Show of Force: LEBANON

By Phillip N. Pierce - Originally Published September 1962

The Gunny squinted his eyes against the searing glare of the Mediterranean sun. With one sweeping glance he took in the churning wave of amtracs, clanking their way toward the beach, a few hundred yards ahead.

God, it was hot! Two bucks said you could fry steak and eggs on the steel, overhead of those LVTs!

He was glad to be in an open boat, here" in the second wave.

Habit, born of long practice, shifted his gaze to the shore line. Starting at the left flank, he surveyed the entire breadth of the landing beach; then probed the brown and green hills, beyond.

He saw no muzzle flashes, no sudden puffs of smoke.

There were no leaping geysers of white water bracketing the bobbing amtracs ahead.

Well, at least the welcoming committee hadn't opened fire yet. Not that it made a hell of a lot of difference!

He was remembering another D-Day landing, a long time ago. . . .

The enemy hadn't opened fire that gray morning at Okinawa either, when the first wave came boiling in to the beach. But, they were there-waiting, back in the hills. They'd opened up, all right-when they figured the time was rieht. Man, before it was over that had been a son-of-a. . . .

But that was long ago, in another war.

The Gunny pursed his lips, spraying a brown stream of tobacco juice at the roiling curl of foaming water that hissed past him from under the bow of the LCVP. He'd seen a lot of landing beaches-coming in from the business end. The 'Canal, Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo...

That landing with the Brigade in Korea had been one for the books! Old Captain Jimmy Bones mast have rolled over in his grave on that one. Who ever heard of Marines hitting the beach by walking down a ship's gangway onto the dock?

The Gunny smiled to himself in recollection.

Hadn't taken long to get things started though! That Brigade had been a real fighting bunch of boys!

But that had been long ago, too.

This was July, 1958.

And that beach dead ahead belonged to Lebanon. Just who Lebanon belonged to on this hot Mid-East afternoon was anybody's guess. But one thing was for sure. The first wave of the 2d Battalion, Second Marines, was just 60 seconds away from the screwiest landing the USMC had ever made. And you could give odds on that!

It had begun at 0400 that morning, when the old familiar words, "Prepare to land the Landing Force," had come crackling over the comm shack radios of the USS Taconic, the Task Force Command ship. With signal lamps blinking their mysterious messages across the dark water, and the air waves suddenly filled with incessant chatter, the ships came about and headed for Lebanon-120 miles away.

For the 1800 Marines of the Battalion Landing Team, scattered throughout the six-ship Task Force, it had meant the beginning of hours of intense activity. Body armor, ammunition, rations and water had to be distributed. Equipment had to be checked to be sure it was in good working order.

Aboard the two LSTs, crewmen topped off the fuel tanks of their LVTs.

On the command ship, the S-2 types scurried around, duplicating additional maps of the beachhead area and sending copies to the other ships by chopper.

Soon after breakfast chow, company commanders assembled their troops on the main decks and briefed them on the situation.

The skipper of one of the rifle companies had put it this way:

"If the Navy can get us there in time, we'll hit the beach at 1500 this afternoon. The target is Beirut, Lebanon. Some of you have been there and know what the place looks like.

"For the rest of you, Lebanon is a small country which occupies a strip, about one-hundred and twenty miles long and thirty to thirty-five miles wide, along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. It has a population of a little over a million and a half; mostly Arabs, Armenians and Turks.

"Many of the people speak English. The two common languages, however, are Arabic and French.

"Lebanon is the most cosmopolitan country in the Near East. A little more than half of the population are Christians, about forty-five percent Moslems.

"Almost one-third of the people live in Beirut, which is the capital of Lebanon, and its chief port. The only other city of any size is one I'm sure you've heard of. It's called Tripoli.

"For over two months now a state of rebellion has existed in the country.

"Without boring you with a lot of history, this revolt has been whipped up by Lebanese rebels-with plenty of outside help,

"As of yesterday, the rebels have taken over control of most of the Syrian border area; a section in the heart of Beirut, known as the Basta; and some parts of the city of Tripoli.

"Since the Lebanese Army, counting all hands, adds up to a few hundred more troops than a Marine division, the Lebanese government has asked the United States for help. They requested that U. S. forces be sent to Lebanon to help maintain security and the country's independence.

"The word was passed from Washington at zero four hundred this morning. We're the closest U. S. combat troops to Lebanon-and that means we're it."

The convoy had moved at flank speed throughout the day. By the time the ships made landfall everything was at the ready. The landing craft had been launched in record time.

Now, the first wave of amtracs pitched through the surf and began to waddle up the gently sloping beach toward Beirut's International Airport, a few hundred yards inland. The heart of the city lay some six miles to the northeast.

The Gunny ejected a final squirt of brown juice over the side, and stepped off the ramp into hip-deep surf.

Their daily tasks forgotten, the Lebanese moved down to the beach en masse. A construction crew on the beach road dropped their tools and lined up to watch the show. Small boys scurried about, laughing and yelling as the Marines waded ashore.

The Gunny shook his head. Now I've seen 'em all, he thought. It had been bad enough to land at Wonsan, back in Korea, and find out that Bob Hope had been there two days before the Marines arrived. But, man, making a combat landing while good-looking dolls in bikinis stood around and giggled was enough to make a man put in for the Foreign Legion! . . . It was never like this in the OLD Corps!

Fox Company, riding their LVTs, moved across the airfield and piled out to establish a perimeter on the far side. Hotel and George Companies, moving through the surf from their LCVPs, fanned out to cover the flanks. Company E and the remainder of the BLT landed in the next waves, and quickly cleared the beach.

Lieutenant Colonel Harry Hadd, the Battalion Commander, looked at his watch and nodded his head in approval. All assault elements had been landed and were clear of the beach in twenty minutes. Now to get all the civilians out of the area. . . .

Long before the darkness fell, the International Airport, largest in the Middle East, was back in business. While Marines manned their sandbagged emplacements along the edges of the runways, and sentries patrolled the modern terminal building, giant international passenger planes roared skyward toward their global destinations.

The first night ashore was a quiet one for the 2d Battalion. Quiet, that is, if you didn't take into account the humming clouds of giant mosquitoes that descended with the coming darkness on the hapless Marines. Quiet, if you didn't really count the curious Lebanese citizens who stumbled around the positions, never dreaming that crashing through the underbrush in front of a Marine outpost without knowing the password is an open invitation for a bullet in the head.

The next morning, the 3d Battalion, Sixth Marines, came ashore and executed a passage of lines through Hadd's battalion to extend the depth of the perimeter. Relieved of their chore of guarding the airfield complex, the 2d Battalion boarded their LVTs once more and roared into Beirut to occupy their second objective. Mission: to secure the bridges guarding the northern approaches to the city, and establish control of the port facilities.

Two days later the 1st Battalion, Eighth Marines, arrived on the scene, to be followed the next day by the 2d Battalion, Eighth.

By now the routine was pretty well established. Following one of the strangest orders ever heard by Marines, "Don't shoot until you are being shot at," the men expended a lot of effort and will power in what for them was an unheard of pastime-staying out of trouble.

The neat red and blue symbols, marked on the situation map in grease pencil, told the tactical story at a glance.

While small rebel bands sallied forth on nuisance raids, trying to stir up trouble. Marine patrols skirted the perimeter of the area keeping tabs on those "on the inside."

Twenty-five hunded yards beyond the main runway, Item Company, 3d, dug in across the face of a strategic hill, guarded the approach to the International Airport.

The size, disposition, weapons, tactics and fortifications of the rebel forces presented few unknowns. Thanks for much of the information was due to an "adopted Marine" who had been a busy observer on the Lebanon scene for two weeks before the Marines arrived.

One of the few of a rapidly vanishing breed, Mrs. Dickey Chapelle-lady war correspondent-had been waiting on the beach when the 1st Battalion. Eighth Marines splashed ashore. To the oldtimers in the outfit, her presence came as no surprise. As many of the younger Marines soon learned, if you hadn't heard of Dickey Chapelle, you hadn't been around the Corps very long.

Spotting what was admittedly a strange looking costume for a woman on a bathing beach, one fuzzy-cheeked PFC chuckled to the Gunny, "Hey, Sarge, dig the broad over there in the WM dungarees-the one with the cameras around her neck!"

The Gunny turned an almost pitying gaze on the young Marine. "Lad, without even looking, I'll bet you a five-spot she's wearing horn-rimmed glasses, has her hair pulled back tight against her head; and a Kabar hanging from her belt. Right?"

"Yeah, Gunny. How the hell did you know?"

"Lad, that 'broad' is Dickey Chapelle. She was covering the Marines on Iwo and Okinawa while you was still eating your chow in a high chair! She's seen more shooting war than ninety percent of the old salts in this outfit."

"No stuff, Gunny?"

"Straight dope, Kid. And don't make no nasty remarks about her Woman Marine britches. They're her good luck charm. She sneaked across the Hungarian border one night a couple of years ago wearing something else. Got captured by the Reds and spent a month in prison. Claims it never would have happened if she'd remembered to wear her good luck pants."

"Where'd she get the Kabar, Gunny, some surplus store?"

"Yeah, it was surplus, all right. But she didn't exactly get it in a store. It was given to her by a wounded Marine on Okinawa.

"She was on her way up to the front lines and he was on his way back to the beach-on a stretcher. She stopped to ask him how he was doing, and he gave her his combat knife. Said she'd need it more where she was going than he would where he was going."

The Gunny paused to rub a reflective thumb against his weathered chin. "She don't think much more of that knife than she. does her right arm!"

Mrs. Chapelle, it turned out, had wangled herself an interview with Salaam, late in June. Escorted by Tommy-gun-lugging teenagers through the barbed wire entanglements surrounding his palatial headquarters, Dickey spent a lone time talking to the rebel leader.

As she was about to leave, Salaam asked, "And what are you going to do when you finish covering our war, Mrs. Chapelle?"

"I'm going to cover some maneuvers of the U. S. Marines, Your Excellency." There was a slight edge on the lady's voice.

"Oh?" Salaam paused. "If you see any high-ranking Marines," there was a note of doubt in his voice, "will you give them a message for me?"

"I'll probably see some. What's the message?"

"You-tell-those-Marines-that if one Marine sets foot on the soil of my country, I will regard it as an act of aggression and commit my forces against them."

"Yes, I'll tell them. But what do you want me to tell the Marines are your forces?"

"You are free to tour my bastion before you go, so you can describe my resources accurately," he said.

Thus it was that two weeks later Brigadier General Sidney S. Wade, Commanding General, Second Provisional Marine Force, received a firsthand report on Lebanon's rebel forces.

Noting such details as "one commercial radio transmitter; assorted small arms, approximately one-third of which are automatic or semi-automatic," plus the dimensions and location of tank traps, a Marine Intelligence officer congratulated the correspondents on the completeness of her report. "It's amazing to see so much precise military information in a report written by a civilian, Mrs. Chapelle."

"It should have the right dope in it, Captain. After all, you guys have been training me for years."

For the next month, Lebanon was a weird half-world of war and peace. While the rest of the world watched and waited for the explosion that never came, the Marines sat under the active muzzles of rebel guns and held their fire.

It took a lot of will power.

Down in Beirut's dock area a group of Marines watched a ragged peddler, lugging a huge basket of soft drinks, approach them.

"You like buy cold drink, yes?" he whined in broken English, as he lowered the heavy basket to the pavement. "You wait. I go get ice. Come right back." He turned and scurried off down the street.

Less than a minute after the beggar had disappeared around the corner, the basket exploded with a thunderous WHOOOM, scattering jagged pieces of broken glass in all directions.

For several seconds following the explosion there was a deathly silence. Then, from behind a huge packing crate-a good safe distance away-a camouflage-helmeted head popped into view.

Sharp blue eyes scanned the street.

"Okay, you guys, our friend has shot his wad."

Emerging from their various hiding places, the Marines sauntered over to inspect the still smoldering remains of the bomb.

"Must be the Arabic version of the Molotov cocktail, huh?" one of them commented.

"Yeah," grunted a corporal. "These people must think we're awful dumb to fall for an old gag like that!"

Out on the perimeter the troops manning the outposts fought the mosquitoes; temperatures that often hit 95 in the shade; and that age-old enemy of all military men-boredom.

As soon as darkness fell, they knew they could count on a little excitement. The "Ollies," as they called the rebels, would come sneaking out of the olive groves to begin their nightly harassing tactics.

Some nights it was firecrackers, strung along the barbed wire surrounding the outposts. Other nights the tormentors contented themselves with roaming the nearby hills, screaming and howling like banshees.

Several times they rounded up burros and stampeded the braying animals into the Marines' positions. It was a real neat maneuver for setting off the carefully placed trip flares.

But the one that showed real ingenuity was the "wild dog" attacks. Creeping up as close as they dared, the rebels would hurl large chunks of raw meat toward the Marine outposts. Within a few minutes the whole area would be covered with wild dog packs, snapping and snarling at each other as they fought over the food.

"Those dog fights," one observer commented, "are really something to see-and hear!"

On July 31, Lebanon elected a new president and the tension eased. Yet it was the middle of August before the Marines started for home. The first on was the first off, and 2/2 moved back over the beach to the waiting ships on August 14. The 1st and 2d Battalions, Eighth Marines, began the voyage home on 15 September, followed two weeks later by the 3d Battalion, Sixth Marines.

In the long chronicles of war the landing in Lebanon had turned out to be one of the strangest chapters of all. L'Orient, probably the most influential newspaper in the Middle East, pretty well summed it up. "The United States Marines have demonstrated how Western troops can penetrate a country as friends, and come away without losing that standing. . . ."

The Marines had landed.

The situation had been in good hands.

For a little while the world breathed easier.