When LTG James Williams took office as the director of DIA in 1981, the current director, LTG Michael Flynn, had just received his commission as a second lieutenant. Just two years later, on Oct. 25, 1983, the U.S. and its allies launched Operation Urgent Fury on the small Caribbean island of Grenada after the nation underwent a communist coup. Williams tasked his agency with supplying key operation and tactical intelligence to the war fighters in Grenada, one of which would be his future successor. Flynn served on the ground with the 82nd Airborne Division in Grenada as a young platoon leader.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the invasion, DIA hosted a panel discussion Oct. 23 that included Williams and two DIA personnel who were involved in the preparation for and support of the operation, a former Latin America analyst and former Cuba/Caribbean geographer. Each was involved firsthand in providing support to the planners and combat units on the ground. The event served to remember the successful operation, share perspectives and discuss lessons learned. During the operation, several hundred American medical students were rescued, Soviet and Cuban influence was mitigated, and a democratic government was restored in Grenada.
U.S. military forces landed on Grenada just two days after the U.S. Marine Corps Barracks was bombed in Beirut, Lebanon – underscoring the complexity and breadth of DIA’s need for mission readiness in a world where there are critical events occurring simultaneously.
“Being ready for the unknown – that’s one thing that DIA has always been at the front of,” Flynn said. “This was the first time I ever saw a dead American soldier in a body bag. But at the end of the day, it’s about remembering the sacrifices Americans will make – whether it’s their time and energy, or their lives.”
Williams shared his recollections of the rushed preparations that preceded the actual troop arrivals on that Tuesday morning. He conceded that American forces at the time were not prepared to handle detainees nor perform proper materiel and document exploitation. As a result, he ordered a small team of DIA employees to collect Soviet-made weaponry and thousands of documents in Grenada for further analysis, marking one of the first times DIA civilian employees deployed down range.
“This started the first glimmerings of DIA being a combat support agency,” Williams noted. Operation Urgent Fury marked the beginning of DIA’s shift from its focus on strategic-level intelligence to tactical and combat support.
During the 1980s, the Latin America analyst authored a “Lines of Communication” paper on Grenada, which provided detailed information on the roads, ports, air fields and physical features of the island. When it was first published, many people viewed the study as trivial because Grenada was not a priority target. Little did they know that it would soon prove critical. Upon the invasion of Grenada, the study was distributed, but the analyst heard that military units in Grenada resorted to getting maps from hotels and gas stations. “For me personally, it became very apparent that you can write all the studies you want, but if you don’t get it to the consumer – intelligence is useless,” said the former employee.
The military geographer offered his unique perspective, having only joined DIA a few months prior to the operation. Working from Arlington Hall Station, he and colleagues quickly drew on all their resources to construct packages of maps, aerial imagery and overlays indicating key locations in Grenada. He would later have an opportunity to personally visit the island and see the very beaches where the landings occurred.
In wrapping up the event, Flynn commented on the communist challenge of 1983 and how it compares to the terrorist challenge of 2013, noting that the U.S. still has work to do in combating terrorism. In response, Williams shouted, “and you have computers!”