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Tiger Scouts visit the Beirut Memorial in Jacksonville, N.C., nearly 30 years after 241 American troops were killed by a suicide bomber in Lebanon. (Mike Morones / Staff)
This is the scene in the aftermath of the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, on Oct. 23, 1983. The attack still provides Marines with lessons learned 30 years later, as they continue the fight against terrorism. (Jim Bourdier / The Associated Presss)
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — On a quiet Sunday morning in Beirut, Lebanon, 30 years ago, a truck laden with explosives careened toward the barracks housing U.S. Marines on a peacekeeping mission. The explosion that followed, the largest non-nuclear bomb in history up to that point, leveled the building and killed 241 American troops, including 220 Marines.
That horrific dawn on Oct. 23, 1983, ushered in a new era of international terrorism. The lessons learned at such high cost — about vigilance, lax standards, drinking on a dangerous deployment, security, preparation and a very different kind of enemy — remain relevant to this day as U.S. Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen continue to fight in Afghanistan, remain on alert in the volatile Middle East and Africa, and confront terrorism around the world. Indeed, some of those lessons apply to the home front as well, reflected in Commandant Gen. Jim Amos’ insistence on restoring discipline and adherence to standards in a force hardened by more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here in Jacksonville, home to Camp Lejeune, the Beirut barracks bombing marks a turning point in the town’s relationship with the sprawling Marine base. Outside of the families and friends of those who died that day, perhaps no Americans more keenly felt the enormous loss than the residents of this small community. In the face of such tragedy, Jacksonville responded by embracing its Marines and forging new bonds that remain strong today.
Beirut is seared into the memory and the heritage of Marines just as surely as Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh and Fallajuh. It will remain as long as there are U.S. Marines who share the lore of the Corps.
'Something was up'
As the sun rose on that bright October morning, retired Staff Sgt. Melvin Hunnicutt had just taken off his boots and fallen asleep after a night of security duty. Then a sergeant with 10th Marines, he and about 120 other Marines had been guarding the northern perimeter of the base. They had seen a lot of activity, inside and outside the wire, the night before, he said. They had received sporadic gunfire, and were also skeptical of the actions of some Lebanese troops who were supposed to be guarding a nearby section of the perimeter.
“We knew something was up, we just didn’t know what,” he said.
At 6:22 a.m., about an hour after Hunnicutt fell asleep, a yellow truck packed with explosives barreled past the base guards and towards the barracks that housed hundreds of sleeping Marines assigned to Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. Less than half a mile away, Hunnicutt was jolted awake by the blast and sprinted outside. He couldn’t see the barracks through the thick, gray smoke.
“The first thing I saw was a great big cloud, full of debris,” he said. “Pieces of paper and whatnot were falling out of the cloud, and something flew past my head. It was the corner of a letter and it just said, ‘Dear son.’ I just let the wind carry it away.”
Retired Navy Senior Chief Darrell Gibson was about a mile from the barracks, housed with some Marines in the basement of an old library. Then a hospital corpsman second class, he was transferred out of the barracks just weeks before.
As they slept on their cots, the massive blast hurled some of the troops into the air. They scrambled to the door, disoriented, to see what had happened.
“Everybody said, ‘It looks like the BLT,’ ” he said. “Then it startled everybody for a few seconds because ... the dust starts settling back down ... and the BLT doesn’t exist.”
The shock of that day reverberates through the years. Marines were forced to reassess their standards and preparations for deployments in dangerous hotspots around the world. Americans had to come to grips with a new kind of enemy, an enemy it remains engaged with on a daily basis.
“We were too lax,” Gibson said. “We weren’t prepared.”
Marines have learned not to mix alcohol with deployments, he said. The night before the attack, there was a USO show that some of the Marines and other troops attended. Each person was allowed two beers, and some Marines drank more if their buddies handed them their drinks, he said.
Gibson remained in the Navy for 23 more years following the bombing. Having served in the Corps for four years himself, he wanted to be a corpsman so he could continue working with Marines.
When he deployed to Iraq shortly before leaving the service, Gibson said he was pleased by the level of professionalism he saw. The Marines were always on their game and well-equipped, he said.
Hunnicutt said calling the Beirut deployment a “peacekeeping” mission left them confined by rules of engagement that didn’t match what was happening on the ground. They weren’t handing candy out to kids, he said. It was a war zone. They went there as peacetime Marines, but had war thrust upon them, he said.
“We’re the only ones that call it a war,” Hunnicutt said. “When you’ve got artillery coming out on top of your head, you get small-arms fire daily, you get mortared, you get [rocket-propelled grenades] flying over your area and you get the biggest truck bomb in the world driving through your double doors — yeah, we thought of it as a war.”
Complaints about ROEs downrange remain common today. Military commanders must constantly weigh the risks to service members in harm’s way against the need for restraint when winning hearts and minds is a key component of mission success.
As a corpsman, Gibson’s experience treating some difficult wounds in the hours and days following the attack in Beirut led to him being made an instructor for other corpsmen upon his return. He knew how to deal with combat injuries, like shrapnel or amputations, during peacetime, and those were valuable skills to pass on.
But military first-responders were forced to re-examine their procedures on peacekeeping missions, he said. The corpsmen were not well-equipped to deal with death or serious injuries on that deployment, he said. They had to wrap bodies in poncho liners or place them in boxes until they could transport them, he said.
For most of his career, Gibson said he wouldn’t talk about what happened in Beirut. He deployed several more times, including to Iraq in 2006, but it was only after his family pressured him to get help that he began to open up about his experiences there, he said. He hopes that lesson is not lost on today’s young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. War veterans simply must conquer their fear of being stigmatized or pulled off of deployments if they are dealing with difficult experiences, he said.
On a recent rainy evening, retired Gunnery Sgt. David Stanley led a group of first graders up to the Beirut Memorial, just outside Lejeune’s gate. Stanley serves as the community chairman for a Cub Scout pack, so he teaches kids about their community. And in a place like Jacksonville, local and Marine Corps heritage are deeply intertwined.
Beirut “took a lot from the Jacksonville community because a lot of those people lived here,” he said. “It was a big hit for the community.”
Stanley, like Hunnicutt, was an artilleryman with 10th Marines, when he was in the Corps. It’s important that what happened in Beirut be kept in everyone’s memory because it serves as an example of the sacrifices Marines make every day, he said.
It’s important to recount what happened, especially for new generations of Americans, because they are too young too remember it, he said.
Master Sgt. Don Ream, a ground ordnance maintenance chief with 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion at Lejeune, said the attack in Beirut was a difficult learning experience at the outset of a war on terrorism that continues today, and it should never be forgotten.
As his son, one of the Tiger Cub Scouts, took in the memorial that night, Ream said seeing members of the Jacksonville community still honoring the troops who died three decades ago means a lot to service members. The 30th Beirut Observance Ceremony will be held at the Beirut Memorial at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 23.
“It shows me as a service member that civilians out there, our community members, still understand the sacrifices that we make, and they keep thinking about us long after we’re gone,” he said.
The USO’s Jacksonville Center has a room dedicated to the Beirut bombing victims. Deb Fisher, the center’s director, said during the aftermath of the attack, the relationship between the city of Jacksonville and Camp Lejeune Marines and sailors was strengthened.
Hunnicutt and Gibson still live in the Jacksonville area and agree the community has been a great supporter of Marines, both before and after the attack. But most survivors find their greatest source of comfort and support in each other, Hunnicutt said.
As the devastation of Beirut aired on television screens across the country, Americans saw Marines respond with professionalism and strength. That’s what stuck out to retired Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who survived the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut just six months earlier.
Thirty years later, he said visiting the barracks after the attack was one of the most memorable experiences during his career as a diplomat.
Crocker went on to work alongside many Marines during his four-decade career in the U.S. Foreign Service, and he said he watched with admiration as a new battalion landing team was brought in immediately to cover for the one devastated by the attack.
“The Marine Amphibious Unit commander carried forward under this unbelievable loss with composure, demonstrating leadership, compassion and organization,” Crocker said. Beirut “was the Marines’ worst hour, and it was the Marines’ finest hour.”