Thirty years ago today, the Marine Corps suffered its deadliest single-day overseas since World War II.
At 6:22 a.m., Ismail Ascari, an Iranian national, drove a 19-ton, yellow, Mercedes-Benz stake bed truck across the Beirut International Airport and detonated 21,000 pounds worth of explosives at the Marine barracks. Hundreds of men from 1st Battalion, 8th Marines assigned to the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit were inside.
The force of the blast collapsed most of the four-story building and killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors, three soldiers and wounded 128 others. Thirteen of the wounded later died due to their injuries.
Hundreds within the battalion walked away only to carry the memory with them for the rest of their lives.
Beirut, Lebanon, May 1983
“It was strictly a peacekeeping mission,” said retired Marine Col. Timothy Geraghty, the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit commander in Beirut at the time.
He explained that their role was to provide an environment where the diplomats could find solutions to the civil war in the region.
“The mission itself has a nice sound to it, but it’s actually quite dangerous,” he said. “Part of that is maintaining a neutrality, which was difficult because there were 27 factions and groups — many of which had religious or ethnic backgrounds. It made things very complex.”
Prior to the Marines of the 24th MAU arriving in Beirut, the U.S. embassy there was destroyed by an explosion, something Geraghty called an act of war. The atmosphere, he said, was changing before they even got there and continued to evolve while the troops were in-country.
“In a peacekeeping mission you can’t engage like you can in combat,” Geraghty said. “The whole nature of a peacekeeping mission is to give the other guy the first shot and then you react. You make yourself seen by the public.
“Despite everything the Marines were dealing with, they were absolutely motivated and professional at all times.”
The rules of engagement the Marines had to abide by were strict due to the nature of their mission. Marines could not have a round in the chamber of their weapon unless it was in their personal defense. Since their position was at an international airport, the Marines saw thousands of vehicles drive past their sentries daily, a circumstance that Geraghty said made him uncomfortable from day one.
“Only when there was a perceived threat could the Marine engage,” Geraghty said. “But they had to have a non-commissioned officer’s approval before they fired.”
Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 23, 1983
Having been in Beirut for a few months, the Marines saw the situation deteriorating, according to then-Petty Officer 2nd Class Darryl Gibson, who said that Lebanese began throwing fruit at their patrols as though they were grenades. Unsure of what had been thrown, the Marines would scatter from their Jeeps and take cover as the locals laughed, he said.
Most of the locals were appreciative of the Marines’ presence, Gibson said, but “there was that 10 percent who didn’t like us.”
“We were there for show — nothing else — and we had no support,” he said. “Almost every day the rounds started coming in at us and we could do nothing. We were there to show the flag and to do a peacekeeping mission.
“We’d go around on patrols and just make our presence known — showing the flag and that Americans were there.”
The gunfire was constant, but due to rules of engagement, the Marines were restricted from firing back. Constantly on post, the Marines made sandbag bunkers to keep them safe, but having no air or artillery support made the men uneasy, he said.
Gibson stayed in a building approximately 1,000 meters from the Marine barracks.
“We called our building ‘the library’ but it was really run down with all the windows blown out and bullet holes in the walls,” Gibson said. “I’d walk the line and help the Marines with their ammo, check their feet and make sure they were doing OK.”
On Oct. 23 at 6:17 in the morning, Gibson was just waking up and getting ready to make his usual rounds.
The concussion from the blast took him completely by surprise and jarred everyone awake. Many of the Marines, according to Gibson, thought they had taken a direct hit from a tank round. Once he made it upstairs from the basement, all he could see was a cloud of billowing, black smoke. Initially, he thought that the building had been hit by artillery, a SCUD missile or another type of munitions. Finding out what had happened proved difficult due to radio silence, he said.
“Our headquarters was in the building so we didn’t have anyone to give us word and tell us what to do,” he said. “We had no idea what was going on. I can’t help but remember that the only reason I wasn’t in the building was because they switched me to (a different company) a few months prior.
“If it wasn’t for that, who knows where I’d be today.”
Danny Joy looked up into the sky at what he said looked like a tactical bombing.
“I remember thinking, ‘what the hell was that’ because it was just the loudest noise I’d ever heard,” Joy said. “The reverberation and concussion was just insane.”
Joy, who observed the explosion from the same position as Gibson, said his body began shaking as he radioed to the battalion headquarters trying to find out what had just happened. As the Marines came upstairs from their berthing area, they all stood staring at the cloud of smoke. Joy, who was the corporal of the guard at the time, didn’t know what to say to his men, he said.
“Everyone was screaming on the radio,” Joy said. “It was absolute chaos on the radio — everyone just kept stepping on one another and cutting each other off. Nobody knew what the hell was going on. We thought a bomb had gone off in the vicinity of the building. We didn’t know the actual building had been hit. We didn’t know the amount of destruction that had taken place.”
As the dust began to settle it became evident that the building had been destroyed by a direct hit. The Marines stood in horrified awe as the remnants of the building came into view, Joy said.
“The corpsmen performed miracles that day,” Joy said. “Standing there watching these guys from afar ... I couldn’t believe what they were going through down there. Above all else, the real heroes that day were the Navy corpsmen for what they did. The entire command element got hit — all of our medical staff — and it was the line corpsmen who saved the day and rummaged through the wreckage for both bodies and survivors.”
Marine Sgt. Mel Hunnicutt, the battery operations chief, was lying in bed when he thought their position was under attack from artillery.
“I rolled out of my rack, threw my boots on, grabbed my flak and Kevlar and ran outside,” Hunnicutt said. “The first thing I see when I got outside was the big, black, ugly cloud rising into the sky. The wind began carrying it right over us dropping debris all over us like papers and whatnot.”
As the debris rained on their position, Hunnicutt said he felt compelled to pick up and read a piece of paper that fell beside him. The paper read, “Dearest son,” and Hunnicutt began to fully understand the devastation that had just occurred.
“I dropped it right away because I couldn’t bear to read anymore,” Hunnicutt said. “...When I looked through my binoculars, I couldn’t see the building right away. ...There were all kinds of rumors going on at the time. Nobody knew what was going on.”
Hunnicutt’s executive officer had driven to the site in his Jeep immediately following the blast, and when he returned, the Marines finally learned the horrible truth.
“He couldn’t answer me when I asked what had happened,” Hunnicutt said. “He was shaken up, almost on the verge of tears when he said that they were gone — that the building had been destroyed and they were all dead.
“That’s when we knew how bad things were.”
Worried about his men in the battalion headquarters, Hunnicutt said that names of the deceased slowly trickled in, devastating many of his fellow Marines. Everybody remained professional and was still ready to do their job, hoping to get revenge, he said.
“When you’re in combat, you accept things because you’re there and you know you can’t do anything to change it,” Hunnicutt said. “You know you can’t change anything but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel guilt because I survived and so many people died.
“That’s still something that bothers me to this day.”
Stateside, Oct. 23, 1983:
When Marine Sgt. William H. Roy Pollard deployed to Lebanon in May 1983, his wife had a gut feeling he wasn’t going to be coming home.
Images of the blast on television confirmed for Margaret Pollard what she felt just five months before. But it was more than a week before she knew for sure.
Because of the limited amount of casualty officers and chaplains in the area, it took five days for Pollard to hear officially that her husband was missing. It would be three more days before she found out he had died in the blast, she said.
“I have to say that not knowing was far worse than knowing he had passed,” Pollard said.
The Marine Corps, according to Pollard, provided her a “fabulous” support network after the tragedy.
“After the event happen, we all banded together and everyone helped each other out,” Pollard said. “It was truly amazing how one tragedy could bring so many different people together.”
That included civilian and military ties.
Nearly everyone in Jacksonville knew someone affected by the bombing, said Abe Rosen, a member of the Beirut Memorial Advisory Committee and the Beirut Memorial Task Force.
“The biggest thing was that it absolutely took everybody by surprise,” Rosen said. “The military and civilians were involved in the community together, but we didn’t realize how close we actually were with one another. Some of the kids who lost their dads went to school with our kids. Everybody knew someone who was involved. It was our neighbors, and our fellow parishioners.
“We just didn’t realize how close we were until the tragedy hit.”
In South Salem, N.Y., Mary Ellen Jackowski waited anxiously to hear whether her son — an aspiring restaurateur — had survived the blast. When the Marines arrived at her house three days after the bombing, all they could tell her was that her son was missing. It would take two more days for her to be notified that he had died, she said.
“I felt deep down that maybe he was injured so badly he couldn’t identify himself,” Jackowski said. “You have hope until they finally come to your door. I remember shaking uncontrollably when they told us.
“I couldn’t help myself from breaking down.”
The bombing was something Jacksowski said she thought was never even possible.
“I thought the Marines were going to take care of him,” she said.
Stateside, Oct. 22, 2013:
Stacey Pollard-Joyce was 4 years old when her father died during the bombing. To this day, she tries to remember the faint memories she does have of him, she said.
“It’s really tough when you don’t have your father there for getting your driver’s license or when you get married,” Pollard-Joyce said. “My mom was very supportive but I never got to be a daddy’s girl.”
Besides missing her milestones, her father will never get to meet his grandchildren.
But they visit his grave and hear the stories from his life.
And know he died serving his country.
“I just wish I could tell him that I love him,” Pollard-Joyce said. “And that even though my boys have never met him, they love him very much and he will not be forgotten.”
Thomas Brennan is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.