"They Came In Peace" – Christmas In Beirut
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  1. #1

    Exclamation "They Came In Peace" – Christmas In Beirut

    "They Came In Peace" – Christmas In Beirut

    07:54 AM CST on Wednesday, December 24, 2008

    Brian Lukas / WWLTV Chief News Photographer

    It’s the Christmas season, and every time about this year my eyes turn to a specific art rendering positioned just above my desk. There is an inscription I wrote below the art. It reads:

    "Pieces of shredded uniforms littered the branches of the trees; the top of an ammunition can wedged tightly in the bark. A crater in the earth became the resting place for the cinder blocks that once housed the 241 marines. They died here.

    'They Came In Peace'. They were the sons of mothers and fathers, husbands of wives and dads to their little girls and boys. My wife my son, my daughter were home this Christmas day. Jeffrey and Jessica, you were not aware of my assignment, but Mom knew and she cried. Love, Dad."

    25 years ago Marines were spending Christmas away from their families and loved ones. It was a lonely time -- a time that our military personnel are experiencing today, away from family and friends in a distant place and in distant conflicts.

    But this is Beirut in 1983, another time, another place of conflict. Civil war had erupted in Lebanon in 1975, the result of clashes between Christian and Muslim and the various political groups of the regions. In 1983, the United Nations dispatched a multinational peacekeeping force, including U.S. Marines, to Beirut.

    On October 23,1983, a truck loaded with explosives crashed into the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit Headquarters compound, killing 241 Marines. They seem to have gotten lost in the history books.

    In December 1982 myself, Angela Hill, Garland Robinette and editorialist Phil Johnson traveled to Beirut in late 1983 to cover Louisiana Marines stationed there at Christmas time.

    Christmas 1983 was just a few weeks away. It was a time before portable satellite uplinks and the Internet, so we carried videotaped messages from the Marines’ families back in the United States. Our ambitious itinerary also included production of a documentary about this war-torn area. But as fighting between the various factions escalated, that idea was abandoned. Armed militias set up roadblocks in various sections of Beirut. The Islamic Jihad decided to add another element to its arsenal of terror and brutality: kidnapping Westerners.

    I kept journal entries of the tense times there, excerpted here:

    At the same time that I arrived in Beirut, the French Embassy was hit by a car bomb, with 20 people killed. Later that night, a bomb-laden truck blasted a French military base. 10 French soldiers were killed and 23 were hurt. The explosion lit up the whole area.

    Terror – it is sheer terror. I can see it on the faces of the residents who walk cautiously on the streets. Here in Beirut, teenagers carry assault rifles, mainly M-16s. On the streets, women cradle their children tightly in their arms, begging any Westerners for help.

    The city smells like death. There is a stench of rotting corpses and smoldering trash strewn about from buildings destroyed by the fighting in the streets. To realize the inhumanity of war, you have to look deep in the faces of the civilian population. Then, if you dare, look deep into their eyes. There you will find the horror of war absorbed deep within the soul.

    I look into many eyes here in Beirut. In the eyes of the young Marines, I can see the uneasy and uncomfortable situation they are in. The U.S. Marines’ position at the Beirut International Airport keeps them under daily sniper and artillery attack.

    I remember when I was in Washington D.C. for a White House press function, when many of these same Marines from the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit invaded Grenada, a tiny island in the Caribbean. Now, I am here in hell with them.

    The Marines, politically, are not invaders but are so-called “welcome guests,” strategically placed in Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission with the French and Italians as part of a multinational force. Our Marine contact Capt. Dennis Brooks, the Marine public-information officer on the base, always “spring-loaded to say yes.” He remarked that the various militias near the Marine positions use their tanks like small arms fire: They quickly maneuver the tanks in firing position, release a shell and maneuver back quickly, then repeat the operation.

    Maximum destruction, I thought to myself.

    Total destruction was evident when we passed the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps – hundreds, perhaps thousands of Palestinians were killed here: men, women, and children. Our driver remarked, solemnly, that they were executed.

    The refugee camps are leveled, nothing remains, and where the victims of this civil war sought relief from the terror of war, only the bare reddish-brown earth remains visible from the nearby dusty road. Their graves are not even marked. It is as if they were never born.

    Brian Lukas / WWLTV Chief News Photographer

    Marine Cpl. Greg Nelson from Slidell listens to the rockets firing in the Kalda Mountain Range over the Marine Base in Beirut.


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  2. #2
    "They Came in Peace" - Christmas in Beirut, Part 2

    03:18 PM CST on Tuesday, December 23, 2008

    Brian Lukas / WWLTV Chief News Photographer

    At night there is no time to dream. The evenings are fitful with the sounds of rifle fire. My bed is level with the window. Crazy, I thought, there are snipers on the roofs – one shot through the window, and that’s it. I tried to sleep on the floor, but there is no sleep at night. The sounds of sniper fire and the thud of muffled mortar and artillery rounds are trying to find any “peace-keeper’s” position near the Avenue de Paris, the long, winding road facing the Mediterranean Sea.

    At one time Beirut played the Paris of the Middle East; now it plays a sorrowful tune of despair. My hotel in Beirut is owned by the Nassai family, Palestinian owners of the Commodore Hotel. The Commodore Hotel is on the Muslim side of Beirut. On the Christian side, the owner of the Alexandre failed to pay for protection to the thugs and every conceivable terrorist seeking consideration for the hotel’s existence. As a result, somebody detonated a huge car bomb in its parking lot, destroying the hotel.

    I couldn’t help but notice the line of cars ringing the Commodore Hotel here in Muslim West Beirut. Sometimes the cars were two or three deep. I quickly learned that these vehicles were buffers to prevent any car-bomb attacks on the Commodore.

    The ring of vehicles and payoffs couldn’t stop the instruments of distant destruction. My hotel room in the Commodore is on the fourth floor, room 405. I could not enter the room without noticing the shift in the door and several large cracks running down the length of the wall. A little later that day, I learned that room 405, my room, had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade just two weeks earlier.

    There is no sanctuary in this city. It’s a sad place and a sad time. Beirut is a city defined by fear, a city bisected by the green line – Christians in the East, Muslims in the West. This is a noisy, depressing, dangerous and disconcerting place to work. I tried not to sleep last night. It’s been several nights since I’ve had any sleep. The last thing I wanted was to be asleep when a car bomb went off and then to be buried under the rubble of concrete and steel from the top five floors. I often fall asleep at the dinner table.

    Veteran journalists from Europe and the U.S. networks in the hotel remark that this is one of the scariest wars they’ve covered. There is no “commuting” to this war; death and destruction are all around us.

    Blackened pockmarks of war are carved into the façade of every building. The city is gravely wounded. And now a new threat is employed by the terrorists: They are kidnapping journalists and teachers at the American University in Beirut. A note was posted on the front bulletin board as we left the hotel. It was a warning from the Islamic Jihad. In very simple words, the note said that all Westerners must leave Beirut or “we will make the ground under your feet move.” It was a direct threat to destroy the hotel where the Western press reported the war. This is the same group that claimed responsibility for bombing the U.S. Marine base here in Beirut, and the U.S. embassies in Beirut and Kuwait.

    The war is escalating now. (A few months later, the Commodore Hotel would be completely destroyed by shelling and car bombs.) The American Embassy was heavily damaged by another car-bomb attack. Forty people were injured, and eight were killed in the suicide attack.

    The front of the embassy building, facing the seashore, is covered in what appears to be a seven-story green shroud. It hides the embassy’s exposed interior from probing eyes or people that pass through the zigzagged row of 55-gallon metal drums filled with dirt. The metal drums are defenses against another suicide attack.

    Marines are positioned throughout the building. Another contingent of Marines is stationed just across the street from the embassy. An American flag blew quietly in the wind next to a Marine guard watching the pedestrian movement in front of the embassy.

    The image of the American flag and the Marine standing with the sun setting on the Mediterranean Sea gave the drab, gray seashore a sort of splendid appearance. In a melancholy way I felt a strong connection with home. The obvious presence of the American flag waving in the warm breeze made me feel very thankful that I live in and would return to the United States shortly.

    If there is ever an image of the Marines in Beirut that will be forever stamped on my mind, it is that one single Marine and the American flag rippling in the wind next to him.

    On the Corniche, in front of the American Embassy, the Marines are routinely targeted by snipers. It becomes very nerve-racking that at any time death may come by a sniper.

    As I filmed the area I noticed a small bunker with several Marines standing guard. One of them was Cpl. Brad Pellegrin from Slidell. It is the Christmas season, and he is making the best of a very bad situation by lining his bunker with makeshift ornaments. I forgot that we were nearing Christmas.

    We were carrying messages from Cpl. Pellegrin’s family to give to him. It was a videotaped message to him from his wife, mother and child.

    As we showed the message to him I noticed an interesting effect on the other Marines. They gathered closer together to hear the family’s greeting to Brad. Closer the Marines came when Brad’s son said, “Daddy, I love you and miss you.” We played the videotape again and again.

    That’s when I realized that Brad’s family was now family to all the Marines that gathered to watch his videotape in front of the destroyed American Embassy. His family was their family; his son was their son or daughter. The Marines had a Christmas family now, and it was amazing to witness a little bit of loneliness disappear as they looked on. Christmas is family – even in Beirut.

    Brian Lukas / WWLTV Chief News Photographer

    A twig serves as a Christmas tree set in a bunker adorned with Christmas ornaments.


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  3. #3
    "They Came in Peace" - Christmas in Beirut, Part 3

    04:02 PM CST on Tuesday, December 23, 2008

    Brian Lukas / WWLTV Chief News Photographer

    The makeshift Christmas ornaments lining the bunkers in front of the destroyed U.S. embassy were a welcome relief. It was a simple reminder of the hope that peace existed.

    Off in the distance, on the Mediterranean Sea, the sunset cast a shadow on the battleship New Jersey. The broad, flickering light from her was the firepower from her massive guns unleashed on the Druse militias, who rocketed the Marine base at the International Airport on Beirut’s southern edge. We would find out that a Marine was severely wounded; later he died.

    Overnight, hooded Shiite Muslims and their Druse allies drove Lebanese army units from most of their checkpoints on the Muslim West Beirut commercial thoroughfares and residential neighborhoods. I woke up to a very loud mechanical clanking just outside my hotel. The sounds of Lebanese military tanks rolling pass the hotel window quickly eliminated the little rest I hoped to get.

    Reports indicate at least 90 people were killed last night and more than 300 wounded in the fighting; in just two days, more than 160 people were killed, mostly civilians caught in the cross-fire. It’s a sickness – hatred is a cancer destroying everything here.

    At the Marine base this morning I could see the visible impact of the shelling by the U.S. 6th Fleet on the mountain range surrounding the base. Huge billows of smoke rose as the shells hit their targets.

    Cpls. Herbert McKnight and Greg Nelson, both from the New Orleans area, said the Marine base was shelled by rockets overnight. Herbert was stationed in a sandbag bunker on the rooftop of the base. This bunker, accessible only by a ladder, is the highest point on the Marine base. It also appears to be a very vulnerable position, an obvious target for a sniper.

    Cpl. Nelson, from Slidell, manned a .50-caliber machine gun overlooking the Kalda mountain range near the rear of the base. Cpl. Brian Campbell, only 19 years old and from Lafayette, was quickly unloading supplies from a helicopter.

    The choppers didn’t stay long. They couldn’t – mortars usually found their targets. Brian, Greg and Herbert, these young Marines, were reminders that wars are fought by the very young, often placed in horrific circumstances and forced to grow up quickly.

    Several times I asked them to move their helmet up so I could see their eyes while filming. “Son, can you move your helmet up just a little?” I said. Later, I would say, “Marine, would you push your helmet back just a little?” 18-, 19-years old, here in hell, when others of their age are probably wrapping Christmas presents and acting goofy back home.

    But on the Marine base at the Beirut International Airport, the one focal point no one can pass without some reflection of what happened months earlier is the huge crater. That crater once housed the Marines in a four story building. Every time I moved past it, I thought of the young men like Greg, Brian and Herbert, and then I said a small prayer for the families of the 241 Marines that died here.

    The Marine base alarm is sounding. The Druse militias are firing mortars now. In a few seconds, we must make the decision to stay on the Marine base during the shelling and miss our satellite deadline, or leave and walk into the chaos and madness of the streets. We decide to leave. A condition-1 alert has been initiated. There are incoming mortar rounds in the distance, and the front gate will be locked shortly. The Marine base is the target.

    We had to leave quickly. But as I left the Marine base, I noticed a small memorial in front of the former Marine barracks. Despite the imminent danger, I couldn’t help but stop, notice and film the small bouquet of light blue flowers ringed around a Marine-issued camouflage hat.

    Above the flowers was a small, white sign facing east, toward the city of Beirut. The small sign simply described the Marines’ mission in Beirut: To the “24th MAU, they came in peace.”

    It’s a dangerous world out there.

    Post Script – “Beirut Hostages”

    After we left Beirut in 1982, the civil war continued to rage. A more sinister series of events was about to occur. Several westerners living in Beirut were kidnapped and held as hostages. In 1984, the CIA station head William Buckley was abducted at gunpoint after leaving his apartment in West Beirut. He was held for more than a year. William Buckley was tortured and finally killed. Marine Col. William Higgins was abducted, and the horrific images of his body hanging from a tree circulated through the world. Other hostages were killed many endured immense brutality.

    The victims were mostly journalists, diplomats or teachers. Most of the hostages were chosen not for any political activity or alleged misdeeds they had committed, but because of the country they came from and the ease of kidnapping them. The hostages were often treated quite cruelly, with repeated beatings and mock executions and death. It was amazing that we seemed to have slipped in and out, and through the crisis in Beirut without being victims of this cruel and sad civil war.


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  4. #4
    Marine Free Member Bruce59's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    Jacksonville NC
    I now sit here in front of my computer after reading your post, and wiping
    away some tears, I think to myself, this post needs to be replied to.
    This may be the best post I have ever read here, and I find myself at a loss for words.

    Merry Christmas

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  5. #5
    This really hit home. Thanks for posting it.

  6. #6
    Corpsman Free Member
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    New Port Richey
    Please! If I've misunderstood these postings, I apologize to ALL! Why did we send troops to Lebanon? As Peacekeepers? As back-up, for the existing Government? I guess I'm just confused, but.....all those Marines, equipment, support staff, all carrying the latest weaponry? "They Came in Peace"? What was the Marines objective, mission, or duty? Just wondering.....SEMPER FI......Doc Greek

  7. #7
    To be clay pigeons! We were sent in to pull the
    PLO out the first time. Then the president was killed and they ask for us to come back in. Our job was to clear explosives from the airport area to open it back up (I was a Combat Eng.). Overall we were put in their to try and be peacekeeprs between the religious factors that were trying to over throw the leadership. We had the low country, ocean to our back and mountains to our front. We were not allowed to have our weapons loaded. They were afraid a stray bullet may be released by some Marine and kill a civillian. We couldn't even return fire with out permission from the chain of command giving the okay. Like I said, "clay pigeons".

  8. #8
    Corpsman Free Member
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    New Port Richey
    SORRY, WILDCAT, I was going to respond earlier, but my anger about "OUR" CLUSTER F**K, in the area, kept me from my sanity! Just WHAT were our Military "leaders" thinking??? Sounds like Viet Nam....from "search and destroy", to "sweep and clean" out the enemy!! Terrible intel., and Tactics, for "suicide!! UNBELIEVABLE!!....Doc Greek

  9. #9
    ALWAYS remember when they asked us to use blanks on patrol afterwards,because they were afraid we would complete the mission,and believe me brothers,WE will.

  10. #10
    I (we) lost alot of Good Men there. I was there after the bombing, deployed with a sniper team, life and death are real. All n all, it was about the oil. We have to follow orders, but DAMN, don't send us with just our skivey's and tell us to keep the peace.
    WE ARE ASS KICKERS......LET US DO OUR JOB.....or have the army go!

    ****ED OFF MARINE!

  11. #11


    Quote Originally Posted by randycartmill View Post
    ALWAYS remember when they asked us to use blanks on patrol afterwards,because they were afraid we would complete the mission,and believe me brothers,WE will.

  12. #12

    I remember like it was yesterday

    So many memories, so much more that happened not many know about, Grenada and Beirut. Wish I could do it again. Bothers me that so many don't get it, don't understand what it means to be a Marine, don't know the lies and deception American public are led to believe. The respect earned is not expected, but it is known among US , the few. I have pictures I'll get around to posting. I have the tape from WWL TV, don't know if I can post video, may have to go to Facebook. I was 1833 amtrack exterior guard in front of the British Embassy in Lebanon 83-84.

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