Skip to comments.Remembering the Beirut Bombing Local Veterans Recall the Tragedy 26 years Later
Posted on 10/23/2009 5:14:40 PM PDT by kellynla
At 6:20 on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, a massive truck bomb plowed through the gates of the barracks of a U.S. Marines Corps peacekeeping force stationed in Beirut, Lebanon.
The detonation, the most powerful non-nuclear explosion on record, would kill 241 of the 271 servicemen inside the largest single-day death toll for the Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
At the time, Mark Wolcott of Tioga County was a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, assigned as a repairman for amphibious troop carriers, or Amtraks.
On the night of Oct. 22, Wolcott, who usually slept and lived in his Amtrak, made a rare visit back to the Marine barracks to attend a USO show, intending to stay the whole night in the barracks.
Nothing more than a small twist of fate would save Morrows life that night.
That day we went to the USO show in the afternoon. We ate a really good dinner. One other Amtraker was named Richard Morrow. He was a little tiny redheaded kid. He had sunstroke, or sun poisoning. He was our Amtraker and I was his bodyguard. He used to make a joke about me being his bodyguard, he said.
They sent him into the building to work in the mess hall just to get him out of the heat I mean it was bad over there, it was hot and he served us dinner that night and made sure we all ate good and the whole nine yards. We did the USO show, and my Lieutenant Lieutenant Blanchard thought everything seemed too relaxed. He had an eerie feeling, I guess. He told us later he did. He pulled us out of the building that night. Why? I dont know. It was just the way it was, recalled Wolcott.
Wolcott is not the only survivor who avoided the blast through a few small twists of fate.
Wolcott and two Marines who served with him in Beirut Paul Martinez of Detroit and Kevin Ayres of East Smithfield reconvened in the Valley on their way to the national memorial in North Carolina to remember the events of 26 years ago that forever shook their lives.
According to Martinez, it was the most mundane of situations the decision to sleep in a little on a Sunday morning led him kept him from almost certain death at the barracks that morning.
Normally Id get up at 6:00, no matter what, and Id run around the parade deck. But that morning, I dont know why because I just felt kind of lazy, I got up to go run. I looked at the clock and it was 6:15, and it seemed like I just laid my head back and the next thing I know its like a ball of fire coming down on me, Martinez remembered.
Kevin Ayres specialty as a radio operator on a ship located not far from the barracks was what saved him.
I pulled duty from afternoon to midnight on radio watch on ship, he said. And from midnight to six, I ran communication to talk from the sailors to the states. But I volunteered for that, and at 6:00 I went to bed. And at 9:15 I woke up to and I believe the number was 35 killed, confirmed and over 50 wounded. I grabbed my clothes, I had my boots in my hand and my jacket was in my arms, and off to the radio room I went.
After the bomb, it was chaos, just chaos, Martinez described.
We assisted doing everything, whether it was picking a body up or helping somebody else or moving things everybody did whatever they had to do. That went on for several days, Wolcott said.
While Martinez and Wolcott would spent the hours and days after the bomb involved in the rescue effort, Ayres was responsible for telephoning families of those who survived to let them know that that their loved one was safe.
When Ayres was able to tell his family that he had survived, he recalled that his mother collapsed from relief and the phone had to be passed on to his father.
Martinez family discovered that he had lived through the blast because he wrote a note on a piece of cardboard debris and passed it to a reporter, who then gave the information to his local newspaper.
For Wolcott, it took much longer for his family including his pregnant wife to find out that he was alive.
Everybody thought for close to a full week that I was missing, he said. And for my wife at the time and family, that was probably not too good a time.
However, eventually the Marines made a celebrated return return to the United States amid an outpouring of public support.
There were flowers. There were signs. There were ribbons. It was a great day, said Martinez.
For Wolcott, the homecoming came just in time his daughter was born just two days later.
But even after the celebrations and the awards, Oct. 23 remains a difficult day for survivors, for whom there will always be questions about why fate intervened to save their lives on that morning.
(It was) six seconds in Americas history, and a lifetime for us, Ayres said. You always wonder why you werent there. You know, why was I sent to ship on Friday instead of Sunday? Why was it such an urgency, or why was it this? You never know.
Or, as Martinez put it, Why am I here and all my brothers arent?
For Wolcott, the main person that stuck in my mind was that Richard Morrow, because he was young, he was just a little redheaded kid.
He died in the building, all because he was sick because he had heatstroke, Wolcott said.
Each of the three men stated that, even as the years pass, it is important for their fellow citizens to hold the Beirut tragedy in the nations memory, so that the ultimate sacrafice of their fallen brothers is not forgotten.
The main thing now is to get the message out so America doesnt forget, Martinez concluded. Because if we dont learn from our past, were nothing.
I agree. Never forget our heroes. But isn't the above statement a bit of hyperbole? The 1917 Halifax and 1944 Port Chicago explosions were well over "3" on the Richter Scale.
A few months after the bombings, I was in N’Djamena, Chad. I ran into a French Foreign Legionnaire in the lobby of my “hotel.” He wasn’t French, but British. He’d been in the British Army’s 2 Para. When he got out, he went to France and joined the Legion. We were having a few beers, and he told me that he’d been in Beirut the previous October. He was the liaison between the Marines and the Legionnaires there, being bi-lingual. He had just left the Legionnaire camp on his way to the Marine barracks when the Legionnaire camp got hit. The rest of his life was pure velvet.
get the message out so America doesnt forget
I’m not a vet, but my best friend from college was killed in that attack... RIP Capt. Joe Boccia.
Life unfolds in mysterious ways, for sure.
bump for later
Thanks Kelly! Semper Fi
Probably not. The author, Steve Reilly, failed to mention that it was the FBI that concluded that the bombing of the BLT headquarters was, to that point, the largest non-nuclear explosion since WWII; 12,000 pounds of TNT.
In comparison, the bomb that McVeigh used in 1995 was equivalent to 5,000 pounds of TNT and registered a 3.0 on local seismographs.
This is SGTMAJ Frederick B. Douglass. He was killed in the bombing of the USMC barracks in Beirut. I think of him every single year around this time, because he was one of the most impressive people I have ever seen.
I have a few anecdotes about him, he was from my state, and I saw him quite a bit over the course of a few years. There were a couple of stories, and I must say, the USMC was responsible for two of the most memorable nights of my life. He played a part in two of those nights.
When the JFK went into Alexandria, Egypt in 1977, there was an open invitation to the crew of the JFK to attend a party at the USMC quarters for the embassy.
Now, I have to tell you...when I heard that it was open house while I was ashore one night with a buddy, we said "Okay..let's go!" I thought there would be a thousand guys there in...what I didn't know. Maybe I thought it would be a soccer field on the grounds of the embassy or something like that...I was clueless, but my friend and I took a horse drawn carriage over...told them where to take us and away we went.
When we got there, it was a walled estate with a few buildings on it and a lot of vegetation. I was fairly lit by that time, and it was dark when we got there, but I do remember walking into that place. My memory is flawed here, because I have seen it in my thoughts so many times that I have no idea if it is reality or not. I remember going through a gate in what appeared to be a 10 foot high turquoise painted, cracked concrete wall. No broken glass or barbed wire on top of the wall. Anyone could have climbed over. I remember vegetation and some walkways inside what I guess had to be an acre. I also remember a lot of alcohol of all types flowing very freely. I thought the whole ship's company would have showed up, but I have to guess it was less than 100 people total, which was still a lot of people in that space. To be honest, it could have been 400 people in 4 acres...
But the most memorable part of that night was when I went to the bathroom. There was this little closet sized bathroom with a porcelain toilet in the outside wall side of the room, with two dinky little beat up aqua colored shutters right over the toilet at just below eye level.
The sink was full of unmentionable things...as was the floor. (The only time in my life I ever saw a more filthy, disgusting and revolting floor was at a little island in the Abacos called Nippers. (see this link at http://www.nippersbar.com/)
Anyway, I am relieving myself, one hand on the wall to stay upright, and I hear someone talking on the other side of those little shutters. Someone is getting chewed out, and I mean, royally. I heard scaps of "You piece of shit..." and '...kick your ass..." and "...embarrassment..."
So, I lazily reach over, open the shutters and peer out. There is a big, muscular black guy chewing this baby faced blond haired guy out. Heck, I am 19 or 20, and even to me he looked like a kid. And this black guy swivels his head to look at me and says "If you don't close that window and mind your own business, you're going to be sorry."
Man, I shut those shutters quick. It was SGTMAJ Douglass, the Top on the JFK. (I don't know if he was SGTMAJ at that time)
He was a most impressive guy.
There were two other occasions that stuck out in my mind...he was sparring in the hangar bay with a guy from my squadron who we nicknamed "Bruce Lee" (his real name was Timmy Naurimaya) because he came to the squadron with a reputation as some high level blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do. They were sparring in the Hangar Bay, and it was pretty interesting to the uninitiated to see this big 6'4" (I think) guy sparring against this 5'4" guy.
But it was the other time I saw him that left the biggest memory (until, of course, I opened those shutters) was in Naples, Italy one night. Raining like hell, 0200 on the pier waiting to go back to the ship on a liberty launch with maybe 200 guys. Probably, all of them were drunk on that nasty Peroni beer, as was I. No wonder Naples was such a lousy place...all the people drank Peroni!
Anyway, the boats had not been running for maybe an hour, and things were heating up. Two guys got into a fight, everyone else urged them on. The volume rose, then for some reason there was a whole bunch of Shore Patrol guys surround some drunk guy with a stanchion in his hands (from one of the rope guides for people to stand in line)
The rope still went through the top of it, and the guy swing it like a baseball bat. None of the Shore Patrol wanted to risk getting clocked in the face by this drunk guy. (This was before the days of tasers) The crowd began to fairly enjoy this unusual spectacle, and began to voice pointed encouragement at a loud volume.
All this on the waterfront under spotlights.
I kind of remember coming back to reality for a few seconds and becoming aware of how unruly and bordering on being out of control this was. As I looked back at the guy yelling and clumsily waving the metal rope stand, SGTMAJ Douglass walked right up to the guy past the Shore Patrol and clocks the guy with an accurate, well delivered roundhouse. The guy drops like a sack of cement, and it seemed like before he even hit the ground the SGTMAJ turns to us and yells out "YOU MEN SHUT UP. NOW."
You could have heard a frikking pin drop.
THAT was astounding. Everyone just stopped like a switch had been flipped.
After I got out of the Navy, I went to college on the GI Bill (one of the last to get in before it went the way of the Dodo) I was reading the Boston Globe one morning, and the story was about the recent bombing of the Beirut Marine Barracks. I was just heartsick as I read this, and then there...down at the bottom of the page, was the face of that Marine SGTMAJ. Staring out of the picture, I saw the same eyes that I saw on that dock, and the same eyes looking back at me through those shutters. Very intense eyes.
I nearly fell out of my chair. I knew who that guy was. He had been killed in the bombing of the barracks, I think he was the highest ranking enlisted man killed there.
I have a huge amount of respect for US Marines. I look at this man who gave his life in the dedicated service of his country, and I know that he is not unique in the USMC. For that I thank God, and I am grateful to his memory, and to all those who serve and have served.
May we never forget.
Darn. Not many responses to this thread. Well, I sure won’t forget those men.