By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Joseph Metcalf III, the Navy vice admiral who led the U.S. invasion of the Caribbean nation of Grenada in 1983, which produced lasting lessons for military preparation and media relations, died March 2 at his home in Washington after a series of strokes. He was 79 and also had a progressive neurological disorder.
Adm. Metcalf, described by The Washington Post as a "colorful and pugnacious commander," was given the assignment to lead the invasion only 39 hours before it was to take place, Oct. 25, 1983. Six days earlier, a Marxist faction had seized control of Grenada's government and executed Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and 15 of his supporters.
The United States and several Caribbean nations feared that Grenada could take a sudden turn toward violent revolution, fueled by the presence of several hundred Cuban advisers. About 650 Americans attended medical school in Grenada at the time, and there was concern for their safety.
Adm. Metcalf, who was commander of the Atlantic 2nd Fleet, led an invasion force of about 6,000 troops from all four branches of the military in the attack, code-named Operation Urgent Fury, which began at 5 a.m. It was the first U.S. combat operation since the Vietnam War. His deputy commander was Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded the Desert Storm operation in 1990-91.
Supplemented by about 300 troops from several Caribbean countries, U.S. forces took control of the 133-square-mile island nation within three days and captured the leader of the rebellion, Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, who remains in prison. In the sporadic fighting, 19 Americans and at least 45 Grenadans were killed. All of the American medical students were unharmed.
"Given the short time that we had to plan the operation," Adm. Metcalf said in 1986, "I'm satisfied."
At first, little could be learned about the invasion because Adm. Metcalf enforced a strict media blackout, which ignited an intense battle over the freedom of the press. Several reporters in a chartered fishing boat were turned back by the threatening maneuvers of U.S. military jets.
Other reporters managed to reach the island and wander through the mostly peaceful capital, St. George's. Still, they were prevented from sending their dispatches -- or communicating with their offices or families -- for two days. Only after intervention from the White House and the Pentagon were the correspondents allowed to file their reports.
Adm. Metcalf said the orders to restrict the media came from above him. But in 2002, Margaret H. Belknap, an Army lieutenant colonel and faculty member at the U.S. Military Academy, wrote in Parameters, the U.S. Army War College Quarterly, that "President [Ronald] Reagan left the decision for media access to the military, and ultimately it rested with . . . Metcalf."
According to Belknap, "Admiral Metcalf personally ordered shots fired across the bow of the media's vessel, forcing them to return to Barbados."
When a reporter later asked the admiral what he would have done if the boat had not turned around, Adm. Metcalf replied, according to Schwarzkopf's autobiography, "I'd have blown your ass right out of the water!"
On the third day of the operation, Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ordered Adm. Metcalf to allow the reporters to do their jobs. Vessey described the dispute between the military and the media as a "huge mistake at the national level." As a result, the military later eased its media restrictions and adopted Adm. Metcalf's idea of a small "media pool," in which reporters accompany military units on a rotating basis.
Considered a successful military engagement on the whole, the Grenada operation did expose communication and coordination problems among the military branches, prompting the Pentagon to streamline its planning of multi-force operations.
In 1985, Adm. Metcalf landed in more hot water when it was discovered that he and his staff attempted to bring back 24 AK-47 automatic rifles from Grenada as souvenirs. U.S. Customs agents seized the weapons as a violation of federal gun laws, and Adm. Metcalf received an official "caution."
At the same time, seven Marines and soldiers were court-martialed and sentenced to jail for smuggling weapons from Grenada, prompting criticism of what some saw as lenient treatment of Adm. Metcalf. The House and Senate launched inquiries, but it was later revealed that 300 other service members in the Grenada action had been granted amnesty for turning in weapons seized as spoils of war.
"Admiral Metcalf didn't try to hide or smuggle any weapons -- he requisitioned them," said Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. in 1985. "The enlisted people who did what Metcalf did were given amnesty. I've never seen so much bounce from so little substance."
Adm. Metcalf was born in Holyoke, Mass., and joined the Navy in 1946 as an enlisted man. A year later, he enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1951.
He commanded one of the Navy's first ships equipped with cruise missiles and in 1966 commanded a ship in the first amphibious landing of the Vietnam War. As the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, Adm. Metcalf was in charge of evacuating all surface ships.
After Grenada, he became deputy chief of staff of Naval Operations for Surface Warfare. Not long before his retirement in 1987, he devised the concept of "revolution at sea," in which he recommended that Navy ships be made of composite materials and designed to conceal communications equipment and weapons.
Adm. Metcalf's decorations included four awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit and two Bronze Stars.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Ruth Metcalf of Washington; three children, Dr. Joseph Metcalf IV of Knoxville, Tenn., David Daniels Metcalf of Wellington, Fla., and Elizabeth Metcalf Miller of Reston; one brother; and 11 grandchildren.
Reflecting on his Grenada experience in 1986, Adm. Metcalf said: "Of course there were problems; that's war. I think it was a highly successful military operation that was accomplished with a minimum loss of life. But that gets lost in the haze of what went on."
The anniversary of the invasion he led, Oct. 25, is now celebrated as Grenada's Thanksgiving Day.