Robert B. Simpson: Ready or not …

May 11, 2013 

Forty-eight years ago, when the sputtering series of coups, counter-coups, and threats of coups had finally combusted into revolution in the Dominican Republic, the 82d Airborne Division began deploying to that small Caribbean nation as the major element of what would become known as "Power Pack." Four U.S. Marine battalions had been sent down on April 28 to safeguard and remove American citizens. The next day, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the first elements of the 82nd to go in.

Serving as America's fire brigade, ready to react swiftly to emergencies requiring military solutions, was the 82nd Airborne Division's bread and butter. For many years, there had not been a day when a significant portion of the division was not rehearsing and preparing for typical missions. Unfortunately, this one would not be typical.

The revolution, a major spasm in the island nation's years-long string of upheavals following the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo, involved numerous contesting factions. The one that caught Washington's instant attention was the Communist faction. President Johnson swore he would not allow another Cuba to emerge in the neighborhood, not on his watch. But the problem was what to believe and how to react to it. The result of this for the 82nd was a confusing string of alerts, orders, canceled orders, and changes. Personnel were confined to their unit areas, ready to go. Then new orders would arrive. There were countless times when I walked the length of a football field from my company to the battalion headquarters to receive the latest word, then walked back to my unit only to find a message telling me to come back again for another change.

By the time our battalion finally headed down to the airfield to load up, the throttle had been pushed to the firewall and things had gone from start-stop to full speed ahead. We loaded according to long-practiced plans, but if the plan didn't fit, we tossed it aside and improvised. I flew to the Dominican Republic, five hours aboard a C-130 transport, sitting atop stacked cases of ammunition and cans of gasoline strapped down aboard a little four-wheeled Army "mule." I was lucky to have a seat at all. Many were standing, hanging on to whatever they could find during takeoff and landing.

The first units were expecting to parachute in, and their vehicles and equipment would be airdropped. While these folks, and the division commander, Major General Robert York, were en route, they got word that it was now "assumed" that San Isidro airport was in friendly hands. No need to jump. The aircraft carrying equipment diverted to Puerto Rico to de-rig the loads and then go to Dom Rep. The troops, and General York and his staff, flew straight ahead, landing on the dark runway east of Santo Domingo. Cancellation of the jump was a good thing. The U.S. Embassy attache' who had selected the drop zone from the air was not aware that the beautiful smooth greenness of it concealed a surface of jagged coral.

General York hitched a ride to the hangar with a carload of Dominican strangers. He would later be criticized for landing first and taking this additional risk, but he was an officer who did what he thought needed to be done at the moment, regardless of whether it fit traditional patterns. Later, when three battalions of his paratroopers leapfrogged their way through the middle of Santo Domingo to link up with Marines coming from the other side, the lead element, just before the link-up, came under sniper fire. They killed the sniper, but the exchange of fire so close by caused the Marines to return fire, repeatedly. Finally General York, again close to the action, stepped into the middle of the street, bellowed out his name, and ordered everybody to cease fire. They did.

By mid-May, U.S. forces in country numbered about 24,000. From April 28 to May 7, 1965, 313 transport aircraft delivered 16,500 of these troops and 16,000 tons of supplies and equipment, without a single accident. Despite limited navigation aids, inadequate briefings inadequate crew rest, and flaky weather. The operation was a metaphor for the entire 17-month-long operation, in that it was a chaotic, confusing, sometimes hilarious, often deadly expedition, but the troops maneuvered their way through the thicket of contradictions, dodging sniper bullets and oddball directives with equal skill. Asked to perform part time as combat troops, part time as political pawns, they did so. Pared down to one brigade after the first half-year, and then to one lone battalion for the last two months, they soldiered on, in a little understood and mostly forgotten enterprise.

The unblooded who are eager to launch military adventures could look to "Power Pack" as an example of how complicated even a relatively simple and limited operation can become. And of how good troops will still somehow pull it off, if you ask them to, sometimes at immense personal cost.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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