View Full Version : Attack on Marines seared in memory

11-12-08, 07:52 AM
Published: November 11, 2008 08:10 pm

Attack on Marines seared in memory

By Liz King

CNHI News Service

WEST NEWBURY, Mass. — A blast shook Tony Sutton out of his cot in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 1983.

The 21-year-old Marine had been sleeping when a truck loaded with explosives crashed through the security perimeter of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The driver detonated the bomb that crumbled the four-story Marine headquarters, about a half-mile from Sutton’s bunker.

Now, 25 years later, memory of the bombing has faded behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and wars in the Middle East, but the attack that killed 241 Americans, including 220 Marines, and wounded 60 others remains the deadliest day for the Corps since the Iwo Jima invasion in 1945. It is the single deadliest attack on American servicemen overseas since World War II.

“That is one of those defining moments in life,” said Sutton, now a resident of West Newbury, an upscale burg about 35 miles north of Boston, Mass. “After that day, everything changed.”

Sutton and his wife, Dionne, observed the bombing’s 25th anniversary with about 5,000 other military members, veterans and families at a memorial service in North Carolina last month.

Sutton, who after the blast was charged with collecting bodies while looking for survivors, said he thinks about what happened every day.

Sutton had enlisted in the Marines after high school and started working as an intelligence specialist. The Marines were stationed at Beirut International Airport as part of a multinational peacekeeping force composed of thousands of troops from Italy, France, Great Britain and the United States during the Lebanese Civil War.

“We had been getting shelled and fighting hard every day up until the bombings. The night before, we got shelled pretty heavily, and rockets came in, which are louder than freight trains,” Sutton said. “I went to sleep in my bunker, fully clothed and with my rifle, and I felt very uneasy.”

At 6:20 a.m., a truck crashed through a barbed-wire fence, two sentry posts and a gate at the airport before plowing into the lobby of the Marine headquarters. There the suicide bomber detonated his explosives. They created the largest-ever, non-nuclear explosion at the time.

Sutton remembers feeling, but not seeing, the initial blast from his bunker at the south end of the airport.

“It knocked me off my cot,” he said, “and radios got blown across the bunker.”

He ran outside to join a man who shared the bunker with him. The two saw a massive, bright orange mushroom cloud.

The blast had leveled the Battalion Landing Team headquarters.

“We heard over the radio, ‘It’s gone,’ and it literally was,” said Sutton. “The four-story tall building had just pancaked into a 15- to 20-foot-tall pile of cement.”

Minutes later, a similar truck bomb went off at a nearby French barracks, killing 58.

Military personnel went to each site to help. Sutton arrived where the Marine headquarters once stood about 20 minutes after the explosion. He spent the rest of the day looking for survivors. He did not see a live body removed from the rubble.

“There was a guy about 100 yards away that had just been blown out the windows of the BLT building. There was a sergeant who had been in the service for over 25 years and was due to retire; I found him in the middle of the night,” Sutton said.

“I saw many things that can’t be unseen,” he said.

Memory of that day was fresh at the memorial service at the Camp Lejeune Memorial Gardens in Jacksonville, N.C. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway gave an address, which was followed by a wreath-laying and a private candlelight service.

“The mood was very somber,” Sutton said.

“One of the toughest things about the remembrance was that I didn’t really know some of the guys when they were alive,” he said, “but I remember their names after, from dog tags or body bags.”

At the service, Sutton met a fellow veteran who was the only member of a 15-man unit to survive the blast. The building collapsed around the pitch-black cellar where he had been. The Marine waited hours to be rescued.

“I can’t imagine how it would have felt to lose all of my buddies,” said Sutton.

A group called Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the bombings, but many scholars believe Hezbollah, backed by Iran, was behind the blasts.

The bombing changed the Marines’ procedures, said Sutton. The Rules of Engagement were strict before the attack. “After that, if we thought we were in trouble, we just lit things up,” he said.

Today’s “security first” doctrine, he said, likely descends in part from the Beirut attacks.

Sutton later received the Combat Action Ribbon. After the service he attended college in New Jersey and pursued a graduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He works at Putnam Investments in Boston.

“There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think of it, but I’ve adjusted,” he said. “Some people couldn’t let it go. I feel for those guys.”

Sutton is newly appointed treasurer of the Beirut Veterans of America. As such, he hopes people won’t forget the cause the Marines were there to pursue. He also plans to write a book detailing his experiences and the attack on his fellow Marines.

“We were there to help people,” he said. “We went in with a noble mindset and left with a body count.”

Liz King writes for The Daily News of Newburyport, Mass.