• Just back from Lebanon, I scramble to cover an invasion in the Caribbean
• The world’s news media is unwelcome, as the Pentagon seals off the war zone
• We wind up commuting daily to and from Grenada by military transport plane
In October of 1983, a US network television newscast reported turmoil on the island of Grenada. But the graphic over the anchorman’s shoulder showed a map of Spain, with the city of Granada highlighted. They were off by about four thousand miles, a mistake many Americans would’ve likely made, including me at that time.
Now, it’s one of my favorite destinations – the Grenada in the Caribbean, that is.
My pager went off on October 25th and the ABC Radio News desk told me to take the next available flight there because the US military had launched an early-morning invasion of the former British colony at the southernmost tip of the Windward Islands. I stopped by the bureau on Broadway across from Lincoln Center where the librarian had printed out a sheaf of background on the island nation from Nexus, a precursor to Google. On board the BWIA flight to Barbados were dozens of reporters and news crews, many of them poring over similar stacks of research.
The question was: why an invasion? The reasons – and rationalizations – were many. A Marxist leader named Maurice Bishop had been in power there since 1979, with a socialist program described by one foreign policy expert as “inspired at least as much by Bob Marley as Karl Marx.” A more hard-core Marxist-Leninist faction overthrew him and, on October 19th a group of supporters freed him from prison but were fired upon by soldiers who killed Bishop and many others.
President Reagan had been concerned that Bishop was creating another foothold for Communism in the Western Hemisphere, that he was too friendly with Fidel Castro, that an enlargement of Grenada’s airport increased a military threat in the region and that the Cuban workers brought in to work on lengthening the runways may have been part of an imported militia. The White House also declared the turmoil put in danger several hundred American students at the offshore medical college on the island (although students later told reporters that wasn’t so).
I couldn’t overlook the fact that just a few days earlier, on the 23rd of October, terrorists’ truck bombs blew up a Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon, taking 241 lives. I had been in Beirut just a couple of weeks earlier, reporting on the peacekeeping mission. A theory was that an invasion right in our backyard – one sure to succeed – became a convenient deflection for an administration that had just suffered the most military casualties since the Vietnam war ended.
As it turned out, the bitter outcome of Vietnam was the reason we reporters, arriving while the Grenada invasion was entering its second day, ended up stuck at Grantley Adams Airport in Barbados. The Pentagon, inhabited by many generals who believed Vietnam was lost because the news media turned Americans against the mission there, had sealed off Grenada. No news organizations were allowed on the island, just 160 miles to the southwest of Bridgetown, Barbados. An ABC television news crew arriving the day before us had chartered a cabin cruiser out of Bridgetown but were turned away upon approaching Grenada by a US Navy destroyer which threatened to fire a warning shot across their bow.
Acceding to the howls of reporters arriving from all over the world, the State Department and the Pentagon went into the mass transit business. A list of eligible news organizations and personnel was posted at the airport and for the next several days, we “commuted” daily from Barbados to Grenada in the cargo holds of C-130 military transport planes.
The inbound flight left at 6AM; the return flight was at 6:30 in the evening and heaven protect the journalist who failed to make that flight. I don’t recall the specific punishment threatened for tardy flyers but I remember rumors that one or more bolder reporters deliberately skipped a return flight, to stay over in Grenada. Attendance was taken; certainly, a truant’s news organization would be sanctioned somehow. I played by the rules.
Reporters, photographers and camera crews sat in narrow jump seats lining the inside of the fuselage; we sat facing those across from us. Earplugs were issued prior to takeoff; conversation was impossible inside the roaring prop planes. On the evening flight I worked, with a small Maglite flashlight held between my teeth, translating the contents of my notebook into “voicers” and cueing up audio cuts I would file by phone back in Barbados. On the morning flights I tried to get some extra sleep. Soon, the powers that be decided it was time to let the news media stay overnight. Hostilities, brief as they were, had ended after three days but the all-clear for reporters lagged behind.
Approximately eight thousand invading troops had taken part in Operation Urgent Fury. 19 US troops were killed and 116 wounded. Cuban forces suffered 25 killed, 59 wounded. 638 were captured. The operation did not go smoothly. Communications were so spotty one airstrike was called in by a soldier using a payphone to contact controllers at an airbase in North Carolina; shockingly, several Navy Seals drowned when their amphibious assault craft overturned; and 18 civilians were killed in the accidental bombing of a mental hospital on a hill overlooking the capital of St. Georges. I remember covering a visit three weeks later by several members of Congress on a fact-finding mission. We viewed the wreckage of the asylum and one Senator hustled the visitors on their way, saying, in effect: okay, so that happened…nothing to see here…let’s move along.
When I’m asked how much combat reporting I’ve done (very little), I’ll mention the Grenada invasion but must quickly volunteer that the assignment was at times one of the more arduous of stories to cover and simultaneously one of the best luxury resort stays I’ve ever enjoyed. More on that in Part 2.