While we slept, Prime Minister Eric Gairy’s government had been quietly overthrown. It was the original revolution.
My wife and I met up with friends on the island, planning to hang out with them for a week or so. Our idyllic days on the island provided no clues as to the intrigue and tension fomenting beneath the calm surface.
Early on, during the historic morning, our wives headed to the market in St. Georges, the capital, where they were caught unawares and swallowed up by a mass of people celebrating and dancing in the streets.
My friend and I headed to a marina for a deep sea fishing trip. At the small marina, the boat boy was obviously on ‘happy pills’ prancing about the boat playing loud reggae music which had been banned. Freedom had arrived. The charter boat captain, an American from Pittsburgh, informed us that during the night a group of islanders under the command of Maurice Bishop had wrested control of the island’s radio station, airport, and docks.
Apparently, the tyrannical Prime Minister was at the UN begging for funds for his destitute island. Grenadans were grateful that the PM’s personal thugs, the Mongoose gang, had been rounded up and thrown in jail. A long time coming.
Maurice Bishop addressed the public in a taped message airing every half-hour all day. There was plenty of confusion as to what the next step would be. Rumors abounded. The biggest was that the PM was already preparing a counter invasion of mercenaries.
We decided it would be safer to leave the island and headed for the airport. Checkpoints along the way were manned by nervous teenagers with bloodshot eyes armed with old carbine rifles.
At Pearl’s airport, forty-gallon drums of aviation fuel were scattered along the runway rendering the airport useless. Some small charter pilots were plotting to dodge around the obstacles as some tourists were willing to give them exorbitant piles of money to escape.
The radio station was being used as a communication system. It was comical to hear instructions relayed to confused people. This was their first revolution, mind you. Checkpoint guards were getting hungry and had to be reassured food would be on the way. Locations of checkpoints, times of meetings, and section leaders were thinly disguised during the broadcasts.
The revolutionaries had laid siege to the police barracks downtown, having trapped them in there during the night. All day we’d listen to pleas for the police to surrender by sundown – or else. Resistance was futile.
From our beach cottage we’d look across the bay at the barracks sitting on a hill, expecting it to blow up anytime. Tension and speculation mounted as the sun set. But the police did surrender, and we’d heard only one policeman was killed.
A sunset curfew was put into force. We kept to the dark beach as we had to walk to the nearby Holiday Inn to eat and join our friends. After a day or two, the tourists were getting understandably edgy. Some were ready to flip out although there was no present danger. But Wardair, that great Canadian airline, obviously couldn’t land to whisk them away. An extended holiday seemed likely.
No one knew what pressures were being applied elsewhere but a Canadian Ambassador was on his way. A Barbados naval frigate brought the ambassador to the island where he set up shop at the Holiday Inn. He recorded our names and gave vague reassurances before sailing away.
I stood near the lobby as a neatly groomed Maurice Bishop arrived in a jeep with two armed bodyguards dressed in camo fatigues. It was an impressive sight as they were the only people I’d seen who looked like soldiers and could competently fire a weapon. Oddly, I was reassured.
I lifted my camera for the historic picture and from behind heard, “If you want to keep the camera sir, do not take pictures.”
A few of the hotel staff stood behind me waiting for my reaction. History be damned; I wanted to keep my camera.
Negotiations proved fruitful. Good news. In two days, a Wardair plane arrived as promised. Bad news; it took only their passengers. The plane cleared the island of our friends and most tourists except for us and some Germans. Since my wife and I had taken a small charter plane we were on our own.
Every Wednesday night the Holiday Inn held a ‘Welcome Night’ when new arrivals filled the Holiday Inn. Silly crab races, complimentary food, and rum punch were plentiful. We had attended, or crashed, the event the week before with our checked-in friends.
In spite of all the missing tourists the hotel staff never downsized the program and ‘Welcome Night’ went on as usual–with food and drink for a hundred. Only a dozen or so showed.
It seemed every few hours, one or several islanders apologized to us for the revolution and any inconvenience it had caused. The next few days passed quietly until the airport was re-opened and my wife and I could finish our honeymoon in Barbados.
Did we ever feel unsafe or threatened? Only when at checkpoints and then we wisely stayed off the roads. Being on our honeymoon kept us…distracted, and blissfully naïve as to what could possibly happen. But there was no denying a nervous expectancy that pervaded the island.
Four years later, in 1983 U.S. President Ronald Reagan felt the Cubans on the island were a threat. U.S., Caribbean and British forces invaded the island with up to 7,000 troops under the guise of threatened U.S. students there. Shelling from naval ships had damaged the beautiful Grand Anse beach and the Holiday Inn. Oddly, how the Americans have made friends with Vietnam after losing 50,000 soldiers yet destitute Cuba remains an enemy.
Somewhere along the line Maurice Bishop was murdered. When I’d heard the news an image of him in my viewfinder came to me; an image I still hold.
The invasion, although a success, was a watershed for U.S. forces as their military did not ‘perform’ well at all. According to PBS Frontline the Rangers and Air Cavalry notably were disgraced under fire.