Blowup in Beirut: U.S. Marines Peacekeeping Mission Turns Deadly

1/30/2007 • Military History, Ronald Reagan

The BLT is gone!” The staff sergeant bellowed his message to the major as a billowing mushroom cloud rose hundreds of feet in the early morning air. On October 23, 1983, in Beirut, Lebanon, those words were as unfathomable as “The World Trade Center is gone” would be on September 11, 2001, in New York City. The BLT was the nickname for the four-story building that housed nearly 400 members of the Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, and attached Marines, sailors and soldiers.

“Gone?” the major shot back in confusion, having been awakened by a door thrown across the room onto the bed where he had been sleeping. “What do you mean, gone?”

“Sir, it’s just gone, blown up, it’s not there anymore!” the staff sergeant confirmed, not yet knowing how or why, but sure the building that yesterday had stood four stories tall was now a smoldering pile of concrete and twisted metal.

On Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, a thick, black cloud rises from the shattered headquarters of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marines — the ground combat element of the 22d Marine Amphibious Unit – in Beirut, Lebanon. Seconds before, a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden truck into the building killing 220 Marines, 18 Sailors, and three soldiers.

Thus at 6:22 on that October morning the Marine mission in Beirut took a disastrous turn. A terrorist truck bomb carrying explosives wrapped around gas cylinders detonated inside the BLT barracks, killing 241 people and injuring more than 100 while they slept. Investigators from the FBI would later determine that it was the largest nonnuclear blast they had ever studied.

For the U.S. Marines, it was the largest loss of life in a single action since Vietnam; for the nation, it was the worst act of terrorism against Americans up to that time. In hindsight, it was a harbinger of what was to come. Yet the deaths and injuries were not the first for Marines in Beirut, and wouldn’t be the last. Three Marine Amphibious Units (MAUs), the 22nd, 24th and 32nd, suffered a total of 268 deaths and hundreds of injuries over the two-year “peacekeeping” mission from August 1982 until August 1984. Keeping peace in this Middle Eastern hotbed was proving to be mission impossible.

In 1982 many Marines — indeed, many Americans — did not know exactly where Beirut was, let alone what strategic importance it might have held for the United States. In August of that year, Marines of the 32nd MAU stepped ashore to become embroiled in a mission that was new and vaguely defined: peacekeeping.

“I was 18 years old and didn’t have a clue where I was going or what I was getting myself into,” says John W. Nash, now an active duty master sergeant who at this writing was serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “But once I was told our mission, to help the Lebanese people and their government get back on their feet…I was proud and wanted to serve.”

The five ships of Mediterranean Amphibious Ready Group (MARG) 2-82 arrived off the coast near Rota, Spain, on June 6, 1982. On board were 1,800 Marines comprising the 32nd MAU, commanded by Colonel Jim Mead. BLT 2/8, commanded by Lt. Col. Robert Johnston, was embarked as the landing force. There were also air, artillery and logistics support units aboard.

On the same day, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in an attempt to dislodge Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) so that, as Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin declared, “they would never again be able to attack settlements in northern Israel.” What was supposed to be a 10-day liberty in Rota for the Marines and sailors of the 32nd lasted just 10 hours. President Ronald Reagan ordered the Marines in, fearing for Americans in Lebanon and especially concerned about the U.S. embassy in Beirut.

Two weeks later, about 800 Marines of the 32nd helped evacuate nearly 600 civilians from two dozen countries out of Jounieh, a port city about 10 miles north of Beirut. It was a flawless evacuation, conducted in a peaceful environment with no problems. Two days after that the Marines were back on MARG ships and heading for Naples for what was supposed to be 15 days of rotating leave. They received only four days.

In mid-June, Israel had ordered massive air and artillery strikes on West Beirut in an attempt to destroy the main body of the PLO. Hundreds of Lebanese and others were killed or wounded; apartment houses, shopping centers and other structures were destroyed. Still, the PLO remained hunkered down and would not budge. Syrian air and ground forces also began to clash with Israeli forces as they advanced into the Bekaa Valley.

In July Israel instituted a military blockade of Beirut, leading to intense diplomatic efforts to avert an all-out battle for the capital. The siege of West Beirut continued, and by late August it was clear to PLO leaders that they could not remain there.

Finally they agreed to a withdrawal plan drafted by President Ronald Reagan’s special envoy, Philip Habib, and endorsed by Syria and Israel.

At 5 a.m. on August 25, the first landing craft dropped its ramp and Marines, with Meade and Johnston in the lead, went ashore, greeted by the flashes of media cameras and about 100 news people. The leathernecks were part of the multinational force, or MNF, consisting of American, French and Italian military personnel, that would evacuate thousands of armed PLO and Syrian fighters. French troops had gone in four days earlier and had already evacuated 2,500 fighters. Meade was especially impressed with the extent of destruction in the city, describing it as being “like pictures I’ve seen of Berlin at the end of World War II.”

Marines took over the duty, and by September 1 about 15,000 armed PLO and Syrian personnel had been safely evacuated. By September 10, all multinational forces had been withdrawn and the 32nd was headed back to Naples.

Normality, however, was not to be part of this MAU’s deployment. On September 14, Lebanon’s newly elected President Bashir Gemayel was assassinated by a bomb in East Beirut. The Lebanese Parliament elected Amin Gemayel, his older brother, president. Almost immediately Israeli troops took control of West Beirut and the Palestinian refugee camps on the southern outskirts of the city. On September 16, Phalangist Christian militia entered the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, where they ruthlessly murdered hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children.

Amin Gemayel requested that the MNF be called back in to help stabilize the situation until the beleaguered Lebanese Armed Forces could defend the capital. Within 48 hours, the MNF was re-formed and the 32nd was steaming back. In West Beirut the Marines were assigned the International Airport area, the Italians took the middle area, which included Sabra and Chatila, and the French controlled the port and downtown. The multinational forces were positioned between several national armies and factional militia groups, all heavily armed. The rules of engagement (ROE) severely restricted the use of force, not allowing Marines to carry loaded weapons, allowing them to shoot only if they could verify that their lives were in danger and only if they could clearly identify a specific target.

“I had personal reservations about the ROE from the outset,” said retired Marine Major Bob Jordan, who was the public affairs officer and chief media spokesman with the 24th MAU at that point. “My briefings in Washington were oriented toward concern for accidental discharges rather than combat dynamics. The ROE definitely placed commanders on the ground at a disadvantage.”

Reagan’s decision to deploy Marines in Beirut triggered the process to define a mission statement. His Middle East special envoy, Robert C. McFarlane, visited Marines ashore on September 16. “The situation reached a point where the Lebanese army controlled only about 10 percent of the land in the hills around Beirut,” he explained to them. “It was at that point that the president decided to help the established Lebanese government get back on its feet.” McFarlane, who had served as a Marine in earlier years, went on to clarify U.S. interests in the region, pointing out key waterways, oil routes and deposits and the value of having friends in this part of the world. “It’s good to have a democracy anywhere,” he said. “They are becoming an endangered species.”

The secretary of defense tasked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop the mission statement and issue the order to the commander in chief, United States European Command (USCINCEUR). From there it was transferred to the commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and the commander of the Sixth Fleet. The commander of Amphibious Task Force 61 became the commander of U.S. Forces in Lebanon, and the MAU commanding officer was named as commander of U.S. Forces ashore.

As the mission statement made its way along the chain of command, the original statement was formally modified on four occasions, although the original version remained largely intact. The intent was ambiguous, however, and in hindsight, this seemed to be a key contributor to the BLT bombing.

The original mission statement provided by the Joint Chiefs of Staff read: “To establish an environment which will permit the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to carry out their responsibilities in the Beirut area. When directed, USCINCEUR will introduce U.S. forces as part of a multinational force presence in the Beirut area to occupy and secure positions along a designated section of the line from south of the Beirut International Airport to a position in the vicinity of the Presidential palace; be prepared to protect U.S. forces; and, on order, conduct retro­grade operations as required.”

A special commission later appointed to conduct an independent inquiry into the bombing concluded that the mission statement and concept of operations had been passed down the chain of command with little amplification. As a result, the commission concluded that “perceptual differences as to the precise meaning and importance of the ‘presence’ role of the USMNF existed throughout the chain of command. Similarly, the exact responsibilities of the USMNF commander regarding the security of Beirut International Airport were not clearly delineated in his mission tasking.”

That inquiry clearly established that the MAU commanders on the ground in Beirut interpreted their “presence” mission to require the USMNF to be visible but not appear threatening to the populace. “This concern was a factor in most decisions made by the MAU commanders in the employment and disposition of their forces,” the report concluded. “The MAU commander regularly assessed the effect of contemplated security actions on the ‘presence’ mission.”

“The mission from the start was opaque, nebulous,” said retired Colonel Tim Geraghty, who served as the commanding officer of the 24th MAU. “It was intentionally written that way, in generic terms. It was a complex mission, and the ‘presence’ concept was relatively untested. It required a special kind of discipline on the part of the troops exercising it.”

The need for “a special kind of discipline” was, in Geraghty’s opinion, why Marines had been sent in. He added, however: “But when you look at this sort of mission in terms of what we all learn as Marines, it flies in the face of all our doctrine. The decision to send us in was made with good intentions, but it was made from the heart rather than from the facts.”

From the beginning, the Marines were supposed to be a neutral force, providing a buffer between warring sides. And there were many sides: At that time, Lebanon contained 17 officially recognized religious sects, two foreign armies of occupation, four national contingents of a multinational force (Britain joined the MNF later), seven national contributors to a United Nations peacekeeping force and some two dozen extralegal militias.

“Marines are an assault force, trained to bring the fight to the enemy,” said Geraghty. “We hadn’t heard of this sort of mission. The mission was palatable at the time the decision was made for us to go in, but the situation changed, and the mission wasn’t allowed to change with it.”

One of the first duties Marines undertook was to conduct individual and small unit training for the LAF. That, plus the fact that Marines began manning joint outposts with the LAF, gave the impression that the United States was favoring the established Lebanese government. This did not sit well with many of the warring parties, including Israel.

In January 1983, the Israelis began testing American lines, and there were at least five attempts in following weeks to penetrate Marine positions. On February 2, 1983, for example, Captain Chuck Johnson observed three Israeli Centurion tanks moving on the LAF checkpoint outside the Lebanese University. In his view, the tanks were moving at battle speed. Johnson interjected himself bodily between the tanks and the checkpoint, stopped them and informed the Israeli tank commander that they would cross that checkpoint “over my dead body.” When two of the tanks tried to ram past him, he jumped on the commander’s tank with a loaded and cocked .45-caliber pistol and demanded that the commander order the tanks to stop and turn around. They did.

The 24th MAU, with BLT 1/8 as the landing force, relieved the 22nd on May 30, 1983. For the MAU and many of the Marines in it, this would be the second tour in Beirut, but the situation had changed considerably since their first time around.

Minor incidents had been occurring since early in 1983, and on March 16 several Marines received minor injuries from a grenade attack on their routine patrol. But on April 18 things got very real when the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed, killing 17 American citizens, including a Marine security guard, and about 40 others. The 2,000 pounds of explosives were delivered by a pickup truck.

On May 17, as 24th MAU Marines prepared to return to the “Root,” President Reagan again reinforced the ambiguity of the Beirut mission during a televised news conference regarding the signing of an agreement to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon. He said, “The MNF went there to help the new [sic] government of Lebanon maintain order until it can organize its military and its police to assume control of its borders and its own internal security.”

It would be difficult for the U.S. Marines to be seen as a neutral presence after the president made announcements like that. Colonel Geraghty and his forces were heading into Beirut under nebulous mission orders just as dramatic changes had begun to occur in the operating environment.

In June Marines began conducting combined patrols with the LAF. The patrols proved to be nerve-racking, as local youngsters tested the Marines by hurling objects at them or pointing at them with the barrels of toy weapons that looked very real.

On July 14, an LAF patrol was ambushed, and for three days the LAF battled with militia forces. As time wore on, the LAF became more active in combating militia and it became more and more difficult for Marines to stay out of the fray.

In July Lebanese President Gemayel traveled to Washington and obtained a promise for expedited delivery of military equipment for the LAF. On July 22, militia mortar and artillery shelled the Beirut International Airport, wounding three Marines and closing the airport temporarily.

On August 28, the situation took a drastic turn as Israeli forces initiated a withdrawal from the Beirut area and LAF forces scrambled to take up their positions before one of the competing factions did. This jockeying for position put Marines in the crossfire of many factional firefights. Stray rounds hitting Marine positions became a regular occurrence.

Marines returned fire for the first time on August 28 after intense inter-factional fighting became direct fire on Marines, beginning a spiraling departure from neutrality. On the 29th Marines took their first casualties as a result of direct fire when Alpha Company’s 2nd Lt. George Losey and Staff Sgt. Alexander Ortega were killed and five other NCOs injured by a direct hit from an 82mm mortar.

“The lieutenant and staff sergeant had gone into the command post tent to get radio batteries because we’d lost comm on a couple of radios,” Sergeant Donald Williams told reporters. “They were only in there for 30 seconds,” said the Alpha company squad leader. “The LAF was moving through the area and stopped to reconsolidate in our position, bringing intense artillery and mortar fire down on us,” Captain Paul Roy, Alpha Company commanding officer, told reporters later that day. “Our Marines had to make very sure that the fire was directed at them, and that their lives were in danger. They followed the rules of engagement and got permission before they fired back.”

This sort of restraint and discipline under fire is what Colonel Geraghty hoped would never be forgotten. “I was then, and still am, extremely proud of the Marines in Beirut,” he said. “They carried out a very tough mission, under extremely trying circumstances.

Through September the fighting remained intense. Marines who were decorated Vietnam vets declared that they had never been through such intense mortar, artillery and rocket barrages. Marines were forced more and more into escalating weapons duels. In late September, a light antitank weapon was used to take out a sniper bunker — the first time a LAW had been fired in combat since Vietnam, according to Eric Hammel in his book The Root. On September 25, the guns of the battleship New Jersey were brought to bear on Syrian artillery batteries pounding Marine positions.

Not coincidentally, on September 26 Saudi and Syrian mediators negotiated a cease-fire. It was the first, and wouldn’t be the last, but none of them lasted more than the time it took for one of the factions to get impatient and start shooting again. These serious games of cat and mouse continued into October.

Then, on the morning of Sunday, October 23, 1983, a Marine sentry tried in vain to flip the magazine into his M-16 and chamber a round so he could fire at a yellow Mercedes truck barreling down on his position. He managed to get a couple rounds off, but too late. His post was just outside what the Marines called the “Beirut Hilton,” the barracks that housed more than 400 sleeping Marines. Seconds later, 241 servicemen, mostly Marines, were dead and hundreds of others injured. It was a day that, for those who were there, would go down in infamy. Eighteen years later, as the Twin Towers in New York fell to airliners hijacked by Islamic terrorists, “Root” vets could identify with the horrors experienced by New Yorkers.

“Seeing the towers fall and the dust that enveloped the city did bring back memories for me, and I felt the adrenaline rush just like I felt on October 23, 1983,” said William J. Sickles, who served as the crew chief of a Boeing-Vertol CH-46 helicopter that evacuated the wounded from the hotel at Beirut. “At first they told us the French contingent had been hit, but we noticed as we brought wounded on board that there were American flags on their sleeves.” The French had also been hit with a terrorist truck bomb at the same time, killing 58 paratroopers.

Michael L. Toma was a 20-year-old lance corporal asleep on the first floor, about 100 feet from where the truck exploded. He didn’t know what hit him. “When I came to I remember they were carrying me out on a stretcher head first, and I saw the sunlight and blue sky,” he recalled. “I should not have been able to see the sky so quickly…the building was gone.”

“Beirut was the first major attack in what has now become World War III,” observed Bob Jordan, who in 1992 founded the Beirut Veterans of America.

After the bombing, the mission in Beirut took on a whole new level of gravity for the remainder of the 24th MAU’s time there and for the members of the 22nd MAU and BLT 2/8 sent in as replacements. Between the October 1983 bombing and the time when Marines were pulled out of Beirut in February 1984 (except for 100 embassy personnel, who left in August 1984), more Marines were killed or wounded.

Sergeant Manny Cox, for example, was a squad leader in Golf Company, 2/8, whose squad manned Observation Post 76 on December 4, 1983. Cox’s squad came under fire by Shiites in the fighting, which lasted for hours. “He called for and adjusted artillery fire and mortars, gave fire commands to his Marines; the whole deal,” said Mike Ettore, a fellow Marine who monitored the fight via the radio. “He and his Marines fought like hell that night. Somebody got an hour of the fight on a tape recording. I’ve always thought they should have that tape in squad leader school and say: ‘OK, listen to this. Here’s how Marines should be led in combat.’” Tragically, the last enemy round of the night made a direct hit on OP 76, killing Cox and seven of his Marines. Lance Corporal Harold Clayburn crawled 300 meters on his belly as the Shiites tried to shoot him, to get to Cox’s position to assess the situation. The scene at OP 76 was utter carnage. When he crawled back to inform his commanding officer, he had to return, this time with the CO, to bring back the crypto gear he’d forgotten to retrieve.

Even after the MNF left in August there were deaths, such as Army Warrant Officer Ken Welch and Navy Chief Petty Officer Ray Wagner, killed by a terrorist car bomb at the East Embassy Annex in September 1984.

Looking back, one has to ask, “Was it worth it?”

“We were making a difference; that’s why they had to attack us,” said Geraghty. “We were providing the stability that was allowing the various factions in the military and the government to begin to pull together.”

This article was written by Randy Gaddo and originally published in the March 2007 issue of Military History magazine. Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine chief warrant officer who served in Beirut in 1983 and is the newly elected president of the Beirut Veterans of America. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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