Did an officer improvise with a payphone to call in air support during Operation Urgent Fury? Here are the full facts behind the oft-repeated tale.
By Ed Offley
Naval History Magazine
Even today, four decades after Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S.-led invasion of Grenada, it has lingered as one of the enduring legends of the Cold War.
The tale goes more or less like this: During the early phase of the operation, a junior Army officer and his troops became pinned down by hostile fire. Unable to raise the USS Independence (CV-62) just offshore for air support, the young lieutenant noticed a red Grenadian telephone booth nearby. He crawled over, got a dial tone, and using a personal prepaid phone card, called back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he got through to his unit’s operations center. After explaining his situation, the lieutenant was transferred several times until he finally was connected to the aircraft carrier.
The story began circulating throughout the Navy community in Norfolk, Virginia, several weeks after the operation ended in early November 1983. In the months that followed, different versions appeared, with shifting details and protagonists. The most elaborate one had a personal touch to it: “Hi Honey, how are you, how are the kids . . . I’m okay, kinda busy . . . say, can you get me some air support?”
While definitive confirmation long eluded journalists and historians alike, the Grenadian phone booth story did not go away. Details of Operation Urgent Fury that emerged in the mid-1980s and beyond revealed how poor communications among the four military services had marred the overall operation and, in several instances, led to casualties; and in one pivotal moment, the civilian telephone system on Grenada did play a role in executing a key military mission:
After the Rangers liberated the True Blue campus of St. George’s University Medical School at the east end of Point Salines airport, they discovered that more than one-half of the medical students resided at a previously unidentified campus at Grand Anse several miles away. As they hastily put together a second rescue mission, Army officials were able to contact residents using the civilian telephone system and prepare them for a heliborne rescue mission that was successfully carried out the next day.1
With these and other examples of communications glitches, the Grenadian telephone booth tale did not appear so far-fetched after all. Two subsequent events a quarter-century apart further entrenched the story in popular culture
In 1986, actor-director Clint Eastwood released the motion picture Heartbreak Ridge, which profiled a veteran Marine and the platoon of young recruits he molds into a fighting unit that goes to Grenada.
A pivotal scene depicted the Marines under heavy fire from a Cuban unit where the platoon’s radioman is killed and his radio is destroyed; a fellow Marine finds a telephone booth in working condition and calls back to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, using his personal phone card to request air support.
An article about the movie production reported that screenwriter James Carabatsos was inspired by an account he had read of U.S. paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division using a pay telephone and a credit card to call in fire support during the invasion of Grenada. (The script was rewritten to feature Marines rather than soldiers after the Army declined to support the film production.)2
In 2011, after a 40-year political career starting as a congressional intern and ending as 46th Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney wrote his autobiography, In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir. While as Secretary of Defense during 1989–93 he had presided over Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the multinational military campaign to oust Iraq from Kuwait, and as Vice President pushed for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. Cheney also included this telling anecdote from a brief visit to Grenada he made as a congressman sometime after the 1983 invasion:
An Army officer who had needed artillery support . . . could look out to sea and see naval vessels on the horizon, but he had no way to talk to them. So he used his personal credit card in a payphone, placed a call to Fort Bragg, asked Bragg to contact the Pentagon, had the Pentagon contact the Navy, who in turn told the commander off the coast to get this poor guy some artillery support. Clearly a new [communications] system was needed.3
What the famed actor-director and the former Vice President had in common is that like so many others, they told the story as it has been passed down over the decades—and got it wrong.
Decades after the fighting on Grenada ended, the actual story finally emerged in a 2002 memoir by retired Command Master Chief Dennis Chalker, a veteran of the Navy SEAL community. A founding member of the elite counterterror SEAL Team 6, Chalker was part of the platoon assigned to rescue Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon on D-day, 25 October, at his official residence at Government House in St. George’s.
It was there that the legendary desperate phone call home took place in real life, but not between an Army infantry lieutenant and the Navy via Fort Bragg. It actually involved a SEAL Team 6 officer who used his credit card to call the operations center at Hurlburt Field, Florida, the home base of the Air Force 1st Special Operations Wing and its AC-130 gunships.
The call was a moment of desperate improvisation out of the fog of war and friction of combat.
The rescue plan called for several dozen SEAL Team 6 members to “fast rope” down from a pair of MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, drive off any Grenadian soldiers, surround Government House, and then fly Scoon and his wife out to the operation flagship USS Guam (LPH-9). The plan did not survive first contact with the enemy.
While most of the SEALs safely made it to the ground, one of the Blackhawks was struck by antiaircraft fire, seriously injuring the pilot. The uninjured co-pilot flew the crippled helicopter off with SEAL Team 6 commander Captain Robert A. Gormly and his radioman with the platoon’s AN/URC-101 VHF/UHF SATCOM radio still on board. The helicopter crash-landed on the Guam, where the co-pilot was unable to shut down the engines due to control damage. The flight deck crew was forced to flood its engine intakes with a firehose to secure the engines.
Meanwhile, the SEALs on the ground found themselves without the ability to talk to several AC-130 gunships orbiting overhead. Their only communications gear consisted of battery-operated Motorola MX-360 hand-held radios. As Grenadian troops and a pair of Soviet-built BTR-60PB armored vehicles began firing on Government House, the SEALs, Scoon, his wife, and nine household staff members took shelter indoors.
For a time, the SEALs were able to improvise. As Chalker recounted:
Captain Gormly and his team had gone into [Point Salines] Airport . . . and set up a SEAL command post. Now our radios were starting to go dead and the communications were getting weak. But we did manage to call in our own air support, relaying the request through Captain Gormly’s team and on to whatever air assets were available. Gormly’s radio operator, after talking to us, called out to a ship on his SATCOM [radio], which directed the aircraft. Not the most efficient way of getting commo, but it worked.”4
By nightfall, the SEALs’ jury-rigged communications system was failing, as one by one their hand-held radios died. In one of their last incoming messages, the SEALs were told about 30 enemy soldiers and a BTR-60PB were closing in on Government House. At that point, Lieutenant Wellington T. “Duke” Leonard, the platoon commander and senior officer in Gormly’s absence, went for Plan B. Chalker explained, “We needed air support as soon as we could get it. Using the governor’s regular telephone, Duke just called back to Hurlburt Field in Florida and eventually got connected to the right people.”5
Within minutes, an AC-130 was overhead, its pilot, Lieutenant Colonel David K. Sims, patched in by radio to the SEAL lieutenant. The gunship opened fire on the advancing Grenadians, killing an unknown number and driving the rest off.6
Several hours later after sunrise, a Marine task force that had landed on Grenada’s west coast at Grand Mal Bay reached Government House, ending the siege. Governor-General Scoon and his wife boarded a helicopter for their much-delayed flight out to the Guam.
The rescue mission was over. Thanks in large part to the “Top Secret” blanket that cloaked all information about SEAL Team 6, the legend of the Grenada phone call had begun.
- Major Mark Adkin, Royal Army (Ret.), Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada (Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Lexington Books, 1989), 215–16, 264.
- Heartbreak Ridgemovie profile, including the screenwriter’s use of the telephone booth story, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heartbreak_Ridge.
- Dick Cheney, In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 150.
- Dennis Chalker with Kevin Dockery, One Perfect Op(New York: Morrow, 2002), 157–58.
- Chalker and Dockery, One Perfect Op, 158.
- Philip G. Kukielski, “Secret Mission of Urgent Fury,”Naval History35, no. 5 (October 2021), 26–33.
Mr. Offley, a career military journalist for four decades, is the author of Turning the Tide: How a Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic (Basic Books, 2011) and The Burning Shore: How Hitler’s U-boats Brought World War II to America (Basic Books, 2014).