The United States sent two teams, one from the Army and one from the Air Force. For the Air Force team, the call for volunteers went to Combat Control and the Security Police. I was a bomb dog handler with the 24th Security Police Squadron. When the notice came out, I immediately volunteered.
Captain Bieber, the Combat Control commander, was the team chief. MSgt Idol from the Security Police was the assistant team chief. There were four airmen from the Security Police and four from Combat Control.
We trained with the rifle used by the Guardia Nacional - the Belgian FAL. I found this weapon preferable to our Colt M-16. It fired a larger round (the 7.62x51mm versus the 5.56x45mm), it was easier to take down and clean, and it was very accurate. A Guardia lieutenant would arrive at the Howard AFB firing range with the FALs for our training.
After our marksmanship training, we slung the FALs on our backs and went for a 3.5 kilometer run in the tropical heat.
Our last practice at Howard AFB was on the morning of Monday, August 21. We had ammunition remaining and had to fire it all. We loaded the magazines, put the FALs on automatic, and sprayed the targets. We then packed our vehicles and departed for Fuerte Cimarron. It was an odd feeling, being in this small convoy of military jeeps and trucks, leaving the Canal Zone and entering Panama in combat uniform and with arms. I can't recall any attention from the Panamanians.
|Loading our gear at Howard AFB|
|Traveling through the neighborhood of San Miguelito. |
The sign says, "Omar, San Miguelito is with you."
Omar Torrijos was the military dictator of Panama.
We arrived at Fuerte Cimarron and were directed to the barracks where we would spend the next few days. Our barracks consisted of two wings. The Army and Air Force teams were in one wing, the Guardia in the other wing. Conditions were spare. The barracks were poorly constructed. There were many flies. The toilets lacked seats and some were clogged. Water was scarce and we were limited to one shower a day.
The food at the mess hall did not satisfy. Breakfast was a slice of white bread and a small bowl of corn gruel. Lunch and dinner consisted of white rice, a pig's foot or a small piece of beef, beans, and warm Kool-Aid.
That first day, we practiced throwing dummy hand grenades for distance and accuracy. We had not done this training back at Howard AFB. My form was off and my elbow got sore.
The next day, Tuesday, we ran 3.5 kilometers and shot the FALs.
The competition began Wednesday morning with a parade of all the teams. Each Guardia company had its own team - seven in all. There were the Army and the Air Force teams. Each team had eight members. All team members wore athletic outfits and carried an FAL. The Fuerte Cimarron commander, and General Anson of the US Army gave short speeches.
The rifle course of fire was ten rounds prone, ten kneeling, and ten standing. We shot in automatic mode at a man-sized target. I can't recall the distance but the target looked small. Trigger control was just as important as aim. Firing a single round meant a subtracted round. Since the recoil would likely cause the second round to miss, it was critical to squeeze off two rounds and no more. In my thirty rounds, I hit the target seven times. Since I fired one single round, my final score was six hits. This was a respectable score.
|Guardia troops watching the rifle competition|
|Me (center) firing at targets|
|AIC Perez and me watching the competition|
We threw dummy hand grenades for score on Thursday. My elbow still hurt from the Monday practice. Tossing the heavy cast iron only made the pain worse. My grenades kept falling short of target. Captain Bieber told me I could quit. I told him I would finish. I gave my last throw my all, securing my only points, 15. That was terrible. Others on my team finished with 400 to 800 points.
On Friday we ran 3.5 kilometers with our FALs slung on our backs. Here, the Guardia really showed us up. They left us in the dust. (Running fast served them well eleven years later during Operation Just Cause.) On my heat, I outran only one Panamanian. I kept a good pace, and at the end gave it all I had, with my teammates urging me on. My time was 14 minutes 42 seconds, a respectable time for our team.
|Me approaching the finish line|
|AIC O'Riordan crossing the finish line|
The footrace ended the competition. Americans and Panamanians mingled for the first time. The beer being passed out probably had something to do with this. We took photos. Then the teams assembled for the awards ceremony. The trophies were handed out by the second-in-command of the Guardia Nacional, a Colonel Garcia. Captain Bieber gave a short speech in Spanish, thanking the Guardia for letting us compete. The Army team chief did the same.
|AIC Esparza with the Guardia lieutenant who trained us on the FAL|
|Panamanians and Americans|
|The awards ceremony|
The awards ceremony concluded, our Air Force team loaded up our gear and returned to Howard AFB.
It had been an interesting experience. The Guardia did not invite us back the next year.
Post-Script:1) The following November, some Combat Control members on the team were the first United States forces to arrive at the Jim Jones Peoples Temple suicide/murder site in Guyana. 2) The US military attacked Fuerte Cimarron in the Just Cause invasion, but resistance was minimal. Panama returned to civilian rule and disbanded its military. I understand a penitentiary now stands on the site of Fuerte Cimarron.