Island nation remembers sacrifice of former county resident

Family honors fallen soldier at anniversary memorial event ... Regina and Patty Manning, both of Lansing and the sisters of Harpers Ferry native and 1980 Waukon High School graduate Russ Robinson, were invited to the 35th anniversary memorial event held this past October to commemorate the liberation of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, an operation in which U.S. Army Airborne Ranger Russell Robinson lost his life in an ambush attack. Pictured above during their trip are, left to right, Megan, Ray and Patty Manning, and Leon, Regina and Melissa Manning. Submitted photo.

Where the ultimate price was paid ... The photo above taken 35 years ago shows the remains of the jeep the “Juliet 5” Army Rangers were riding in when they were ambushed during “Operation Urgent Fury” initiated in October 1983 to liberate the island nation of Grenada from a military coup. Harpers Ferry native Russ Robinson was one of five occupants of the jeep and one of four who were killed in the ambush attack. Submitted photo.

Memorial monument at St. George University ... The photo above shows the Memorial monument created at St. George University in Grenada to commemorate and honor the 19 soldiers who lost their lives during the 1983 “Operation Urgent Fury” executed to liberate the island nation from a military coup, including the rescue of hundreds of American students attending St. George University at the time. The Memorial includes the names of those 19 fallen U.S. soldiers, including Harpers Ferry native Russ Robinson, whose family attended the 35th anniversary memorial event of the liberation operation. Submitted photo.

Still appreciated ... A wall of a building still stands in Grenada with messages of thanks for the U.S. operation that liberated the island nation from a military coup in October of 1983. Along with the messages of appreciation, a rendition of the U.S. Army Airborne Ranger logo has also been painted on the wall. Harpers Ferry native Russ Robinson was one of the Airborne Rangers who lost his life in an ambush attack during the liberation operation. His two sisters and members of their families traveled to Grenada this past October to take part in the 35th anniversary memorial event honoring that “Operation Urgent Fury”, being able to snap a photo of this wall and other memories during the trip. Submitted photo.

Family of fallen Army Ranger Russ Robinson of Harpers Ferry takes part in 35th anniversary memorial event honoring liberation of Grenada and sacrifices made

by David M. Johnson

July 4, 9/11 and December 7 are dates that represent something of importance to most Americans. But the date of October 25, 1983 has an extra special meaning to several families of the Harpers Ferry-Lansing area.

It was on this date that a Harpers Ferry native and 1980 graduate of Waukon High School made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. The only son of the late Marcus “Red” and Lois Robinson of Harpers Ferry, Russ Robinson of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, and part of the U.S. Army’s Rapid Deployment Force that consisted of elements of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, became an active participant that fateful day in the American intervention and liberation of the island nation of Grenada located in the Caribbean Sea off the northern border of South America.

Grenada had witnessed a coup where native residents, with the assistance of Cuban military, overthrew the ruling government. Robinson became involved when he and other members of his unit landed in Grenada on orders from his government to resolve the instability and possible dangers to American citizens on the island.

Shortly after landing, Robinson, with four others, gave their lives when attacked by Cuban military. Today, the people of Grenada and their government continue to remember that day and have made it a special date in their nation’s calendar.

Family members of those killed in this military action are invited to Grenada to participate in the remembrance of this day every five years, and this past October Robinson’s two sisters and members of their families flew to the island for the 35th anniversary memorial service. Patty Manning and her husband, Ray, with one of their children, Megan, and Regina Manning and her husband, Leon, with one of their children, Melissa, made the long trip to the Caribbean island nation.

They toured the island and met with dignitaries, discovering a great deal of information about Robinson’s involvement and other aspects tied to the intervention. So, what led up to this moment in time? As with other moments in history, there is usually an accumulation of factors that seemed destined to meet and gather, changing the direction of history in a dramatic fashion.

Granted its independence from the United Kingdom in 1974, Grenada progressed through a tumultuous upheaval in government instability with a changing of different regimes. In 1979, Maurice Bishop rose to power with one of those armed insurrections, quickly taking charge by negotiating assistance of support from nations like Cuba and Libya for the construction of an airport with a 9,000 foot runway. American intelligence operatives became uneasy with what appeared to be military and non-commercial objectives in airport construction.

October 16, 1983, Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard seized power, placing Bishop under arrest and ordering Bishop, his girlfriend, members of his cabinet and several union leaders to be placed under house arrest. Shortly afterwards, many of these individuals - some 19 people total - were murdered by their guards.

A curfew was ordered, directed at both residents and the American students and faculty at St. George’s University, which is a private international university primarily offering education in the medical field. Those violating the curfew would be immediately executed by authorities.

The concern for the American students, the new government’s growing association with the Cubans and the appeals for assistance by the Eastern Caribbean States encouraged the United States to intervene militarily. “Operation Urgent Fury” was the Pentagon’s response to imposing American interests on the island.

Ground forces composed of Navy SEALs, Delta Force personnel, the 1st and 2nd Ranger Battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 82nd Airborne and U.S. Marines (22nd MAU) with air and naval support were the primary units involved in the intervention. The 7,600 troops and elements of East Caribbean State armed forces invaded the island in the early morning hours of October 25, two days after Navy SEALs had finished reconnaissance of targeted areas. They were to face 1,500 Grenadian troops assisted by 700 armed Cubans that had taken up defensive positions around the island.

That late October morning, 1,200 Army Rangers began to move into position. A number of the Rangers parachuted in to secure the airport for later Ranger units that would join their comrades. Cuban forces had spiked and trashed the runway of the airport to deprive any use of it, so the first Rangers to arrive began to remove the spikes under heavy small arms fire. One of the Rangers jumped on a bulldozer and moved it into position to shield his compatriots.

The airport runway was secured to allow reinforcements of further Ranger, Caribbean Peace Forces and the 82nd Airborne units. C-130 transport planes began to land at about 10:00 and began to unload troops and M151 jeeps. Regina felt Russ was only on the island for two hours or less. Russ, along with squad leader Sgt. Randy Cline, Marlin Maynard, Mark Rademacher and Tim Romick, loaded up their jeep and were ordered to recon a hill near the airport, looking for the True Blue Campus with American students. With orders and their code name “Juliet 5”, the five Rangers left the airport down the road to destiny. It was at this time that things began to take a turn for the worse.

First, the landing forces had no topographical or satellite maps of the invasion area. Just before the invasion there was military planning for a possible retaliatory strike in Beirut after a U.S. Marine barracks there had been bombed. All maps for staging areas for a possible strike in the Middle East were available but due to the sudden change in plans, there were no maps available for the Grenada invasion. Tourist maps were purchased, so these maps were what the Juliet 5 had in their possession at the time they left the airport.

Second, the Juliet 5 had their radio communications set on a different frequency than command headquarters back at the staging area.  When field commanders realized the Juliet 5 were moving to the wrong area, they could not signal them to correct their movement to another area. Plus, invasion units were off on the correct time of day as they were reacting to stateside Daylights Saving Time and not real time recognized and observed by Grenada.

These sequences of mishaps experienced by the Juliet 5 were not the anomaly of the invasion, but par for the course. Four Navy Seals were lost two days before as they were flying into the wrong area than what had previously been planned. They came in too low and were lost at sea; their bodies never were recovered.

When students at St. George’s University True Blue Campus were liberated by Marines, it was also discovered inadvertently that the 200 students were only one-third of the student body. A released student had called home to a worried mother and through him she discovered that there were still 400 students under house arrest, 200 living in private quarters and 200 in the second campus, the Grand Anse Campus. Marines were alerted by the student’s relatives in America to redirect to the other campus. Inadequate intelligence and poor planning throughout the campaign plagued the American military.

The compilations of errors and misjudgments were troubling harbingers that loomed for the “Juliet 5” Rangers.

As the jeep of the Juliet 5 rumbled up the hillside road, the unit members discovered on their own that they were heading in the wrong direction. They turned around and on the same road traveled across an open field where the jeep was targeted by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fired from one of the surrounding hills in an ambush attack.

The explosion appeared to have immediately killed Robinson, Maynard and Cline. Rademacher and Romick had jumped clear of the jeep, with Rademacher returning fire as Cuban forces were pouring down small arms fire in the direction of the destroyed jeep. Romick was ordered to move out and obtain relief support. Rademacher was killed by enemy fire as he was providing covering fire for Romick, who was moving away from the fighting while attempting to alert other units for support. The Juliet 5 Rangers remained out in the field for 24 hours before their bodies were removed by American forces.

By the third day, combat during the intervention was pretty much over with American military forces suffering 19 killed with 116 wounded, but inflicting 470 casualties on the defending Grenadian and Cuban military forces.  The Americans pulled out with the Grenadians establishing a democratic government that has lasted to this day.

October 25 is Thanksgiving Day in Grenada, and for the last 20 years the government has established a memorial service held every five years for not only the island residents but for families of those Americans killed in the military action.

Patty and Regina Manning were notified just this year about the island nation’s memorial service and were invited to attend. Patty was, at first, hesitant, but with her sister and other family members chose to fly to Grenada.  Immediate family members had their plane tickets paid for and all expenses were paid for during their stay on the island.

The itinerary included a tour of all battle sites, including the site where the Juliet 5 met their heroic end. There was a church service and a laying of wreaths at the official memorial that recognized those who gave their lives during the intervention. A state dinner was part of the itinerary with the Manning families having the honor to sit with the American ambassador to the East Caribbean Island nations. Besides the American ambassador, there were a number of dignitaries who attended the ceremonies including the Prime Minister of Grenada, members of the cabinet, and high ranking American military personnel.

After returning home and having some time to think about this momentous trip, both sisters said they learned so much, and as they shared time with the other numerous family members of those Americans killed during the intervention, they said there was a lot of crying and hugging, lots of sharing of pain, grief and memories of those who had given their lives for others. Both learned that Russ had not parachuted in, as was believed for many years, but had flown in on one of the C-130s.

They believe he was killed within two hours after landing on the island and it was confirmed to them that his body had been burned from the explosion from the RPG and not claimed by the small arms fire. They had heard stories that the island citizens had laid out the bodies and covered them but discovered that the bodies had remained in position from the initial attack. They also discovered that a number of the killed in action resulted from downed helicopter crashes, some nine crashes in total, due to either hostile fire or accidents.

As in other military actions, there are the numerous oddities that occur. There was the Blackhawk helicopter crash at Lance Aux Epines that resulted in the death of a Keith Lucas. One of the university instructors, Robert Jordon, was moving forward on island terrain and observed Lucas’s helmet in a tree and returned it to military authorities.

On the bus tour of the island, the Manning sisters observed that the daughter of Lucas was sitting in the front seat of the bus as this incident was being shared. She was somewhat in shock and became excited to hear the rendition of the story, something she had no knowledge of prior to learning of this incident.

They found out that island residents would sit on their front porches and watch the combat action in front of them. They also discovered that the island is not all jungle, that there is a rainforest in the northern half and the lower half is quite open compared to what they originally thought the island would be.

When Russ was one of the casualties of this intervention, his sisters were confused and wondered if his death was necessary. Today, after visiting the island and hearing the in-depth knowledge shared during their stay, they have come to accept their brother’s sacrifice more than they did 35 years ago.

They had heard that the students rescued were unappreciative of the rescue but heard from Dr. Robert Jordan, Chairman of the Department of Anatomy at St. George’s University of Medicine, that the lives of both faculty and the students were in danger and felt that the military intervention was justified.

They witnessed that a very large number of the island residents are still thankful and appreciative of the American intervention.

Patty feels their trip in October helped a lot and now feels the intervention was justified. “They were killing school children, and I had never heard that before,” reported Patty on the information that she was told as they were informed about details of this time period.

Regina confirmed that this intervention was justified, contrary to previous news reports, especially concerning the health and safety of the students. The sisters learned that the students were greatly relieved and appreciated the rescue. “When the students returned to the United States, the first thing they did was kiss the ground when leaving the plane. What does that tell you?” reflected Regina on the different and conflicting aspects of the intervention.

Together, the sisters have heard and read news accounts that do not tell the whole truth about what happened. They know about how Great Britain and some other nations felt the U.S. intervention was illegal, but they believe that as events began to snowball in October of 1983, the United States did the right thing.

Unless one was in the military or has family members that are either veterans or are presently serving in the military, a large number of people do not really understand the sacrifice of military personnel. Patty and Regina Manning have experienced and lived the heartache due to the ultimate sacrifice of their brother, Russ. They have felt the emptiness of that loss and the hurt they saw in their mother’s eyes. They harbored that continued, nagging question of “why?”.

Thanks to the invitation to Grenada, the Manning family had the chance to become involved in the 35th anniversary memorial services remembering Operation Urgent Fury. As a result of their brief stay, the family had some issues resolved and some questions answered. They are deeply indebted to all those involved in organizing the event, especially Dr. Charles Modica, Chancellor of St. George’s University in Grenada, and to those who are responsible in keeping the memories alive of those who gave their lives for their country and for the nation of Grenada.

Patty and Regina felt honored to be able to be part of something special and today they are in constant contact with other family members who had lost loved ones in the intervention. It has become clear to these two sisters that what Russ did on that fateful day was not only an act of sacrifice but was a display of unselfish duty to others around him.

One could probably speculate that Russ was probably like most and harbored fears and anxieties as his plane was making its final approach on the island airport runway. As his jeep was unloaded and the “Juliet 5” squad had gathered gear and were given orders, nobody will ever know what Russ was thinking in those final moments as he mounted up on the jeep with comrades that he trusted and would die for.

Was he anxious to do well and meet the challenges that he was trained for? Were thoughts of family, friends and the dusty streets of Harpers Ferry racing through his mind as his jeep was racing down that dusty road of Grenada?

Those last moments and thoughts would only be conjecture by those surviving the ones who lost their lives. Moments like these become part of history and lore.

What we do know is that Harpers Ferry’s own Russ Robinson - son, brother, uncle and Army Ranger, became more than a footnote, he became a hero.

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