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SEAL Members Died While Capturing Panamanian Airfield With PM-Panama, Bjt

December 22, 1989

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Four Navy SEAL members whose bodies were the first to return home from Panama died while capturing an airfield, Pentagon officials said.

The men were part of an assault against an airfield used by ousted Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega, said Lt. Gen. Tom Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. U.S. intelligence had feared Noriega would use the field to flee the country, but he did not, Kelly said Thursday.

Atlantic Fleet officials in Norfolk identified the four Sea, Air and Land commandos as Lt. j.g. John Patrick Connors, 25, of Arlington, Mass.; chief engineman Donald Lewis McFaul, 22, of San Diego, Calif.; boatswain mate Christopher Tilghman, 20, Kailua, Hawaii; and torpedoman Issac George Rodriguez III, 24, of Missouri City, Texas. Their bodies were flown Thursday from Panama to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The team was part of the Naval Special Warfare Group Two based at the Little Creek Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach.

″He was a fine fellow; he was doing exactly what he wanted to,″ said Tilghman’s father, Taylor Tilghman.

Tilghman enlisted in the Navy after he graduated from the Kalaheo High School in Kailua, Hawaii, in 1979.

″He was following in my footsteps. He joined right after high school,″ his father said in a telephone interview from his home in Kailua. Taylor Tilghman was in the Navy for 15 years and the Coast Guard for another 15.

Paul Bennett, former executive officer of Connors’ college military training program, said Connors ″was a quiet kid, not the kind of kid who walks around with ‘Soldier of Fortune’ in his back pocket. But he loved his country, and had a strong sense of value and freedom.″

Connors was a graduate of Worcester Polytechnical Institute, in Worcester, Mass., which he attended on Naval ROTC scholarship.

The SEAL teams are trained to undertake intelligence, hostage rescue, and other operations needing a small, nearly invisible force to succeed. Their training includes underwater demolition, courses at the U.S. Army’s Special Forces and Ranger schools, and electronics and communications courses.

Organized in 1962, the SEALs were used extensively in the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam for anti-guerrilla warfare and secret intelligence gathering operations during the Vietnam War. In 1965 and again in 1984, SEAL teams led the way for the invasions of the Dominican Republic and Grenada.

During the Reagan administration, a special unit was formed within the SEALs that was believed to have been trained in hostage rescue and covert intelligence gathering. The team reportedly was put ashore by submarine in Libya in 1987, where team members sabotaged communications and gathered information on coastal defense.

The Navy has two SEAL teams, one in California and the other at Little Creek, with about 2,000 men in all.

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