As U.S. and Cuban troops fought in the tiny island of Grenada 30 years ago, Havana’s official news media reported that Cuba’s “glorious combatants” were “at this moment immolating themselves for the homeland, wrapped in the Cuban flag.”
That was not true. But that apparently was the order that Havana had given to the detachment of more than 700 Cuban “soldier-bricklayers” building an airport on Grenada.
A U.S military unit monitoring radio traffic overheard a Havana transmission ordering the Cubans to “fight to the last man,” said Chris Simmons, then an Army lieutenant who landed in Grenada on the first day of combat — Oct. 25, 1983.
The U.S. monitors were supporting another American unit tasked with capturing leaders of the Cuban detachment, Simmons said. But the Cubans managed to seek asylum in the Soviet Union’s embassy.
Cuban ruler Fidel Castro was not pleased.
His top commander in Grenada, Col. Pedro Tortoló Comas, was sent to Angola and was last confirmed driving a taxi in Havana. And his ambassador to the former British colony, Julian Torres Rizo, now lists himself as a Havana tourist guide.
The invasion, Operation Urgent Fury, now is largely remembered as the only time when U.S. and Cuban troops fought each other directly, despite more than 50 years of hostile relations – 30 of them during the Cold War.
Planning for Urgent Fury began after Grenada Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, a close Cuba ally, and 10 followers were murdered during an Oct. 19 coup by his hard-line Marxist deputy, Bernard Coard, and Gen. Hudson Austin, head of the 1,500-member PRA.
President Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion, saying he was worried about the safety of 600 U.S. medical students on Grenada. But he clearly was concerned about Cuba’s construction of a military-capable airport on the former British colony of 100,000 off the coast of Venezuela.
In brief, sharp clashes, 19 U.S. soldiers were killed, including four members of SEAL Team 6 – the same team that killed Osama Bin Laden.
Twenty-five Cubans were killed fighting and another 638 were captured, including 86 who surrendered after Navy A-7 Corsair jets blasted the Cuban detachment’s headquarters, marked in U.S. military maps as “Little Havana.”
Also killed were 24 civilians and 45 Grenadians in the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA).
Sporadic combat continued for four days as 7,300 U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force troops, plus 330 soldiers from a Caribbean coalition quickly swept over the 133-square mile island, despite crude maps and deadly communications snags.
Simmons’ platoon, part of the 82nd Airborne, was involved the last major firefight of the invasion, a 10-minute clash that left seven PRA fighters dead. Another U.S. unit trying to support his platoon caused a friendly-fire incident, in which one U.S. Ranger captain was killed.
The last of the U.S. forces left Grenada on Dec. 12. But the saga continued.
About 1,000 U.S. citizens on Grenada, including the medical students, were evacuated safely.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., deputy commander of the invasion, went on to command Operation Desert Storm to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in 1991.
Simmons achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel and an assignment as the top Cuba counter-intelligence specialist at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, where he helped track down Cuban spy Ana Belen Montes in 2001. He retired in 2010.