Those who remember the Beirut bombing; those who remember – They Came in Peace.
*note, Walter’s multi part piece on Warships will resume with part 2 next week.
While Marines lay sleeping on an early Sunday morning 34 years ago (this coming Monday), a 19-ton Mercedes truck drove into a public parking lot at the heart of Beirut International Airport. The lot happened to be next to the headquarters of the U.S. Marines who were housed in a four-story concrete aviation administration building that had been previously occupied by various combatants in the ongoing Lebanese Civil War.
Lebanon had been immersed in a bloody civil war since 1975, and in August 1982, a multinational peacekeeping force, involving troops from the United States, France, and Italy, arrived in Lebanon in as part of a cease-fire agreement signed by Israel and the PLO. The troops were there to see to the safe and peaceful withdrawal of Yasser Arafat and PLO guerrillas from places within Beirut and to protect civilians that remained behind.
The PLO had withdrawn by September 1982, and most of the multinational forces returned to ships in the eastern Mediterranean. Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Christian militia Lebanese Forces, was assassinated on September 14, 1982 after which Christian militiamen retaliated by killing Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps. This caused the multinational forces to return to Lebanon.
The 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) had been deployed to Lebanon in 1982 as part of a multinational peacekeeping force. At first the Lebanese were welcoming and grateful for the stabilizing presence they provided, but as the conflict grew their presence was looked upon with more hostility.
In April of 1983, a suicide bomber had detonated an explosives-laden delivery van outside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans and during the following weeks Druze and Shiite militias occasionally shot artillery shells, mortar rounds and rockets at the Marines on or near their base.
Tensions rose even more when counter-battery missiles fired by U.S. naval ships hit civilians in the Druze-dominated Shuf Mountains where the Druz had been firing from. The French conducted an air strike in September in the Bekaa Valley, in which Iran has had an established base there since 1982.
From that base, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps trained and equipped Hezbollah. Many at the time believed Iran was heavily involved in the bomb attacks and that a major factor leading to the plan of attacks on the barracks was America’s support for Iraq in the Iran–Iraq War.
During this time the Beirut airport was mostly open, and the base wasn’t as secure at that time since the Marine’s orders were simply to oversee the withdrawal of foreign fighters from Lebanon and help restore the sovereignty of the Lebanese government.
Heavy vehicles were a common sight at the airport for deliveries. That morning however, the Mercedes truck circled the parking lot, and then picked up speed as it traveled along the line of wire protecting the south end of the Marine compound. Suddenly the driver swerved the truck, which was packed with an estimated 12,000 pounds of explosives and crashed through the front gates of the U.S. Marine barracks which ripped the four-story building apart.
Soon black smoke towered in a mushroom cloud against clear blue skies as a second suicide bomber drove into the barracks of a French paratrooper detachment in West Beirut. Again the building was completely destroyed.
Within minutes on that Sunday morning, 286 people had died; 241 of them Americans 220 were Marines, 18 were Sailors and 3 were Soldiers. Another 128 Americans were wounded in the blast. Thirteen would die later from their injuries.
Even though They Came in Peace- This was the most devastating and deadliest single day death toll for the United States Marine Corps since World War II’s Battle of Iwo Jima, the most devastating single day death toll for the United States military since the first day of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive, and the deadliest single attack on American service members serving overseas since World War II.
Months later, the multinational force began to withdraw to ships offshore, and on Feb. 26, 1984, the last U.S. Marines left Beirut.
During a trial in 2003 against the Islamic Republic of Iran, testimony by Admiral James “Ace” Lyon’s, U.S.N. (Ret), an FBI forensic explosive investigator, and depositions by a Hezbollah operative revealed Iran’s involvement in the bombing. A U.S. federal court found Iran responsible, and more than $2 billion in Iranian assets were frozen.
They came in peace.
God bless all our Veterans and Troops, but please Lord, Bless those who made it home, help them have peace as they remember their brothers who didn’t.
In keeping with the spirit of the HeartBeat, I’d like to share this video of President Ronald Reagan reading the thoughts written by the first Chaplain on the scene at the bombing site, from a speech by Reagan at the Baptist Convention a year later.