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Full Circle: Operation Urgent Fury

At 0500 hours on the morning of October 25,1983 the United States’ armed forces invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada. An attack upon my homeland, the country of my birth was underway. This was home, the place I had returned to, to live again, after spending three years as a soldier in this very same invading force’s army.

Six days earlier, on October 19th Grenada’s popular Marxist Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, was overthrown in a bloody coup. He was mercilessly executed along with some of his loyal cabinet ministers after being deposed by hardcore left-wing elements in his own political party who had earlier taken control of the island’s armed forces.

American President Ronald Reagan, a long-time opponent of the Bishop administration because of its close ties to Cuba, seized this opportunity to divert a flotilla of ships and manpower already at sea. They had been steaming towards Lebanon in the wake of a suicide bombing of a U.S marine barracks there that had claimed the lives of 242 U.S marines.

This task force was re-directed to Grenada to urgently “rescue” approximately 1000 mainly American students attending an American offshore medical school, The St. George’s University School of Medicine.

Since the Grenada revolution of March 13th 1979, Cuba and Fidel Castro in particular had been a big supporter of the new government, providing both material and requisite manpower for the ambitious dream of the construction of an international airport on the island.

I had left Grenada 15 years before to join the US Army to fight in the distant reaches of Vietnam and Cambodia. It was some 12 years after I had hung up my army dress greens uniform in my bedroom closet. Naturally, I experienced a potpourri of conflicting emotions concerning the invasion of my country.

I was now a commercial pilot. I took the opportunity to go to flying school on the GI Bill and had obtained a commercial pilot’s license with a multi-engine and an instrument rating at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

After the Grenada revolution of 1973 Prime Minister Maurice Bishop had offered me a job to fly his private turbo prop executive aircraft, a gift from his friend Fidel. At the time I was flying for LIAT and based in Barbados where I had been recently transferred from LIAT’s Antigua base.

A couple days after the sad events of October 19th which culminated in our Prime Minister’s brutal death, I had been relaxing, having a beer with the guys in Batson’s shop, a popular watering hole in my neighborhood. It was a few days after the U.S forces had generally secured the island.

Three U.S military personnel entered Batson’s shop to drink. They struck up a relaxed and easy conversation with the people in the establishment. I was speaking to the officer in charge, a major, when his radio squawked.

His RTO took the message, then passed the handset to the major.  Something was discussed heatedly. The major seemed eventually to concede some point to the caller. He then turned towards me and said, “Are you the same Roger Byer who was Prime Minister Bishop’s personal pilot?”

“Yes, I am.”  I replied.

The major shrugged. He was a soldier, and he apparently had orders. Orders that involved me.

“Roger Byer, I have to take you in for questioning,” he then said to me. “Your name is on a special list, as you were the Prime Minister’s personal pilot. I tried to tell headquarters that I’d spoken to you and that I was convinced that you were not involved in any  resistance activities, but they wouldn’t budge.  I’m sorry.”

We drove down to the Point Saline’s airport construction site, where the friendly major formally handed me over to the military intelligence unit for interrogation. They had built in a not surprisingly fast time a penal-type camp that was heavily strung with barbed wire, severely enclosed and impressively re-enforced.

I was directed to a bench to sit and wait for my interrogator to arrive. But I was not unduly uncomfortable at this stage, because I had not committed any offence and had nothing to hide.

An uptight military intelligence major, very unlike the one from earlier, arrived to question me. No rough stuff, but after wasting my time by asking for and listening patiently to my entire story, the intelligence officer started quizzing me with a series of probing questions, like what part of Libya did I train in–throwing out sprats to catch whales, as we would say locally.

When your only story was the truth, it was easy to stick to it. I held to the simple uncomplicated reality that I was the government’s pilot, and that when I was not flying the government’s plane I also worked at the local civil aviation office on the Carenage, where I spent my days seeking opportunities for young Grenadians to train abroad as air traffic controllers and meteorological officers to man the new (yet to be completed) Point Salines airport.

About eight hours later, after plenty of phone calls (and, I was sure, positive reassurances), the clarification of questions asked and answers given, the major said gruffly, “OK, Mr. Byer, you check out all right.  Everything is fine. You may go now.”

I replied, “If it’s alright with you, sir, I would rather just sit here quietly, and wait until daylight to depart.”

The reason for my strange refusal to accept the offer of immediate freedom was based on experience. I was a veteran, so I understood where I was. We were in the middle of a war-zone, at two o’clock on a dark and seemingly unfriendly dawn.

The whole area had been dug up with trenches and fox holes for the defensively emplaced and hunkered down soldiers. There were no landmarks or road signs anywhere. The troops out here would be young, jumpy and scared. I definitely knew that.

There was still sporadic small-arms firing around the area, likely triggered by the same young sentries. No other vehicles were moving in the entire area at that hour, and he wanted me to go out there all alone, driving a civilian vehicle, exposing myself like a drone target?

I refused to leave. That was until the major unclipped his .45 pistol from its holster, and indicated to me through gritted teeth that he’d had a very long day.  He further declared: “I told you to leave this facility, and I mean fucking now! Get your ass out of here Mr. Byer,” he yelled. “Right now!”

Put that way, I carefully reconsidered my options. “Ok, I’m off your compound, sir,” I limply replied. I’d been there before. My past seemed to be in dog step with me. I’d take my chances again.

Illumination flares lit up the area as I exited the compound scrunched low in my car seat. Disoriented, I drove around in ever widening circles. There was no discernible roadway or guiding signs to direct me.

I was promptly halted by a series of nervous, belligerent, sleep-deprived soldiers stationed far from home. One after another they yelled and hectored me.

“What the fuck are you doing out here? Get out of the fucking car. Get down on the ground.”

“Are you crazy or suicidal?”

“Man, what the fuck are you doing at this time of night?” I would reply, “You don’t understand. I’ve just been released…”

I was stopped eight times. I reached my mother-in-law’s home later that morning, emotionally drained and physically spent.

*   *   *

Two days later, Eddie, my niece Andrea’s boyfriend and future husband, agreed to take the chance to accompany me to check on our house at Morne Jaloux. We’d been all–my whole extended family–hunkered down at my mother’s house in Belmont, which was located two miles from our own property, about a ten-minute drive away.

It took Eddie and I two hours to get to the house. We were stopped twelve times by patrolling U.S forces, sometimes made to lie face down on the hot asphalt by the surly troopers because they thought we were Cubans.

As we neared our destination, I saw a squad of US Army soldiers performing routine house-to-house searches. Things were a bit tenser than usual up there because the Cuban embassy, still occupied, was located just around the corner from my house.

I let the soldiers in with my keys to forestall them opening my front door with their boots. As they made their rounds, I began to examine the damage done to my verandah’s screened glass sliding door.

“Hey Sarge!” An excited shout came from inside of the house, jerking me out of my reverie. “Jesus, Sergeant, come and see this!”

What now, I thought, as we scurried inside in the direction of the alarmed voice.

Standing in my bedroom in front of an open closet, was a private first class. He was gingerly holding up my U.S Army full dress greens uniform jacket with its four and a half rows of assorted medals and decorations, overseas bars and unit citations ostentatiously displayed on it.

The insignias worn on the uniforms of the soldiers milling around my bedroom were identical to the ones that stood out boldly on my uniform jacket’s sleeves.

The platoon sergeant’s eyes blazed and his nostrils flared, his head swiveled around threateningly. He barked to the room’s occupants at large, “Just who the fuck does this jacket belong to?”

I paused before answering, sensing that the tide was about to turn in my favour. I looked over at the sergeant and calmly replied, “It’s mine.”

When we were ready to leave, the sergeant, who was in a far more cooperative mood now, suggested, “Take that jacket with you. It will save you some hassles on the way back.”

This turned out to be good advice. As we passed the same twelve check points on the way back, I drove while Eddie held my uniform jacket out the car window. We did not have to stop, not once.

Roger Byer was born and raised and lives in Grenada. In 1970 he was a combat medic with Charlie 1/5 Cav in Vietnam and Cambodia. His decorations include the Combat Medic Badge, Bronze Star with V, and Purple Heart. This story is excerpted from his memoir Tattooed Memories.  His email is rogerbyer@hotmail.com.

 

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