by Andy Weddington
23 October 2013
It's been 30 years. The memories crystal clear.
First published 23 October 2009.
"This is not a battle between the United States of America and terrorism, but between the free and democratic world and terrorism." Tony Blair
In the summer of 1982 Lebanon requested United States military presence in their country. The purpose was to serve as a peacekeeping force between warring factions of Muslims and Christians. The 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, home-based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, received orders on March 24th, 1983 to deploy to Beirut.
United States, French, and Italian military forces (Multi-National Force or MNF) initially provided some stability in Beirut. But as diplomacy fell apart, Muslim factions began to perceive the Marines as siding with the Christians and, therefore, as the enemy. Consequently, the Muslims began to target and harass Marine positions with small arms, mortar, and artillery fire. Marines, adhering to their mission of "peacekeeping" and "presence," countered with appropriate measures only against clearly identified targets. In short, the "Rules of Engagement" (ROE) were restrictive--but commensurate with the situation; supposedly. I know, the situation and the ROE was much more complicated and remains debatable, to say the least, but is not relevant to the scope of today's Commentary.
Since the United States was not looking to escalate her commitment to Lebanon, the Marines did not conduct offensive combat operations. And despite the Marines best efforts, to remain neutral and to protect themselves in a less-than-ideal "defensive" posture (in an absurd politically selected not militarily-driven site), the situation continued to deteriorate.
Then, in the early morning hours twenty-six years ago on this date--23 October 1983, KA-BOOOOOOOOM! Two hundred forty one warriors--220 Marines, 18 Sailors, and 3 Soldiers--were killed by a bomb-laden, terrorist-driven truck attack that destroyed Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion/8th Marines (BLT 1/8) four-story headquarters building. Many of those killed died while sleeping--buried under tons of twisted steel, chucks of concrete, and rubble. Minutes later and only a few miles away a similar truck bomb was used to attack the French contingency of peacekeepers. Their eight-story building was leveled killing 58 paratroopers.
At the time, I was a First Lieutenant assigned to Company F, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina--one of two Depots where America makes her Marines.
With the tail end of one Series and one complete Series under my belt as an Assistant Series Commander, I was a Series Commander--responsible for the well-being and supervising the training of one other officer, 12-15 Drill Instructors, and four platoons each of about 65 recruits.
The Series was just completing the three-week second phase--marksmanship training and rifle qualification--and was wrapping up their service week, commonly referred to as "Mess and Maintenance"--a time when recruits contribute to the running and upkeep of the Depot and get a small taste of life in the Corps when not training. Before the hectic pace of third phase (final four weeks of training) began, I had managed to slip away from the Depot for a short weekend visit home to North Carolina.
In 1983 October 23rd fell on a Sunday. That morning I rose early to return to Parris Island and turned on the only television cable news program of the day--CNN. The anchors were announcing breaking news from Beirut. There had been a huge explosion in the U. S. Marine sector and information--some conflicting--was pouring in.
Once a member of 2/6 and on the Mediterranean deployment rotation with the 8th Marines, I remember my first thought--BLT 1/8 was on duty in Beirut. Not only did I have friends in the battalion but mere months earlier I had told recruits (soon to be Marines) that after leaving Parris Island and completing their specialty training some would soon find themselves in Beirut. Some would be assigned to 1/8. They were.
Before departing home for the five hour ride down I-95 and weaving South Carolina low-country back roads for Parris Island, casualty numbers were starting to trickle in. The initial number was less than 20 when I walked out of my parent's home. Throughout my ride I was able to tune in radio stations reporting the news. Casualties continued to climb--no names just numbers.
By the time I reached my small apartment in Port Royal and turned on the television confirmed casualties were well over 100. As we know today, that would not even be half of what was to come. Sobering.
Americans, and especially Marines, were asking, "How in the hell could this happen?" A comprehensive investigation would answer that question. But the truck was not unlike many that had become a routine sight to Marines--positioned at the Beirut International Airport as a show of "presence/peacekeepers." There was no call for alarm; until mere seconds before hostile intent was realized. At that point, sentries were helpless; not in position nor did they have the means to stop the barreling bomb on wheels. On a macro level, the unit's location had nothing to do, whatsoever, with military strategy and tactics. Plain and simple--the Marines were targets.
Eight days later, on Monday, 31 October, General Paul X. Kelley, USMC, 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps (1983-1987), addressed the Senate Armed Services Committee. For the purposes of this Commentary, I felt it best not to summarize General Kelley's entire statement but to cite passages relevant to today's post.
In the words of General Kelley...
"As I mentioned previously, the assigned mission of the MNF, simply stated, was "presence." It should be clearly understood that this was basically a diplomatic/political mission, not a military one in the classic sense, and the positioning of Marine forces at Beirut International Airport was not driven by tactical considerations. Moreover, the threats at the time, as reported to the Marines by the intelligence available did not require tactical deployment. Indeed, the mission of "presence" mitigated against such measures. Put another way, the Marines had to be seen by the Lebanese people.
I would now like to describe what occurred on Sunday morning, October 23, and why we believe that only extraordinary security could have met that massive and unanticipated threat.
At daybreak, a five-ton capacity Mercedes truck (roughly the size of a large dump truck and a type commonly seen at the Beirut International Airport) entered a public parking lot adjacent to the four-story, steel-reinforced concrete and sandbagged building which housed the headquarters elements of BLT 1/8. After making a complete circle of the parking lot for acceleration, and while travelling at a high speed this truck:
• crashed through the outer defense of a barbed wire emplacement,
• moved at high speed between two sandbagged sentry posts,
• passed through a gate in an iron fence-jumped over a sewer pipe which had been placed as an obstacle to impede the forward movement of vehicles, plowed through a sandbag barrier, hit with precision a four-foot wide passenger entry into the lobby where its cargo, estimated by the Defense Intelligence Agency to be 5,000 pounds of explosives, detonated.
The entire event, which can best be described as the delivery by a suicidal driver of a 5,000-pound truck-bomb at very high speed, took approximately six seconds from start to finish. Rough calculations indicate that it would require a massive concrete wall to stop a vehicle of this weight and travelling at this speed. It is of particular importance to note that the Commander's security was oriented toward the threat of the past several months, i.e., artillery, rockets, mortars, small arms and car bombs. In this context, his security efforts had been successful. Obviously, the Commander's security arrangements were inadequate to counter this form of "kamikaze" attack. But, we have yet to find any shred of intelligence which would have alerted a reasonable and prudent commander to this new and unique threat. There was not even the indication of a capability to undertake such a monumental and precise action. General Tannous, the Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, informed me that he cannot recall, in his vast experience, a terrorist attack of the type which hit the headquarters of BLT 1/ 8 on 23 October 1983. In his opinion, it represents a new and unique terrorist threat, one which could not have been reasonably anticipated by any Commander.
Almost simultaneously, a smaller vehicle approached an eight-story apartment building to the north of Beirut International Airport which housed the French contingent. Since this building is on a busy thoroughfare, there would be no reason to suspect its intention. As it approached the building, it accelerated, took a sharp right into the driveway, and forced entry into an underground garage-where it exploded. During a personal conversation, General Cann, the Commander of the French contingent of the MNF, informed me he had no intelligence which would have warned him of this threat, as did General Angioni, the Commander of the Italian contingent."
General Kelley went on to offer insight that has since proven to be quite prophetic. His words--his predictions--should make us all take pause and wonder if our country's leadership was and is listening and paying attention. The general went on to say...
"I believe it important to recognize that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that both incidents were not suicidal acts by some individual fanatic. They were instead, well planned and professionally executed acts of terrorism which appear designed to drive our U.S. presence from Lebanon.
In closing, Mr. Chairman, let me say that the subject of increased terrorism against all Americans around the world may be one of the most serious problems which could be addressed by this Committee on a priority basis. This unprecedented, massive "kamikaze" attack was not against young Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers--it was a vicious, surprise attack against the United States of America and all we stand for in the free world.
Let me say, with all of the emphasis I can, that there are skilled and professional terrorists out there right now who are examining our vulnerabilities and making devices which are designed to kill Americans, lots of Americans around the world, in further acts of mass murder by terrorism. Let there be no doubt about it.
I would hope that the Congress would use this incident of cruel and premeditated mass murder to help us determine a way which tell nations that they cannot export and support terrorists who kill innocent Americans with impunity.
The perpetrators and supporters of this challenge to the rights of free men everywhere must be identified and punished. I will have little sleep until this happens.
In addition to a number of the young Marines killed whom I had seen through recruit training less than six months earlier, a friend-- First Lieutenant William S. ("Scotty") Sommerhof, USMC--also died that morning. I first met Scotty one evening in 1982 at Northwoods Tavern--in the day, a pub-type eatery and watering-hole in Jacksonville, NC, frequented mostly by young bachelor officers assigned to the Marine Base, Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station, New River. I don't remember many single women patronizing the place but we Marines sure had fun. I remember Scotty, then a rifle platoon commander with 1/8, as quite out-going, spirited, and a guy who enjoyed a good time; as we all did. I learned Scotty's home town was Springfield, Illinois, and he was a graduate of the University of Illinois Naval ROTC program. One tale I remember about him was, while a college student, only Coca-Cola machines graced the NROTC building. Scotty preferred Pepsi--but had no success trying to remedy that situation. As I recall, as a tribute to him, the NROTC unit had a Pepsi machine placed in the building with an appropriately inscribed plaque recognizing First Lieutenant's Sommerhof's selfless service and sacrifice to Corps and Country.
I phoned the Illini NROTC Unit earlier this week to check on that Pepsi machine. Sadly, I was told today there is, yet again, only Coke machines. Scotty would not be happy. But, he would be humbled and honored to know his name is the first one on the unit's "Wall of Tribute." And so continues the memory of a good man and fallen Marine.
I've no doubt that many who will read today's Commentary, that were on duty that October morning 26 years ago, will recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when hearing the news about the bombing. I know I will never forget--the 23rd also happens to be my youngest brother's birthday.
On that Sunday morning, a creative enemy had, yet again, changed the rules and methods of warfare. Our fight against a patient, pesky, and creative enemy continues. Though the enemy enjoys an occasional "victory," they are losing the war. And only through strength and resilience, despite painful times, will America defeat this challenge to our way of life once and for all. The equation is a simple one: Work + Cost (Sacrifice) = Freedom. For Americans have learned, since our country's founding, that freedom comes with an enormous price tag--blood and lives. And yet there is no shortage of men and women willing to risk all in the name of preserving democracy and freedom. For those brave souls their countrymen owe admiration, respect, support, and gratitude. Nothing worth fighting for is ever easy or free; never--ever.
In his televised Oval Office address to the country on October 27th, 1983 President Ronald Reagan said, "Sam Rayburn once said that freedom is not something a nation can work for once and win forever. He said it's like an insurance policy; its premiums must be kept up to date. In order to keep it, we have to keep working for it and sacrificing for it just as long as we live. If we do not, our children may not know the pleasure of working to keep it, for it may not be theirs to keep."
Anyone in the current Administration or the country who believes apologies, extending an olive branch, and not making hostile lunatic captives "uncomfortable" (to prevent disaster) will end the assault on America and Americans is completely delusional. Those acts of "civility" in our culture are seen as weakness from our enemy's perspective. It is ridiculous, stupid, and more importantly dangerous to our national security and safety to believe there is a common foundation from which to assess and deal with an enemy whose culture and ideology is diametrically opposed to ours. That is precisely why they hate us--they see the world much differently. Only fools believe we are going to temper their hatred or otherwise change them. There is one logical conclusion: Terrorists are ruthless. Accordingly, they understand, respect, and fear power and ruthlessness--the way they should and must be fought and destroyed.
Perhaps it's time--actually past time--for our country's present leadership to carefully read General Kelley's entire statement; especially as to the determined enemy we face--his words as germane today as 26 years ago. It sure can't hurt. And then all pause and reflect on what has happened across the globe, courtesy of terrorists, since 23 October 1983.
For whatever his faults and shortcomings, President Bush understood our maniacal enemy. He used every tool (maybe even stretching some) at his disposal to monitor, identify, disrupt, harass, hunt, generally make life miserable, capture, and kill them--around the clock--on his watch. Bravo!
Fight's on, President Obama. Do not blink. Show no mercy.
Also from President Reagan's speech...
"May I share something with you I think you'd like to know? It's something that happened to the Commandant of our Marine Corps, General Paul Kelley, while he was visiting our critically injured Marines in an Air Force hospital. It says more than any of us could ever hope to say about the gallantry and heroism of these young men, young men who serve so willingly so that others might have a chance at peace and freedom in their own lives and in the life of their country.
I'll let General Kelley's words describe the incident. He spoke of a "young Marine with more tubes going in and out of his body than I have ever seen in one body. He couldn't see very well. He reached up and grabbed my four stars, just to make sure I was who I said I was. He held my hand with a firm grip. He was making signals, and we realized he wanted to tell me something. We put a pad of paper in his hand - and he wrote 'Semper Fi.'"
Well, if you've been a Marine or if, like myself, you're an admirer of the Marines, you know those words are a battle cry, a greeting, and a legend in the Marine Corps. They're Marine shorthand for the motto of the Corps - "Semper Fidelis" - "always faithful."
General Kelley has a reputation for being a very sophisticated general and a very tough Marine. But he cried when he saw those words, and who can blame him? That Marine and all those others like him living and dead, have been faithful to their ideals. They've given willingly of themselves so that a nearly defenseless people in a region of great strategic importance to the free world will have a chance someday to live lives free of murder and mayhem and terrorism. I think that young Marine and all of his comrades have given every one of us something to live up to."
Author's Endnotes (added 23 October 2012)
1. Early Saturday morning - at reveille, 01 October 1983, aboard U. S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island - 17-year old Recruit James E. Hurst collapsed in the squadbay. Despite immediate and heroic actions by his Drill Instructors and soon arriving corpsmen (EMTs), Recruit Hurst died en route to the Naval Hospital in Beaufort. I was the Series Commander. And not a day has passed since that I've not thought about Recruit Hurst. Twenty-two days later that terrorist attack in Beirut, Lebanon, killed hundreds - some young Marines with less than five months service I'd only months before seen through recruit training. Recruit Hurst's fate was sealed at birth. He had a heart defect not detectable during military medical in-processing. Note: From 01 October 2013 - 30th Anniversary - Recruit Hurst, J. E. - Platoon 2095 http://acoloneloftruth.blogspot.com/2013/10/recruit-hurst-j-e-platoon-2095.html
2. A few years ago, a couple of young Marines, Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, standing post in Iraq had mere seconds to react to stop a bomb-laden vehicle barreling toward their compound. Maybe they'd been taught the lessons of Beirut, I don't know. Their incredible selfless actions cost them their lives while saving the lives of dozens and dozens--mostly Iraqi; some of whom fled vice standing their ground with the Marines. Both Marines were awarded the Navy Cross. Heroes of our Corps, their story worth reading: http://acoloneloftruth.blogspot.com/2009/01/six-seconds.html
3. On Tuesday, 11 September 2012 - with the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the killing of four Americans -including Ambassador Chris Stevens, terrorists reminded us they are still a force to be reckoned with. The American way of life remains under attack. Only through strength and resolve will we, the world's force of good, prevail.