The Lebanese capital was hotter than usual, a lot hotter.
It was a summer afternoon in 1983, and the Beirut sky was afire. U.S. Marines scrambled for cover as 122 mm Katyusha rockets scorched the air above them. Supposedly the rockets were headed to the Lebanese Armed Forces positions, but some hit the Marines’ area at the Beirut International Airport.
The harassment by fire came from the Druzes – an offshoot Muslim sect – in the Shouf Mountains overlooking Beirut. The Druzes were sending a message to the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, the U.S. contingent of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force.
It was not the first Druze rocket or artillery attack, and the 24th MAU commander, Col. Tim Geraghty, decided it was time for a little intercultural communication. The M198 155-mm Howitzers of Charlie Battery were loaded and the Druze rocket position computed. Two Howitzers roared as two rounds were sent soaring toward the Druze
position. Both rounds burst directly above their target, and two illumination flares floated down from those bursts.
The Marines’ message was clear. They had zeroed in on the Druze position, and more enemy rockets would mean answering to Marine artillery and the kind of rounds that explode. The attack ended.
Leathernecks in Lebanon that summer were being drawn into a Beirut situation that was growing violent due to several factors.
First, the numerous factions that called Lebanon home were embroiled in what they saw as a jousting for equal representation in a government formed some 40 years earlier, after France declared Lebanon independent. Political representation had been divvied up according to majority and minority populations. The largest population consisted of the Maronite Christians, followed by the Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Druzes and more. As the majority, the Maronites were given the presidency and the largest voice in the chamber of deputies, or parliament – 30 of the 96 chamber seats. The position of prime minister went to the Sunnis, along with 20 seats in the chamber. The Shiites filled 19 chamber seats, the Druzes only six.
By 1983, the population ratios in Lebanon had changed. The Shiites had become the majority and wanted majority rule. Other sects also wanted a realignment. The Maronites did not agree.
Add to that situation the aggressive Christian Phalange militia, Shiite Amal militia and Hezbollah, or Party of God. Then stir in the warring Syrians and Israelis. Trouble, indeed, was brewing.
The nucleus of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit was Battalion Landing Team 1/8 – the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines and support units – commanded by Lt. Col. Larry Gerlach. The MAU also had the 24th MAU Service Support Group (MSSG) and a reinforced Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162, consisting of the squadron’s CH-46s plus Hueys and Cobras. It was not a unit sent in to kick ass and take names. They were peacekeepers. They were handed a so-called mission of presence. They were to carry out that mission with the French, Italians and British.
Geraghty’s 24th MAU was the third Marine amphibious unit to serve with the multinational force. The peacekeepers of the first two MAUs in Beirut, in 1982 and the first part of 1983, could say their mission of presence really was working. Their presence certainly appeared to help stabilize the volatile situation – until mid-spring 1983.
On April 18, a van loaded with explosives drove into the driveway in the front courtyard of the American Embassy in Beirut and detonated, destroying the embassy building and killing 63.
When Geraghty brought his 24th MAU Marines ashore at the end of May to relieve the 22nd MAU, he was well aware Beirut was becoming ever more dangerous.
And when Druze rockets and artillery started coming in, his concerns only increased.
Geraghty had to interface with the Maronite-dominated government and the new Lebanese military without appearing to take sides. Yet, with some factions becoming restless and the Marines required to refrain from reacting with fire, the mission became a significant challenge.
“The rules of engagement were tolerable, but things deteriorated and changed very fast,”
Geraghty told me 20 years later. “This crowd was serious in their goal to drive us out.”
Determined to carry out peacekeeping duties and to keep his Marines focused, Geraghty sent his troops on daily mobile jeep patrols throughout Beirut and foot patrols through Hay-es-Salaam, a poor Shiite neighborhood adjacent to the Marines’ airport perimeter positions. The gyrenes affectionately called the downtrodden community “Hooterville.”
As the summer weather got hotter, so did the precarious situation in Beirut. The Marines continued to dodge incoming rockets and artillery, and they soon were ducking sporadic small-arms sniper fire.
An Israeli withdrawal from the Shouf Mountains and Beirut itself at the end of August created more chaos. Though the Marines and Israelis were never very sociable – cool and standoffish was more like it – the no-nonsense Israeli Defense Force did stabilize eastern Beirut and the Shouf. That ended with their Aug. 28 pullout, and the Marines almost immediately suffered their first killed in action.
The Marines received small-arms fire from Shiite Amal militiamen all that day. The
action escalated the next morning with a mortar attack. The mortar men walked 82 mm rounds into Alpha Company, finally scoring a lethal hit that killed the 1st Platoon
commander, 2nd Lt. George Losey, and the platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Alexander Ortega. The Marines’ peacekeeping mission suddenly turned deadly.
When incoming rounds continued after warning shots of illumination from Charlie Battery, Geraghty gave the command to load all six of the battery’s M198s with HE – high explosive. The artillerymen cut loose, sending the 155-mm rounds to the mortar position, destroying it.
The Israeli withdrawal and the increased aggressiveness of Amal and Druze fighters brought an end to Marine mobile and foot patrols. Battles between Muslim factions
and the Lebanese Armed Forces – whose ranks were filled by Christians and
Muslims – became frequent and furious, always spilling over into the 24th MAU airport area and always endangering the Lebanese Scientific University, where the Marines positioned one of their rifle companies. Throughout September and into October, peace was elusive.
“The situation had deteriorated more,” Geraghty recalled. “By October, we were down to one single route to the embassy. To get to the university, we could no longer walk in. We were being squeezed.”
Maj. Bob Jordan served as Geraghty’s public affairs officer. He contended that the colonel’s concerns were never heeded, that President Reagan was poorly advised, and that any suggestions from the field that the situation in Beirut was different than perceived in Washington were never allowed to go far up the chain of command.
“The local commander’s prerogatives were limited by the administration, the State
Department and by a complex higher command structure that was not flexible enough to respond to the fast-paced dynamics of the situation on the ground,” Jordan explained to me.
The colonel’s concerns went beyond rockets, artillery and sniper fire. “I determined
before and upon our arrival that terrorism was always our biggest threat,” Geraghty said during a telephone interview.
A terrorist car bomb almost took out the MAU commander Oct. 19, when he was returning from the embassy along that single remaining route. A white Mercedes exploded as Geraghty’s small convoy passed. The Marines suffered no serious injuries,
but Lance Cpl. Mike Toma wrote home to a friend – now his wife –that he hoped to never come that close to death again. Toma would come a lot closer.
Early Sunday morning, Oct. 23, 1983, Geraghty was already working in his office, about 100 yards north of the large concrete building housing Gerlach's headquarters offices and troop sleeping quarters.
Geraghty usually awoke about 5 a.m. to go over what had happened the previous night.
Jordan was asleep on his cot not far from Geraghty's office. He was sleeping in, for he planned to help the French Foreign Legion troops celebrate the Legion’s birthday later that day. He would skip his usual 6 a.m. breakfast at Gerlach's battalion landing team headquarters, or the BLT building.
Another 100 yards north, at the MSSG, Cpl. John Wayne Nash was lying on his cot, talking to Cpl. Bertrand Hill about going to chow at the BLT. They decided against it.
Toma was still sound asleep in the first-floor sleeping quarters of the BLT shortly past
6 a.m. He was bunked with his TOW anti-tank missile Marines, less than 100 feet from the building's lobby.
At 6:22 a.m., a large, yellow Mercedes truck barreled into that lobby. TOW squad leader Sgt. Steve Russell tried to sound a warning, but it was too late. The truck’s Hezbollah driver was smiling as he detonated the gas-charged 12,000 pounds of TNT.
Even in a separate concrete building 100 yards away, Geraghty and his executive officer were lucky to escape injury. “It blew out all the windows, blew us ass over teacup, blew off the door on the opposite wall,” Geraghty recalled. “I thought a rocket had hit the building.”
For the Marines in the BLT building – the “Beirut Hilton,” they liked to call it – the blast was devastating. It was a massacre.
Miraculously, Toma was still alive only 100 feet from the hellacious explosion. He was
unable to move, but he was under a small portion of the second floor that did not collapse onto the first. He lapsed in and out of consciousness.
“I don’t remember the blast, but I remember waking up. I remember seeing rays of sun through a lot of dust,” Toma recounted to me two decades after the explosion.
Dust, in fact, thickly enveloped the area all around the BLT building – or where the four-story building previously stood.
Navy Senior Chief Joe Ciokon and his Navy broadcasting team – after the
explosion blew them like rag dolls from their cots in a nearby building – ran toward
the BLT barracks and offices.
“The first thing I remember seeing was a weird, fog-like dust. We all froze in our tracks and couldn’t believe what we saw,” said Ciokon, who is now retired from the Navy after 37 years of active duty.
From that eerie, dusty fog emerged torn, bloodied Marines, who looked not unlike haggard ghosts, Ciokon told me. He immediately led the first group to the aid
station at the Service Support Group.
From the MSSG, Nash and Hill ran to the BLT and into the smoke and dust to help the wounded, assisting many to the aid station. "Within no time, the clinic was full of injured Marines and sailors. Many of them did not make it at all to the MSSG and died along the way," Nash recounted. "The injuries were unbelievable. Each time I assisted one of them, I was covered with their blood. This was without a doubt a vision that will live with me forever."
Marines swarmed to the blast site to frantically dig for their brothers buried in the rubbled hell that had been the BLT headquarters and barracks.
Geraghty remembered gazing with a heavy heart upon the devastation and casualties. Jordan was in the middle of it, leading the first recovery efforts. Geraghty asked what he was doing, and Jordan explained he was organizing the search-and-rescue – and recovery. Geraghty quietly said, “I have a lot of officers who can do that. I need you to handle the media.”
The media, of course, were standing by to get the story on the bloodiest day for the Marines since Iwo Jima in World War II.
The rescuers by then had gotten to Mike Toma. With a broken hip, collapsed lung and a lost eardrum, Toma could barely hear or talk, but he saw something remarkable as he was dragged from the rubble.
“I saw a beautiful blue sky and realized I shouldn’t have been able to see it, because the building would have blocked it,” Toma explained to me. “It was incomprehensible, but the building was gone.”
Then Toma was gone, relocated by helicopter to a ship offshore and then to a hospital in Germany. He was one of only three TOW Marines to survive the bombing. Tragically, the total death toll reached 241, including 17 sailors and four Army soldiers.
As Toma was flown to the USS Iwo Jima, Cpl. Matt Collins was wrapping up his duties in the Grenada operation with BLT 2/8 far away in the Caribbean. Collins and Toma had served together as BLT 2/8 Dragon anti-tank missile Marines in Beirut in 1982. On Oct. 25, 1983, Collins headed to Beirut with the 22nd MAU Leathernecks, ordered to relieve Geraghty’s 24th MAU.
The 22nd reached Lebanon on Nov. 18, and Collins came ashore to a Beirut as destabilized and dangerous as ever. Peacekeeping became a thing of the past. The Marines earned their combat pay. Firefights with factions attacking from Hooterville were routine.
“Sometimes, we’d throw everything we had at them,” Collins told me. “In one firefight, Sgt. Kenneth Goss fired so many LAAWs (light antitank assault weapons), they were
piled up to his knees.”
The violence finally ended on Jan. 31, 1984, when Collins was with the last Marine to die in Beirut. He was standing just a few feet away from Lance Cpl. George Dramis when Dramis took an assault rifle round in the chest.
“He was gone before I got him out of there,” Collins remembered. Finally, on Feb. 8, the Marines were ordered to withdraw to their ships. The mission of presence was over. More than 270 Americans had died.
As for the Oct. 23 bombing of BLT 1/8, Tim Geraghty caught the heat. However, Marines who were there won’t hear of it, and 30 years later, they still stand behind him.
Evidence indicates that the Oct. 23 bombing was backed by Syria and Iran, and many Beirut veterans regard it as the first enemy blow in the global war on terror that is still being waged today.
For Geraghty, one thing is certain: “The gates of hell opened up in Lebanon in the ’80s.”