By Dr. Michael E. Krivdo, PhD, USASOC History OfficeDecember 20, 2018
FORT BRAGG, NC-- Twenty-nine years ago on December 20, 1989, elements of the 1st and 3rd battalions of the 7th Special Forces Group seized the Pacora River Bridge in eastern Panama. Their actions prevented the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) posted at nearby Fort Cimarron from interfering with planned American operations at nearby Tocumen Army Airfield and Omar Trujillos International Airport, as well as Las Tinajitas, home to the PDF's 1st Infantry Company.
Infiltrated by three blackhawk helicopters at 0045 hours on the 20th, the small assault force of 24 Green Berets landed just as a convoy of PDF trucks approached the bridge.
Heavily laden with weapons, ammo, and equipment, the Special Forces Soldiers set up a hasty ambush along a 35-foot embankment alongside the road and fired a 66mm light antitank weapon (LAW) at the lead vehicle in an approaching PDF convoy.
As the column halted, other Special Forces opened with LAWs and AT-4 rockets while the mission commander, Major Kevin M. Higgins, called for support from a circling AC-130 'Spectre' gunship.
Despite the close proximity of the enemy, the Spectre pounded the PDF vehicles with "devastating accuracy," walking their fire over the line of road-bound vehicles and forcing the PDF soldiers to dismount and seek cover away from the road.
Suddenly, three PDF vehicles approached the bridge from the west and were similarly engaged by a second AC-130 aircraft just arriving on station to relieve the first. For several minutes the two Spectre gunships fired on enemy targets to the east and west of the bridge until the PDF to the west broke contact and fled.
The second aircraft then assumed position over the SF Soldiers, allowing the first aircraft to break off for fuel and ammunition. The situation stabilized, and a motorized unit arrived around 0600 to relieve Higgins' men.
The Special Forces element suffered no serious casualties in their seizure of the bridge. But the Panamanians could not claim the same. In addition to losing four, 2 1/2-ton trucks and a pickup truck, the enemy suffered four soldiers killed and one wounded.
Seventeen PDF troops were also captured in the fight, along with a large number of weapons including machineguns, mortars, and recoilless rifles. The mission, one of the first actions in Operation Just Cause, was a success.
The Soldiers of 7th Special Forces Group went on to other equally successful missions in the following weeks. Their action at Pacora Bridge is illustrative of a type of support that Special Operations Forces provide to conventional forces as part of a larger campaign.
For more information on Operation Just Cause, see Lawrence A. Yates, The U.S. Military Intervention in Panama: Operation JUST CAUSE, December 1989-January 1990, located on the Internet at: https://history.army.mil/html/books/just_cause/index.html.
Dr. Michael E. Krivdo, deputy, U.S. Army Special Operations command historian, earned his PhD in Military and Diplomatic History from Texas A&M University. He is a former Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance Officer with varied special operations research interests.