30 years ago today: Delta Force's first successful hostage rescue

Operation Acid Gambit

Jack Murphy
December 19, 2019 - 12:03 pm
Little Bird

Photo by Master Sgt. Barry Loo

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On the night of Dec. 20, 1989, a daring rescue began over Panama City. MH-6 helicopters belonging to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment were on there way to free an American being held prisoner by the Noriega government.

The helicopters set down on the roof of Cárcel Modelo prison and infiltrated operators from 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, better known as Delta Force. The operators stacked up on the door as the unit's breacher emplaced their pre-built door charge. But there were some complications: a cage in front of the door and the humidity in the air caused some of the tape on the charge fall apart. The operators quickly adapted and blew the door down. Rushing down the steps, they entered the prison complex and found the cell that housed the mission's objective, American citizen Kurt Muse.

"I hear explosions, I hear people running around, and then shots, and then the hall starts filling with a thick acrid white smoke," Muse recalled in a later interview.

"I see white lights, and then out of this smoke comes this guy like a apparition. He says, 'Muse, are you okay?'" Muse responded that he was, and the voice told him to get down. He was going to blow the jail cell door open. Once the cell door was breached, the operator put his hands on his shoulder, "Muse, we're gonna take you home."

Meanwhile, the U.S. invasion of Panama was popping off all around them. "All hell is breaking lose," Muse said, talking about what it was like as the operators brought him up to the rooftop and Specter gunships pounded a nearby headquarters belonging to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. 

The former hostage was loaded on  one of the 160th's helicopters with several operators, as they took on heavy gunfire from Panamanian Defense Forces. The helicopter lost altitude and came down hard, then managed to get back off the ground, only to be shot down a second time. They would not be able to get back off the ground due to the damage the MH-6 had taken from enemy gunfire.

In spite of their wounds, the operators and pilots kept Muse safe and moved him to a nearby building where they established a security perimeter. Before long, they were recovered by a passing vehicle from the 5th Infantry Division.

"My rescue seemed like it took 15, 20, 30 minutes," Muse said. It had actually taken the Delta operators six minutes to land, breach the prison, rescue Muse, and get him airborne.

It was the unit's first successful hostage rescue mission.

Kurt Muse was later revealed to have been working for the CIA, running a clandestine anti-Noriega radio station.

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Reach Jack Murphy: jack@connectingvets.com or @JackMurphyRGR.