As the Third World War teetered on the brink of escalating to a global nuclear war on D+18, Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega remained indifferent to events going on in Europe and North America. Whereas the leaders of Cuba and Nicaragua saw the writing on the wall and attempted to reach accommodation with the US government, Noriega chose a different path entirely. His motivations were never made clear, but within two hours of Madrid and Gorki being destroyed, Noriega’s was orchestrating a new round of anti-America protests in front of the US embassy in Panama City, the Canal and US military installations across the isthmus. Noriega supporters, led by the more fanatical Dignity Battalions (DigBat) were making their presence felt. However, Noriega kept tight control. Whenever the crowds grew too violent or provocative, the DigBat organizers would swoop in and stabilize the situation before a protest could spiral out of control.
The US military and government was decidedly preoccupied with other events at the time. In the next two days, the Panamanian crowds returned to protest. As time went on, they projected increasing belligerence. Security at the embassy, Canal and US bases tightened considerably, but little else changed. Washington continued to pay scant attention to Panama and Noriega and by D+21, Panama’s leader decided this needed to change.
In the early morning, mortar rounds came down on Howard AFB and the Miraflores Locks area. There were no casualties or major damage in either location. Just a few hours later, heavier mortar attacks occurred again at Howard, and also at the Gatun Locks. This coincided with the reappearance of the anti-America protest crowds at the usual locations. Only on this day, their mood was very different and considerably more provocative. Loud, aggressive chants gave way to unsuccessful attempts at storming the US embassy and Fort Clayton. Then in the afternoon, came the first rounds of gunfire. Random pistol shots initially and then assorted small arms and light mortars through the afternoon. By nightfall, near-firefights were breaking out between US troops guarding their base perimeters and the more die-hard Noriega supporters. As the night went on, the Southern Command’s commander-in-chief General Fred Woerner, US Army was becoming uneasy with the overall situation. Shortly before 2300, Woerner contacted the Pentagon and requested authority to target the DigBat mortar crews and machinegun teams operating from civilian areas with virtual impunity.
By this time, the Pentagon’s focus was centered on Europe and the northern Norwegian Sea, as will be shown in later posts. But there was no chance of Woerner’s request being denied since it was centered squarely on protecting the lives of his troops and American civilians at the embassy and canal locks. The decision would also mark the start of the final days of Noriega’s time in power.
Author’s Note: Tomorrow night, I’m planning to post an entry that talks a bit about the first two days of hostilities in Ukraine and how some of the Russian operations underway there might seem a bit familiar to readers of this blog. 😊 –Mike