Forty years ago, stationed with the Marines at Beirut International Airport, I was picked up and hurled by an unseen force, thrown back ten feet, and bent over backwards onto a pallet of boxes in my tent. Then the vacuum that was on the other side of the Mach 2 blast wave sucked me right back down to the floor, face first. I was unconscious for a couple of minutes and when I came to, I was dizzy, disoriented, and confused.
Thinking a rocket or mortar had gone off right outside our tent, I stumbled outside and saw a mushroom cloud rising hundreds of feet coming from the direction of the barracks. I ran to it and saw a pile of rubble about a story and a half tall where a four-story building had stood just a moment ago.
It was hard to distinguish details because everything was covered by a layer of gray dust that was still falling like rain. But as I looked more closely, I started seeing bodies, and parts of bodies.
I was lucky that morning, unlike the 220 U.S. Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers who were killed by a terrorist truck bomb. If I hadn’t stopped for a cup of coffee that morning, I would have been in the barracks.
It was the largest loss of life Marines had experienced in a single day since Iwo Jima in World War II. More than 100 servicemen were also injured, and some would die later, in what FBI investigators called the largest non-nuclear blast they had investigated to that point. A simultaneous truck bombing of a French military barracks in Beirut killed 89 French paratroopers.
That fateful day
I was in Beirut as a staff sergeant stationed there as part of a multi-national U.N. peacekeeping force (U.S., France, Italy, Britain), sent at the request of the Lebanese government to keep several warring groups apart while diplomats worked to broker a cease fire in a long-standing civil war.
As a combat correspondent/photojournalist, I had gotten up early that morning to process some film in my dark room on the second floor of the barracks. At 6 a.m., I started walking from my tent to the barracks, which usually took about a minute. It was a beautiful, mild October morning and very quiet, unusually quiet. There was no shooting in the hills, no sound of artillery exchanges. Just the sound of birds singing louder than I’d ever heard them sing.
Maybe the birds convinced me halfway there that I should start the morning with a cup of coffee before I did any work. I turned around, went back to the combat operations center, then took my coffee and went into the large tent I shared with four others, who were still asleep. I started planning my work.
At 6:20, I stood up to resume my trek to the barracks when I heard an M16 service rifle being fired two or three times inside our perimeter. Then I felt the rush of hot air on my face, the ground shook and I heard a tremendous thud that echoed off the hills surrounding our position. Then the blast wave hit me and knocked me out.
After I regained consciousness and saw what had happened, I stumbled back to my tent and rousted my fellow Marines, who had been blasted off their cots and were still trying to get up off the floor. We grabbed stretchers and cots and immediately went into rescue and recovery operations, a gruesome task that lasted for weeks.
Three days into it, when we uncovered the pancaked photo lab where I would have been, it struck me how very fortunate I was. A cup of coffee had literally saved my life. Another 30 seconds and I would have been in the building. The thought still troubles me today.
Over the course of the two-year operation in Beirut, we lost a total of 270 servicemen and about another 100 injured. The political and operational wisdom of putting U.S. and allied boots on the ground in Beirut amid a civil war can be argued endlessly. However, we had clear orders: take no sides and play the part of peacekeepers, which was an undefined and mostly unfamiliar role for the U.S. military. The rules of engagement perplexed us: amidst more than a dozen warring factions using live rounds, including small arms, rockets, and mortars to heavy artillery, we were not allowed to carry loaded weapons. We had ammo available but were not to appear as aggressors. If fired upon, we needed authorization from higher headquarters to shoot back, and only if we had a clearly identified target confirmed to be shooting at us.
At first, we were welcomed by all sides. We patrolled streets, handing out candy to kids, smiling and waving to adults. That changed as it became more difficult for allied forces to maintain a neutral posture when assisting Lebanese government troops, who were being targeted. It wasn’t long before we also became targets; sitting ducks, some said.
Those of us who were the “boots on the ground” understood the situation was tenuous at best. Every day, snipers were taking potshots at us and mortars, rockets and artillery were forcing us into bunkers. We used to joke cynically about the “stray rounds” that the media reported.
But it’s what we didn’t know and couldn’t see that would eventually be the most dangerous. The bombings, including the U.S. embassy blast in Beirut in April 1983 killing 63 people, were planned, and overseen by the highest levels of the Iranian government and carried out by a proxy group called Hezbollah. They were sent to Beirut with explicit orders to severely cripple western forces, especially the Marines. They wanted to test our will to stay the course after catastrophic loss of life. They banked on influencing public opinion in allied nations.
Their strategy worked. The bombing of U.S. and French barracks was covered by hundreds of international print, radio, and TV correspondents already in Beirut. The world watched in horror as agonizing rescue and recovery efforts continued for days and weeks. Citizens wept as they watched flag-draped coffins of U.S. and French peacekeepers coming off cargo planes. In cities across the U.S., people lined streets to pay respects as young men were taken to their final resting place.
Four months later, U.N. forces withdrew from Beirut. This had been a litmus test, a deliberate new tactic attacking multiple targets and using a heavy-duty delivery system to carry unfathomable destructive materials. In 2001, it was the same tactics, but jets were the delivery system. We who were there often wonder, if we had stayed the course in Beirut, would 9/11 not have happened?
Every year since 1984, thousands of family members, friends, and fellow service members of those 270 servicemen killed in Lebanon between 1982-84 gather in Jacksonville, N.C. at the Beirut Memorial there. On Oct. 23 at dawn, we assemble to read aloud each name on the wall of the memorial.
In 1991, I was among a small group of veterans who founded the Beirut Veterans of America with the simple motto, “The First Duty is to Remember.” That small group has grown to thousands, which now also includes family members, some second or third generation of those men who were killed.
American philosopher George Santayana wrote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We have made it our mission to ensure that people remember the extreme sacrifices America made in Beirut, in the name of peace.
Randy Gaddo, now retired, an Athens resident, and regular contributor to Boom Magazine, was a Marine Corps combat correspondent, who has written extensively on the Beirut bombing. Links to two of his articles are featured at the bottom of the online version of this story at boomathens.com.