They Came in Peace
By Robert T Jordan - Originally published in July 1984 Marine Corps Gazette
"We wish American help were not necessary, but the reason it is required is itself instructive. For many years the Lebanese believed that if we threatened no one, no one would threaten us. 'Weakness is our strength,' we thought. But we were wrong. We have learned-but at what at price-that strength is necessary."
-Amin Gemayel, Lebanese President
The men who served with 24th MAU during the final, grim months of 1983, have taken their place alongside earlier Marines who endured at Samar, Wake Island, Chosin Reservoir, and Khe Sanh.
The "Beirut Bombing," as the terrorist attack on 23 October 1983 has become known, is now a part of Marine Corps historical lore. But the event will serve to remind future generations of military planners and political policymakers to consider even the unthinkable when they conceive future commitments.
There were few clues to point to the trial that lay ahead as the Marines and sailors of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) relieved the 22d MAU on 30 May 1983. The situation seemed relatively stable despite a grenade attack on a Marine patrol in the Ouzai District on 16 March and the truck bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy on 18 April.
As Col James M. Mead prepared to leave Lebanon, he estimated that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAP) would be capable of exerting government control throughout their country in another year. He pointed out that the American commitment to keep Marines in Lebanon as part of the Multinational Force (MNF) was not open-ended.
But the political situation was already making a dramatic shift. On 17 May, the Governments of Lebanon, and Israel signed a withdrawal accord at the urging of the United States. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger returned from consultations in Paris with Prince Sultan, his Saudi counterpart, voicing his optimism that the withdrawal agreement would be honored by the Syrians. It was not to be, however.
Three days after the withdrawal agreement was signed, President Reagan notified Congress that he had removed his ban restricting the sale of 75 F-16 fighter aircraft to Israel. As might be expected, Syria reacted negatively.
Reuters wire service reported stepped up activity in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley on 27 May. Included in the reports was an announcement of the arrival of Libyan military contingents. At the same time, Syria rejected the withdrawal plan, thus blocking the plan's implementation.
Against this unfolding scenario, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Robert H. Barrow, flew into Beirut to commend his Marines for their actions in Lebanon before relinquishing the reins of command to Gen Paul X. Kelley. Barrow pinned Purple Heart Medals on the five Marines wounded in the Ouzai incident and decorated the French MNF commander, Gen Michel Datin, with the Legion of Merit.
"I've come out to express my admiration for your magnificent performance," the Commandant said, "What you have done here far outweighs your numbers."
The scene that greeted the men of the 24th MAU was deceptively bright and optimistic as they crossed Green Beach (formerly called Black Beach) and took up the positions vacated by the 22d MAU on 30 May.
Preparation: Prelude to Mission
The 24th MAU departed Morehead City, N. C., on 11 May 1983. The 1st Battalion, 8th Marines (1/8) provided "the cutting edge" for the Sixth Fleet's landing force. Behind the men of the battalion were numerous training exercises and many had been to the Mediterranean before. They had spent weeks on alert. Now it was their turn to take on the role of "peacekeepers."
Col Timothy J. Geraghty, a quiet-spoken "poster" Marine, commanded the 24th MAU. In contrast, the five-ship Amphibious Ready Group was commanded by the affable, gregarious Capt Morgan "Rick" France, USN. Their individual styles tended to complement each other. Later, their down-to-earth approach, when using televised information reports to keep their troops informed, resulted in them being affectionately dubbed "The Rick and Tim Show."
In addition to the ground element of Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/8, commanded by LtCol H.L. Gerlach, the 24th MAU also had aviation and logistical units attached. LtCol L.R. Medlin commanded Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 162 (Rein). Maj D.C. Redlich commanded the MAU Service Support Group (MSSG) 24. Even though the 24th MAU had just departed Lebanon in February, few of the command group and very few of the men in the supporting units had ever been in the country before.
The MAU's mission was explained to all members of the unit prior to their departure from the United States. LtCol Gerlach explained that certain parameters had been drawn up within which they must operate: "The political and diplomatic side of the house set up the parameters, and we accomplish our mission within them." The mission was summed up in the term "presence."
Presence was interpreted to mean a showing of the flag, a symbol of American interest and concern for the legitimate government of Lebanon and a neutral stance toward Israel, Syria, and the various religious and political factions.
Capt Jay Farrar, a public affairs officer detached from the Division of Public Affairs at Headquarters Marine Corps, was assigned to transit the Atlantic with the MAU. He was to assist in familiarizing all hands with the situation in Lebanon and how the Marines and sailors were expected to perform their roles.
"This deployment to the Lebanon area was the first to include a public affairs officer as a member of the commander's special staff," Farrar pointed out. Part of the reasoning for this addition was that the 24th MAU would be conducting several "firsts" for a MAU deployed in the Mediterranean. The helicopter squadron would be looking closely at the dynamic interface between the AH-1T and the new CH-53E. This was to be the first Lebanon deployment for the M198 155mm howitzer battery and would provide a challenge for the new Army target acquisition radar.
The commitments of the MAU units ashore had grown during the previous nine months as well. About 1,200 Marines and sailors had originally gone ashore with the first contingent. Over the months, security concerns at the American and British Embassies required additional beefing up. Marines were also placed at the American Ambassador's residence. A Navy broadcasting detachment had begun to provide radio and television information and entertainment. All of these additional commitments boosted the military ashore to over 1,600.
Media interest increased dramatically following the attack on the American Embassy in April. At least a dozen or more reporters could be expected each day to visit the Marine encampment at the Beirut International Airport. Each reporter was searching for some sort of lead that would make headlines back in the United States.
To prepare for this fishbowl existence, each special staff section of the 24th MAU prepared videotaped briefings. Capt Farrar spent his first week aboard ship busily taping and editing the tapes into comprehensive briefing packages which could be played over each ship's internal television system. The briefings focused on the rules of engagement, the history of Lebanon, the various religious factions, where and when one might expect to get liberty, the reasons for limiting contact with the Lebanese, plus some special concerns voiced by the chaplain, the intelligence officer, and the operations officer.
Public affairs and media relations received special emphasis. These briefings were aimed at the younger Marines to prepare them for any cynicism they might encounter from the media. The thrust was to prepare them so they wouldn't embarrass themselves by voicing inappropriate or seemingly insensitive comments.
"All commanders were given basic instruction on how to deal with the media," Farrar explained. "The bottom line was if the press comes into your area unescorted, keep them there and call the JPAB (Joint Public Affairs Bureau). This preeluded any sticky problems from becoming unmanageable."
As Green Beach hove into view, everyone reviewed the training and preparation that had gone before. Still, even as the call came to land the landing force, few could imagine the challenge that lay ahead.
MNF Caught in Middle
As the 24th MAU took over the positions vacated by the 22d MAU and became part of the MNF, it seemed that the intense heat and choking red dust would be their principal adversaries. Attacks on the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) increased as the anniversary of the Israeli invasion approached. The MNF didn't appear to be targeted in any way. Still, it was felt prudent to reinforce the foot patrols operating in the southern suburbs. Company C had taken over the position at the Lebanese Scientific University building northeast of the airport. Company B and Company A manned the perimeter on the eastern side of the runways and Battery C with its new weapons moved into the vantage point on high ground to the north of the MSSG headquarters.
The threat at this time was identified as an occasional terrorist attack by rifle fire, grenade, boobytrap, or car bomb. Precautions were taken to guard against such dangers, but life within the Marine compound varied little from any normal deployment. The Marines conducted their training, found time for jogging and physical fitness, worked on Marine Corps Institute correspondence courses, and broke the monotony by reading, writing letters home, playing cards, or joking around with their fellow Marines.
"The first month was relatively quiet. We heard shelling in the distance and stray, small arms rounds often landed within our perimeter . . . but no one was hurt," explained Maj John Shotwell, public affairs officer for the 24th MAU during this period.
The Leathernecks found ways to improve relations with their Shiite neighbors. The already friendly relationship was further enhanced on 28 June when MSSG Marines began to build a playground for local school children. Using donated materials, the Marines volunteered to work on the project in their free time.
As the Fourth of July approached, the Marines searched for something special to mark their national celebration of independence. A double marathon-run as a relay-was the result. Maj Shotwell suggested that runners in the race carry both American and Lebanese flags.
"We invited the Beirut press corps to join us for hot dogs and beer . . . and some brought their cameras," Shotwell said. The result was an Associated Press photo of the two runners crossing the finish line with banners waving proudly. It typified the free, optimistic view of the moment.
The optimism began to fade a few days later when U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz announced that he had failed to get the Syrians to accept the accord between the Governments of Lebanon and Israel. A minor blow to morale followed as news from the States announced that the MAU mascot "General Billy" had been put to death by New York veterinarians. The little goat had been saved from a "shish kabob" skewer only to fall victim to bureaucracy. By 14 July the Beirut area began to suffer daily bombardment in protest to Lebanese President Amin Gemayel's visit to the United States. It seemed only a matter of time before the Marines and their MNF counterparts would be caught in the middle of the conflict erupting about them.
On 15 July President Reagan announced appointaient of Robert C. McFarlane, a 45-year-old former Marine lieutenant colonel, as his new Middle East Ambassador. That same day the 24th MAU conducted amphibious assault training with French MNF forces. On 20 July the Israeli cabinet authorized a partial withdrawal of the IDF to the Awali River, just 32 kilometers south of Beirut. The Lebanese President objected to de facto partitioning of his country. The tension was punctuated by a car bomb attack on the posh "Summerland" seaside resort hotel. The next day rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) knocked out the Lebanese satellite receiving station, thus blocking live coverage of Gemayel's U.S. visit. The mood had definitely changed for the worse.
The tranquillity of the Marine compound was shattered midmorning of 22 July. Within 15 minutes, 11 rockets and mortars slammed into the vicinity of the MAU headquarters. "Marines donned their helmets and flak jackets and sought cover in their bunkers and foxholes," said Maj Shotwell in describing the event. "Two Marines and a naval air controller were wounded. For the first time we went to Condition One . . . our highest state of alert."
"Again, on August 10 and 11, we were caught in a crossfire of repeated rocket and mortar attacks as shells fell in and around our positions. It was a miracle that only one Marine was wounded during those two days," Shotwell declared.
Representatives of all major international media joined the Leathernecks in their bunkers. "I think that the correspondents developed a keen respect for the Marines during that period," Shotwell asserted. "The observed courage, calmness, and even a sense of humor under fire. And the Marines gained respect for many of the reporters for much the same reasons."
It was on 10 August that the Marines first responded with their own fire.
"I was awake when the rounds came overhead and hit the airport," said LCpl Brian Parkin, 21, of Ithaca, N. Y. "Then I heard the first fire mission come in. I saw the guys 'half load' the tubes (81mm mortars) and then fire. It was only illumination, but I couldn't believe it!"
The illumination flares served as a warning. They indicated that the Marines knew where the fire was coming from and that something more deadly could be delivered if the shelling didn't cease. The warning worked-that time. The return fire also served to boost the morale of Marines who until now had been forced to "hunker down" and take the random shelling of their positions. They changed the sign at the "Can't Shoot Back Saloon" to "Can Shoot Back Saloon."
The seriousness of the situation still had not registered on many of the Marines despite several of their mates suffering minor wounds. Training was kept to a high tempo. Visibility was still the order of the day as the Marines conducted foot and motor patrols. Hand-to-hand combat instructors worked with the Lebanese soldiers and artillery instructors worked with the Lebanese artillerymen. A night infiltration course was constructed, and the Marines put their Lebanese counterparts through their paces. Marine and French paratroopers jumped from helicopters into Landing Zone Golf, and British and American Marines suspended themselves from SPIE rigs as CH-46 "Sea Knight" helicopters flew them over the scenic views of Beirut and the nearby mountain villages. Lazy Sunday barbecues provided respite from the fast-paced training and the prying eyes and microphones of the international press corps and permitted the Leathernecks to shed their sweat-filled "cammies" and exercise in the comfort of PT clothes. It would become a common occurrence to have these Sunday afternoons interrupted by gunfire and, later, by terrorist attack.
On 16 August the new Marine Commandant visited Beirut for the first time. Gen Paul X. Kelley emphasized that the world had focused its view on the MNF, and especially the Marine contingent. He expressed his pride in the good things that he had heard about the Marine performance.
The importance of their mission was underscored again on 20 August as Representative Clarence Long, with a delegation from the House Armed Services Committee, and the Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, visited the USMNF encampment. The previous training and briefings were again reinforced as it was impressed on the Marines that the world expected their presence to be a factor in resolving Lebanon's conflict-that they were making a meaningful contribution toward peace in the Middle East.
On 28 August the peacekeepers began to realize that peace would not be purchased lightly. Their lazy Sunday was disturbed by the disconcerting sound of gunfire in the nearby southern suburbs. A confrontation between rival religious factions grew into a conflagration that spilled over into the Marine encampment. At 1705 the first small arms rounds slammed into the dirt near the press bunker just outside of the 24th MAU headquarters. A joint Marine-Lebanese outpost near the Lebanese Scientific University Library came under sporadic attack. The Marines at Checkpoint 69 lay low for a half hour until the fire became so intense that response could no longer be denied. "I knew we had to fire back," said 1stLt David Hough, a platoon commander in Company B. "The rules of engagement applied, but I called company headquarters anyway. When we engaged, we never used more than one weapon at a time." The sporadic firefights continued into Tuesday evening before the Marines could relax. In the fighting on Monday morning 2 Marines had died; 14 more were wounded. They were bloodied, but unbowed. By now there was no doubt of just how serious this mission had become.
IDF Pulls Back to Awali
A memorial service was conducted at sunset on Friday, 2 September, for the fallen Marines: 2dLt Donald G. Losey, Jr., and SSgt Alexander M. Ortega. Members of the media outnumbered the Marine mourners. The media were careful not to distract from the service, but it was the last memorial service to have more than the standard "media pool" represented.
Intelligence reports indicated that the IDF were ready to make their move south to the Awali River. Marine combat correspondents were placed with infantry units in anticipation that hostilities would erupt as factional militia jockeyed to fill the vacuum left by the Israelis. At 1900 on 3 September the intelligence reports were proved correct. The Syrian-backed forces moved quickly the next day and captured the Shouf Mountain town of Bhamdun. Another Sunday afternoon was ruined as Druze and Shiite gunners fired on LAF units marshalling near the southern perimeter of the Marine position. Many rounds landed within the Marine compound. It soon became apparent that although many of the rounds were short or long of their intended targets, the Marines were being targeted as well. Two more Marines were killed in the early morning hours on 6 September, and two more names were added to the growing number of wounded. Amazingly, most of the wounds were very minor. Discipline and Lady Luck were working hard for the Marines.
The next few days followed the same pattern: long periods of boredom and discomfort punctuated by artillery impacting and sporadic small arms whizzing overhead. Even LtGen John H. Miller, commanding general FMFLant, and the 2d Marine Division's commanding general, MajGen Alfred M. Gray, were not immune to attack when they visited the Marine position on 7-8 September. At this point the situation called for more drastic action. The USS Bowen was ordered to fire four rounds of high explosive on the coordinates of an artillery position suspected of actively firing on the Marines. The hostile fire ceased-but only for a while.
Peacetalks and Terrorist Attacks
The high water mark for the MNF was drawn on 19 September as the United States made a unilateral decision to directly support the beleaguered LAF defenders at Suk el Gharb. This once lovely vacation site sits perched on the razor-backed ridge overlooking the Beirut International Airport. After much debate it was decided that it would be unacceptable to let the town fall to Syrian-controlled hostile forces that were then attacking it with tanks and intense artillery barrages. The USS Virginia, USS John Rodgers, and USS Bowen unleashed their five-inch guns until the attack was contained. Shortly thereafter infiltrators were sighted coming into the southern suburbs from more radical militant groups based in the Bekaa Valley. A cease-fire was arranged for 26 September just as the USS New Jersey arrived in the eastern Mediterranean.
The cease-fire and the resultant lull in the fighting brought a new sense of optimism to the Marines. It appeared that presence and a good salvo or more of naval gunfire had indeed made peace a possibility. Hindsight shows that the optimism was misplaced. The antigovernment forces decided that the MNF was having a supportive effect-thus, they determined to drive the MNF out of Lebanon. One wonders if they didn't take a page from the North Vietnamese manual on fighting Americans. To fight Americans, the North Vietnamese said, one must grab them by the belt buckle. The 16-inch guns of the New Jersey ruled out artillery duels. One of the battleship's shells can level a 1,000-meter grid square. The MNF were now targeted for terrorist and sniper attacks.
CMC visited the Marines again on 12 October. Actually, he was in Beirut to visit with the diplomatic mission and representatives of the Government of Lebanon. The next day terrorists wounded a Marine stationed at the American Embassy with a grenade thrown from a moving automobile on the Corniche. Seven young males were also reported near the northeast corner of the Marine perimeter. They were observed carrying rifles and wearing red head and armbands. The next day one Marine was wounded and another killed by snipers firing from a coffeehouse in that same area. Marine snipers engaged the gunmen on 14 and 15 October. Reporters indicated that the Marines were quite effective. The gunmen tried to exploit the situation by claiming that the Marines were killing women and children, but the newsmen discounted their claims after they were escorted to the Marine firing positions and were permitted to sight through sniperscopes. The propaganda ploy failed and representatives of the Shiite community asked the Marines to refrain from using snipers. The Marines responded through their Lebanese liaison that no snipers would be necessary if the gunmen were removed.
The dissidents then turned their attention to the Marines stationed at the Lebanese Scientific University Library. The position was now occupied by Company A. During the attack on the evening of 16 October, five Marines were wounded and the forward air controller, Capt Michael J. Ohler was killed. Intelligence reported that the terrorists believed that public pressure would build within the MNF countries to withdraw their forces if the terrorists could kill or wound one or two soldiers or Marines each day. On 19 October they struck again. This time they used a car bomb placed near the path of a resupply convoy on the Galerie Simuun Road near the Kuwaiti Embassy. Three Marines and a Navy health officer were wounded slightly in that attack.
Despite the terrorist attacks, the situation seemed to have stabilized enough by 22 October that a liberty party was dispatched to Alexandria, Egypt. A celebration was planned to honor the French paratroopers on Sunday, 23 October, and several members of the Marine command had been invited to attend. A USO-sponsored country and western band, Megaband, entertained the servicemen with two shows on Saturday as they enjoyed freshly baked pizza, complements of the Iwo Hut (USS Iwo Jima).
Because of the intense shelling during September and the increased terrorist and sniper attacks in October, messing facilities had been moved into the four-story building that housed the BLT headquarters. Witnesses had seen 155mm shells ricochet off its one-foot-thick concrete roof. For more than a year no Marine had ever been killed or wounded while in that building. It had been a strongpoint for the PLO, the Syrians, and the Israelis. It was considered to be a fortress. Additionally, it commanded the surrounding low ground because of its height. VIPs stood on its roof just days before. Ironically, many of the same Congressmen who later reviewed Marine security and use of the building posed for pictures and were briefed atop its roof just weeks before it was destroyed.
The evening of 22 October was rather pleasant despite a .50-caliber machinegun duel between the LAF and Druze south of the airport at Khaldeh Junction. Several artillery shells landed along the runway causing the Marines to sound Condition One for a short while. Intelligence reported a couple of sedans and a pickup truck as possible car bomb threats. Numerous threats of this nature were reported and several suspicious vehicles matching the descriptions in the reports had been checked out by the Lebanese. None of the reports matched the massive 5-ton vehicle which was used to strike the Marines on Sunday morning, 23 October.
At 0500 a large truck was reported circling in the southern parking lot that was used for civilian parking during the week. It circled slowly and departed. There was no reason to be too suspicious. Trucks of this type were common sights around the airport as they carried rice and other cargo from the airport to the surrounding communities. They were also used in the ongoing construction and repair activities at the busy international airport.
A little after 0600, the same or a similar truck reappeared and began to circle again. This time, however, the driver gunned the vehicle as it busted through a double apron concertina wire and engineer stake fence barricade. Within seconds he raced passed the two sentries posted nearby, jumped an 18-inch round sewer pipe, crashed through 4 layers of sandbags and a portable sentry booth and stopped in the center of the hollow atrium of the headquarters. The sergeant of the guard barely had time to sound the alarm before the driver detonated the 12-ton explosive.
The Marines rallied rapidly. Security was beefed up to counter any assault that might follow. Rescue workers were checked out to ensure that other terrorists didn't use the opportunity to strike at other targets. Wounded were treated quickly and evacuated to other facilities as soon as they were stable. And then the men of 24th MAU set to the task of recovering their dead comrades and the records so vital to identifying their remains. Many worked round the clock with no thought of sleep. There were many heroes that day. Most remain anonymous and prefer it that way.
The destruction of the BLT headquarters failed to discourage the Marines. A grim determination set in to see the mission through regardless of their loss-to make sure that their fellow servicemen had not died in vain. Their resolute courage was transmitted to their countrymen by the news media. The result was an outpouring of public support that is hard to describe. Over 60,000 letters supported the embattled survivors. Without doubt, the antigovernment terrorists had underrated the American people.
A similar truck bomb killed 58 Frenchmen at the French paratroop headquarters within seconds after the attack on the Americans. A week and a half later another truck bomb killed 29 soldiers and 32 prisoners at the Israeli headquarters in Tyre. The attacks illustrate the vulnerability of conventional forces to such suicidal strikes and the problem faced by any military organization that must surrender the initiative to its opponents.
Col Geraghty ordered numerous additional defensive and precautionary measures following the attack. Many of these would probably have been viewed earlier as being in conflict with the mission of presence and the perception that tactical considerations had to be compromised with political concerns and the desire to keep the airport, a vital lifeline of the Lebanese economy, open with as little interference as possible. There were few objections, however, as the entrance was relocated, serpentine barriers were erected, forces were dispersed and relocated, Lebanese nationals were excluded from the interior of the Marine complex unless escorted, and media were placed under tighter restrictions. All this was accomplished even as congressional and Department of Defense investigations were being conducted and the men of 24th MAU were winterizing their bunkers in preparation for the arrival of their replacements.
LtCol Edwin C. Kelley, Jr., arrived with the BLT 2/6 command group within 48 hours of the terrorist attack-replacements for the command structure of BLT1/8 lost in the bombing. His men moved in quickly and took over with little disruption. The following Sunday (30 October) Company E, 2/6 arrived to augment and bolster the new defenses. Battery C was relocated near Green Beach as Company C moved into the old artillery position giving up its position on the northeast perimeter to Company E.
Company A prepared to vacate the position at the Lebanese Scientific University Library on 8 November and backload aboard ship. Antigovernment forces, however, chose the evening of 7 November to attack the Marines there. There is little doubt that the Marines, after being bloodied and battered for months and now just hours from withdrawing from the fray, used this opportunity to release some of their anger and frustration. According to several reports, very little personal ammunition remained to be turned in after the Marines reached the beach the next morning. No one tried to detain them as they motor convoyed to their sea coast rendezvous.
The end of a most demanding deployment came for 24th MAU on 18 November. It was a beautiful, fair day. The Leathernecks of 22d MAU began to come ashore in the early morning hours, and by dawn the departing unit was headed for the beach. Battery H replaced Battery C. Company E shifted to the northern side. Company G took up the positions vacated by Company E on the northeast perimeter, and Company F moved south to occupy the positions that had belonged to Company B.
It was with mixed emotions that the men of 24th MAU sailed for Gibraltar and then toward home. All were happy to be headed in that direction. But many sensed that the mission was not quite finished yet and most voiced a willingness to return the following spring, if needed.
As they were preparing to depart, a Marine warrant officer found some plastic flowers and decided to place them near the site of the destroyed BLT headquarters. A sign was placed at the site which said simply: "They came in Peace." It proved to be a fitting and touching memorial. Time will tell if the sacrifice was worthwhile. But the men who served with 24th MAU have already taken their place alongside earlier Marines who endured similar hardships at Samar, Wake Island, Chosin Reservoir, and Khe Sanh.
Quote to Ponder:
The Soldier's Role
"Military men don't make wars. They only fight them, and then only when diplomacy has failed."
-Gen Holland M. Smith