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The Grenada Weapons Exhibit

Narrative Commentary from 1983 by Ann Wilder

I felt I did not have all the silverware at my plate and on 12 November 1983 went to the Grenada Weapons Exhibit at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. I wanted to see for myself the physical evidence of the Soviet Union arms the U.S. government had captured.

At the Armed Forces Security Command building, I and mid-morning visitors were put on Navy bus loads and taken on a short drive to Hanger 3.

We entered an opening to a dimly lighted tent by stooping over. Inside, two lines formed, leading towards two airport-style metal-detecting devices. Armed forces people asked us to take the change and keys out of our pockets and put it into a cup while we passed through the detector.

The flash camera did not go off when I passed through. It was being reloaded, but I assumed correctly that pictures were taken of each visitor. Nevertheless, I feared a non-flash picture was taken of me. I was becoming anxious.

In the corridor between the tent and the hanger, my lively old Estonian-American companion showed me his change which he had covered with bills facing towards the metal detector. His photo, he said, was in the archives of the U.S. government. We were quiet when we quickly came upon uniformed soldiers. My companion, who was a stranger, had picked me up in his car to the bus loading area from the entry gate.

I cannot remember whether the soldiers were armed or not. The mere presence of uniformed soldiers left me with the frightened impression they were armed.

As one entered the hanger, on the right was a seating area facing 3 television-size screens showing the story of the U.S. in Grenada, with sound. I did not stop.

I passed through a gallery area. On one side were photographs of smiling Grenadians, the medical students, a tin box with Fidel's picture in the bottom, the stacks of warehoused ammunition taken from what seemed like different angles. There were other pictures. By this time I was so intimidated, I was afraid to take notes.

On the left side of the gallery were large posters. These looked like plastic transparencies. The first, which was also the one at the end, was a short typewritten message from medical students thanking Ronnie for saving them. Signatures covered most of the page.

Next was a reproduction of a document between the Soviet Union and Grenada for arms purchases, 1981 1983. A rouble figure was given. Then a dollar figure was given - 7.5 million.

According to the excerpted document, reprinted in the New York Times, November 7, 1983, the list of special equipment and vehicles to be delivered to Grenada from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for 1981 1983 was free of charge. Whether this list of free of charge goods was the attachment to the agreement transparency, I did not know. It was confusing.

I noted that the list included most deliveries in 1981 of 8 armored personnel carriers, 1,000 submachine guns, 300 pistols, ammunition plus 5 periscopes, 100 binoculars, 1 excavator, 1 crane, 1 bulldozer, 20 radio sets, 40 or so vehicles including 5 ambulances, 12.6 thousand each of uniforms, caps and white cotton shorts.

The document transparency at the exhibit was long, complicated and I got the impression that people, like me, only got the gist of it as they were moving along. Perhaps they stopped long enough to read the lines hi-lighted with yellow. I am sure they got the message intended, that this was dirty business with the commies.

Outside the gallery area was the hanger expanse. I felt like I was back at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson base near Dayton, Ohio, looking at World War II aero-machines.

In the middle open area were two armored tanks. Kids were climbing all over the tanks. Around the sides the displays were topped off with MP's standing on alert every so often. Rangers were everywhere. It was said these very Rangers at the exhibit were stationed on Grenada.

Displays of anti-artillery guns took up much space. Each gun area had an array of ammunition spread out in some concentric manner. It was orderly and pretty how the ammo was fanned out.

There were placards for each area with the kind of weapon noted in small print and the country of origin in large print - the Peoples Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia. The anti-artillery guns did not look like they could shoot very far and the spindly ones from the Peoples Republic of China looked like Civil War weapons.

Next were piles of cartridge boxes stacked high and wide like in the photos. I wondered if one warehouse of arms was the source of all the photographs. It looked like a lot of ammunition. Just how much is a lot of ammunition?

Two soldiers were moving a rotating anti-artillery gun shaft from one side to another in an arc fashion. I was afraid they were going to point the thing at the visitors. By its side was another anti-artillery gun with two soldiers doing the same thing, but I need not have feared a pointed barrel as they were pointing to a right angle away from the visitors and towards each other.

As my anxiety about pointed guns dissipated, it grew again when I came upon many visitors at a very long banquet table covered with rifles. The visitors were permitted to pick up the rifles and point them. Cameras were allowed and I passed by a child posing with a rifle on his shoulder for a cameo shot. Had it not been my very own family who had complained about children in Grenada marching about with guns on their shoulders?

I had made the circle back to the seated viewing area where I came upon dusky-looking mannequins wearing uniforms. In between these dummies, who I first thought were more soldiers, were uniform piles with the placard noting Military Clothing from Eastern Bloc countries. Where were the undershorts?

I talked with a Lieutenant - a kid, really - who was the highest ranking officer there. He told me pamphlets of the exhibit were running on the press that very morning and they would not have delivery until the afternoon. I wanted a pamphlet. The Lt. had been in Grenada. He said the U.S. Government Printing Office could not have printed the documents I saw in the gallery as of yet because they were so hot. I remarked that someone had time to make the transparencies. We had gotten off to a bad start when I informed him how to pronounce Grenada. They had run out of the pamphlets at the end of the first day - 50 to 100 thousand - on November 11, Veterans Day. Really?

I wanted to write to get a pamphlet. The Lt. asked me my name. He went off to find the address, but later when I found him, no address was available.

Soldiers with black or maroon berets wearing camouflage bodysuits were everywhere in the crowd. One asked me if I had any questions. I was standing alone doing nothing. I asked him if it was OK if I ambled around. "Sure," he answered with his peach fuzz moustache moving up and down, "our job is to answer any questions."

I felt like I was being followed. I felt like they had my name. How come all the security, I asked myself, remarking that it was only an exhibit. No guns were loaded. You couldn't set off the ammo with a match. The soldier told me they had extra security all over Washington because of the Capital bombing and that radicals would find this exhibit a perfect place to get news coverage. Was there this tight security at the Smithsonian?

My backpack had been inspected at my North Gate arrival. I had left it in the car of my gentleman companion who had given me a ride within Andrews. Hitching, the guard had told me, was OK on the base. Maybe I was safe from suspicion without my backpack.

My companion did not believe a word the U.S. government said, he told me, and listened only to short-wave radio the BBC or an English-speaking Czech station. He had come to the exhibit because he was curious. Was he a spy for the Communists? Was it he the CIA called to pick me up hitching? Some people came decided. Some came on family outings. I had come out of curiousity.

My companion said he had asked a soldier how much of the ammunition captured was actually displayed. He was told about 10 percent. The soldier told him he had seen 6 armored tanks of the one kind and 2 of the other kind in Grenada and that all of the soldiers at the exhibit had been in Grenada.

Visitors would come up to these kid soldiers. Usually they were older men who would shake the soldier's hand man-to-man and say what a good job they did in Grenada. People kept coming into the exhibit and moving out in about 15 minutes. They got their punch of information.

My companion did not think much of the total power of the weapons displayed. Their power to be a command center for weapons export to the Caribbean seemed paltry to him. The weapons power to help the Revolutionary Government defense security need for withstanding an alleged CIA coup seemed on target, but not all the weapons were on display. I don't remember seeing a BTR armored vehicle.

The weapons did appear to come from the countries attributed on the placards. I saw the Cyrillic lettering of the Russian language everywhere in worn stencil and the variety of manufacture. I had asked the Lt. about the late 1800's rifles and he said they were not on display. What do I know about the age of weapons?

I parted from my companion. At the one-hour bus wait by the North Gate, a soldier who was off-duty talked with me. He had just won custody of his kids. He seemed like a regular, contemporary guy. His biggest concern was terrorism which he had witnessed during his stint in Germany.

I asked if he had seen the Grenada exhibit. Yes, he had had enough of it. It seems intelligence had a tip the opening day that the people responsible for the Capitol bombing were going to do-in the exhibit. His weekend leave to visit his kids had been cut short. He and eleven other sliders had stood guard all Friday night - from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. - in a perimeter around the hanger.

He had given 12 years of his life to the Air Force in Supply, including Vietnam. "What we need is to keep the politicians out of the military - like in Vietnam - so the military can get in there and do its job and get it over with," he said.

"What about the Big One?" I inquired. "Oh, it will happen (a nuclear war), but people will survive," he stated matter-of-factly.

On the bus ride one question and its answer kept coming to my mind. What about the sovereignty of Grenada? Did it not have, during 1981-1983, the right to purchase weapons in any amount from whomever it pleased? What was the big deal?

I had forgotten what the big deal was. The U.S. will stop the tide of Communism, bring democracy and peace through war, and be the Father of the Hemisphere. This is generally my opinion.

The public display of weapons captured in Grenada closed November 14th, six days earlier than the Pentagon reported it had planned. Low attendance, the large number of guards required and, according to the NY Times, "the need to move the equipment to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD., for analysis" were given as the reasons for the early closing. The Pentagon said over 16,000 people had attended. Over 50,000 to 100,000 pamphlets had been given away, as the Ranger told me. I've never found that pamphlet in research since then. This exhibit was rarely spoken of or written about again. I missed getting my copy.

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1983-2014 by Ann Elizabeth Wilder. All Rights Reserved.

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