View Full Version : Remembering Beirut 20 years later

10-12-03, 08:59 AM
Remembering Beirut 20 years later
Submitted by: Marine Forces Pacific
Story Identification Number: 2003101018526
Story by Sgt. R. A. Barnett

MARINE FORCES PACIFIC, CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii(Oct. 10, 2003) -- As a Marine standing post, would you ever expect that in an instant, you would lose 241 of your comrades?

"Take charge of this post and all government property in view." Every Marine's first general order, but how do you execute this order when you can no longer see the government property? It's one thing when your area of responsibility is clearly defined within your perimeter, but when terrorists bombed the Marine Barracks in Lebanon on Oct. 23, 1983, the perimeter was no longer defined.

This is a question that former Marine Forces Pacific Sgt. Maj. Steve Mellinger still ponders on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the tragic bombing.

In the summer of 1982, at the request of the Lebanese government, the United States agreed to establish a U.S. military presence in Lebanon to serve as a peacekeeping force in the conflict between warring Moslem and Christian factions. On March 24, 1983, the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, stationed at Camp LeJeune, N.C., received orders to Beirut, Lebanon, in support of that commitment. Battalion Landing Team, First Battalion, 8th Marines was part of the 24th MAU.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 1983, the BLT headquarters building was destroyed by a non-Lebanese, terrorist-driven truck, laden with compressed gas-enhanced explosives, killing 241 Marines, Sailors and Soldiers as they slept.

On this particular morning, then-Gunnery Sgt. Steve Mellinger was standing duty as the Charlie Company watch officer, armed with his .45 caliber, following normal protocol while inside the perimeter of the Marine Headquarters. Mellinger stood a half mile away from the BLT and Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron headquarters on the south end of the Beirut International Airport runway.

"The blast was loud enough that we thought we were taking incoming artillery, which, unfortunately, was not an uncommon thing at that time in Lebanon," said Mellinger.

Upon hearing the massive blast, Mellinger crashed through his executive officer's bunker window, landing on top of him.

"Artillery always came in threes, so when we didn't hear another blast, we [the XO and me] peered out of the window and saw a mushroom-shaped cloud," continued Mellinger.

Although they could not see the BLT headquarters due to the smoke, they were convinced that the catastrophe they were looking at must have been a car or truck bomb that detonated in the parking lot of the nearby airport. They knew at this time that it was close to the BLT headquarters, but it didn't begin to register that it was the BLT headquarters.

A few months earlier, the battalion commander had made the call that the BLT headquarters was the safest place to billet Marines who were not with the three rifle companies.

"The building [the Marine Barracks] was chosen as the safest place to be, because of its sound infrastructure," said Mellinger. "In earlier fighting for Beirut, it endured furious Israeli artillery barrages without being destroyed, and also withstood an earth tremor in June that failed to cause any structural damage."

Within five minutes, Mellinger was using a forward observer's binoculars to get a better view of what had happened. The thought running through Mellinger's mind: 'This couldn't be possible.'

Following his observation, Mellinger and some fellow Marines headed down to the site of the explosion. It was very obvious that something horrible had taken place.

"Every tree was completely stripped of all foliage, if not blown out of the ground," recalled Mellinger. "Suddenly, the rules of engagement drastically changed."

The Charlie Company commander assumed duties as acting battalion commander following the blast, due to the uncertainty of the battalion commanding officer's whereabouts. Six days later, the rescue/recovery teams found the battalion commander...he had survived.

"He [the acting commanding officer] immediately pushed the security perimeter out, including the main access road to the Beirut International Airport," said Mellinger. "Then we divided the remains of the building into four sections, after which each company took charge of one section to begin the rescue/recovery operation."

The primary goal was to get anybody who was still alive out of the rubble. As the recovery process was underway, the French peacekeeping headquarters was hit by terrorists as well. The rescue/recovery teams spent the rest of the day recovering the remains of Marines. As Mellinger and the Marines worked steadfastly, there lie ahead a task no one had come across before. How were they going to identify the remains of personnel recovered from the rubble when all of the service record books, officer qualification records, and health and dental records were maintained inside the headquarters building?

"Instead of identifying the killed or wounded in action, accountability of who was alive became imperative," said Mellinger. "The lesson learned here changed the way we, as Marines, take our records with us when we deploy."

The rescue/recovery operation continued for approximately seven days. In the end, approximately 1/4 of BLT 1/8 had lost their lives. Gunnery Sgt . Mellinger returned home to the United States in early December 1983.

"Peacekeeping will always have inherent problems because there's not a clear line," said Mellinger. "Of all the roles that Marines perform, peacekeeping is probably the hardest because there is a big, gray area. The intent is that you don't have to engage in either defensive or offensive combat, but that the presence of the force is enough to stabilize----and it did, for a while."


An excited Lebanese child gets a return wave from a Marine of the 32d Marine Amphibious Unit as a convoy passes through the Muslim section of Beirut, Lebanon during the early days of a multi-national peace-keeping operation there.
Photo by: Official USMC Photo