- In the early morning hours of December 20, 1989, Delta Force operators descended on a Panamanian prison holding CIA operative Kurt Muse.
- The operation, conducted at the outset of the US invasion of Panama, brought Muse home safely, becoming Delta Force’s first successful hostage-rescue mission.
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On the night of December 20, 1989, the US invaded Panama to overthrow dictator Manuel Noriega.
This small-scale conflict was full of special operations — some of them successful, others not — involving Rangers, Navy SEALs, and Green Berets.
But it was also the first time that Delta Force successfully completed a large-scale hostage rescue.
Old partner, new enemy
Historically, the US had a turbulent and colorful relationship with Noriega. He had been a longtime CIA associate but was also known for drug trafficking.
After the Iran-Contra operation was exposed, Noriega’s utility to the US diminished.
As relations between the two countries deteriorated, Noriega went on the offensive, arresting Kurt Muse — a CIA operative who owned a publishing company in Panama — on espionage charges and threatening to execute him.
Noriega kept Muse in the squalid and overcrowded Modelo Prison. The prison was in downtown Panama City, close to the Comandancia, which was Panama’s Pentagon, and within sight of US Southern Command headquarters.
To make matters worse, Noriega told Muse that he would be killed on the spot if there was a rescue attempt. To back up his threat, the Panamanian strongman ordered a guard be outside Muse’s cell at all times, tasked with killing the American in the event of a rescue operation.
On December 16, Panamanian troops attacked a civilian vehicle carrying four American officers going out for dinner, killing one and wounding another. Operation Acid Gambit was a go.
A bold plan
The intelligence for the operation wasn’t the best, and the Delta planners had to rely on the reports of an American doctor who had been tending to Muse. From him, they learned where Muse was located and the general layout of the building.
The final plan was to land on the roof, breach the rooftop door, and descend two floors to reach Muse’s cell. The assault force would then fly away on the Little Birds with their precious cargo.
Delta Force’s 2 Troop, A Squadron, was given the task of rescuing Muse. Four MH-6 Little Bird helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as “the Night Stalkers,” would land 23 Delta operators on the prison’s roof.
Lt. Col. Eldon Bargewell, a legendary commando and A Squadron’s commanding officer, was the operation’s overall commander.
In the months prior to the mission, the Delta operators practiced the mission multiple times. The assault force pre-staged at Howard Air Force base in Panama, which was only a short flight from the prison.
The operation would kick off 15 minutes prior to the main invasion to ensure surprise.
6 minutes to freedom
Minutes before 1 a.m. on December 20, the assault force launched.
As the assault force approached Modelo Prison, two AC-130 Spectre gunships and several AH-6 Little Birds, which were the attack version of the MH-6, began pounding the Comandancia to draw attention away from the inbound rescuers.
The four MH-6 Little Birds put the assault force on top of the prison, but almost immediately Panamanians came streaming out of adjacent buildings and began shooting at them.
The Delta Force rescue element headed to the rooftop door while the security element provided cover fire, with snipers taking out guards on the nearby towers and assaulters with machine guns laying waste in the courtyard.
The breachers had prepared a powerful charge for the rooftop door, expecting it to be heavily fortified. But it proved to be an ordinary door, and the blast from the charge shook the whole building.
As the rescue team entered the prison, they encountered some resistance, killing two guards and cuffing another who was unarmed and offered no resistance, displaying the target discretion that Delta is known for even in the most chaotic situations.
At the cell, “the guys had to blow Kurt’s door with another charge,” a Delta veteran told Insider. “They told him to hide in his little bathroom area so he wouldn’t be blown to pieces by the flying door.”
Meanwhile, an operator who had roped down from the roof was hanging outside Muse’s cell window to ensure that the guard who was supposed to kill Muse was neutralized, but that precaution ended up not being necessary.
Once inside the cell, the Delta operators gave Muse a helmet, body armor, and goggles for protection before heading back to the MH-6s.
Only six minutes had passed between when the Delta operators landed on the roof and the moment they called in the orbiting helicopters for extract — “six minutes that lasted an eternity,” wrote Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time.
It ain’t over till it’s over
An MH-6 Little Bird took off with Muse from the roof but immediately dropped straight to the ground because of the weight. The Night Stalker pilots managed to level the bird and “drive” down a street before landing in a graveyard.
As the battered MH-6 tried to take off again, it came under withering enemy fire. One operator was hit in the chest and fell out of the chopper 20 feet to the ground, as did another one who tried to grab him.
The Little Bird crashed-landed, wounding the other two operators. One of them, Sgt. 1st Class James Sudderth, lost several toes when the chopper’s skids trapped his foot, but Sudderth was able to lift the machine enough so he could escape.
The Night Stalker pilots and Muse, however, were unharmed.
The wounded operators set up a hasty defensive position in a nearby building and used an infrared strobe light to signal their location to aircraft overhead. A few minutes later, armored personnel carriers, carrying Delta operators and medics from the main invasion force, rescued them.
All the operators managed to recover from the crash and deploy again.
“Despite his wounds, ‘Conan’ continued to serve in the Unit, even graduating from the Combat Diver school, hands down one of toughest special operations courses in the Army,” a Delta operator who served with Sudderth told Insider, using Sudderth’s nickname.
Nearby, one AH-6 was shot down around the Comandancia, but the Night Stalker pilots flying it managed to escape to safety.
Delta had participated in the failed rescue of Americans held hostage in Iran in 1980, which led to changes to the special-operations command structure and the creation of the Night Stalkers.
With Muse’s successful rescue almost 10 years later, the ghosts of Desert One were laid to rest.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.