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Joseph Metcalf III, 79; vice admiral led U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983

March 12, 2007|Matt Schudel | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Joseph Metcalf III, the Navy vice admiral who led the U.S. invasion of the Caribbean nation of Grenada in 1983, died March 2 at his home in Washington after a series of strokes. He was 79 and also had a progressive neurological disorder.

Metcalf was assigned 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 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 advisors. About 650 Americans attended medical school in Grenada at the time, and there was concern for their safety.

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. 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 rebellion's leader, Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, who remains in prison. In the sporadic fighting, 19 Americans and at least 45 Grenadians were killed. All of the American medical students were unharmed.

"Given the short time that we had to plan the operation," Metcalf said in 1986, "I'm satisfied."

At first, little could be learned about the invasion because Metcalf enforced a strict media blackout, which ignited an intense battle over 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.

Metcalf said the orders to restrict the media came from above. But in 2002, Margaret 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 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, 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 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 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, Metcalf landed in more hot water when it was discovered that he and his staff had 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 Metcalf received an official "caution."

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 to be 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, 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 built to conceal communications equipment and weapons.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Ruth Metcalf of Washington; three children, a brother and 11 grandchildren.

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