Scenes of a War
updated 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
When the Grenada question was still whether U.S. citizens could be evacuated without a U.S. invasion, the man charged with trying to safeguard his fellow Americans from a murderous, five-day-old junta was James Budeit, 53, U.S. Consul General to several Caribbean countries, including Grenada. As he flew to Grenada to confront the matter that Sunday morning—with, he says, no premonition of the invasion that was then less than 48 hours away—he nearly became the first American casualty of the quickening conflict.
He had made the flight from Barbados to Grenada before; it was just a 40-minute hop by plane. But this flight proved far from routine. As the chartered plane approached Pearls airport, the pilot could not establish radio contact with the tower. After circling the field several times he diverted the plane to nearby Union Island in the Grenadines. There he radioed Grenada again and this time secured permission to land. "When we finally got to Pearls," Budeit recalls, "we found out we'd been shot at. Ground personnel at the airport told us that there was a guy up in the mountains that had been shooting at us."
Once on the island Budeit was driven southeast toward the capital, St. George's, and the nearby University School of Medicine. "The idea was to find out where the American students were, what their needs were and get out those who wanted to go." The more difficult part of his mission was to secure the military's cooperation in his plan to evacuate the Americans by chartered air or sea transportation. After meeting briefly with the medical school's vice-chancellor, Budeit made his way to Grenada's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to speak to Maj. Leon Cornwall, former Grenadian ambassador to Cuba and a member of the new Marxist junta.
It was Budeit's first visit to the ministry building since the junta had seized power the previous Wednesday by summarily executing Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and a number of his ministers and followers. Budeit found the ministry eerily quiet. "It was empty," he remembers. "Except for the guy who opened the door and turned on the lights and said hello and offered to make you coffee, Cornwall was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."
Throughout that day and the next Budeit, who wasn't expecting an imminent invasion, negotiated with a man convinced of its certainty. Rumors abounded that Grenada's Caribbean neighbors, which had already placed the island under an economic quarantine, were about to mount an invasion on their own. Cornwall was more interested in getting assurances that the United States would not participate in any such action than in listening to Budeit's plea for the safety of civilians. By Monday morning the Major had grown insistent, demanding guarantees of nonintervention from President Reagan. "He was rather pressing," as the soft-spoken Budeit puts it. "He had a rather large pistol under his shirt."
Budeit's reception later that day from American students at the medical school was scarcely friendlier. In a tempestuous meeting, a large group of them pointedly advised him to butt out of their affairs because they believed the new government, like the Bishop regime before it, would allow them to continue their studies unimpeded. Only after the shooting started did some students come to appreciate Budeit's fears for their safety.
On Monday evening, back at his room in Ross Point Inn on a promontory overlooking St. George's, Budeit called embassy officials at his office in Barbados. "I suddenly realized that they hadn't given me any idea what size of aircraft they could send me for the evacuations," he says. "I asked, and they said, If it's for civilians, it might be a C-130.' " Only then did Budeit, a former Navy pilot who knew the C-130 to be a military transport, realize that his mission had come to naught. "I knew there was going to be an invasion."
A few hours later Budeit was awakened by the drone of aircraft in the night sky. At dawn on Tuesday, when the invasion began, Budeit and his deputy David Ostroff, along with two Canadians, two West Germans and an Antiguan, left their rooms to seek shelter in one of the hotel's concrete outbuildings. "We began to fear that, with the war just beginning to break out, it was a good time for our friend Major Cornwall to remember that he had David Ostroff and James Budeit over here and send somebody around to pick us up." During that day, as the fighting ebbed, picked up, then faded once more, the little group of foreigners grew more venturesome, going out to look at the action. "We saw Butler House, where Bishop's office had been, go up in flames. There was thick black smoke and it all went up at once. We suspect it was done intentionally, to burn the records." By evening the seven felt secure enough to go to the hotel for dinner. "We had a bottle of wine," Budeit recalls. "Then we had another bottle of wine. I don't know how many bottles of wine we had. It was quite a scene to watch this building go up in flames and then go have dinner. We were thinking, 'Hey, this is over. We survived.' "
It was misplaced optimism. The air attack on Fort Frederick, a few miles from the hotel, began after midnight. "There were explosions around us. We heard what we thought was an ammo dump going up," Budeit recouts. "All of a sudden we saw a line of helicopters heading toward Grand Anse beach, then guns began popping and we ran back to our room in the outbuilding. Three shells landed near us, and the next morning we found a big piece of shrapnel outside our door. That was rough—but it must have been much rougher for the people living along the beach."
The seven civilians spent that night huddled around a gas lamp. At one point it failed, leaving them in darkness—and perhaps saving their lives. "One of the Canadians was about to get a kerosene lamp," Budeit remembers, "when we heard footsteps. Nobody said a word. Then somebody came up to the door of the room and shined a flashlight through the window and said 'Good night.' Nobody moved. He went on, and at the next place we heard him saying 'Good night.' We were extremely quiet and stayed in the room through the night. The hotelier told us the next day that he had not sent anyone around."
The following day Budeit was airlifted to Barbados, where later he sat with his wife, Rada, on the whitewashed terrace of their villa overlooking Bridgetown Harbor, eating a Lebanese dip of Hummus bi Tahini on potato chips. For Rada, the two days of anxiety about Jim's safety brought back ghastly memories. A native of Lebanon, she was working for the American Embassy in Beirut when she met Jim, who was then a consular officer. They married and left Beirut in 1978. Over the years many of her relatives have fled their embattled homeland (her 73-year-old father lives with the Budeits and their two children in Barbados), and she lost some of her best friends in last April's Beirut embassy bombing. Her family home has been shelled repeatedly, and she herself was wounded by shrapnel when the embassy took mortar fire. "It was stupid of me," she says now. "A rocket hit outside, and instead of going to hide, I went out to look. Suddenly another came into the garden, and I took shrapnel in the shoulder." For her, as for other Lebanese, artillery fire had come to seem almost a commonplace. "I used to drive around the beach. I wasn't scared. I was in the middle of the shelling and the shooting, but I didn't mind." One of her greatest worries during her husband's ordeal in Grenada was that he was not similarly inured to combat. James Budeit flew combat jets in Korea, helped run a consulate under fire in Beirut, and now has survived a full-scale invasion but, Rada observes, "Jim is just not the adventurer type."
He stands in the doorway with an outstretched hand and a grin as big as the Grand Canyon, exuding the high-powered bonhomie of a greeter in a Las Vegas casino. "I'm Joseph Metcalf," he says as he pumps each new arrival's hand. "I'm glad you could come. It's good to have you here." When the last of the press are inside the unfinished air terminal Fidel Castro was building at Point Salines, Metcalf bounds up a few steps of a wooden staircase to address the crowd. The smile never fades, the energy never dims. A casual observer might think that the man is high on something, and indeed he is. His drug is victory. Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, USN, has just won a war.
Not physically striking—lean and on the small side of midsize—he nonetheless radiates command presence. Today, when he has decided to speak publicly about the invasion of Grenada for the first time, he is using that quality to the hilt. The 55-year-old commander of the invasion works the roomful of eager questioners with the vibrancy of Richard Dawson and the hard edge of George Patton. When his staff can't quote him a figure on Cuban casualties, he thunders "go find out"—and a lieutenant commander scurries off like an errand boy. When a reporter wants to know why he has barred the press from his operations area he snaps, "You want to get shot? I don't want you to be a burden on me. I guess you might say that I'm the bad guy." When a babel of questions assaults him, he snarls, "One at a time." Joseph Metcalf III is emphatically in charge.
Thirty-two years as a naval officer accustoms a man to having his orders obeyed, and Metcalf does not tolerate disagreement. He doesn't even seem to recognize that it exists. As field commander, he decided to conduct America's first semiprivate war, convinced the Pentagon to back him and went on to oust the Grenada military junta and their Cuban allies without scrutiny from press or public. He makes no apologies for quarantining Grenada while he did his job—and he has no regrets about the way he cut off the island from the rest of the world. "Any of you guys been sneaking across in boats trying to get in?" he asked the first group of reporters he spoke with after the invasion. "I've been shooting at those boats. I'm not going to let anybody sneak in. I know how to stop them."
Since the last days of Vietnam, it has been unfashionable for any American military commander to enjoy combat. Somehow, the word hasn't filtered down to Metcalf, a small-town boy from Holyoke, Mass. who joined the Navy as an enlisted man in 1946, passed through Annapolis ('51), and a series of sea commands and Pentagon jobs to the third star he won just last May. Metcalf loves his job. Combat—and victory—make him heady. When someone asks him for a body count of Cuban soldiers, he says he's in no hurry to count the corpses. "These people have been lying in the field for some time and nobody particularly feels like counting them," he chuckles. "They are rather 'warm.' "
When the Marines captured Bernard Coard, a ringleader of the Marxists' bloody coup, they led him through the island—much to Metcalf's delight. "It was a grand old scene," the admiral whoops. "People were cheering and coming along behind him. I looked at him. I scowled at him. But I did not talk to him. I'm not going to tell you what I'm going to do with him, but we're not going to give him a good conduct medal."
As the group prepares to depart, the gray-haired man in the olive jump suit strides out to the Tarmac to bid his guests farewell. In the cloudless azure sky, an AC-130 gunship is circling lazily around a mountain a few miles away, its Gatling gun pumping several thousand rounds a minute into the underbrush. Joseph Metcalf smiles at the sight as he says goodbye.
Sgt. Raymond Scott of the 82nd Airborne arrived in Grenada on the fifth American aircraft to land in the country as the invasion began. "Our plan was to jump, but we didn't have to. Every man was ready, but by the time we arrived, the Cubans were gone," he says. "I hope those were their top-notch troops 'cause we showed them how to fight. They might be good against another Third World country, overwhelming people and stuff like that, but when it comes to a professional army—this division anyway—we're trained to handle them."
Sergeant Scott defines the phrase gung ho. After 14 years in the Army, Scott, 33, is a member of one of the military's elite outfits, the 82nd Airborne Division. "We're a shock force," the Winton, Calif. native explains. "We get in there and shock that enemy army and overrun them." As a combat engineer, Scott was ordered to secure six Cuban warehouses at Frequente in the hills above Point Salines. These buildings, the Army says, were filled with arms and ammunition. Scott's men checked for booby traps, then surrounded the warehouses. "There's a chance they might try to come back and take this area," Sergeant Scott says. "We're talking about guerrillas, a couple of people trying to sneak in here, not a conventional force moving en masse."
A few minutes after he says this, the sergeant's point is proved. The fire of Gatling guns from the AC-130s circling the hills is the background music of Grenada, and most civilians in the area don't even notice when a high-pitched shriek rises above their baritone popping, kicking up a cloud of dust near the warehouses. But suddenly Sergeant Scott drops the set of Red Army shoulder boards he has been displaying for touring visitors, grabs his M-16 and transforms himself from tour guide to combat platoon leader. One of the Gl's who had been lounging in the warehouse doorway chatting with the visitors flings himself through the air, hits the ground, loses his helmet and rolls into position behind the door of the adjacent building. The air rings with orders. "That door won't stop a bullet! Get that helmet on! Get that photographer inside! Keep inside!" Suddenly, the hill above the warehouse is crawling with Gl's, weapons at the ready. In a few minutes Scott is returning to the tour, while helicopter gunships circle the area. "If there is anybody there, they're going to get wasted," he says. "The other side of the hill looks like a golf course, it's all nice grass and everything." The sergeant offers a parting shot at his enemy's competence. "You know," he says, gesturing to a thickly wooded section on the other side of the warehouses. "It didn't make any sense for him to snipe at us from where he did. He should have been sniping from over there, where it's a jungle."
For noncoms like Sergeant Scott, Grenada is a peerless opportunity. "I'm hoping that a lot of these weapons go to Fort Bragg," he says. "We can train on them. We have to know how to use enemy weaponry, because we have to use what we find on the ground when we come into a country." In that sentiment, Sergeant Scott is typical of the soldiers on the island. They see Grenada as a military operation, combat experience, a chance to test their skills. They'll leave the politics and the ethics of the invasion to civilians.
To Kenneth Cook, the morality of the brief little war needs no explaining. He is one of the rare eyewitnesses to the massacre of Grenadian government officials that provoked the first full-scale U.S. invasion of foreign soil since Vietnam.
On Oct. 19 Cook was among the ragtag crowd of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop's supporters that banded together to free their political hero from house arrest in St. George's. Then they marched behind him toward a confrontation with the military at Fort Rupert. Cook, a 25-year-old snack bar owner, insists that the throng around Bishop was peaceful. "Nobody was armed, no one was armed," he repeats as he begins his tale of carnage, a narration of events so vivid to him now that his words come out in a jumble and events run together as in a film collage. "Two armored cars came up. I was standing where the ministers were. The men that came in the armored cars, they executed all of them. Other men and women and children that were running away, they killed all of them. I happened to see one of Bishop's ministers. He got shot nine times. He was on the ground bleeding when one of the soldiers shot him in the mouth. Then one of the security forces saw me. 'Get that man. Get Kenneth Cook,' he says. They started shooting at me and I have to just leap off the Fort down about 40 feet and I swam from there and went undercover from them. I reckon they killed about 60-something by the time I was running away."
Like many Grenadians, Cook feels intensely sympathetic to the leftist ideals of Maurice Bishop, despite his opposition to the ideology of Marxism in general. "We knew it was Communism the government was bringing us into," he says. "But still Maurice Bishop used to stick with us, and he knew if he went on his own, they would execute him." Bishop did go on his own—apparently seeking rapprochment with Washington—and it was his friend, deputy and former law partner Bernard Coard (abetted by Grenadian General Hudson Austin) who did him in. "It was criminals inside the government who did the dirty work," as Cook puts it. "Bernard Coard is a criminal. Cornwall is a criminal."
Austin, Coard and Maj. Leon Cornwall were captured by U.S. troops on Grenada and taken to the amphibious assault ship USS Guam; some 650 Cuban construction workers, advisers and soldiers were also detained on the island. However history may judge the merits of the American invasion, it is a tribute to the work of Consul General Budeit, Vice Admiral Metcalf, Sergeant Scott and his fellow soldiers that all but a few of the native and foreign "criminals" feared by Cook and his countrymen are now dead or in captivity.