“The cross of peace is the burden of the courageous,” President Amine Gemayel of Lebanon cabled President Reagan on April 18, 1983, shortly after the U.S. Embassy was nearly destroyed by a suicide terrorist and his truck bomb. The bombing killed 63 people, including 17 Americans.
America’s burden — and its courageousness — would be tested again just six months later on Oct. 23, 1983. The U.S. Marine Barracks set up in a large abandoned office building at Beirut International Airport to house Battalion Landing Team 1/8 and its reinforcements, part of the multinational peacekeeping force, was bombed, along with minutes later the barracks housing members of the French 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment, also a unit of the peacekeeping force.
Two-hundred and twenty Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers were killed in the Marine Barracks bombing and 58 paratroopers in the French barracks bombing: a total of 299 Americans and French were killed. Another 128 Americans and 15 paratroopers were injured in the attack.
The attacks ultimately led to the withdrawal of the peacekeeping force, in hindsight some argue, wrongly. Because of their success (from the terrorist’s perspective), these attacks are seen by many to be the beginning of the spate of terrorist attacks against America, culminating in 9/11.
But while politicians, diplomats, and historians may debate the cause and effect of such events, there were — and are — smaller and less consequential roles to be played. My part in Beirut in 1983 was one such inconsequential role. Wednesday’s 30th anniversary of the bombings was more personal for me than politics, diplomacy, and history. Though my role was small, these recollections are intended to honor those who gave their last full measure in support and defense of the United States of America 30 years ago.
On April 18, 1983, I was assigned as a Marine helicopter pilot aboard the USS Guadalcanal, LPH-7, just off the coast of Beirut. I had finished noon chow in the officers’ mess and was making my way topside to preflight my aircraft when the 19,000-ton helicopter carrier rumbled and shook as the 1 p.m. terrorist explosion tore through the U.S. Embassy.
That an aircraft carrier at sea miles from the embassy could be moved is testament to the power of the blast. I sometimes wonder whether the ship’s shudder was an anthropomorphic response to this new terrorist tactic that would lead to 9/11.
In the midst of my prefight only a half hour later, general quarters and then flight quarters were sounded and my crew and I were quickly launched off the carrier’s flight deck and directed by the helicopter direction center to proceed to the U.S. Embassy for medevac.
Loaded with wounded embassy staff on makeshift stretchers, I vividly remember the pungent odor of burnt flesh and death permeating our aircraft after we took off from the field expedient landing zone. The LZ had been swept clean and quickly cordoned off on the boulevard next to the East German Embassy adjacent to the remains of the U.S. Embassy.
My squadron mates and I made several runs from the Guadalcanal to the embassy and back to the ship that day. Of course, our role was little compared to those from my sister squadron who six months later performed similar medevac duties for BLT 1/8 to the USS Iwo Jima, LPH-2, after the Marine barracks bombing.
By that time, I had returned home to the United States to the warm embrace of family and friends and, like most Americans, watched in horror from afar as the Marine barracks bombing events unfolded. We mourned the loss of our brothers in arms, fellow Marines, sailors, and soldiers, and friends from thousands of miles away.
The U.S. Embassy bombing had been forgotten in the midst of the far more horrific Marine barracks bombing. Less than a year later, no longer politically and diplomatically sustainable, the peacekeeping force was folded and the final U.S. Marine was pulled out of Beirut in July, 1984.
But not before a close friend was killed in the death throes of the multinational force. The last Marine killed in Beirut, a Marine’s Marine, a consummate Marine officer, was Capt. Al Butler, who sacrificed his life for America and its ideals in Beirut on Feb. 9, 1984. The COST of peace is the burden of the courageous.
I hesitantly approached the door of his home the day Capt. Butler’s death was reported. What would ... what could ... what should ... I say? His eldest son, 5 years old then and now a decorated Marine himself, answered the door. “My daddy is dead,” he said looking up at me with tears in his big eyes.
“I know buddy,” I said as I picked him up and hugged him hiding my own tears. “I know.”
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.