Operation Acid Gambit: Delta Force Breaks an American Prisoner out of Panama

May 24 , 2022

Operation Acid Gambit: Delta Force Breaks an American Prisoner out of Panama

"Delta Force landing on the roof of Modelo Prison. ... Delta has killed the guards. ... Delta Force in. ... Kurt Muse out of his cell. ... Delta Force leaving in helicopters from the roof. It's OK. No! The helo is taking fire. It's hit. It's coming down! No, it's going down the street. ... It's hit. ... It's down. ... They're O.K.''

Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama, was launched at 0045, 20 December 1989. The invasion force consisted of a massive wave of conventional and airborne, and special operations forces. One vital aspect of Just Cause, however, revolved around a single American citizen, and the efforts of a small group of men to rescue him from a certain death.

An American in Panama

Kurt Muse was born in Arizona but grew up in Panama City, Panama. Following a short tour in the US Army, Muse returned to Panama where his wife took a job as a schoolteacher and Kurt joined his father in the family, selling printing and graphics arts equipment throughout Central America. Muse cared deeply about the Panamanian people and grew increasingly frustrated at the actions of Gen. Manuel Noriega and the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) to thwart the growth of democracy in that country.

Muse, and a small group of close friends, decided to take a more proactive approach to fight the growing oppression. Using radio scanning and transmitting equipment procured in Miami, Muse and a small, informal team of four to five Panamanians began to broadcast anti-Noriega messages. This was accomplished by determining which were the most popular local radio stations, obtaining their frequencies, and then simply erecting a stronger transmitter in the line of site of the repeating tower. This would overpower the comparatively weak signal broadcast by the radio station and instead transmit whatever message the pirate radio team chose to send.

As the effects of these broadcasts became more apparent, however, Muse and his team realized that more advanced equipment was required. To this end, Muse made several trips to Miami, Florida, where he ordered equipment small enough to fit into a suitcase. It is not clear to what extent the Central Intelligence Agency provided this equipment, however it is clear that the Agency was involved at this point in assisting Muse’s pirate broadcast team. He then made the return trips to Panama City where the new gear was assembled and put to use.

After several tests to ensure the new equipment was working properly, it was decided that the pirate radio station’s initial broadcast would take place during Noriega’s official state address to the Panamanian people. This government statement, similar to the State of the Union address in the United States, was listened to by the majority of the people of Panama, and thus represented the best opportunity to reach the widest audience.

Assembled at the nearby stadium, a crowd of some 20,000 cheering Panamanians waited for Noriega to begin his speech. Muse’s team quickly climbed to the top of a nearby two-story condominium, assembled their equipment, and waited. As Noriega was introduced and approached the podium to speak, a boisterous cheer went up inside the stadium. This was the moment they had waited for, and Muse pressed the transmit button, sending out a two-minute, pre-recorded message from "The Free Democratic People of Panama". Once completed, the team quickly disassembled the equipment and returned to their individual homes. Though they could not know it at the time, their pirate broadcast worked far beyond their expectations.

The next day, the Panamanian newspapers were filled with front-page news about the "imperialist yankees" and their propaganda. It was obvious that the message had indeed reached the masses. As successful as this endeavor was, however, it also drew the full attention of a furious Manuel Noriega, who immediately tasked his forces to ferret out and arrest the perpetrators. And while Muse would continue these broadcasts for the next two months, the hunt was on. During this time, Noriega grew more and more personally aggravated at the broadcasts, and eventually brought in specialists from East Germany and Cuba to help them track down the elusive quarry.

 

Yet, it would not be these hunters who would eventually apprehend Muse. Unbeknownst to him, a notice had been placed at the international airport, directing officials to arrest the American on sight. Upon his return from a routine trip to Miami, an army official at the Panama City airport noticed this directive, taped to a nearby wall, and identified Muse to civilian officials. His days as a pirate broadcaster were over, and he was taken to the secret police headquarters building in downtown Panama.

 

  Carcel Modelo Prison (Photo courtesy of Mr. Kurt Muse)

 

Carcel Modelo

Muse was interrogated for three days, deprived of sleep, and forced to watch as other prisoners were tortured in front of him. At one point, an irate interrogator thrust a pistol into the back of his head and cocked it, then left the room furious. Muse was then moved to a series of locations, ostensibly to eliminate any efforts by the United States to locate him. The Panamanian government, further frustrated over failed attempts to falsely prove that Muse was a citizen of Panama, and not the United States, initially refused to permit any U.S. officials to contact him. The State Department reacted swiftly, canceling all visas from Panama to the United States. Soon thereafter, Noriega, acquiescing to the visa sanctions and bound by the conditions of the Panama Canal Treaty permitted contact between U.S. officials and Muse on a regular basis.

It was at this time that Muse was moved to the notorious Carcel Modelo (Model Prison), a facility constructed in 1925 to house approximately 250 inmates. By 1987, however, the prison contained over 1,000 inmates, creating barbaric living conditions. Muse was kept in an 8’ x 12’ cell, with a small adjoining bathroom, for the next nine months. The only furniture he would be allowed was a two-inch thick foam rubber mattress, his only protection against the cold concrete floor. During this period, he would only actually be permitted outside of his cell walls four times.

Peering through his small, square window, Muse saw scores of acts of torture, including one instance in which a Panamanian man was wrapped in an American flag, hung from a basketball hoop by his handcuffed wrists, and beaten with clubs and rubber hoses. Those instances which Muse did not witness, he was forced to listen to, as torture within the prison was a daily process. The screams of tortured men echoed throughout Carcel Modelo day and night. In time, the barbaric conditions began to take a mental and physical toll on Muse and by the ninth month, he had lost over fifty pounds of body weight.

Fully aware of the conditions that Muse was facing, President George Bush vowed that this American would be rescued. This decision made, it was then left up to military commanders to decide how it would be carried out. It was quickly decided that the US Army’s elite counterterrorist Delta Force, formally known as Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta (SFOD-D), working in tandem with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Group, and supported by an AC-130 gunship from the 1st Special Operations Wing, be tasked with the mission.

Knowing that a guard had been given specific instructions to kill Muse at the first hint of U.S. military aggression towards Panama. Following a failed coup attempt on October 3, however, Carcel Modelo was transformed from a civilian into a military facility. Almost overnight military personnel replaced the civilian guards and fortified defensive positions were put into place. It was also at this time that Noriega began to refer to Muse not as a prisoner, but as a hostage. Additionally, an armed guard was assigned to sit outside Muse’s cell, with standing orders to kill him if any action was taken by the U.S. against Panama.

Initial planning for the operation had begun at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Delta Force finalized mission-specific preparation for the rescue at a remote training facility located on the grounds of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. To enhance the ability of the assault team to penetrate the heavily guarded prison, a full-scale, three-story mock up was built. Its specific features were updated by reports from those military personnel who were permitted to visit Muse in his cell. In this way, it was possible to rehearse the mission in total secrecy and in great detail. It was here that intensive live-fire mission rehearsals were conducted.

The plan, designated Operation Acid Gambit, was simple, at least in theory. Aviation support would be provided by MH-6 "Little Birds" from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Group. This agile, unarmed helicopter, a relative of the OH-6 observation helicopter used in Vietnam, was specially outfitted with outboard "benches" designed to ferry up to three commandos on each side. Painted black to facilitate nighttime operations, the small aircraft could conduct rapid insertions and extractions of special operations forces into areas its larger brother, the MH-60 Black Hawk, could not. This same assault package combined with MH-60s’s from the 160th, would also be tasked with the apprehension of Manual Noriega himself, in an operation code named ‘Nifty Package’.

Via this method, the assault team would land on the roof of the prison, make an explosive entry through an unattended entryway, and fight their way down to Muse’s cell on the second floor. En route, they would neutralize any opposition, knowing that highest on their list was the guard assigned to kill Muse. They would then retreat with Muse back to the roof, reboard the helicopter, and make their escape. A Delta sniper team would also be in place near the prison to neutralize any guards positioned outside the facility. Finally, aerial fire support would be provided by two AH-6 "Little Bird" attack helicopters and two AC-130H "Spectre" gunships. These were to attack predesginated targets (pre-planned Close Air Support) as well as remain available for any calls for assistance.

Complicating issues was the fact that the Comandancia compound, the headquarters of the PDF, stood just across the street from the . The Comandancia, often referred to as single building, was actually a walled compound housing numerous smaller buildings such as warehouses, supply points, and barracks. This presented an obvious problem. Any helicopter assault on the prison would alert the PDF forces within the Comandancia and likely cause the immediate reinforcement of the prison by these forces.

On December 17, 1989, the United States placed its forces on alert for the imminent invasion of Panama. Throughout the day of the 19th, Delta sniper-observers in the hills overlooking the prison, as well as several dressed in civilian clothes wandering up and down the adjacent streets, took careful note of the comings and goings at the prison. They paid special attention to any new defenses that had been constructed, weapons carried by the soldiers and guards, and other vital information.

In the last contact that Muse would have with a friendly face prior to the assault, an unidentified Colonel met with Muse in the visitors’ area. The gathering included reporters, prison guards and officials. All present could hear as a U.S. helicopter gunship passed low and loud over the prison. As the sound subsided, the Colonel announced - in a voice loud enough for the whole room to hear – that he wanted to make sure that Muse understood that there were standing orders that he was to be killed if the United States attempted any type of action against Panama. Muse said that he understood. The Colonel nodded, then continued by stating clearly, more for the assembled gathering than just for the hostage before him, that if anyone harmed Muse, not a single person would walk out of the prison alive. With this, he stood, turned, and walked out of the room. All present stopped what they were doing and simply looked at each other. His message had come through loud and clear. But what Muse knew, that they did not, was that someone was coming for him and whoever it was was not going to let anything get between them and the American in his cell.

Acid Gambit

As local time reached 0045, two AH-6 helicopters fired the first shots of Operation Acid Gambit as they strafed the top of a two-story apartment to the west with their M143 7.62mm miniguns to eliminate potential sniper threats. They immediately followed up with several salvos of 2.75-inch unguided rockets from their dual outboard rocket pods into the nearby Comandancia. This strike caused significant damage to the building and caused the PDF to immediately turn its attention to the defense of the compound. Their attack complete, they called off the target, which meant that the much larger, fixed-wing Spectres were cleared to fire. Unbeknownst to the pilot of the first Little Bird, the second AH-6 was shot down and crash-landed inside the compound. The pilot survived the crash and, in a remarkable display or situational awareness, moved away from those buildings he knew were targets for the gunships overhead, and escaped safely to the far side of the compound.

The two gunships flew in a high orbit above the Comandancia compound. Flying in a configuration known as "Top Hat", the two Spectres operated independently at two different altitudes (specific altitudes remained classified). In this way, one flew lower at what is best described as the "brim" of the hat, and the other flew approximately 1,000 feet higher in a similarly circular, but slightly tighter, pattern. This unique tactic, which has been employed only once in combat, enabled them to bring to bear the weapons of two gunships (as opposed to the standard single gunship) into a very small area. This was deemed necessary due to the high number of targets that needed to be engaged within just a four-and-half minute timeframe.

The mission of these two gunships, designated call signs Air Papa 06 and Air Papa 07, was to strike five buildings in the compound. The purpose of this was twofold. First, the gunfire was intended to draw the attention of the PDF away from the prison during the rescue team’s assault. Second, it was intended to "soften up" the battlefield for the mechanized forces of Task Force Gator which was assigned to take down the compound soon after.

To ensure that all the needs of the team on the ground were being met and all necessary targets engaged, the gunships remained in contact with the Command and Control (C2) Black Hawk as well as the unit on the roof throughout their time on station. Reportedly, this secure communication system worked exceptionally well, much unlike the tragic experience of the US Navy SEALs assault on nearby Paitilla Airfield in which four SEALs were killed.

The first gunship fired three rounds of 105mm high explosive rounds into each of the five buildings in the compound. The first round impacted an ammunition storage depot within a barracks approximately 100 meters from the Comandancia building. A series of explosions and fire ensued, destroying the structure.

Air Papa 07 (unofficially designated ‘Bad Company’) would remain over the Comandancia compound providing CAS for the mechanized forces and other ground forces. Air Papa 06 (‘Iron Maiden’), however, originally tasked with providing support for ongoing operations to arrest Gen. Noriega, was unexpectedly retasked to escort an element of mechanized forces through Panama City to the U.S Embassy, where the gunship would remain in a protective orbit most of the night. Fortunately, neither of the gunships was engaged by manportable surface to air missiles, and experienced only light AAA activity from a single 12.5mm weapon firing from a local baseball field (this position was subsequently destroyed by Air Papa 07).

With the attack underway and the four MH-6 helicopters inbound, the small sniper team positioned on nearby Quarry Heights carefully selected targets and relayed intelligence to the rescue force. Led by a senior Delta sergeant, the expert marksmen, graduates of the most arduous sniper schools in the world, took careful aim with the standard and .50 caliber sniper rifles and opened fire. Within moments, several guards were killed. They then turned their attention to the prison generator located to the left of the prison entrance under a tin roof. Once destroyed, the interior of the prison immediately went black.

 

  160th SOAR MH-6 "Little Bird" (Pictured: US 75th Rangers on outboard benches)

 

The Rescue

Upon hearing the sounds of gunfire (not from the snipers, but from an attack on a PDF bus across the bay in Fort Amador) Muse awoke with a start. As the heavy caliber, staccato shooting continued, he realized that something out of the ordinary was occurring and quickly grabbed his clothes. As the remainder of an estimated sixty rounds barked through the humid night air, he made his way to the floor of his bathroom, and peered around the corner to see anyone who might be coming to his cell. As quickly as it had started, however, it was over. Everything within the prison went silent.

Muse then heard the familiar sound of combat boots running up the steps. He realized then that these footsteps might be those of the men who were going to kill him. The men did not open his cell, however, but instead ran towards the officers quarters across from his cell. Muse listened as the PDF guards frantically explained to their captain that something was going on outside. The officers immediately raced downstairs with the soldiers and began to defend the prison.

Almost immediately, the four Little Birds, each with four commandos aboard, touched down on the roof of the prison. The assault element raced off the outboard pylons and towards the cupola. The door from the roof to the interior of the prison was quickly opened with a massive blast of explosive charges, and the team quickly made its way down to the second floor. At least two and possibly three guards were killed in the few seconds it took for the team to race down two flights of stairs to Muse’s cell. The four MH-6’s, their cargo delivered, flew north where they maintained a holding pattern and awaited the team’s call for extraction.

Then, unexpectedly, the gunships received a "call for fire" mission from the prison assault team. The team was taking fire from the third floor of the Comandancia. This caused the Spectres to immediately disengage any targets they might be engaging to come to the immediate assistance of the ground forces. Moments later, the gunships engaged with their 40mm guns firing specialized rounds through the tin roof of the Comandancia, silencing the target.

Inside the prison, Muse listened to the sounds of battle as explosions and small arms barked out. Smoke began to fill the air, and then he noticed something. Thin, white beams from the small flashlights mounted beneath the assault teams’ weapons beamed through the darkness, reflected by the smoke. An American voice barked through the haze, directing Muse to take cover.

Muse ducked and moments later a small explosion blasted the door open. A heavily armed Delta operator, clad from head to toe in black protective assault gear, rushed in and assisted Muse in putting on a Kevlar helmet and flak vest. This done, he ushered Muse out of his cell and the two moved quickly upwards towards the roof. Passing a desk, Muse noticed that the man assigned to kill him was dead. Muse also noticed, to his amazement, that one guard had actually not been killed, but instead had been bound and left on the floor, cowering in the fetal position. This guard had proven wiser than many of his compatriots - he had not resisted the rescuers, and thus was not killed outright.

Once on the roof, More commandos emerged and they all took their positions on their helos, and promptly lifted off. One element of the team would be stranded here for a time until a Black Hawk could come and retrieve them. Muse was placed in a protective location, between two Delta operators. Immediately, however, one of the two pilots on board Muse’s MH-6 noticed through his night vision goggles that power lines were directly in front of them. He immediately pulled up and over the lines, however the demands on the heavily laden aircraft caused it to quickly lose altitude and, for a moment, it appeared that the Little Bird would crash headlong into the street some sixty feet below. In a remarkable feat of flying skill, the pilots managed to avoid catastrophe and kept their aircraft aloft.

Yet, so damaged was the MH-6, that the pilot could maintain only a few feet of altitude. Thus, he ended up "driving" the helicopter down a narrow street, trying to put distance between themselves and the prison. Landing briefly at a courtyard between two apartment buildings, the pilot then attempted to take off once again. This effort paid off for a short time, however just moments later they were again struck by bursts of gunfire. The Little Bird careened off a wall and crashed onto the street a short distance away and collapsed onto its right side as its occupants bailed out the few feet to the ground. As Muse and his bodyguard exited the helicopter, however, one of the still-turning rotor blades struck the commando in the head, knocking him to the ground. Amazingly, the Delta operator, his face covered with blood, regained consciousness and immediately checked to ensure Muse had not been injured. He then led Muse into the ground floor of an adjacent apartment building to seek a more secure location out of any potential line of fire.

Taking up a defensive perimeter near an abandoned jeep, the Delta team, with several of its members seriously injured by gunfire and the crash landing, positioned Muse in the safest possible location, and prepared to return fire against the enemy. Muse, trained in the use of small arms from his days in the Army, asked for a weapon to assist in returning fire, and was given a pistol by one of the operators. This team held this position in the street for approximately fifteen minutes until when, utilizing an infrared strobe light, the team managed to signal aircraft flying overhead. With their position fixed, then transmitted to a nearby US Army patrol, it was armored personnel carriers soon appeared to extract the team.

The Delta Force, 160th Special Operations Aviation Group and AFSOC Spectre Gunship team had successfully rescued Kurt Muse from certain death at the hands of his Panamanian captors. In so doing they became the first American counterterrorist team ever to rescue an American hostage from enemy hands.

 


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