Prepared by Historical Reference Branch Graduate Student Intern from University of West Florida Public History Program, Summer 2013
A little more than thirty years ago, in 1982, the Marines began a peacekeeping mission as part of a multinational force (MNF) in war torn Lebanon. The Marines were to maintain a visible “presence” in the capital of Beirut, in the hopes that it would deter further bloodshed among the various warring factions and militias fighting for control of the country. The United States government intended to provide a neutral, stabilizing force in Lebanon, but this proved increasingly difficult as the mission progressed. As the MNF gradually compromised their neutrality, the Marines became targets of militias and responded with deadly force as a means of self-preservation. Unfortunately, the Marines were fighting an enemy using terrorist tactics and 241 Marines, Sailors and Soldiers, lost their lives in a suicide truck bombing on 23 October 1983. The bombing was the deadliest single day for the Marine Corps since D-Day at Iwo Jima in 1945, and came to symbolize the Marine mission in Lebanon.
The conflicts in Lebanon that preceded Marine involvement in 1982 were complex, the causes multifaceted, and the roots of the violence traced back centuries. The immediate cause of the fighting in the 1980s that precipitated Marine involvement directly stemmed from the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1948 and 1967. Palestinian refugees fleeing the conflicts and members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) exiled from Jordan in 1970-71 sought safe haven in Lebanon. The presence of these immigrants exacerbated festering, age-old ethnic and religious differences. The increasing friction between the factions ignited a civil war in 1975 between PLO, Christian, and Muslim forces. While these were the major combatants, three major religious groups and 47 different sects and political factions all vied for power during this time.
At the request of the Lebanese Government, Syrian troops restored order to the region and remained in country under an Arab League mandate. However, PLO forces remained and used Lebanon as a base of operations for harassing attacks into Israel. The United States and international community unsuccessfully sought a resolution to the fighting, and Israel invaded southern Lebanon in June 1982 in order to defeat the PLO. The superior Israeli forces quickly reached the outskirts of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
The U.S. spearheaded the resolution to the conflict by proposing the evacuation of PLO fighters from Beirut. Beginning on 25 August, a MNF comprised of U.S. Marines, French, and Italian forces, evacuated more than 6,000 PLO members over the course of 17 days. Though the evacuation briefly ended the fighting, the assassination of the newly elected Lebanese president, followed by the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut camps shattered any hopes of a lasting peace. With Lebanon descending back into instability and chaos, President Ronald Reagan again ordered the 32d Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) to Beirut as part of the MNF. On 29 September, the 32d MAU landed on the coast of Lebanon and occupied positions around Beirut International Airport (BIA).
The Marines mission revolved around the concept of providing “presence.” American political leaders thought that the presence of armed Marines would deter the warring factions from fighting and provide time for the Lebanese government to regain control of the situation. This mission would remain in place for the Marines throughout the entirety of their deployment. In an interview on 26 May 1983, Major Jack L. Farmer described the mission as “80 percent political, 20 percent military.”
The 32d MAU’s time in Beirut was relatively peaceful, with the exception of a Marine killed during mine sweeping operations and the occasional stray round of small arms fire from the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The Marines spent the majority of their time constructing defenses and building bonds with the local population and other MNF troops. Throughout their deployment the 32d MAU did not engage in any combat. On 30 October 1982, the 24th MAU relieved the 32d MAU.
The 24th MAU expanded the mission of presence during their deployment to Beirut. To increase visibility, the Marines conducted motorized and foot patrols throughout parts of the city. During this period, the 24th MAU also began specialized training for members of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Surprisingly, the biggest threat to the Marines during this deployment actually came from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Israeli troops were occasionally ambushed by PLO forces, which the Israelis suspected of hiding within in the Marine area of operations (AO). In response, the Israelis probed Marine positions and often fired into the Marine AO when engaging PLO fighters. Confrontation between the Marines and IDF became increasingly common during this deployment and nearly resulted in the exchange of fire. To avoid further misunderstandings, diplomatic negotiations between the Israelis and Americans resulted in better communication and the hard definition of respective military lines. These incidents with the Israelis generated the most excitement during the 24th MAU’s deployment.
On 15 February 1983, the 22d MAU, a redesignation of the 32d MAU, relieved the 24th MAU. The Marines of the 22d MAU were already familiar with the mission and were moved into their old positions. Major Farmer recalled that the only major differences during the second deployment were increased patrols and expanded training of the LAF. However, this deployment also included a decreasing popularity of the Marines and MNF among local militias. On 17 April, an unknown enemy shot at and nearly wounded a Marine sentry, who then returned fire with results unknown. This marked the first time that Marines returned fire in Beirut. This event was overshadowed the next day, 18 April, when a terrorist detonated a truck bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, 17 of whom were Americans. The embassy bombing effectively changed the mission and rules of engagement (ROE) for the Marines; the Marines could now return fire if they “perceived” a threat. In an incident shortly after the bombing, when the Marines used rifle fire to force an approaching vehicle off the road, “the word went out that we do shoot back and that we hit what we shoot.” Despite the increasing violence, a relative calm had descended upon the capital when the 22d MAU rotated out of Beirut at the end of May. Major Farmer astutely recognized that the peace was contingent upon a “very fragile, very volatile political situation.”
On 29 May, the 24th MAU landed in Beirut to relieve the 22d MAU. The first weeks of the 24th MAU’s deployment were relatively quiet. The Marines continued to patrol and train LAF troops, the latter creating animosity from various anti-LAF factions and militias. Any doubt that the Marines were a target of these militias ended on 22 July when the Marine positions at the airport received small arm, rocket, and mortar fire. Major George Converse perceived a burst of machine gun fire into Marine positions on 5 August “as a warning because it appeared that we were getting closer and closer aligned with the LAF Army.”
The situation in Beirut further deteriorated in August as the IDF prepared to leave their positions around the capital as part of a May agreement signed by Israel and Lebanon. The presence of well-equipped Israeli forces had deterred much of the violence in Beirut, but as they began to withdrawal, the fighting between various factions flared up. Previously, when militias had engaged in fighting, the Israelis would “run out a tank and shoot at both sides until they’d quit.” The withdrawal of the IDF created a power vacuum in Beirut between the militias, leaving the MNF stuck in the middle. The LAF attempted to fill the role of the IDF but was less well trained and equipped. As the fighting escalated, Marines found themselves on the receiving end of both stray and targeted rounds.
On 28 August, the fighting around the airport reached a crescendo as the LAF engaged militia groups in nearby neighborhoods. Major Converse recalled that for four straight days “the whole city just erupted one massive protective fire.” During this time, more than 100 rounds of mortar and rocket rounds landed within the Marine positions at the airport. The fighting continued to increase throughout September following the complete withdrawal of the IDF on 4 September. During this time, retired Colonel Peter Ferraro, then a first lieutenant with Company A, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, and his men were involved in extensive firefights that typically lasted all night long. The Marines also adhered to a concept of “proportionality,” meaning that the Marines could only return fire with force equal to what they were receiving. For example, artillery and naval gunfire could not be used to respond to small arms and mortar fire. Though restrained by these ROE, the Marines employed illumination, rifle, and machine gun fire to repel attacks. Confirming enemy casualties was impossible but Colonel Ferraro recalled seeing ambulances and vehicles arriving at enemy positions during the day and evacuating dead and wounded. From the end of August until mid-October, mortar, machine gun, and sniper fire killed six Marines and left many more wounded.
In addition to the intense combat engagements during this period, other developments signaled a shift in American policy towards the Lebanon crisis. Though the MNF was supposed to be a neutral peacekeeping force, its actions signaled otherwise. Lebanese militias clearly resented the Marines efforts to train LAF forces and prompted them to attack Marine positions. Any claims for American neutrality was further negated when U.S. Navy ships fired their guns in support of LAF units that reported being in danger of being overrun by militia groups on 19 September. The 24th MAU Commander, Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty, gave the order for the ships to fire. Colonel Geraghty felt he made the best decision based on the information available to him at the time, but recognized that it was a turning point in the American mission.
Despite a ceasefire at the end of September, sporadic heavy fighting continued in October and the Marines continued to take casualties. Then, on the morning of 23 October, disaster struck for the 24th MAU. At 0622, a Mercedes Benz stake-bed truck laden with 2,000 pounds of explosives sped past a Marine post, through a fence, and crashed into the lobby of the Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/8 Headquarters Building and detonated. The BLT building, housing more than 300 men, completely collapsed into a pile of rubble almost instantaneously. A 2003 U.S. court case revealed documents indicating that Islamic terrorists from the precursor to the extremist group, Hezbollah, carried out the attack under orders from Iran.
The compressed-gas-enhanced bomb detonated by the suicide truck bomber was the largest nonnuclear explosion ever recorded. Lieutenant Ferraro had just returned to his sleeping quarters at the Lebanese University after a long night on the line when the explosion shook the building like an earthquake. Though the BLT was a mile from his position, the blast was so strong that Lieutenant Ferraro’s first thought was that an enemy artillery round had made a direct hit on his position. Lieutenant Stephen Mikolaski, quartered at the MAU headquarters building near the BLT believed that the explosion was a satchel charge exploding in the command post. The force of the explosion blew out windows, unhinged doors, and knocked Marines to the ground at the MAU headquarters.
Upon reaching topside at the Lebanese University, Lieutenant Ferraro and his men saw a mushroom like cloud rising above the BLT building. It was not until the smoke cleared that the destruction was apparent. The four-story BLT building, a distinctive structure from his location, ceased to exist. After receiving reports of an explosion at the French Paratrooper Headquarters, Lieutenant Mikolaski assumed that the MNF were under attack by missiles and that the MAU headquarters would be hit next. Colonel Geraghty, at the MAU headquarters, also thought artillery or missiles caused the explosion as he ran outside amongst raining debris. Shortly thereafter, reports came in to Colonel Geraghty that a truck bomb was responsible for the destruction of the building.
In the immediate aftermath of the bombing the Marines scrambled to ascertain the situation and take preventative measures against further attacks. For a short amount of time, communication with the line companies was lost. Lieutenant Mikolaski spent much of the day sending out status reports to higher echelons and keeping contact with the line companies through MAU channels. Soon after the bombing, militias opened fire on Lieutenant Ferraro’s men beginning a “hellacious firefight that lasted almost all day and into the night.”
Meanwhile, recovery operations at the BLT began almost immediately. Unfortunately, the site was one of utter devastation. Lieutenant Mikolaski made it to the site shortly after the explosion: “The whole BLT looked like it was crushed, and there were people all over, moving through the wreckage trying to help the wounded.” Working parties and medical teams dispatched from naval ships offshore accelerated the rescue operation and saved countless Marines. Members of the Italian MNF, Lebanese civilians, and Red Cross workers, as well as French and British soldiers also provided assistance during the operation. When the rubble proved too large and heavy for Marine equipment, General Ibrahim Tannous commander of the LAF, secured the heavy equipment of Lebanon’s largest construction firm, Oger Liban.
Unfortunately, the devastating attack left many more dead than wounded. The blast had killed 3 soldiers, 18 sailors and 220 Marines. The Marines had to handle not only recovering the survivors, but also identifying the dead. The complete destruction of the BLT and the fact that many of the Marines were sleeping in PT gear and without dog tags made the task difficult. Further compounding the problem, the BLT kept its medical records in the basement of the building and they could not be recovered until a few days after the attack. Anyone who could positively identify the men in the BLT on the morning of 23 October was either dead or wounded. Instead, identifying the dead required making rosters of the living and tracking down the wounded. The process was slow and painful for families back in the U.S. but it was necessary to ensure that information was accurate.
Despite the heroic efforts of all the rescue workers, no survivors were located after 23 October. The searchers still worked tirelessly and by 30 October, all Marine remains were located and transferred to planes for the final flight home to the U.S. Despite the chaos in the aftermath of the bombing, the Marine mission of presence still remained. The bombing shook Lieutenant Ferraro’s men, but they responded by refortifying their position and building obstacles to prevent a similar attack. Until their scheduled relief by the 22d MAU on 19 November, the 24th MAU continued to occupy their positions and engage in firefights with militias.
Even with the arrival of the 22d MAU in November, the BLT bombing on 23 October marked the beginning of the end for the Marine and MNF in Lebanon. The mission of “presence” remained intact, but after the BLT bombing, the mission became contingent on defensive operations as opposed to patrolling and being visible to the locals. “Seabees” from the Navy’s Construction Battalion were employed by the 22d MAU to properly construct defensive fortifications and bunkers. The end of November and December were marked by uneven periods of intense fighting. As the deployment continued into 1984, the 22d MAU continued to reinforce their positions and build better fortifications. Despite the added fortifications, small numbers of Marine casualties were caused by mortar and small arms fire. During these engagements, the concept of proportionality was lessened as the Marines “pretty much had free reign to whatever was necessary to protect American lives.” The change in mission is evident in an engagement on 6 February, when the Marines called in naval gunfire and airstrikes to destroy targets.
In the end, the Marine and MNF presence was contingent on the success of the Lebanese government and LAF. The fighting between the LAF and militias, particularly the Amal, intensified rapidly in early February. During this time Muslim troops of the LAF began deserting, damaging the LAF’s fighting capability. As the situation became critical, Marines began evacuating American civilians from Beirut on 7 February. On 18 February, the 22d MAU received order for redeployment from Beirut by the end of February. The 22d MAU completed a rapid evacuation operation and on 26 February, the 22d MAU handed over control of the airport to the LAF and ended major Marine operations in Beirut. During the 18 month long operation in Beirut, the Marines suffered 238 killed and 151 wounded.
The Marines in Beirut upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps during their tough and often frustrating peacekeeping mission. The Marines “had done their job…with pride and dignity and their actions were always very correct, very disciplined.” Thirty years after the bombing and now retired, Colonel Peter Ferraro summarized his feelings about the mission:
We felt good about it. We were proud of our accomplishments. On the way home, we were all very, very proud of what we did. We knew we did the job we were told do and we all held our head high. Certainly, the bombing hurt us all, but at the same time, for the most part, we did a good job over there.
*In 1986, a memorial to the Beirut Marines was constructed outside the entrance to Camp Gilbert H. Johnson, formerly the Montford Point Camp, in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Two broken granite walls, representative of the crumbled BLT building, compose the memorial. The first is inscribed with the names of all American servicemen killed during operations in Beirut, while the second carries the simple inscription “They Came in Peace.”