Chapter excerpted from the novel HELL’S SHADOW by J.M. Gould
IT WAS ONLY on the flight back to Camp Lejeune that he allowed himself to relive that sun-struck day, so long ago now. Was it really thirty years? Already? My God. He had grown old. Yet it was only yesterday that his mother had cried the night before he went away to boot camp. Little Tony Guerrero, 53 years old. Impossible! No. All too possible. But the other men of that day never grew old. 241 Marines, sailors, and soldiers. Frozen in eternal youth, the day they died at Beirut airport: October 23, 1983. Sent to their maker by a bearded Hizballah man driving a yellow Mercedes flatbed truck at 22 minutes after six in the morning.
It began as a lazy Sunday. He awoke early in his tent in the Charlie Company compound, a ramshackle collection of olive drab tents surrounded by sand bags near the south end of the runway. By 0530 hours, just a few minutes after dawn, he was dressed. The battalion was on condition one alert, the highest level, because of sporadic shelling during the night. So he and the soldiers who manned the airport perimeter wore full combat gear. Steel helmets and flak jackets. M-16 rifles loaded, but no rounds chambered.
The first weeks of October had been calm. But September had seen full-scale war between the Marines and the Muslim militia who held the high ground above the airport. The rules of engagement were strict. The Marines could not fire or even chamber their weapons unless they were taking direct fire from identifiable hostile positions. Refusing to take sides in the civil war between Christians and Muslims, the State Department had demanded that the Marines be kept on a short leash. The Pentagon – ever eager to avoid controversy – had agreed.
Why the hell did we go there in the first place? He knew why. To save that fat fuck Yasser Arafat’s ass. In the summer of 1982 Israeli armor ringed Beirut and held the city in a death grip. Before the Israelis came, Arafat’s PLO thugs had been brave enough. They had enough courage to besiege isolated Christian villages and slaughter the inhabitants, or stop cars at random in Beirut and slit the throats of those unlucky enough to have Christian names. But when Sharon’s Centurions rolled onto the heights and began probing into the city, Arafat and his henchmen cowered in their sordid slum camps and screamed for mercy. Their pleas did not go unheeded. If you are a cruel and wanton killer and all-around scumbag, it pays to have friends in high places. The United Nations intervened. Arafat – leaving his own people to the bloody mercies of the Phalange – was granted another two decades in which to murder the innocent, bask in the flattery of adoring Western journalists, and stuff his pockets with the baubles offered by a grateful Europe.
By October 1983 Arafat had been gone more than a year, safely evacuated to Tunisia courtesy of the United States Marines. Countless times Guerrero had asked himself: Why the hell didn’t they pull us out then? More than a quarter century later, he knew the answer that had eluded him as a young man. The eager 1st Lieutenant had been proud to command his own platoon. He had trusted the leaders of his country to know what they were doing and why. But those leaders had their own strange ways of looking at the world.
To an American President preoccupied with driving the senile but still dangerous Soviet bear to its knees, Lebanon was only a sideshow, a sop to the Arabs whose purchased neutrality would be necessary during the final showdown with Russia. As long as Ariel Sharon’s tanks were still in Lebanon, the Marines were to serve as a neutral barrier between the Israelis, the Lebanese Army, the Christian Phalange, and the fractious Muslim militia, whose innumerable Shiite, Sunni and Druze splinters warred among themselves almost as often as they battled their infidel opponents. That was the theory. It was conceived by ambitious men who had graduated at the top of their classes from the Ivies or the Service Academies, and who thought they knew how the world worked.
It turned out they knew very little of how the world worked, and nothing at all of human nature. By late summer 1983, the peacekeepers had become punching bags. While a brave President fought the good fight against the Evil Empire, he and his advisors failed to notice that a new evil had cast its shadow across the Middle East. The shelling and sniping that targeted the Marines became less random, more deadly, less amenable to the unprincipled backroom appeasement that the smug diplomats from State mistook for peacemaking. It did not occur to these men, who believed in the sordid doctrine of the lesser evil, that to allow a large and well-armed force of American Marines to be attacked with impunity could only lead to more, not less, aggression.
So it was that on that terrible morning, the Marines guarding the Battalion Landing Team’s headquarters still did not chamber their weapons when they observed the big yellow truck driving in circles just outside the concertina wire. When its driver, a swarthy man with a beard and a dark blue shirt, gunned the heavy diesel engine and crashed through the wire, the guards finally shouldered their M-16s. But in the time it took to lock and load, the truck was already past them. It crashed into the open lobby of the building where more than 300 Marines still slept or were just beginning their day. For a few brief instants after the truck came to a halt, there was dead silence. Then, in microseconds, the hypersonic shock wave caused by the detonation of 6 tons of TNT and flammable gas vaporized the truck and its driver. In milliseconds, it pulverized the entire building, causing the four story structure to leap up on its foundations and then implode into a pile of rubble barely 15 feet high.
Guerrero arrived at the site fifteen minutes after the explosion. He had heard it in his tent, a concussive thump and then a dull roar of thunder that shook the ground for long moments. Within minutes headquarters was calling for volunteers to search the rubble for survivors. He begged his company commander for permission to lead a squad to the still smoldering ruins, a short mile up the runway.
They had to drive around the airport’s main passenger terminal to reach the cluster of buildings that served as headquarters and barracks for the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit and its Battalion Landing Team 1/8. Even though they couldn’t see the BLT building on their approach drive, they knew something was terribly wrong. The wind had begun to disperse the gigantic pillar of oily black smoke thrown up by the explosion. Its size testified to the hellish forces that had been unleashed.
The famous picture of this pillar of smoke – captured by an Iranian photographer who by some dark coincidence was waiting in the nearby hills at that early hour with his 35mm camera pointing exactly in the right direction – shows that it looked nothing like a billowy nuclear mushroom cloud. But that was the first thing the young Tony Guerrero thought of as he rushed to the site. He wondered if he had just witnessed a new Hiroshima breaking over the Mediterranean.
As his jeep pulled up to the gigantic rubble heap, he didn’t immediately grasp what he was looking at. He wondered absurdly how so much debris could have been deposited in that spot. He started to drive around it to find the BLT building he knew must lie behind it. Then he understood. A shock of raw fear crawled through him that he had never felt in his life.
A sharp chemical stench of explosives stung his eyes and burned his throat and nose. Hundreds of chunks of concrete the size of a man’s fist littered the ground. The surrounding trees had been stripped bare of their leaves. At first he didn’t notice the bodies. A gray haze hung over the area and a thick layer of fine gray dust covered everything. Then, as he got closer, some of the formless shapes lying on the ground resolved themselves into bodies or, more often, something less than bodies. Limbs, heads, torsos, smaller parts that could not be identified. All ejected from the building by the terrible force of the explosion. Against his will, his eyes were drawn to the sight of a Marine still in his sleeping bag impaled on the naked branch of a tree.
It was then that he became aware of the screams. Dozens of living Marines swarmed around the gigantic pile of rubble, attempting to pull out the bodies of the dying and the dead. Here or there a leg or an arm protruded from between broken shards of concrete. But even when a pulse was detected, it was rarely possible to lift the tons of deadweight that cruelly pinioned these still-living bodies into impossibly small spaces in the wreckage. The lucky ones died quickly or soon fell unconscious, never understanding their fate. To those unfortunates who were still aware, large doses of morphine were administered when it became apparent that nothing could prevail in time against the weight of the concrete.
After a few minutes, he wandered around to the north side of the building. A group of Marines were digging madly into the side of the rubble heap. The concrete plates that formed the upper floors of the building had come smashing down to form a sort of cavern over the basement. By tearing away concrete shards and steel reinforcing rods, the rescuers managed to create an opening into the cavern. The screams that emerged into the warming morning air – it was not quite 7 a.m. – told Guerrero that men were still alive down there. He followed the others down into the dark hole, scrambling down a slope of what felt like concrete slurry but was in fact quite dry.
No one had thought to bring lamps. There had been no time for that. But sunlight from above leaked through chinks in the rubble and gradually his eyes adjusted to the gloom. What he saw was a vision of hell. Dozens of bodies dangled into the cavern from its sides and from above. Sometimes just the legs, sometimes the head and an arm or two, sandwiched between the collapsed plates or skewered on the ends of the steel rods that protruded everywhere from the concrete like spaghetti. He dropped to his knees and vomited, then began sobbing loudly.
It seemed to him that the noise of his sobs filled the cavern. But no one paid any attention. A Marine came up to him and shouted in his ear for him to help lift a concrete beam that trapped a man. Together they heaved and heaved until they were exhausted, and still the beam didn’t move. Finally he took a sledge hammer from the hands of another Marine and pounded on the beam like a man possessed for what seemed like hours. It was only minutes. A crack fissured the concrete and part of the beam shifted, freeing its victim. When they pulled the man out they saw that both his legs had been crushed below the knees. He was screaming. But he would live.
“The Root 1983” is a chapter from the novel HELL’S SHADOW. My fictionalized description of the bombing by Hizballah and Iran of the Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon on October 23, 1983 is based on the firsthand accounts published in Eric Hammel’s The Root: The Marines in Beirut, August 1982-February 1984 and Michael Petit’s Peacekeepers at War: A Marine’s Account of the Beirut Catastrophe. Since this chapter was written, the commanding officer of the Marines on that tragic day, Colonel Timothy Geraghty, has published his own memoir of the events, Peacekeepers at War: Beirut 1983 – The Marine Commander Tells His Story. Readers may also wish to consult Glenn Dolphin’s 24 MAU 1983: A Marine Looks Back at the Peacekeeping Mission to Beirut, Lebanon. Finally, Steven Olson’s The Attack on U.S. Marines in Lebanon on October 23, 1983 is intended for younger readers.
Text copyright J.M. Gould 2012.