A Pocket Calculator for Grenada
By Wally McNamee
We learned within hours of Ronald Reagan’s surprise invasion of Grenada in October 1983 that there would be no assistance from the Department of Defense. The aim of the operation was to oust a communist government and Cuban troops.
The Newsweek photo staff went into what Mel Elfin used to call "supercharge." The first moves were to charter a small jet from Teterboro, NJ, then to wire $20,000 to Washington office manager Thelma McMahon. That much cash, in green U.S. dollars, might be needed to charter a boat to Grenada once we got to the neighborhood.
First money disbursed, however, went to fellow photographer Jean-Louis Atlan. A Sygma agency photographer, Atlan needed a $1,000 advance. Atlan immediately bought a box of good cigars and a bottle of cognac. I already had both in my backpack so I figured we were good to go.
Atlan, me, fellow Washington photographer Larry Downing and a bureau reporter met the jet that afternoon at Dulles airport. Already aboard were New York photo editor Jimmy Colton, a young researcher, and a couple of New York free lance photographers.
The pilot and co-pilot were Air National Guardsmen. We planned to drop several people in Miami, then fly to Grenada or an island nearby. Downing was going on to Cuba.
Not Cleared: Our flight crew called U.S. military air controllers as we approached Grenada. In terse military jargon, they told Grenada we were a civilian jet carrying a team of Newsweek journalists preparing to land at the Point Salines airfield to cover the war. There was a pause. Then the controller ordered us to turn back immediately, there would be no clearance to land. We diverted to the big airport at Barbados, a couple hundred miles away, arriving about midnight.
Chaos reigned the next morning. There were milling press people, servicemen, lots of military aircraft and still no cooperation. We flew to three different islands, boxing the compass around Grenada. Atlan, the young woman reporter and I were dropped on St Vincent, about 120 miles north of Grenada. Another photographer went on to Trinidad. Another to Tobago, as I recall. Neither ever made it to Grenada.
The three of us immediately taxied to a St. Vincent yacht club with a public landing. A TV crew was dickering for a 50-foot sailboat. I declined to join. They had so much gear and their boat was so slow. In the early afternoon a Boston Whaler showed up with a couple from Palm Island. I cut a deal: $1,000 to reach and stay the night in Palm, $1,000 to leave the following morning, and $8,000 if and when we arrived on the west side of Grenada. The sailboat was still loading as we pulled out.
Rough Going: The ride down was rough, five foot seas, I’d guess. Atlan and I each grabbed a rope tied to a boat fitting. This let us stand—the pounding made sitting a torture---in front of the skipper's console. The reporter stood aft by the skipper. We reached Palm after dark, and left at dawn.
As we approached Grenada, a picket line of Navy ships guarded the northern approaches. We slowed. What do we do? Almost simultaneously, a ship dead ahead in the line made smoke and headed off east. I told the skipper to aim straight for the vacated spot. Miraculously, we slid through the line and into smooth waters in the lee of the island.
A Navy helicopter appeared and trailed us down the coast for a couple minutes. I told everybody to “keep your eyes in the boat, we belong here." I was thinking if we had a big piece of illustration board I’d make up a "Beat Army" sign. The chopper just went away, another miracle. We had acquired a tourist map of Grenada and directed the skipper to the Ramada beach resort south of the main town and harbor of St. George. The Ramada was north of the Point Salines airport, the objective of the invasion, and on the main road. We nosed up to the beach, paid off the skipper, and went ashore. The Whaler sped off. We later learned he’d been stopped and detained.
Snipers: Atlan and I can’t remember where our reporter went. As we two approached the roadway, we saw troops hunkered down, concentrating on a ridge on the other side of the road. The troops were the leading edge of the 82nd Airborne. I told Atlan that we would take a few pictures of them and then call out. We expected they might be spooked
I shouted something like, “We’re American journalists and are right in back of you.” The troops whirled around and leveled on us. They’d been receiving sniper fire from the ridge. One of them said something like, “ You people are not supposed to be here, give us those cameras.” I asked for his commanding officer. The trooper heated up. (It amazed us that the press moratorium order had reached down to troopers on the line.). Fortunately a non-com appeared and took us a couple of hundred yards to the rear and the battalion CO, Lt Col Jack (known as Mad Jack) Hamilton.
We showed Hamilton our passports and press credentials and explained how we’d arrived. He said, "Congratulations, that's great. As far as I’m concerned you can hook up with us and take all the pictures you want." He said they would not be going much further up the road that day. The night before a small recon group had got into a firefight with Cubans and the patrol leader, a Captain Ritz as I recall, had been killed. Hamilton promised us rations and free rooms in the unoccupied Ramada.
Action: Navy jets streaked overhead as we talked, bashing something or somebody beyond the ridge. There was also the unmistakable ripping sound of a "Puff," a Gatling gun-equipped four engine C-130. It was attacking a marshaling and supply area for Cuban soldiers we were told.
Four 82nd troopers took off in a captured vehicle to scout around the Soviet embassy. The troopers received fire near or from the embassy. One was shot in the face, the round entering one cheek and exiting the other. A medevac chopper flew him to a navy ship. Another helicopter was shot down just offshore from the embassy area later that day.
An open truck drove up carrying American students from the Grenada medical school, St. George's University. They were heading to the Point Salines airport, boarding a USAF plane for Charleston, SC.
Atlan and I picked one of the students to "pigeon" our film. We wrote out precise instructions with names and telephone numbers of Newsweek people to call and a promise of money and a trip to NYC with the film if he carried through on the project. He did. Our film was in New York by Friday morning. The courier gods were on our side.
Sound Sleep: Atlan and I liberated a Ramada room. We feasted on forgettable C rations, followed by excellent cognac and a cigar. I slept peacefully, happy with all the lucky breaks that came our way that day. In the middle of the night, ten minutes or so of gunfire erupted way above us. Delta Force was freeing political prisoners from the Richmond Hill jail, we learned the next day.
Early that morning we were surprised to see several women with babies walking through the Ramada grounds. They said they had been hiding in rooms nearby. The 82nd started north on the coast road toward St. George's, the capital of Grenada. They “married up,” as the military calls it, with the Marines in two hours or so near the bombed out and obliterated prime minister's offices and residence. The Marines had landed on the east side of the island and with little or no opposition made their way over the mountains to St. George's. War over.
Atlan and I were searching the rubble in the PM’s area when we were approached by a Marine sergeant. "I understand you guys are from Newsweek.,” he said, “I have a bitch.”
“What's your problem?” I asked.
He said he was a loyal subscriber and had recently renewed his subscription. But he never got the premium he was promised, a pocket calculator.
The Gift: I bent over, opened my camera bag, pulled out my own Newsweek calculator and said, “Sergeant, we have been looking for you everywhere. I now present to you your calculator and Mr. Atlan here will take a picture of the presentation. But don’t fail to renew your subscription—Newsweek always satisfies. Have a nice day.”
As we turned away, the marine said in disbelief, “I don’t fucking believe this.”
Atlan and I shot pictures around and about St. George’s the rest of the day. We drank the last of the rum in a traditional old hotel downtown that night, followed by a nice dinner. Next day, Saturday, I photographed some more, then went to Point Salines airport and hitched a ride from the USAF back to civilian airline connections in Barbados. By evening, I was in New York, and the next day back home in Arlington, VA.
My wife, Nikki, and I went that morning to photographer David Hume Kennerly's wedding. It was populated mostly by Time magazine types. They were all aglow with having gotten some photo coverage from free lance photographers in Grenada. None of their own had got there. I did not say a word. I felt sure that our coverage would be better. I was right. We kicked their ass.
Copyright: Wally McNamee, 2012
Wally McNamee joined Newsweek’s Washington bureau in 1968, handled assignments all over the world and left in 1998.