The planes began flying over Grenada at dawn, their low rumble awakening people in the tiny Caribbean island where a military government had seized power days before and executed the prime minister.
More than 7,000 US Marines and army paratroopers invaded the island to the cheers of Grenadians, who commemorate the 1983 action with a national holiday known as “Thanksgiving Day.”
About 100 people in all died during the operation dubbed “Urgent Fury.”
Dozens of US veterans, Grenadians and former US students evacuated from Grenada’s medical school during the operation gathered on Friday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of one of the most popular foreign invasions in recent history and what was then the largest US military operation since the Vietnam War.
“The US stemmed the flow of blood, for which we are eternally grateful,” said Grenadian Prime Minister Keith Mitchell as he spoke at a Thanksgiving Day church service. “It is because of that we can enjoy democratic principles, which we sometimes take for granted.”
Months before the operation, then-US president Ronald Reagan had complained about Soviet-Cuban militarization of the Caribbean and expressed worries that a new Cuban-backed 3,000m runway in Grenada would be used by Soviet military planes.
Then on Oct. 19, 1983, then-Grenadian prime minister Maurice Bishop, three members of his Cabinet and four others were executed by a radical faction of his Cuba-backed party on orders of then-Grenadian deputy prime minister Bernard Coard.
Six days later, Reagan sent in US troops, helped by a few hundred Caribbean security forces.
Reagan said the invasion was necessary to protect the lives of the more than 600 US students at St George’s University School of Medicine, but the UN and countries including Britain and Canada accused the US of violating international law.
The reasons for the invasion were groundless, said Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco.
“The coup gave us the excuse, and because the people of the island where so shell-shocked and outraged at what had been done, they welcomed in large part the US invasion that they would have probably fought off had it taken place while Bishop was still in power,” he said.
Zunes said the Reagan administration had been trying to undermine Bishop’s regime, and said the invasion molded Grenada’s political and economic future, turning it from socialism to more capitalist lines.
Charles Modica, the medical university’s chancellor at the time, said he had polled students and found that about 90 percent did not want to be evacuated.
“I had a very negative reaction,” he said of the invasion.
However, his opinion softened when he saw how people responded.
“Thanksgiving Day here is more meaningful than you’ll ever know. You have to be here to recognize how important it is to people,” he said.
In the first few hours of the invasion, dozens of military personnel jumped out of planes with instructions to evacuate students.
“We weren’t supposed to be on the island any more than a few hours,” retired US army sergeant major Scott Breasseale said. “But we all know things don’t go how they’re supposed to once the first gun is fired or if intelligence changes.”
Robert Jordan, senior associate dean of basic sciences, had climbed to the roof of a house to watch the aircraft come in.