America’s No-Nonsense General Put His Stamp on the Invasion : Military: ‘Mad Max’ Thurman was plucked from retirement to prepare to fight Noriega. The ‘cowboy’ with no tolerance for failure mounted an aggressive operation.
Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, the man who coined the Army recruiting slogan “Be All That You Can Be,” has no patience for those who aren’t--starting with deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega.
Associates said that Thurman, a devout Roman Catholic and an unrelenting taskmaster, is deeply disgusted by Noriega’s impiety and indiscipline, and he makes little effort to hide it.
After three months in Panama, America’s four-star proconsul has divided the populace into two groups: the “narco-terrorists” and “thugs” who supported Noriega and the “patriots” who back Guillermo Endara, the U.S.-installed president.
Those who know Thurman say that the U.S. military operation in Panama bore his stamp from the beginning, a meticulously planned application of overwhelming force that crushed Noriega’s army and chased him into an exhausted plea for asylum from the Vatican.
Thurman is variously described as “the smartest man in uniform,” an intellectual with an appetite for action and a “swashbuckler” and a “cowboy” who unsettles both subordinates and superiors.
“He doesn’t have a great deal of tolerance for failure,” said a colonel who worked for Thurman when he was vice chief of staff of the Army from 1983-87. “You either met his standards or you didn’t work for him.”
His troops, not admiringly, call him “Mad Max” after the tightly wound avenger of the movies.
Thurman, a 58-year-old lifelong bachelor, was plucked from retirement by President Bush to take over the U.S. Southern Command in Panama in October with a clear mandate to prepare for war against Noriega.
His predecessor, Gen. Fred F. Woerner, now retired, fell out of favor with the President last summer after repeatedly advising against a military strike in Panama. Woerner, fluent in Spanish, made an effort to accommodate Latin American concerns about American power and was respected throughout the region. But in some Army circles, Woerner was pasted with the unflattering nickname of “Hamlet” for his alleged timidity.
“The President was very unhappy with Woerner and said that we have to get rid of him, get somebody more aggressive down there,” one officer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. “And when they started thinking of aggressive four-star generals, Thurman’s name quickly popped up.”
Thurman, who entered the Army in July, 1953, as a second lieutenant out of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, was due to retire in August. His mustering-out papers were being processed when Gen. Carl E. Vuono, the Army chief of staff, told him that he was going to be extended beyond the normal retirement time and sent to Southcom, as the command is known.
His mission in Panama, one senior Army official said, was “to kick ass and take names.”
Thurman eagerly accepted the assignment.
His first act in Panama was to put all 12,000 troops in full battle dress every day. He sent soldiers out on aggressive patrols to test the Panama Defense Forces’ readiness to confront the Americans. The result was a marked increase in the tension between U.S. and Panamanian troops, and it put Noriega on notice that the United States was moving close to a war footing, officials said.
At Southcom headquarters at Quarry Heights, he ordered a soft-drink machine and a coffee dispenser removed from an open area near the tunnel where the command’s intelligence offices were located. He didn’t like his “intel” officers taking a break outside where they might be observed, photographed or eavesdropped upon by Noriega’s spies.
On Oct. 3, two days after Thurman arrived at Southcom, a group of rebel Panamanian officers tried to overthrow Noriega. U.S. forces took a series of half steps to support the coup, but failed to move decisively when Noriega was in custody. The coup fell apart and dozens of anti-Noriega PDF officers were killed or imprisoned.
That failure solidified Bush’s--and Thurman’s--resolve to act. Thurman and his superiors in the Pentagon dusted off U.S. war plans for Panama and overhauled them to include massive force, extensive special operations, even use of the F-117 Stealth fighter on a diversionary bombing run.
Thurman brought in top-secret Delta Force and SEAL commandos to mount a 24 hour-a-day stakeout of Noriega, waiting for the go-ahead from Washington to snatch him and deport him to the United States. That operation never materialized because Noriega frustrated attempts to track him, officials acknowledged last week.
But when the order for the invasion came from the White House last week, Thurman was ready.
“Rule 13 applies,” the general is fond of saying. “When in charge, take charge.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Roy Thurman, Max Thurman’s 66-year-old brother, said that his sibling “never enters into anything in a lighthearted way.” When he wanted to learn to play tennis, he didn’t just buy a racquet and go out and bang the ball around,” Roy said. He hired a pro to teach him all the fundamentals.
Roy Thurman became an Army officer through West Point, but his younger brother didn’t qualify for the academy because of poor eyesight. Max, a former Eagle Scout and straight-A student in his hometown of High Point, N.C., joined ROTC while studying chemical engineering at North Carolina State University at Raleigh.
Although known for his intellect, Thurman is one of only a handful of generals in the U.S. military with only a bachelor’s degree; most have at least a masters’ degree.
Thurman’s early service biography shows no evidence that he would win four stars. He never held a major troop command and his only combat experience was less than a year in Vietnam as a commander of an artillery battalion. While he attended all the important service schools, virtually all his jobs were as a staff officer.
But he picked up important patrons along the way because of his intelligence and his single-minded devotion to the job. He had no wife or children and had few interests outside the job.
“He doesn’t have much free time. He’s not married. He doesn’t have anything to do but work and play with his dogs,” said retired Gen. Bill Depuy, one of Thurman’s mentors and admirers. “He expects results, and he gets them. He surrounds himself with people who can do the job. He’s not terribly interested in people who can’t.”
Thurman was made general in 1975 and became budget czar under Depuy at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command at Ft. Monroe, Va.
He took over the Recruiting Command in 1979, at a time when the Army and all the services were having trouble meeting quotas for qualified soldiers. Thurman quickly recognized that what the Army faced was a marketing problem and pushed the new slogan with a huge new advertising budget. He is widely credited for turning around a serious Army manpower problem.
In 1983, he won his third star and was named to the Army’s second-ranking job, vice chief of staff. His boss, former Chief of Staff John A. Wickham Jr., said that Thurman is a rare officer in that he combines a searching intellect with a propensity to act.
“You’ve got the marriage of the two qualities in one individual. He’s cerebral in solving problems, yet he’s action-oriented. He wants results and he wants to get them fast,” Wickham said.
Times staff writer Douglas Jehl, in Panama, contributed to this story.