Thirty years ago today, two truck bombs struck seperate buildings housing U.S. Marines and French forces, members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon, and killed 299 American & French servicemen. 220 U.S. Marines & 18 Sailors were among the casualties. This was the deadliest day in Marine Corps history since Iwo Jima. The following article, Navy-Marine Corps Team in Lebanon by Lieutenant Colonel David Evins, U.S. Marine Corps, is from the May 1984 issue of Proceedings magazine.
On 6 June 1982, the Israeli Army crossed the border into southern Lebanon. One hundred thousand troops swept north , backed up by the Israelis ‘ razor-sharp tactical air force of 550 planes. Their announced objective was the east-west line of the Litani River, 15 miles into the interior. For the fifth time in little more than three decades Israeli troops were on the march.
In a series of stunningly successful air strikes, Syrian antiaircraft missiles in the Bekaa Valley were smashed. Israeli ground units surged north under friendly skies, demonstrating once again their capacity for rapid movement. The Litani River was crossed barely 24 hours after the lead units had left their jump-off positions at the Israeli border. In the flush of this initial success, few could foresee at the time that the Israeli invasion had set in motion a train of events leading to a direct U. S. military involvement in Lebanon.
It would happen within three weeks. On 14 June Israeli Defense Force forward elements linked up with Maronite Christian militia units of the Lebanese Forces in east Beirut. The Maronites were opposed to the presence of Syrians and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, and for years the Lebanese Forces had enjoyed unspecified but substantial financial and military support from Israel. As the Israelis tightened their grip on the Palestinian camps ringing west Beirut, units of the Lebanese Forces moved east to capitalize on the Israeli presence and clear the Beirut-Damascus highway . No sooner had the Christians entered the Shuf mountains overlooking Beirut than they exchanged artillery fire with the Druze, who opposed any Christian incursion into their traditional homeland.
The Israelis declared a military blockade of Beirut on 2 July. To avoid a costly battle in the narrow alleyways of the refugee slums, the Israelis determined that a blockade would bring PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his 15 ,000 fighters to heel. Shipments of water, food stuffs , and petrol into the city were cut off. U. S. Secretary of State George Schultz saw this as an opportunity for a major correction in U. S. Middle East policy. Dispersing PLO troops like chaff in the wind would remove Arafat as a major player from the Middle East chessboard. With the PLO out, Lebanon could be transformed into a stable buffer between Syria and Israel.
With these motivations in mind, a multinational force of French, Italian, and U. S. ground troops was dispatched to Beirut, there to supervise the withdrawal of the besieged Palestine Liberation Organization. It was intended as a limited mission . The units of the multinational force were to come ashore, evacuate the PLO fighters , and re-embark-all to be accomplished within 30 days .
At 0500 on the morning of 25 August the first of 800 Marines from the 32d Marine amphibious unit (MAU) came ashore. The MAU commander, Colonel James Mead , was met by Ambassador Philip Habib, the on-scene architect of arrangements for evacuating the PLO . The evacuation was effected without incident, although a carnival atmosphere prevailed as the PLO troops ftred their weapons indiscriminately into the air as they were trucked to the waiting ships . The Marines~rilled in strict ftre discipline-looked on in amazement. By 10 September 1982 the evacuation was complete, and the Marines were re-embarked.
U. S. diplomatic efforts appeared to be on course, but hopes for a more stable Lebanon were dashed only four days later with the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, charismatic leader of the Phalange and newly elected president of Lebanon. Phalange elements of the Lebanese Forces avenged the death by massacring more than 1,000 unarmed Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
With Lebanon once again sinking into anarchy, Colonel Mead was ordered back to Beirut as part of a redoubled multinational force effort, this time to include a small British contingent in addition to the original AmericanFrench-Italian team. The mission statement, transmitted from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the U. S. Commander in Chief Europe and from there to the Commander Amphibious Task Force 61, directed the Marines to interpose themselves between the Israelis and populated areas of Beirut and to ” establish an environment which will permit the Lebanese Armed Forces to carry out their responsibilities in the Beirut area. . . .”
Battalion Landing Team 2/6 of the 32d MAU landed for the second time on 29 September 1982, following by three days the French and Italian contingents, which had taken up positions in the northern and center thirds of Beirut, respectively. The Marines took up a position at the Beirut International Airport, between the Israeli units south and east of the airport and the Shiite neighborhoods to the north. They set up their headquarters in an abandoned four-story building that had formerly housed, successively, Lebanon’s Aviation Administration Bureau, the PLO, Syrians, and the Israelis, who had used it as a field hospital during their June invasion.
Colonel Mead interpreted his mission as requiring a highly visible profile. As soon as his troops were established, he had them demonstrate this “presence” mission in several ways: U. S. flags were flown on vehicles and bunkers, flag patches were sewn on uniform sleeves, and patrols were carried out in the nearby Shiite neighborhoods .
But the first of a series of grim ironies occurred on 1 October. As Lebanese President Amin Gemayel , older brother of the slain Bashir, declared Beirut once again ” united,” Marine Corporal David Reagan died on an operating table aboard the amphibious assault ship Guam (LPH-9). The first Marine casualty, he was the victim of an unexploded U.S .-made 155-mm. artillery shell. As Reagan and his team were trying to clear the shell, one of hundreds of explosive devices littering Beirut International Airport, one of the 38 golf-ball size grenades inside it exploded.
But the remainder of the month passed uneventfully, and on 30 October 1982, Marines of the 24th MAU, commanded by Colonel T. M. Stokes, came ashore to relieve Colonel Mead and his men. The ” presence” mission remained unchanged, as did the rules of engagement: actions taken by U. S. forces ashore in Lebanon would be for self-defense only, reprisal or punitive measures would not be initiated , and “hostile forces” would not be pursued. The goal remained to keep things calm while the diplomats worked to remove all foreign military forces from the country.
While these diplomatic efforts were under way, the United States agreed to help the Lebanese Government rebuild the National Army, and underequipped, undertrained force of about 22,000 men. President Gemayel noted with some alarm that the Lebanese Forces , the country’s largest Christian militia, was expanding rapidly. A buildup of the National Army, he thought, was critical to checkmate this trend if the central government ever hoped to expand its control beyond the environs of Beirut.
The United States agreed that a strong National Army was desirable, and after a survey of Lebanese Armed Forces capabilities and requirements in November, the U. S. contracted to sell the Lebanese three dozen M48A5 tanks, plus ammunition, spares, and training. In November, Marine mobile training teams began conducting individual and small unit training for the Lebanese Armed Forces at the airport; this training continued through the end of the year. The Lebanese unit commander, Major Abdullah Daher, indicated that his men were being trained as the nucleus of an assault-commando battalion.
As the year drew to a close, the U. S. diplomatic strategy appeared to be working. Beirut was quiet, the Lebanese army was being revitalized, and the Lebanese and the Israeli governments had begun negotiations for the withdrawal of Israeli forces. But the new year’s skies were not cloudless. When the Marines were landed following the Sabra and Shatila massacres, it was hoped that they would be able to depart Beirut by Christmas. But as the factional fighting continued, the commitment took on a more openended role . Rival Moslem militias were battling for dominance in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, 50 miles north of the capital. In Alayh, a mountain village on the Beirut to Damascus highway, the Phalangist and Druze militia continued to pound each other with artillery, rockets , and machine guns in a bitter struggle for dominance.
But new year troubles for the Marines came from another and unexpected quarter-the Israeli army. Despite the evacuation of 15,000 of Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization fighters the previous August, Israeli forward units on the old Sidon road continued to be plagued with hit-and-run guerrilla ambushes. In December these attacks on Israeli patrols and convoys had left six dead and more than 30 wounded. The Israelis determined to do something about it, so they opened 1983 with a series of aggressive patrols immediately south of the Marine positions at the airport. These patrols included reconnaissance by fire, and they resulted in a series of confrontations between Israeli troops and the Marines manning the multinational force checkpoints around the airport. These actions culminated in the now-famous incident in which Captain Chuck Johnson drew his pistol to stop three Israeli tanks .
Nevertheless , the Marines doggedly pursued their mission of presence and goodwill. Marines of the 22d MAU, under the command of Colonel Mead, came ashore on 15 February to relieve the 24th MAU . Within two weeks of their arrival , the worst snowstorm in memory blanketed the Shuf mountains, leaving in its wake 50 dead and hundreds of motorists trapped in their cars on the Beirut-Damascus highway. Colonel Mead personally led two choppers on a relief mission into Syrian-controlled territory high in the mountains.
Throughout February and March, incidents involving Israeli Defense Force elements and the Marines continued, partly as a result of expanded Marine patrols in support of the multinational force presence mission. In exasperation, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert H. Barrow , opined in a letter to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger that the continued incidents were ” timed, orchestrated and executed for obtuse Israeli political purposes.” The seriousness and frequency of the incidents tapered off after this letter was made public.
However, by mid-March the generally friendly environment in which the multinational force was operating began to change. This was evidenced by a grenade thrown at a Marine squad patrolling the Shiite suburb of Ouzai in southern Beirut, wounding five men. The Italian and French contingents also began to suffer from similar attacks . Just as earthquakes give violent evidence of powerful subsurface pressures , the bombing of the American Embassy on 18 April 1983 conftrmed that the seemingly pacific situation in Beirut had imperceptibly but steadily deteriorated. By supporting the minority-based Gemayel government, and rebuilding a national army regarded by many Lebanese Moslems as an instrument of Phalange intimidation , the United States had become the inevitable target of Moslem extremists.
A few minutes before 1300, a light truck drove into the embassy compound. The driver dismounted and coolly walked away. At 1303, recalled Navy Intelligence Specialist Dan Pellegrino, who was in his sixth floor office at the time, ” There was an ungodly, tremendously loud explosion.” The blast collapsed a third of the building and killed more than 60 people, including 17 Americans. “There was a stench of explosives and gas,” said Pellegrino (an FBI analysis revealed later that the bomb was of the “gas enhanced” variety employed by Irish Republican Army terrorists, and used at least twice before in Lebanon). Survivors of the attack were relocated to a wing of the British Embassy and other offices in a downtown office building. Colonel Mead detailed a company of Battalion Landing Team 2/6 to provide beefed up security at both the relocated embassy activities and the U. S. ambassador’s residence.
By late April, the warm reception accorded the Marines months earlier had chilled. Lebanon was becoming fraught with pitfalls. In the months that followed , the Marines, as well as the French and Italian contingents of the Multinational Force, came to be regarded by many of the internal factions as active belligerents, not neutral peacekeepers.
On 30 May 1983, Colonel Mead’s 22d MAU re-embarked and Colonel Tim Geraghty’s 24th MAU came ashore. Morale among the new Marines was high, and the new arrivals settled quickly into their airport routine.
In late June, the Maronite-dorninated Lebanese Forces militia began pushing into the western fringes of the Shuf Mountains. At Bhamdun the Christian militiamen came into direct contact with the Druze , and gunfire ensued as the Druze resisted the Lebanese Forces incursion . The rapidly escalating fight for Bhamdun rekindled the Lebanese civil war. While the Christian and Druze militia were jockeying for position in the Shuf, the Lebanese Armed Forces began pushing into Shiite neighborhoods in Beirut, intent on expanding the government’s control. The movement was contested by the Shiite Amal militia, and the effort fizzled .
The pace of events was picking up . On 4 September the Israeli Defense Force pulled back to its line on the Awali River. As the Israelis pulled out, the internecine fighting in the hills overlooking Beirut resumed in earnest. The Christian Lebanese Forces militia, which had overestimated its strength earlier, now found itself overextended. Routed at Bhamdun on 5 September with heavy loss, the Lebanese Forces were forced to fall back.
These events set the stage for the fighting at the village of Suq-al-Gharb. By this time the Druze and Palestinian artillery was shelling Beirut indiscriminately , and the multinational forces were coming under a variety of artillery, mortar, and sniper fire. By 6 September, four Marines and 16 French troops lay dead. Nevertheless, morale remained high and the 22nd MAU had even acquired a mascot, a sickly goat nursed to health and nicknamed “Bill E. Goat. ” The goat was put to work keeping the grass trimmed-a sign in the battalion landing team compound read “Beware of Guard Goat.” However, concerns for the safety of the Multinational Force continued to mount. The Pacific-based 31st MAU was ordered north from its Indian Ocean station to take up position off the Beirut coastline as a reinforcing unit-ready and available, if necessary.
The Druze and their Palestinian allies were pushing hard to take the high ground at the village of Suq-alGharb, a pivotal link between the two major Druze concentrations in the Shuf. On 10 September, a pitched battle was fought. In one hour the Druze artillery rained 1,600 shells on Suq-al-Gharb. This barrage was followed by five waves of attacking infantrymen. Although the government troops held , their equally intense counterbarrage had left them low on ammunition . The Lebanese Army commander, General Ibrahim Tannous, called Colonel Geraghty. Without U. S. help, he said, “Suq-al-Gharb will fall.” Approval was granted for U. S. naval gunfire support, and the five-inch guns of the cruiser Virginia (CGN-38) bombarded the Druze with more than 350 rounds. The fall of shot was adjusted by U. S. forward observers with the Lebanese Army at Suq-al-Gharb. It was another in a series of steps escalating the U. S. military involvement, which had begun on 8 September when four shells were fired from the destroyer John Rodgers (00983) in reply to Druze shelling of the airport. In a similar instance on 16 September, the John Rodgers and the Virginia (GGN-38) had fired a total of 72 rounds.
Although the Lebanese Army was able to hold at Suqal-Gharb, the combined effect of these actions was to confirm the belligerent status of the multinational force in the eyes of the Druze and other Moslem factions. By late September, the situation had polarized completely. Marine patrols in the Shiite shantytowns were informed by the locals,”Khomeini, good!” The Marines’ security was now the primary consideration, and a number of steps were taken:
~ F-14 reconnaissance flights from the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) were initiated.
~ The battleship New Jersey (BB-62), ordered from Nicaraguan waters to the shores of Lebanon, arrived off Beirut
the last weekend in September.
~ At the airport compound, bunkers were hardened, perimeter security was tightened, and mobile patrols were
From 29 September to 22 October, the Marines were subject to almost daily artillery, rocket, and sniper fire. Although casualties were light, the Marines sensed the increased element of risk. Said one, “Every Marine in the
States wants to get over to Lebanon, and every Marine in Lebanon wants to get back to the States. ”
On the morning of 23 October the Marines became the target of a different sort of attack. At 0500, Lance Corporal Eddie Difranco at Post #6 in the parking lot in front of the battalion landing team headquarters building watched a truck drive into the parking lot, circle, and leave. About an hour later, Lance Corporal John Berthiame at Post #5 observed a white Mercedes on the airport highway near the battalion landing team Headquarters , ” . .. the guy driving . . . reached out . .. and took two pictures of the building , and I thought that was kind of strange. ”
About five minutes later, a yellow Mercedes stakebed truck entered the parking lot, accelerated, and crashed through a barbed wire fence , drove through an open gate, flattened the sergeant of the guard’s sandbagged booth at the building’s entrance and lurched into the lobby. Neither Difranco nor Berthiame had had time to load and fire. Sergeant Stephen Russell, the sergeant of the guard , heard the vehicle coming (“revving the engine a lot … gearing all the way in”). Too late, he shouted “Hit the dirt!” He remembers a bright yellow flash before the blast knocked him unconscious . The force of the explosion blew out the concrete pillars on the ground floor, caving the upper 50 feet of the building into about ten feet of rubble. Over 300 dead and wounded Marines were sandwiched between the collapsed floors and ceilings. Among the severely wounded was Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach , commander of the battalion landing team. Among the luckiest was Lance Corporal Adam Webb , one of four guards posted on the roof. He saw the truck disappear into the building. At the sound of the explosion the roof cracked and started to fall. Webb fell with it, sliding off the slab just as it hit.
FBI forensic experts later determined that the truck carried one of the infamous gas-enhanced bombs. It had exploded with the equivalent force of 12,000 pounds of TNT. The examiners stated it was the largest nonnuclear blast they had ever investigated. Even if the bomb had detonated 300 feet away, they said, it probably would have collapsed the building. Across town, another suicide truck crashed into the French barracks and exploded, killing 56.
The President was informed of the disaster at 0200 Washington time. Responding to a Presidential request, the Commandant flew out that same day to inspect the damage. By the time General Paul X. Kelley (who had become Marine Commandant in July) arrived, the nextday rescue operations were well under way. All of those remaining alive had been pulled from the building by 1300 the previous day; what remained was the gri sly task of extracting the dead, which the Commandant watched in grim silence.
Casualty handling was later described as nothing short of ” heroic .” Helicopters from the amphibious assault ship Iwo lima (LPH-2) arrived to transport about 60 of the 112 wounded to the ship for triage and stabilization. The first medical evacuation aircraft, an Air Force C-9 from Turkey, arrived before the last survivor was removed from the rubble. A Royal Air Force C-130 landed shortly thereafter, followed a half-hour later by a Navy C-9. Almost as soon as they were stabilized , the wounded were flown to the RAF hospital at Akrotiri, Cyprus, the U. S. naval hospital, Naples, and the Army hospitals at Landstuhl and Frankfurt, Germany. The prompt and competent medical treatment was later credited for the low mortality of the wounded–only seven of the 112 did not survive their wounds. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the tragedy was inescapable.
With the bombing of the battalion landing team headquarters, the ” presence” role of the Marines had clearly taken on a new dimension. Nonessential support personnel were returned to the ships offshore. Navy Seabees strengthened the perimeter positions and began constructing various obstacles and concrete bunkers. The troops were dispersed. The danger of further terrorist attacks was underscored on 4 November 1983 when a third suicide truck rammed into the Israeli mjLitary governor’s headquarters at Tyre, killing 46. The battered 24th Marine amphibious unit was relieved by Colonel James Faulkner and men of the 22nd MAU on 19 November.
December opened with U. S. involvement in Lebanon taking another tum. On 3 December, an F-14 reconnaissance flight was fired on from Syrian-controlled territory. The following day a carrier strike was launched in response to this attack on U. S. reconnaissance flights.
As the sun came up over the Lebanese mountains, a combined strike force of 28 aircraft was launched from the decks of the carriers Independence (CV-62) and John F. Kennedy (CV-67). Heading east into the rising sun, the attacking aircraft crossed the mountains and streaked into the Bekaa Valley. Their target: Syrian-controlled antiaircraft positions. Dropping to their attack altitude of 3,000 feet, the attacking jets were met with intense ground fire. Two of the venerable A-6 attack planes were shot down; Lieutenant Mark Lange, the pilot, was killed, and Lieutenant Robert Goodman, the bombardier-navigator, was taken prisoner. Their plane was from the John F. Kennedy. Post-attack photos revealed that the strike was successful. Indeed, F-14 reconnaissance flights in the days following were conducted without incident.
However, the Moslem and Druze batteries in the Shuf mountains continued to fire on the battalion landing team’s compound. The Druze claimed their shelling was aimed at Lebanese Army positions a few hundred yards away. This argument strained credulity. Asked one Marine, “They’re trying to te11 me that they fired more than 150 stray rounds?” In response to these attacks, the New Jersey steamed close inshore and trained its 130-ton rifles at the distant Shuf. Eleven rounds were fired, dumping more than 20,000 pounds of ordnance on the Druze positions.
As the year drew to a close, a number of facts were clear:
~ Terrorism was an effective weapon against regular forces . Three martyrs inflicted more than 350 casualties on American, French, and Israeli installations. These attacks demonstrated that a suicidal terrorist was perhaps the most effective ” force multiplier” of all.
~ The multinational force , sent to Beirut “to bring an end to the violence that has tragically occurred” was, at year’s end, no longer regarded as neutral by factional elements in Lebanon opposed to the central government.
~ The fundamental tensions causing the Lebanese civil war remained unresolved, and were perhaps more intractable than ever.
After a fragile cease-fire on 27-28 December, the situation between the Druze, the Shiite Amal, and the Phalange continued to erode. Syrian intransigence contributed to an increasingly explosive situation.
In the first two months of 1984 the situation deteriorated rapidly. Defections and desertions plagued the Lebanese Army. Its capabilities were reduced further by heavy fighting. Artillery fire into greater Beirut from Syrian-controlled territory increased, and the Shiite Amal and Druze militias successfully pushed the Lebanese Army out of its enclaves to the immediate north and east of Beirut International Airport. By 7 February, they had gained possession of predominantly Moslem West Beirut. At this point, it was evident that the Marine presence at Beirut International Airport was no longer contributing to the hoped-for process of national reconciliation. The President ordered the Marines’ redeployment to Sixth Fleet ships offshore, announcing at the same time that naval gunfire would be used against any units firing on U. S. forces or into greater Beirut. In response to continued shelling, the New Jersey fired 290 16-inch rounds the next day into the Syrian-controlled foothills of the Shuf. It was the heaviest naval bombardment since the Korean War.
On 23 February, the Marines began the movement to rejoin their upporting ships, bringing to a close 17 months of continuous participation in the multinational force effort ashore. Another chapter in Lebanon’s fractious and sanguinary history was brought to a close. How the next chapter will read is largely up to the Lebanese and the willingness of the other major participants with a stake in the outcome to arrive at a workable solution.