October 23, 1983 the Marine Barracks in Beirut was bombed killing 220 Marines, 18 Sailors and 3 Soldiers. This year is the 30th anniversary is this tragic and sad event.
Suicide bombers detonated each of the truck bombs. In the attack on the building serving as a barracks for the 1st Battalion 8th Marines (Battalion Landing Team – BLT 1/8), the death toll was 241 American servicemen: 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers, making this incident the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States Marine Corps since World War II‘s Battle of Iwo Jima, the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States military since the first day of the Vietnam War‘s Tet Offensive, and the deadliest single attack on Americans overseas since World War II. Another 128 Americans were wounded in the blast. Thirteen later died of their injuries, and they are numbered among the total number who died. An elderly Lebanese man, a custodian/vendor who was known to work and sleep in his concession stand next to the building, was also killed in the first blast. The explosives used were later estimated to be equivalent to as much as 9,525 kg (21,000 pounds) of TNT.
At around 6:22 a.m., a 19 ton, yellow, Mercedes-Benz stake-bed truck drove to the Beirut International Airport (BIA), where the U.S. 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) was deployed. The 1st Battalion 8th Marines (BLT), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach, was a subordinate element of the 24th MAU. The truck was not the water truck they had been expecting. Instead, it was a hijacked truck carrying explosives. The driver turned his truck onto an access road leading to the compound. He drove into and circled the parking lot, and then he accelerated to crash through a 5-foot-high barrier of concertina wire separating the parking lot from the building. The wire popped “like somebody walking on twigs.” The 19-ton Mercedes-Benz truck then passed between two sentry posts, passed through an open vehicle gate in the perimeter chain-link fence, crashed through a guard shack in front of the building and smashed into the lobby of the building serving as the barracks for the 1st Battalion 8th Marines (BLT). The sentries at the gate were operating under rules of engagement which made it very difficult to respond quickly to the truck. Sentries were ordered to keep their weapons at condition four (no magazine inserted and no rounds in the chamber). Only one sentry, LCPL Eddie DiFranco, was able to load and chamber a round. However, by that time the truck was already crashing into the building’s entry way: armed.
The suicide bomber, an Iranian national named Ismail Ascari, reached the entry way at 6:22 and detonated his explosives, which were later estimated to be equivalent to approximately 9525 kg (21,000 pounds) of TNT. The force of the explosion collapsed the four-story building into rubble, crushing many inside. According to Eric Hammel in his history of the U.S. Marine landing force,
“The force of the explosion initially lifted the entire four-story structure, shearing the bases of the concrete support columns, each measuring fifteen feet in circumference and reinforced by numerous one-and-three-quarter-inch steel rods. The airborne building then fell in upon itself. A massive shock wave and ball of flaming gas was hurled in all directions.”
The explosive mechanism was a gas-enhanced device consisting of compressed butane in canisters employed with pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) to create a fuel-air explosive. The bomb was carried on a layer of concrete covered with a slab of marble to direct the blast upward. Despite the lack of sophistication and wide availability of its component parts, a gas-enhanced device can be a lethal weapon. These devices were similar to fuel-air or thermobaric weapons, explaining the large blast and damage. An after-action forensic investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) determined that the bomb was so powerful, it would probably have brought down the building even if the sentries had managed to stop the truck between the gate and the building.
Less than ten minutes later, a similar attack occurred against the barracks of the French 3rd Company of the 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment, 6 km away in the Ramlet al Baida area of West Beirut. As the suicide bomber drove his pickup truck towards the ‘Drakkar’ building, French paratroopers began shooting at the truck and its driver. It is believed that the driver was killed and the truck was immobilized and rolled to stop about fifteen yards from the building. A few moments passed; then, the truck exploded bringing down the nine-story building and killing 58 French paratroopers. It is believed that this bomb was detonated by remote control, and it is estimated that this bomb, though similarly constructed, was not as large as and was slightly less than half as powerful as the one used against the Marines at the Beirut International Airport. Many of the paratroopers had gathered on their balconies moments earlier to see what was happening at the airport It was France’s worst military loss since the end of the Algerian War in 1962.
A Beirut Memorial has been established at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, and has been used as the site of annual memorial services for the victims of the attack. We shall never forget!
For a list of those that lost their lives in the bombing go here http://www.beirut-memorial.org/memory/brtnames.html.