As the United States was preparing to carry out the invasion of Panama, dubbed “Operation Just Cause,” there was a very real problem that had to be dealt with before any meaningful operation against Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega could take place.
The regime had an American hostage in its prison, and the guards where this hostage was being held had orders to kill him if America attacked.
According to an account posted on SpecialOperations.com, Kurt Muse had been making pirate radio broadcasts until he was arrested in early 1989. He’d received some technical assistance from the CIA to make those broadcasts, which had the goal of taking Noriega down a peg or two.
Muse would daily hear – or see – Noriega’s thugs torture inmates at the prison.
As tensions increased, Muse was visited by a military officer, later identified as Air Force Col. James A. Ruffer, who would pass reports to Delta Force. The special operators constructed a full-scale mock-up of the prison where Muse was held captive, and the Delta commandos carried out numerous rehearsals.
On December 19, 1989, Muse would receive his last visit. In the presence of reporters, prison guards, and others, the colonel asked Muse if he was aware that orders had been issued by Noriega to kill him if the United States carried out any military action against Panama.
Muse said he understood.
The colonel then made a statement that if Muse were to be harmed, nobody in the prison would emerge alive.
Muse knew that something was up.
At 12:45 AM on the morning of Dec. 20, 15 minutes before the official H-Hour, two AH-6 Little Bird helicopters carried out an attack on a nearby military compound using M134 Miniguns and Hydra rockets. One of the helicopters would be damaged and forced to crash-land, with the crew making an escape.
Two AC-130H Spectres then carried out their own attack on that compound, using a tactic called “Top Hat.” The massive volume of fire from the gunships had the effect of drawing the attention of Noriega’s goons.
As that went on, MH-6 Little Birds landed on the roof of the prison and deposited Delta commandos. The operators went through the prison, killing anyone who resisted the rescue. They reached Muse’s cell, forced it open, bundled Muse into body armor and a helmet, then began their exfil.
The MH-6 Muse was loaded on took some hits. In a display of superb airmanship, the pilot would fly the helo down a side street until it was hit again and crashed. Ironically, Muse would help defend the perimeter until they were retrieved by U.S. Army armored personnel carriers.
Operation “Acid Gambit” ended with the mission accomplished.