View Full Version : 25 years later, bombing in Beirut still resonates

10-16-08, 06:36 AM
25 years later, bombing in Beirut still resonates

By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

A quarter-century later, the sergeant of the guard that morning says he can still see the face of the man driving the truck.

Sgt. Stephen Russell was sitting in his guard booth outside a barracks in Beirut. He was one of about 1,600 Marines who'd been sent to Lebanon as neutral peacekeepers but found little peace to keep. He says he heard something snap behind him and a diesel engine revving.

He turned.

What he saw, at 6:22 a.m. that bright Sunday in the fourth decade of the Cold War, was the future, coming straight at him, in the form of a 5-ton truck. It was Oct. 23, 1983, a day Ronald Reagan called the saddest of his presidency, maybe his life.

The truck would shatter the Marines' building with a bomb more powerful than 12,000 pounds of TNT — the biggest non-nuclear explosion since World War II, the FBI concluded.
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It would kill 241 servicemembers, including 220 Marines — the Corps' bloodiest day since Iwo Jima. It would drive the U.S. out of Lebanon and lead some, including al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, to conclude that when America gets its nose bloodied, it pulls back.

For Americans, Beirut was a seminal moment on a timeline that led to the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. It was a first shot in a clash with a militant, fundamentalist Islam — exemplified by groups such as Hezbollah and nations such as Iran — that would replace Soviet communism as the USA's chief adversary.

Marine commandant P.X. Kelley called the bombing "mass murder," but it was really a different kind of war, one of bombing and suicide.

It was Sgt. Russell's war.

The yellow Mercedes truck had plowed through the Marine compound's barbed-wire perimeter and was speeding toward the building immediately behind his booth, where hundreds of men slept.

The truck passed between two sentry posts. Russell says the sentries' rifles, as ordered, were unloaded. Neither got off a shot. Russell grabbed his .45-caliber pistol and stepped from the booth. He would not be able to stop the truck. It was too big, too close, too fast.

Russell says that as he stood there in the path of the truck, for a second he looked the bearded driver in the eye. He was smiling — a big, leering grin, as if to say, "Gotcha!"

Shaping future U.S. policy

The Beirut bombing "cut a hole in the soul of the Marine Corps," says Jack Matthews, a retired lieutenant colonel who commanded the Marine battalion before the bombing and later wrote a doctoral dissertation about it.

It gave a boost to terrorism. "That's where the bad guys in the world today got their first bragging rights," says Eric Hammel, author of The Root: The Marines in Beirut, a history of the bombing.

It changed the way leaders thought about power:

• In a speech in 1984, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who had opposed the Beirut mission, enunciated the lesson he drew from Lebanon: Don't commit insufficient military forces to an ill-defined mission with no clear national interest or exit strategy.

Weinberger gave the speech at the National Press Club nine months after President Reagan — who had said after the barracks bombing that the United States would never back down from terrorists — withdrew the Marines from Lebanon.

Weinberger's warning did not prevent a similar debacle nine years later in Somalia, where U.S. forces had been sent in support of a United Nations humanitarian mission. After two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by Somali militias, U.S. forces were withdrawn.

• In a 1998 interview with ABC News, bin Laden said the U.S. response to the Beirut bombing showed "the decline of American power and the weakness of the American soldier, who is ready to wage cold wars but unprepared to fight long wars. This was proven in Beirut in 1983, when the Marines fled."

• In a Pentagon news conference in 2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recalled being special envoy to the Middle East after the Beirut bombing.

He said his experience helped convince him that the best defense against terrorism is a good offense — "take the war to them, to go after them where they are, where they live, where they plan, where they hide, go after their finances, go after the people who harbor and assist them."

Ready to go home

The Marines had come to Beirut as part of a multinational force designed, by its mere presence, to help stabilize Lebanon after years of war there among Israelis, Palestinians and Christian and Muslim Lebanese.

But in April 1983, a van bomb at the U.S. Embassy killed 46, including 16 Americans. Increasingly, Muslim factions associated the Marines with the Christian ones.

The situation changed, but the Marines' orders — not to appear "warlike" — did not.

As interpreted by the Marine commanders, the mission precluded fortifications at their compound at Beirut International Airport that might suggest the Marines weren't peacekeepers — such as a perimeter fence that would stop anything bigger than a car.

Similarly, sentries directly facing the airport were ordered to carry their ammunition on their belts — not in their rifles — to avoid an accidental shooting.

Adding to its vulnerability, the compound was surrounded by high ground occupied by Muslim militia artillery. So to Marines leery of gunfire, the compound's sturdy, four-story cinderblock building seemed like a haven.

It turned out to be a tomb.

The Marines sensed their peril. At bedtime on Oct. 22, Cpl. Jeff Nashton's buddy told him to put on his dog tags, "so I'll be able to ID you."

Nashton would remember the man's words, because they were his last.

The unit was due to leave in a few weeks. In a last letter already mailed, Cpl. Craig Wyche told his fiancée, Scherna Sutton, he was looking forward to seeing her but worrying he wouldn't.

"I don't want to die," he wrote.

Cpl. Doug Held had sent his parents an audiotape.

"It's pretty messed up over here," he said. "I'm really tired. Day by day we get deeper and deeper into it. If we don't get out of here soon … I have never been so scared in my entire life. … I just hate it."

The Marines griped but accepted their fate, living up to the Corps' motto: Semper Fidelis. Always faithful.

By 6:15 that Sunday morning, the compound was beginning to stir. Cpl. John Chipura, a radio operator from Brooklyn, was walking toward the barracks when he ran into a buddy going in the opposite direction. He stopped to chat, he later told his family.

A few minutes later came shouts. Russell says he had run into the building's lobby, which was a courtyard open to the outside with an atrium reaching to the roof, with the truck gaining on him. "HIT THE DECK!" he yelled.

The truck had plowed through Russell's guard booth and cut open sandbags around it, flooding the lobby with sand.

Russell dashed out the opposite side of the building, where he turned to see the truck roll to a halt in the center of the lobby. There was a flash, and fire spread across the truck's grill. The last thing Russell remembered was a wave of intense heat.

When Russell came to, he was lying inside a cloud of gray ash. The building was a pile of rubble.

"That SOB!" Russell said to himself. "He did it."

The blast lifted the building as much as a foot off the ground. Then the floors pancaked down, killing many of those inside, including Wyche and Held.

Rooftop sentries saw the truck disappear into the building, according to a Defense Department report on the bombing.

Moments later, the roof buckled and one sentry, Cpl. Robert Calhoun, rode one slab all the way to the ground. He walked out of the rubble in his bare feet.

'Semper Fi'

Because he'd stopped to talk, John Chipura was still 50 yards from the barracks when it collapsed.

He joined a horde of other Marines on the rubble pile searching for survivors. The last, a chaplain, was buried for almost six hours.

Elsewhere in the city, French paratroopers also assigned to the multinational force went to their barracks balconies to see the mushroom cloud at the airport.

They did not realize a second suicide truck bomber had driven into their basement. He detonated his bomb, destroying the building and killing 58.

Back in the U.S., Marine families waited for word. Chipura's family did not learn he was alive until he called that Tuesday.

Many of the wounded were taken to military hospitals in Europe. Jeff Nashton wound up in Germany, where Marine commandant Kelley stopped en route to Beirut.

Kelley walked into the ward where Nashton was lying in bed. He'd later say that he never had seen more tubes coming out of one man.

The dust had temporarily blinded Nashton, and when Kelley introduced himself, Nashton says he thought someone was putting him on. So he reached up and grabbed the man's collar. He felt one star, two, three, four.

Nashton, who couldn't speak because of the tubes, made a writing gesture. Someone handed him a pen and his medical chart. He wrote something and handed it to Kelley.

It read: "Semper Fi."

A few weeks later, Kelley visited Nashton in a Maryland hospital and gave him the same four stars, framed in a case.

"You deserve them more than I do," he said.

'Caught with our pants down'

Despite all the other vehicle bombings in Beirut that year, the Marines never expected a truck bomb at their compound.

The Defense Department investigation held the commanding officers responsible for inadequate security but also noted that the Marines faced the "unique and difficult task of maintaining a peaceful presence in an increasingly hostile environment."

In 1988, a monument to the dead was dedicated at Camp Lejeune, the Marine base in North Carolina.

Each Oct. 23, survivors and relatives gather there at 6 a.m. with lit candles to read the names of the dead. At precisely 6:22, they blow the candles out.

Two years after the bombing, a U.S. grand jury secretly indicted Imad Mughniyah, a Lebanese Muslim, in the bombing.

He went on to become one of the world's most prolific terrorists; among his alleged operations was the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers compound in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. servicemembers.

Last February, he was killed in Damascus — by a car bomb.

For years, the U.S. government suspected that Mughniyah worked for the Lebanese Islamist group that became known as Hezbollah.

Hezbollah was backed by Iran, where in 1979 revolutionaries had seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held hostages for 444 days.

In 2003, a federal judge presiding over a civil suit by Marine survivors and relatives declared Iran liable for the Beirut bombing and later awarded $2.7 billion in damages. Iran did not respond to the suit and has paid nothing.

Many survivors bear psychological scars, in part because of the incident's stigma.

"The Marine Corps considers this a black eye," says Col. Chuck Dallachie, who was injured in the bombing and today is commander of the Marine base located in Quantico, Va.

"There's the impression we were caught with our pants down."

Today, Jeff Nashton, who lost most of his platoon in the bombing, keeps the framed stars Kelley gave him on his living room wall.

Scherna Sutton, Cpl. Wyche's fiancée, never married. She says she never has found anyone who measures up to him.

John Chipura, who luckily stopped to chat en route to the barracks, left the Marines and, like his father and brother, became a New York City fireman.

He was scheduled to get married in October 2001. But on Sept. 11, he was last seen running up into the south tower of the burning World Trade Center.

Stephen Russell, who now lives in Bellingham, Mass., says he can still hear the voices of the wounded and dying in Beirut. He still wonders how he could have been so close to the blast and survived.

He says his nightmares are so violent and frequent that he sleeps alone, on the floor, sometimes near the fireplace. He hasn't spent the night in the same bed as his wife in years.

He says he blames himself for what happened, although no one else does.

"I could have done something else, but it happened too fast," he says.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I was there."