View Full Version : Beirut -- 25 years later

10-23-08, 06:26 AM
October 23, 2008
Beirut -- 25 years later
Parkersburg native looks back at attack by Islamic terrorists
By Rusty Marks
Staff writer

First Lt. Glenn Dolphin sat up in his rack - Marine Corps slang for a bunk - in the bay of an old firehouse at Beirut International Airport, stretched, and contemplated whether to take a buddy up on an offer for an early morning workout at the base gym.

In the end, the 25-year-old Parkersburg native decided to go back to bed for some much-needed shuteye.

It was just past 6 a.m., Oct. 23, 1983. Within a few minutes, Beirut, Lebanon, would be rocked by what was at the time the largest non-nuclear blast ever recorded.

Twenty-five years ago today, at the height of the Lebanese civil war, Islamic terrorists drove a Mercedes-Benz truck packed with explosives through a barbed wire fence, past U.S. Marine Corps checkpoints and into the lobby of the Marine Corps barracks at Beirut International Airport. The resulting blast leveled the four-story building and trapped hundreds inside. Two hundred-twenty Marines, 18 sailors and three Army soldiers were killed.

A few minutes later, a similar truck bomb went off at a nearby French barracks, killing 58.

The first inkling Dolphin had that anything was wrong was when he was smashed in the back by a flying, 50-pound steel door. The door, which opened outward, was instead blown off its hinges and into the garage bay where Dolphin and other Marines were sleeping.

It was 6:22 a.m.

"I didn't know what it was at first," said Dolphin, now 50 and an FBI criminal investigator living in Aiken, S.C.

Dolphin said the door smashed him in the back when the truck bomb went off at the Marine barracks, about 100 meters away.

"It showered everybody with glass from the skylights," he recalled of the blast. "Everything that was in our garage bay that wasn't nailed down went flying away from us."

Then, he recalled, the vacuum from the bomb's shock wave sucked everything back.

Dressed only in a pair of exercise shorts and a T-shirt, Dolphin and the other Marines in the garage bay stumbled outside. "I slid on a pair of combat boots and my flak jacket and grabbed my pistol, and that's how I spent my day," he said.

A communications officer for the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, Dolphin knew he had to get to the unit's command post. Still thinking the base had been hit by artillery, Dolphin made his way to the communications center, debris still raining down from the sky.

That's when the enormity of the blast first hit him.

"All our bunkers around the perimeter of our building just collapsed," he said. "The blast was so devastating, it blew birds out of the sky - just killed them dead."

Dolphin found the communications center in a shambles, the radios strewn haphazardly on the floor. He and his buddies started for the backup combat operations center in a basement across the street.

"There was this pall of smoke going up," he remembered. "There was this gray-green smoke that just blotted out the sun."

Through the haze, Dolphin and the others could barely make out the ghostly shapes of wounded Marines wandering through the rubble like zombies in a daze. Sgt. David Lawson, who was near Dolphin, drove into the confused tangle in a Jeep.

"He came back with three Marines who looked like they'd just been sandblasted," Dolphin said. One Marine's eye was out of its socket, dangling on his cheek.

Dolphin set up the emergency command post and came back outside. He spotted a Marine with no shoes, completely naked except for the waistband of his shorts, his right arm broken and dangling limply. All he kept saying was he didn't want to lose his arm.

Dolphin tried to carry the wounded Marine, but couldn't because the door had smashed his back too badly. Dolphin urged the wounded Marine on until he reached safety.

Then Dolphin spied a man's leg under a pile of rubble. He bent down to rescue the man.

"I pulled on it, and could just tell there wasn't anything attached to it," he said.

Dolphin and other Marines spent the rest of the day trying to rescue trapped Marines from the rubble of the barracks building.

"We were digging with entrenching tools and Kabar knives, anything we could get our hands on," he said. "It was caveman stuff. Bashing pieces of concrete with other pieces of concrete just to break it up."

For hours, Marines tried to free Staff Sgt. Don Hildreth, a friend of Dolphin's who was trapped beneath a 15-foot wide slab of concrete that had completely crushed the lower part of his body.

Hildreth kept insisting that his rescuers dig a few feet away from him to help other Marines who might be trapped below. "He was more concerned with the people around him than his own safety," Dolphin said. "We worked all day, but couldn't get him out before he passed away."

Twenty-five years later, Dolphin finds himself thinking about the blast at least once a day, although he said the nightmares that used to plague him have all but gone away. Dolphin wrote a book, "24 MAU 1983: A Marine Looks Back at the Peacekeeping Mission to Beirut, Lebanon." He thinks writing the book helped him come to grips with what happened on Oct. 23, 1983.

A group called Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the Beirut bombings, but most scholars believe Hezbollah, backed with help from Iran, was behind the blasts.

While many people consider Sept. 11, 2001, as the beginning of the War on Terror, Dolphin thinks it really started with the Beirut bombings.

"It's more like the first battle," Dolphin said. "That really was [the terrorists'] first mission, and they accomplished that mission. That just emboldened them to do more."

Dolphin is a member of a veterans group, Beirut Veterans of America. The group has a motto.

"The first duty is to remember," Dolphin said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustyma...@wvgazette.com

or 348-1215.