During the Lebanese Civil War of 1983, two suicide trucks laden with explosives are driven into the barracks at Beirut’s airport where the Multi-National Force in Lebanon (MNF) peacekeepers were staying. A total of 307 people are killed. 241 Americans, 58 French, 6 civilians and the two bombers. A terrorist group calling themselves Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility and said that their goal was to drive the MNF out of Lebanon.
This was the single deadliest day in the Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima and for the U.S. military since the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968. Another 128 were wounded. The blast was the equivalent of an estimated 21,000 pounds of TNT.
The second attack on the French Drakkar barracks occurred just minutes after the attack on the Americans housed the 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment as well as the 9th Parachute Chasseur Regiment, 58 French paratroopers were killed with another 15 wounded. For the French military, it was their single largest loss of life, since the civil war in Algeria.
Although political leaders stated otherwise publically, these attacks caused the removal of the MNF in Lebanon. They’d been put in place since the PLO was ousted from Lebanese territory in 1982.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called the bombings in 2017 “the opening salvo in a war that we have waged ever since—the global war on terror”
Background to the Bombing:
On June 6, 1982, the Israelis invaded Lebanon under the pretext of creating a buffer between the PLO and the Syrian forces inside of Lebanese territory. The Israeli “Operation Galilee” was conducted to create that 40 km of space and had the approval of the United States as well as the democratically elected President, Bachir Gemayel.
However, Gemayel was a part of the Christian Phalangists and the bitter enemy of the Druze and Muslims. The Phalangists attacked a PLO refugee camp and other Muslim and Druze communities while the Israelis turned a blind eye. Gemayel was assassinated in September 1982 by a bomb and was replaced by his brother Amine.
The Muslims of Lebanon, especially the Shiites, resented the MNF peacekeepers believing that the Americans were siding with the Christian Phalangists. They steadily harassed by mortar and artillery fire.
The Americans and French troops were hamstrung by the ridiculous “peacetime” rules of engagement, in the middle of a civil war. Being neutral the U.S. and French had to follow strict guidelines for peacekeepers.
- When on a post, mobile or foot patrol, keep a loaded magazine in the weapon, bolt closed, weapon on safe, no round in the chamber.
- Do not chamber a round unless instructed to do so by a commissioned officer unless you must act in immediate self-defense where deadly force is authorized.
- Keep ammo for crew-served weapons readily available but not loaded in the weapon. Weapons will be on safe at all times.
- Call local forces to assist in self-defense effort. Notify headquarters.
- Use only the minimum degree of force to accomplish any mission.
- Stop the use of force when it is no longer needed to accomplish the mission.
- If you receive effective hostile fire, direct your fire at the source. If possible, use friendly snipers.
- Respect civilian property; do not attack it unless absolutely necessary to protect friendly forces.
- Protect innocent civilians from harm.
- Respect and protect recognized medical agencies such as Red Cross, Red Crescent, etc.
In 1982, the Iranians built a base inside of Syrian-controlled territory in Lebanon. That base, opened by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and housing Hezbollah, is still operational today. Hezbollah was and still is, a proxy for the Iranians who get their orders straight from Tehran.
On September 26, 1983, the NSA intercepted an Iranian diplomatic communications message from the Iranian intelligence agency, the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS),” to their ambassador, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, in Damascus, Syria.
The message directed the ambassador to “take spectacular action against the American Marines.” The Marines in Beirut were never notified about the intercepted message in a timely fashion. The government would finally notify the Marine commanders about the intercepted threats on October 26: a full three days after the bombing.
American military commanders and government officials failed to connect the dots that an incident on April 18, 1983, when a suicide bomber had detonated an explosives-laden delivery van outside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans.
Things heated up between June and September with a number of incidents. Druze militias had confrontations with Lebanese Forces in a number of places and shelled the Beirut airport, closing it temporarily. That is where the HQs of the Marine 24th Amphibious Unit (24th MAU) was located.
Sunday, October 23, 1983:
Early on the morning of October 23, just before 6:30 a.m., a 19-ton yellow Mercedes-Benz truck driven by Iranian citizen Ismail Ascari pulled into the Beirut International Airport.
Believing the truck be the water truck, the Marines were expecting, it was instead filled with explosives. The driver accelerated and crashed easily thru the 5-foot barrier of concertina wire, then passed between two sentry posts and through an open 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.
On the day of the bombing, the Marine sentries were ordered to keep a loaded magazine inserted in their weapon, bolt closed, weapon on safe and no round in the chamber. Only one sentry was actually able to chamber a round in his weapon but by then the truck was already crashing into the building.
As the truck slammed through the entrance and come to a halt in the midst of the lobby, there was an ominous pause of a second or two, then the truck erupted in a massive explosion, lifting the building in the air, shearing off its steel-reinforced concrete support columns (each 15 feet in circumference) and collapsing the structure.
As the building collapsed upon itself, it immediately crushed to death within the mountain of rubble, 241 U.S. military personnel—220 Marines, 18 Navy sailors, and three Army soldiers.
Major Bob Melton the Logistics Officer for the 24th MAU, called to his commander Colonel Tim Geraghty, “My God, the BLT building is gone!” Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff and assistant chaplain for the U.S. Sixth Fleet recalled that “Bodies and pieces of bodies were everywhere. Screams of those injured or trapped were barely audible at first, as our minds struggled to grapple with the reality before us.”
Within 10 minutes of the attack and a few miles north of the airport, another suicide bomber driving a pickup truck targeted the barracks of the 3rd Company of France’s 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment. Guards immediately recognized the hostile intent of the driver and shot and killed him, stopping the truck 15 yards short of the building. However, either the terrorist or the gunfire initiated the explosive. Though only half as powerful as the bomb that had leveled the Marine compound, the second blast brought down the French barracks, killing 58 paratroopers.
Ironically many of the French troops were standing outside on the balconies of the building, as they had heard what had occurred at the U.S. base just down the coast and were trying to identify what happened there.
Recovery and rescue efforts began immediately. U.S. troops were harassed by intermittent sniper and artillery fire from Druze units. The last survivor, LTJG Danny Wheeler a Chaplain for the 1/8th Marines was pulled out of the rubble late that night. While others survived the blast, by the time they were rescued, they would succumb to their injuries.
The French immediately launched an airstrike in the Beqaa Valley against Iranian Revolutionary Guard units. The U.S. planned a massive strike in conjunction with the French at the Sheik Abdullah barracks in Baalbek, Lebanon, which housed Iran’s IRGC and was believed to be training Hezbollah militants. But the attack was called off when US Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger lobbied against it, because, at the time there was no definitive proof Iran was behind the attack.
The U.S. would leave in February of 1984, as the Marines departed on board ships, the battleship New Jersey, firing her 16-inch guns pounded Druze and Syrian artillery and missile positions in the Beqaa Valley. The Syrian commander in Lebanon was killed during the nine-hour bombardment of nearly 300 shells. Lebanese civilians would later remark on the bombardment of Volkswagen-sized artillery shells and long bombardment.
The U.S. learned a valuable and costly lesson in Beirut and would not deploy troops again with inadequate means to defend themselves.