View Full Version : Two decades after barracks bombing, 1/8 Marines help civilians flee Lebanon

07-25-06, 02:50 PM
July 31, 2006

Back to Beirut
Two decades after barracks bombing, 1/8 Marines help civilians flee Lebanon

By Christian Lowe and William H. McMichael
Staff writers

LIMASSOL, Cyprus — It was Thursday night, July 13, when Marine commanders got the call. For the previous week, the leathernecks of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit had been working with the Jordanian military in a planned exercise. They were due to wrap up in Jordan and set sail on amphibious ships in about a week, continuing their six-month cruise.

The sectarian conflict in Iraq was raging, and there was talk of a temporary troop increase to tamp down the violence. Would the MEU be called back to Iraq, many wondered?

Then the Middle East tinderbox burst into white-hot flame once again.

What followed the initial July 13 warning was a hasty and deliberate operation pulled together in a matter of hours that drew on embassy evacuation skills the Corps has honed for decades and took advantage of the rapid contingency planning that has made MEUs legendary.

“The Joint Chiefs of Staff looked at who was in the region, and it turned out we were the force of choice,” said Col. Ron Johnson, 24th MEU commander, in a July 20 interview.

It was a remarkable coincidence. The MEU’s battalion landing team — 1st Battalion, 8th Marines — was the very same battalion that was attacked in 1983 when terrorists bombed the Marine barracks in Beirut. In fact, 1/8 is nicknamed “The Beirut Battalion.”

This new operation would lead to Marines landing upon shores they’d abandoned nearly 23 years earlier, battered and bruised by the very terrorist organization that had started this most recent flare-up, and it would put the Corps near the controversy over whether the U.S. moved quickly enough to protect its citizens in a war-torn land.

Commanders and U.S. envoys here claim the movement of thousands of civilians fleeing a war zone like Lebanon is never easy, and dealing with the complex diplomatic issues that weave throughout any potential operation in this region would bog down any military planning.

With their command in place, however, hundreds of Marines and sailors and small contingents of soldiers and airmen — along with the State Department — have worked day and night to pull out any Americans who want to leave war-ravaged Lebanon. And as of July 21, the U.S. force was continuing to grow.

From the desert to the sea

On July 13, one day after radical Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas crossed Lebanon’s southern border into Israel, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two, a “crisis action team” with the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 24th MEU began considering options for a potential evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut should the order come, Marine officials confirmed.

While the Israeli military responded to the Hezbollah raid with a wide-ranging bombing campaign by sea and air — striking roads, infrastructure and the country’s airport in an effort to cut off potential kidnapper escape routes and force Hezbollah to disarm — military and diplomatic officials worked on the U.S. response.

“From an information perspective, these are warnings you always look at,” Johnson said.

By July 14, commanders within the MEU had at least one tentative plan of action, calling for a risky, long-range helicopter extraction of civilians using the MEU’s three CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters flying over land, Corps officials said.

As the day progressed, MEU Marines began to wrap up their exercise with the Jordanian military, dubbed Infinite Moonlight 2006, a week ahead of schedule and 200 miles away from their ships in the Jordanian port of Aqaba.

As a precaution, Johnson ordered the immediate loading of the amphibious transport dock Nashville in case it was needed for support.

The next day, State Department officials formally asked the Pentagon for help pulling U.S. citizens out of the increasingly violent conflict, prompting MEU commanders to enact their finalized helo-extract plan.

On July 15, three Super Stallions and a force of about 100 Marines, including a security platoon from 1/8, flew from Jordan through Egypt and onto the Mediterranean island of Cyprus — which lies roughly 120 miles northwest of Beirut on the central Lebanese coast — to prep for the operation.

Johnson had planned on an aerial refueling of the CH-53Es, but said it turned out the helos had long enough “legs” to make do without it.

After spending the night in Cyprus, the security platoon boarded the heavy-lift transport helos around 2 p.m. local time and flew for about an hour to the U.S. Embassy’s grounds in Beirut to pick up the first group of civilians.

An 80-man security platoon remained at the embassy while the Super Stallions flew back to Cyprus with 25 evacuees aboard, landing at the closed British military base of Akrotiri.

With that initial flight complete, and the situation in Lebanon “continuing to deteriorate,” the MEU was ordered July 17 to load the rest of its troops and gear back aboard its amphibious ships and head full steam for the eastern Mediterranean Sea to join the growing air and sea rescue, Johnson said.

Dangerous territory

Despite the benign nature of the U.S. mission, military and diplomatic officials are aware that their forces could become targets, as Marines were in the 1983 Hezbollah bombing.

A July 14 Hezbollah cruise missile attack on an Israeli military ship underlined the risk to U.S. warships and commercial vessels off Lebanon’s coast. The Israeli ship caught fire, was severely damaged and had to be towed back to port. Four sailors were lost at sea. A simultaneous barrage missed a second warship but struck a civilian merchant vessel.

Top military officials said U.S. forces are in close coordination with the Israeli military, which has blockaded the Lebanese coast save for the rescue ships, and with Lebanon’s government to keep the exodus from coming under fire.

“I cannot express enough gratitude to the government of Lebanon for the security they have provided and the assistance that they have provided in that endeavor,” said Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, Task Force 59 chief and overall commander of the U.S. military’s assistance effort here.

Navy ships are providing security for civilian transports chartered to help move the thousands of Americans expected to leave Lebanon. The Navy ships are “prepared to defend themselves,” should they come under attack as the Israeli vessel did, said Lt. Cmdr. Charles Brown, a 5th Fleet spokesman.

The Norfolk-based destroyers Gonzalez and Barry were called in to provide security, Navy officials said.

Jensen said the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima, the dock landing ship Whidbey Island and the amphibious transport dock Trenton would be close enough to Beirut by July 21 to lend support with additional helicopters and landing craft. The Nashville arrived earlier to load Americans onto landing craft.

“It’s absolutely a team effort,” Jensen added.

Johnson plans to employ the larger Iwo Jima as a “lily pad,” a place the smaller amphibious ships could bring evacuees. That would shorten the rescue efforts, since the smaller ships could return to shore faster while the evacuees were transferred by ship or helicopter to Cyprus.

“When you’re doing such a large-scale movement, you have to be as efficient as possible,” Johnson added.

The Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group and the MEU have 24 helicopters at their disposal. In addition, the amphibs carry landing craft that went ashore to help with the evacuation.

Should the need arise, the Iwo Jima is equipped with a 600-bed hospital that contains six operating rooms.

Coming ashore

On July 20, the first U.S. military vessel to come ashore in Lebanon for the rescue operation landed on a beach in Beirut to load hundreds of fleeing U.S. citizens. A landing craft from the Nashville was used to transport the Americans back to the ship, which headed for Cyprus that evening.

The Nashville joined the civilian cruise ship Orient Queen and the ferry boat Ramah — which have been chartered by the Pentagon to help with the operation — in moving what military officials hope will be at least 7,000 Americans out of Lebanon by July 21.

And as more transports are added each day, the departure of civilians mounts.

“We just started this in earnest a few days ago — starting in the tens and hundreds,” Jensen said July 20. “We hope by the end of today we will have moved in excess of 1,100 American citizens from Lebanon.”

Jensen rebuffed criticism of the timing of the military’s efforts to assist the American exit, saying he’s as impatient as anyone to assist all who want to leave.

“It can never go fast enough until the job is absolutely complete,” Jensen said.

And U.S. officials also stated firmly that America was not “evacuating” Lebanon and the U.S. remained committed to keeping its embassy open.

“They are not abandoning their post,” Jensen said of the embassy staff in Beirut. “This is not in any way, shape, manner or form an evacuation of Lebanon. It’s just an assisted departure.”

Helping the transition

The embassy in Cyprus is arranging charter flights back to the U.S. so the Americans who’ve left Beirut can fly home as soon as they offload from ships and helicopters, deputy chief of mission Jane Zimmerman said.

Contingency plans are in the works to temporarily house U.S. citizens if no flights are available in time, but Zimmerman said she worried a massive influx might put “too much of strain on this small but lovely island.”

“It is a big logistical challenge, everyone is dedicated to making it a success,” Zimmerman said. “We want to keep people on the ground as short a time as possible. Cyprus is a lovely place, but they’re not coming here for a vacation in Cyprus, they want to go home.”

A small contingent of Marines from MEU Service Support Group 24 is assisting with medical screening, entry control and security as the Americans arrive, Marine officials said. Navy and Air Force doctors and medical first responders have been dispatched here from Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany, and Kuwait to assist passengers with any medical problems, said Brown, the 5th Fleet spokesman.

Both Zimmerman and Jensen were unable to say how many Americans have registered at the embassy in Beirut to leave, admitting many are reluctant to depart and some changed their minds at the last minute.

For anyone considering leaving Lebanon, “it’s a deeply personal decision,” Zimmerman said.

But as the fighting continued to rage in southern Lebanon between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militia, and the bombs fell from Israeli warplanes throughout the country, it seems the military’s assistance to Americans wishing to leave will continue.

“We told the crews … that our mission is going to be to help Americans get to safety,” said Capt. Sinclair Harris, commodore of the Iwo Jima ESG. “And like what happened with us in [Hurricane] Katrina, I know that the sailors are looking forward to doing anything they can to help Americans get to safety.”

William H. McMichael reported from Hampton Roads, Va.


07-25-06, 02:51 PM
July 31, 2006

Leathernecks secure embassy, help civilians escape conflict

By Christian Lowe
Staff writer

BEIRUT, Lebanon — It might be an embassy diplomats and military commanders insist is still open for business, but with all the Marines and security teams buttressing the hilltop compound, it sure didn’t look that way.

Snipers peered through their scopes from a half-constructed building flanking the U.S. Embassy’s front gate, looking for any terrorist assault that might come from the narrow streets of this Mediterranean city thrown once more into conflict.

The gunners manning .50-caliber machine guns and the stern-looking guards at the gate might be on edge, but the Marines here seemed to take it all in stride.

“This isn’t what we expected to do when we deployed, but nobody’s complaining,” said 2nd Lt. Matthew Johnson, commander of 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines — the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s battalion landing team.

“It’s pretty easy to see here what needs to get done.”

On July 15, Johnson — a native of Pottstown, Pa. — and his platoon flew hundreds of miles from a remote desert base in Jordan to the island of Cyprus, deploying to Lebanon the next day to help bolster security at the U.S. Embassy and assist in the evacuation of U.S. citizens fleeing the escalating conflict.

Since then, Marines have been living among the manicured lawns and sloping hills overlooking the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea, busying themselves with the massive air and sea lift that had pulled nearly 7,000 Americans out of Lebanon less than a week after the Marines arrived.

As about 25 Americans prepared to load into one of the MEU’s CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters July 21, Johnson and his men strapped helmets on the mostly women and children who waited in a line as the helo’s engines roared above the compound’s landing pad.

With a deafening rush and a hail of dirt and debris, the Super Stallion lifted off, carrying its cargo to the safety of Cyprus, 120 miles away.

Meanwhile, on a small beach at the base of the hills sloping seaward from the embassy’s grounds, Marines with MEU Service Support Group 24 processed hundreds of fleeing Americans as they filed by to board Navy amphibious ships loitering just offshore.

As Sgt. Peter VanCleave, 24, of Marietta, Ga., typed the names of waiting passengers into a computer, children and their parents huddled in groups, waiting for Navy personnel to lead them the last 100 yards to the beach.

“Go figure, Marines are helping people instead of doing what we normally do these days,” said the logistics Marine, who was also involved in the MEU’s relief operation during Hurricane Katrina last year.

“Everyone’s been pretty calm,” he said, a pile of blue passports emblazoned with the gold seal of the U.S. sitting next to his worn keyboard. “They all seem to be [seasoned] international travelers.”

As the Americans continued to queue up, Staff Sgt. Charles Addison, from Winnsboro, La., walked up and down the line, making sure his Marines were doing their job and keeping the flow of evacuees going through.

“We practiced this before we deployed,” Addison, another Katrina relief veteran, said. “So it hasn’t been that much of a stretch.”

Walking unsteadily down the rocky slope to the yellow-sand beach, the troops helped the last of the evacuees onto the landing craft bound for the amphibious transport dock Trenton — a load of about 300 civilians toting suitcases, strollers and backpacks.

Huddled against the landing craft’s starboard bulkhead, Rima Chacar of Coral Gables, Fla., lamented her vacation cut violently short.

“Everyone was saying it would be tough to leave if we waited any longer,” Chacar said, her son Hani and daughter Aya close by her side. “It’s just the uncertainty that prompted us to leave.”

The boat rocked side to side as the ocean waters surged ashore, its load of evacuees weighing the craft down so much that a Seabee-driven bulldozer was called in to give the craft a push.

Just a short drive later — and with a final “clang” against the Trenton’s cavernous well-deck door — the ordeal of Chacar and her fellow travelers was nearly over. Just a six-hour cruise courtesy of the U.S. Navy and a seat on an embassy-chartered plane out of Cyprus and she’d be safely back home.

But as the lines swelled throughout the day, it was clear to the Marines and sailors helping get their fellow citizens out of Lebanon that the job was far from over.

“I’ll tell you exactly how long it’s going to take for us to get this done,” said Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, Task Force 59 commander, as he watched the evacuees walk across the beach and onto the landing craft’s slippery deck.

“It will take as long as there are Americans here who still want to leave.”