View Full Version : Beiruit 20 years later

10-20-03, 06:34 AM
Submitted by: MCAS Miramar
Story Identification Number: 20031016191532
Story by Sgt. A.C. Strong

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif.(Oct. 16, 2003) -- "There are moments in life that shape who you are, what you think, what you know, even what you believe," said retired 1st Sgt. Richard B. Truman, "And it stays with you. The Beirut bombing was one of those."

October 23, 1983, 241 Marines and fellow servicemembers were killed and more than 100 wounded, when a truck carrying explosives slammed through the guard posts and entered the Battalion Landing Team headquarters building of the Marine Amphibious Unit compound, Beirut, Lebanon.

The bombing of the BLT headquarters, whose duties included acting as a contingent to the multinational peacekeeping force, was even more shocking to the American public, as it came on the heels of the bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut which occurred in April of the same year.

August 25, 1982, Col. Stuart Knoll, commanding officer, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, remembers arriving in Beirut.

Knoll, then a captain with 2nd Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, was working as a communications relay.

"The positive outlook of the Lebanese people at that time is something I will always remember," said Knoll, who shipped out prior to the embassy bombing. "We were there on a peacekeeping mission."

Even with the bombing of the embassy in April of 1983, the posture did not change for the incoming Marines including 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. They were there to "maintain the perimeter," said Brig. Gen. Christian B. Cowdrey, commanding general, Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command Twentynine Palms, Calif.

"May of 1983, 1/8 landed to assume duties..." said Cowdrey. "Although our embassy had been blown up, we were still very well received by the community. There was no change in mission and we continued to provide security to West Beirut as a part of our mission."

According to then Capt. Cowdrey, rifle company commander, Charlie Co., between the time of the embassy bombing and the BLT headquarters bombing, "Marines trained, organized and assisted" the Lebanese army so they could work autonomously upon the departure of the peacekeeping force. They were to provide a safe haven for the unprotected.

At 6:21 a.m., the Marines in the barracks were sleeping. Company C was on duty maintaining the perimeter.

Because it was Sunday, the Marines offshore, aboard the USS Iwo Jima, were still sleeping.

At 6:22 a.m., that all changed when a truck carrying explosives slammed through guard posts and crashed into the headquarters building. According to a Department of Defense spokesman at the time, "The force of the explosion ripped the building from its foundation. The building then imploded upon itself."

"I saw the mushroom cloud," said Cowdrey, who was 500-meters from the building. "It was surreal. We attempted to make radio contact, but no one answered."

The Marines of Co. C, with Cowdrey, moved across the runway to where moments before there was a building.

"There was just rubble with a crater in the center," he said. "Everything in the periphery was blown back, trees were blown over. Some things simply vaporized."

The captain and his Marines immediately began rescue efforts.

"I couldn't even recognize the men we were pulling out," Cowdrey said thoughtfully. "I remember pulling Chaplain Wheeler out of the rubble, and I talked to him. He was conscious. Most ... most you couldn't identify."

According to the general, all were covered in a thick, gray dust. "You couldn't tell black from white, old from young. They were in sleep clothes, gym clothes," he said. "If you found someone alive in the concrete that entombed them, if you found a pulse at all, you hurried them away."

As their efforts continued, rescuers were confronted with the very real possibility that their efforts to rescue one would rain debris on another.

Marines and Sailors worked to organize aid stations, that would be used to triage, stabilize and prepare for the evacuation of the casualties to the USS Iwo Jima.

Aboard ship, the sleepy Sunday went from "zero to hell" according to then Cpl. Truman, as the medical personnel worked to treat the ever-increasing number of wounded.

Truman was released from his regular duties as CH-46 crew chief for Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162, because prior to his enlistment in the Marine Corps, he was a trained emergency medical technician - and they needed all the help they could get.

"The hangar deck was full of wounded," said Truman. "There were all kinds of injuries - burns, broken bones, and crushing injuries."

Truman was to stick with the surgeon as he went from crew chief to starting IV's and triaging the wounded.

"I had my hand pressed hard against a wound and I looked down," taking a breath, he said, "And I knew them. We knew them."

As the days passed, the rescue efforts became recovery efforts.

"And those of us that were left behind, we stayed and continued the mission," said Cowdrey.

In the states and abroad, Marines and fellow Americans were shocked at what was called, at the time, the "largest terrorist attack in United States history." Many looked for blame.

"I was angry," said Knoll. "Like we should have seen it coming."

"I'll tell you someone who, in my opinion, bore the brunt of the blame but was one of the finest commanders I've served under, Col. Tim Gerahty," said Cowdrey. "He recognized and understood from a national, theater and tactical perspective."

The general also spoke highly of Lt. Col. Larry Gerlach who was the commanding officer, 1/8, and injured in the bombing. "Here's a man that is in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and now has a letter in his record finding him to blame for what occurred. But he was a good commander and I learned a lot from him."

The general seemed frustrated that many today seem to have forgotten the lessons from Beirut.

Knoll said, "After all of these years Lebanon really doesn't seem any better off or any more stable. There really seems to be no solution to some of these Middle East problems, at least in this case this seems to be true."

"It's not something that is remembered as it should be," Cowdrey said. "We were there for almost two years, for a very noble mission.

"It should be remembered like this - a group of young Marines, principally from 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, gave their lives for a very noble cause - to secure peace in a land that had been in civil war for decades. I was in the building the night before it blew. We were remembering Mike Ohler (a Marine captain killed by sniper fire in Beirut, a week prior to the BLT building bombing). All of us knew that we were there to support peace. They were proud of what they were doing, recognized the risk and were willing to take the risk to secure peace."

The lessons learned in Beirut are applicable today.

"I learned from it and carried that with me when I took my Marines into Operation Iraqi Freedom. I drew on it to tell them what to expect, because it's a different environment and things that make sense in the U.S. just don't make sense there," said Knoll.

"Beirut '82 through '83 is a case-study in War College when discussing mission creep, rules of engagement and U.S. policy. It's important for leadership to study this when deciding to commit forces, so we have the right numbers, right reasons, and the rules of engagement," Cowdrey added.

September 9, 2003, a federal judge assigned responsibility for the embassy bombing to Iran, awarding $123 million to the 29 victims and their families.

According to the Associated Press, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates concluded, "Iran was ultimately responsible for the radical Islamic group Hezbollah detonating a car loaded with explosives inside the embassy entrance on April 18, 1983."

It is reported to be the first large-scale attack on an American embassy anywhere in the world and was considered a "watershed act that ushered in two decades of terrorist attacks on U.S. targets overseas and at home."

No one has been assigned blame for the Oct. 23 blast, which took 10 times as many lives.

"We shoulder the responsibility," said Cowdrey. "Every one of them had families. Any servicemember who dies in a foreign land should be shown the same compassionate admiration and respect as those who died in 9-11. Every one of them should be remembered."

Visit the Beirut Memorial Online at http://www.beirut-memorial.org/index.html.

Editor's note: Some quotes are taken from interviews from Sgt. Strong's previous story on Beirut. Also, thanks goes to Cpl. Julie A. Paynter, MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, Public Affairs, for her contribution.