in the main harbor, St. Georges, while a U. S. Navy task unit patrolled offshore.
The Navy had two primary missions. The first was to prevent the escape of wanted Marxist fugitives or the infiltration of subversives, weapons, or any other military contraband. The second was to demonstrate a continuing U. S. commitment by a naval presence. Reassuring Grenadians of their continued security was vital to creating a stable government and a functioning economy.
The U. S. Coast Guard was the logical service to fulfill these missions. As an armed service, it could deploy quickly and integrate fully into the joint command structure. As the nation’s seagoing police, it had developed great expertise in coastal surveillance and interdiction in the fight against illegal drug traffic. And its image as a humanitarian organization with a history of protecting lives and property at sea made its arrival less politically sensitive to both sender and recipient.
A squadron of four cutters, three 95-foot patrol craft (WPBs) and one support unit, was chosen. These were manned by a little more than 100 men and women. All four vessels were chosen from the Seventh Coast Guard District in Florida because of their proximity to the operating area and their familiarity with Caribbean waters, vessel types, and traffic patterns. The squadron commander was assigned from the Atlantic Area staff.
WPBs are seaworthy, fast, well armed, and small enough to steam along the coast, yet large enough to self-deploy across the Caribbean. Since their routine patrols include drug interdiction, law enforcement, and search and rescue missions, their 15-member crews are well versed in interception, boarding, searching, and seizing procedures. The WPBs chosen were the USCGC Cape Fox (WPB-95316), USCGC Cape Gull (WPB-95304), and USCGC Cape Shoalwater (WPB-95324).
Planning for the worst case, no support from ashore, a support cutter was included, in this case the USCGC Sagebrush (WLB-399). The 180-foot seagoing buoy tender (WLB) was an excellent choice. Designed and built more than 40 years ago to resupply offshore lighthouses, WLBs can carry a large amount of fuel, water, and provisions. Capabilities integral to a WLB not found in a WPB are a heavy lift cargo boom, a large forward cargo deck, a machine shop, welding facilities, and electronics repair.
Additional WPB support was included by embarking a special support team of senior enlisteds in supply, electronics, and engineering rates and WPB spare parts on the Sagebrush. This team was drawn on short notice from a WPB shoreside support group, an experimental concept at Coast Guard Base, Miami Beach. The group was part of a multi-crew, multi-hull program. Designed to exact the maximum underway time from hulls without exhausting crews, the program used three crews to man two hulls. The support group provided additional maintenance during the hull’s short in-port periods.
It later proved logistically useful when the WPBs in Grenada were relieved. A crew could be flown to the island to relieve on scene without having to sail the hull home. The routine evolution took less than 24 hours.
For operational security, the crews of the chosen cutters were told only to make ready for a long deployment. Only the cutters’ commanding officers (COs) knew the actual plans. Similar procedures were routine to conceal patrol intentions from drug smugglers. Once underway, the cutters maintained strict electronic emission control. En route, the WPBs refueled from a Coast Guard high-endurance cutter on patrol in the Windward Passage. All the cutters rendezvoused at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, for final provisioning.
On my way to Roosevelt Roads, I called on both the operational and support commanders. The operational guidance I received was succinct. Essentially, it was to continue the ongoing work, coordinate with and support the CPF in developing a Grenadian coast guard, and promote good will.
Just before sailing from Roosevelt Roads, I briefed the cutters’ crews on their destination and mission. My verbal orders from Commander, Second Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, were simple: ”Go there and do good things!”
The squadron arrived off Grenada the afternoon of 7 December, relieving the Navy units, which turned north for a well-earned rest. Arrival meetings, resupply of the WPBs from the WLB, situation and intelligence briefings by the Army, and an orientation flight for COs followed rapidly. (The helicopter flight was particularly useful and became a standard arrival event for new COs and executive officers.) Available charts were old and poorly scaled. But from above, the shoals, channels, and reefs stood out clearly in the tropical waters. After the flight, the first cutters began patrolling.
Throughout the first month, we maintained two cutters on patrol. Our employment objectives were twofold. First, we wanted to intimidate potential contraband smugglers by displaying a high profile and intensive boarding tactics. Grenada is the southernmost island of the Leeward Island chain-a natural stepping stone from South America to the north. Smuggling is a generations-old way of life for many. We were neither legally empowered nor charged with stopping this traditional smuggling of whiskey, cigarettes, etc. (much to the relief of more than one smuggler stopped by a cutter).
We did, however, check every boat we could for military contraband or fugitives. We pointedly announced what type of contraband we sought. Apparently, this word spread quickly through the grapevine. Until then, intelligence reports of military contraband smuggling were routine. After we started these tactics, the reports dried up. We never did uncover any contraband, which was a disappointment to several crew members. They had hoped to add to the rows of marijuana leaves painted on their stack a Cuban cigar, signifying a Grenada contraband bust.
Our second objective was to gather intelligence and demonstrate presence by frequent visits to small coastal towns. Since the smuggling peaked at night, as did the patrol intensity, the afternoons were used for these visits. Routinely, one of the two cutters would anchor off a town around noon. The small boat would take a party of three or four crew members to meet with the mayor, the fishermen, and the local CPF and military police squad, if any. The receptions were uniformly and enthusiastically pro-United States, bolstering our morale as much as theirs.
Our crews, new to the country, were often incredulous when they first heard of the warm welcome extended by the average Grenadian. For example, a landing party on its first visit to a small coastal town was spontaneously mobbed at the beach by a good portion of the village. They would not let the crew members inland until they had heard five choruses of “Happy Birthday, Papa Reagan” – it was the week of the President’s birthday. In another incident, a sailor returned from his trip to a bakery shaking his head in disbelief. The woman behind the counter had thanked him for personally saving her life.
Every couple weeks, the Coast Guard conducted search and rescue operations for boats overdue into port. These operations sometimes involved coordinated air-sea search with an Army helicopter. Operations with the military police were conducted as deemed appropriate by intelligence information. Usually, our role would be to help insert a force (which prevented warning by helicopter noise) and then stand by off the surf to prevent any escape to sea.
As the holidays approached, morale remained high. The busy pace helped. Some of the crews played Santa, distributing donated toys from the United States to some of the outer islands. A Coast Guard cutter full of “Berts” and “Ernies” was uniquely a Grenadian experience.
All our operations soon dovetailed so that joint operations with the Army and U. S. Embassy could be conducted. Daily meetings were held at the embassy and the Army compound to report the current operations, plans, intelligence, and political and economic evaluations. Courses of action were discussed and agreed upon. For example, during mid-December, there were significant Army force reductions. This generated a surprising amount of unrest and public concern among the Grenadians. Rumors were rife of a U. S. withdrawal and a return to power of the Marxists. Thus, we altered our helicopter flight and cutter patrol routines to put them in sight of as many Grenadians as possible.
The single biggest factor in the success of the U. S. efforts in Grenada was the rapport and mutual respect among the Coastguardsmen, the Army personnel, and the embassy staff. This link was key not only in operations but in day-to-day support activities. The embassy had the only hard-copy message traffic facilities; therefore, it served all the U. S. organizations on the island. In turn, cutters ferried State Department staff to outer islands, and State Department supplies were often carried on the Coast Guard’s logistic flight. The Army provided many support services to the Coast Guard: Autovon telephones, mail, medical, exchange, movies, truck loans, and barbershop facilities. It was soon apparent that we were better served by putting the members of the WPB support team ashore. They were able to get at these facilities and services, work the logistics, and be available all day, every day. This had the added benefit of reduced crowding on the Sagebrush and freed her to patrol without taking the WPB support with her. Thus, the WLB entered the patrol rotation, proving another facet of this class’s use.
The single biggest headache of routine business was logistics. Limited communications and inexperience with unsupported deployments outside the continental United States were the major problems. Also, the small cutters were accustomed to independent resupply at their home ports, thus the class-compatibility of parts was poor. Initially, the documentation of what parts had been ordered by our support command and at what priority was lacking. The logistics flights’ cargo manifests were incomplete and the cargo poorly marked. Local sources for baked goods, fresh produce, and fruit eased the provisioning needs. The extra frozen and dry stores previously loaded on the WLB would last for weeks. Fuel was available from the local Texaco distributor.
Communications were limited and awkward. The embassy’s communication center was a temporary installation. A small staff operated old equipment. The alternatives were secure voice satellite to the operational commander and two Autovon lines at the Army compound. VHF-FM was used extensively ashore and afloat since the island telephone system was down 98% of the time. Predictably, the Army and Coast Guard FM systems were incompatible. We installed one of our transceivers in their communications center and borrowed their backpack FMs so the cutters could talk to the military police across the surf line. FM and high frequency were used to communicate to the cutters on patrol from the shore station.
To reduce report volume, we developed standard report formats and codes. These codes and a communications plan, which included preset frequency shifts, increased operational security over the uncovered circuits. Portable FMs became part of the uniform ashore. The Army compound, the embassy, our shore station, and the cutter moorings were located on separate parts of the island and thus required us to drive from one to the other. Consequently, the seemingly trivial matter of who had what car and was going where could get out of hand quickly if everybody was not in touch by portable radio.
The United States was acting in support of the CPF which, in turn, was acting as an agent of the government of Grenada. Thus, our legal authority to act as if the waters and vessels of the area were under U. S. control, and not Grenadian, was delegated to us from the CPF. The CPF was equipped and trained under the U. S. Security Assistance Program administered on Grenada by an ad hoc Security Assistance Control Team (SACT). Emphasis had been on the CPF shore units, which were the bulk of the force and had the more pressing needs. In addition, rapid turnover in the CPF coast guard contingents between Jamaican and Barbados personnel hindered the force in getting SACT assistance and using it effectively.
The patrol craft available to the CPF were five British-built former Grenadian Coast Guard boats ranging from 30- to 55-feet long and from two to ten years old. Their material conditions varied from poor to completely unsalvageable. No preventative maintenance had been done for years. They literally ran on baling wire and bubble gum fixes because of a history of underfunding and ”make do” maintenance. There were no spare parts, tools, safety, firefighting, or emergency equipment. The one functional radio was moved around to whichever boat was running. That the CPF managed occasional patrols near the harbor was remarkable.
As operations permitted, we supported the CPF with assistance in training and maintenance. CPF personnel embarked on day trips in the WPBs to obtain practical experience. They proved good sailors who learned rapidly, and the program was expanded to include longer trips as bunk space permitted. The amount of this training varied as the CPF contingents changed and their needs changed.
Maintenance of the CPF boats began. The WLB brought each of the former Grenadian boats alongside one at a time. What could be done with low-cost consumables was done. What could not was put on a work list. This list was used also to make up orders of parts needed. Managing this effort, arranging funding through SACT, and pushing to recruit and train a truly Grenadian Coast Guard was a full-time endeavor. We recommended a “sailor” element be assigned to SACT, with our support team continuing to assist as needed. This occurred in mid-January 1984 with the assignment of a Coast Guard lieutenant commander from the security assistance office of the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet. Under his focused effort, much greater progress occurred.
With time, coastal trade increased. This was a good sign for the economy, but the WLB found it difficult to get a berth at the only pier in St. George’s. The WPBs did not have this problem, mooring at the yacht club. As we became increasingly accustomed to the traffic and the waters, gathered more intelligence through our visits, and the country continued to stabilize, we reduced the patrolling force to one cutter. This allowed us to send one WPB home. At about this time, I was relieved by Commander J. Morris, also of the Atlantic Area staff, so that I could attend a long-planned-for school. The second WPB relieved crews in country (as part of the experimental multicrew concept discussed earlier). Then, the third WPB was relieved by a new cutter, the USCGC Cape York (WPB-95332). Also, a relief WLB, the USCGC Gentian (WLB-290), arrived with a fresh load of provisions and supplies.
About then, I returned to duty in Grenada. At the harbor master’s request, the WLB overhauled and reset St. George’s buoys and serviced the range dayshapes. With the revival of the economy, limited civilian machine shop services became available. Thus, the remaining link keeping the WLB in country became the stored provisions on board. After a little judicious trading with the Army, we arranged dry storage in their compound and space for a portable freezer box that was deck-loaded on board the WLB. The stores were transferred ashore and the WLB headed north. With this final and significant force reduction, we were down to two WPBs and about 25 people in country. The C-130 logistics flights could then be decreased to once every three weeks.
Once again, it was Commander Morris’s turn in country, and I left Grenada for the last time. Soon thereafter, a project we had both promoted came to fruition. Two standard 20-foot shipping containers, one fitted as an engineering workshop/storeroom, were delivered and set up near the WPB moorings. They proved ideal as support team work spaces. Continuing the reduction in force, Commander Morris departed in May 1984, with the small remaining contingent folding into a reorganized joint U. S. command on the island.
For the first time in years, the Coast Guard deployed a squadron of cutters in a joint military operation outside the United States and unsupported by immediately available Navy logistics. The Coast Guard may have to do so again, probably on short notice, possibly further away. If so, we should remember:
- The Coast Guard can deploy quickly, efficiently, and with good operational security and arrive ready to go to work.
- The expertise developed from many of our peacetime missions transfers well to related military missions and permits the Coast Guard to complement the Navy in certain roles.
- The WLB class is well suited to many mission tasks besides setting buoys. These include patrolling, provisioning, refueling, and tender maintenance services for squadrons of small cutters.
- The WPB support team and multi-crew, multi-hull concept pioneered by Coast Guard Base, Miami Beach, is a valuable and flexible management device.
- The Coast Guard has proved that it can be an effective agent of this country’s foreign policy. The deployment to Grenada was successful because of the quality, effort, and flexibility shown by our people.