A Catastrophic Bombing Kills Hundreds of Marine 'kids' Waiting to Go Home

updated 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Like that at Pearl Harbor, it was a Sunday morning attack that caught the American defenders dozing. Grinning eerily, a terrorist driving a Mercedes truck loaded with an estimated 2,500 pounds of TNT smashed into the American compound near Beirut International Airport and detonated his deadly cargo in the headquarters building of the U.S. Marine base. For days, as the wounded were flown to hospitals in Cyprus, Italy and West Germany, stunned Marines cleared away the rubble and picked up the corpses of their colleagues. The death toll passed 200 and kept climbing, making the bombing the most costly casualty since the Vietnam War. Back in the United States after 20 months in Lebanon, PEOPLE'S Beirut correspondent remembered the many hours she had spent with the beleaguered Marine garrison there. Here is her story:

I was in Washington, preparing for a family wedding, when I heard the news of the Beirut bombing. I took it very personally. I cried. It wasn't that I knew any of the Marines very well. I didn't. But I had spent a great deal of time with them during their tour in Lebanon. I followed them on patrols, visited their ships and their bunkers, interviewed them and wrote stories on them. Before the intense fighting flared in late August, I had attended their now-legendary barbecues, usually on Saturday nights, which were held in a parking lot near the BLT—the Battalion Landing Team headquarters, known to the Marines as the "Beirut Hilton," the building that was reduced to rubble by the suicidal truck-driving terrorist.

On several Saturday nights last summer, Marines had called my husband and me and several other American journalists. "We're having some beer and hot dogs," they would say. "Why don't you come out?" We accepted gladly. Those barbecues were a little bit of America for me. After so many months in Beirut's war zone, it was great to hear people speaking English—American English. The Marines would roast hot dogs and hamburgers on a grill made of an old oil drum. They would screen videotapes of TV shows in a big tent and X-rated movies against a cinder-block wall of a nearby building, one of the few not pockmarked by bullet holes. They would drink beer and play Willie Nelson records and dance. Since there were precious few American women around, I would wind up dancing all night with an unending supply of eager new partners. While they danced, they'd tell me about their girlfriends and their wives. And then, inevitably, they'd take out their wallets and show me pictures.

Dozens of memories rushed back to me when I heard the news of the bombing, but one thought stood out: They were just kids. Their average age was 20, and I met one patrol leader last spring who, even after considerable effort, could barely raise the faintest blond wisp of a mustache. I'm not exactly ready for Social Security—I'm 29—but they made me feel old. I'd be out on patrol with them and suddenly I'd think, these kids are going to protect me?

At the same time, though, I knew very well that they were tough, trained fighting men. Once, during a period of intense street fighting that threatened our West Beirut neighborhood, I remember thinking, why doesn't the embassy send some Marines to guard my apartment building? I'd finally feel secure, I thought, if only the Marines were standing guard there. When I heard about the bombing of the BLT, I realized how absurd that thought was: No building in Beirut is ever safe.

When a contingent of Marines arrived in Lebanon in late May, they were very gung ho. They were glad to be in Beirut. They thought that the idea of being "peacekeepers" was important. Some of them thought of themselves as sort of low-level diplomats. Others, the short-timers among them, figured that this was their one chance to see some action before they returned to civilian life. They knew it would look good on their records. Many of them had heard from the Marines they were replacing that Beirut was a relatively easy place to earn their combat pay. They would learn otherwise soon enough.

Many of those Marines were so green that they asked me what it was like to live in a combat zone. Even weeks later they'd never seen Beirut—they weren't permitted to leave the two-and-a-half-square-mile American zone—and they would ask me what life in the city was like. Can you walk around the streets? What do you do during shelling? Aren't you afraid of being kidnapped?

I had a few good war stories for them: I'd lived through three months of almost daily Israeli bombing in the long hot summer of 1982, and once a truck full of Lebanese soldiers exploded in front of the taxicab I was riding in. But generally, I tried to explain that Beirut wasn't really that bad. Despite the sniping and the car bombs and the near-constant threat of war, it is really a beautiful city, I told them. We live right on the water; we play tennis, we go to restaurants. They were shocked to hear that. They could scarcely believe that we were living a normal life while they ate C rations and slept in bunkers lined with sandbags.

Actually, though, for most of the past summer the Marines' lives, too, were fairly routine. They patrolled the mazelike streets of Hay Es Sulloum, a Shi'ite Muslim section of the city that the Marines nicknamed Hooterville after the hick town in TV's Green Acres. But, aside from a few minor incidents, there was little action in Hooterville. And when the Marines were not patrolling, they enjoyed some of the amenities of civilized American life—like tape-cassette headphones and reruns of Dynasty and Happy Days (both were favorites). Sometimes the atmosphere around the base seemed nearly as loose as poolside at a Club Med. You'd see Marines soaking up the Mediterranean rays from the roof of the BLT or strolling in their red shorts and flip-flops toward the showers or playing with their pet goat. On Sundays the main pastime of the local Lebanese was to stroll on the airport road that separated the American compound from the beach. The kids liked to talk to the Marines through the chain-link fence. They would hang on the fence outside the compound to watch the Marines play basketball on the parking lot next to the BLT. The kids couldn't tell hoops from hockey but they were endlessly fascinated by the Marines. Pretty soon, they were speaking a Pidgin English and the Marines were managing a few phrases of Arabic.

The Marines also grew fond of the Lebanese soldiers. At first the Americans had mocked the ragtag Lebanese Army as totally inept, which was a fairly accurate assessment at the time. But they watched the Lebanese gradually improve. The Marines drilled them, teaching the rudiments of rifle drills. The Marines figured that convincing the anarchic Lebanese soldiers to do anything in formation was an accomplishment. After a while, though, many Lebanese soldiers started to imitate the Marines, shaving first their beards and then their heads, in order to look like leathernecks. Then the Lebanese would jog past the American ranks and let out a loud, Marine-style grunt. The Yanks loved it. Soon, they were giving cast-off uniforms to the Lebanese. Sometimes you'd see a Lebanese Army soldier clad in a camouflage suit—and a pair of sneakers. If you laughed at them, the Marines would laugh too. But then they would quickly add: "Yeah, but they're really good guys, you know."

That loose, friendly atmosphere was abruptly blasted away last Aug. 28, when the long-simmering Lebanese hostilities erupted into a full-scale war and the Marines were heavily shelled for the first time. Two were killed the following day, and that dose of reality quickly sobered the men. They were shocked at how easy the attack had been and frightened at how vulnerable they were. The deaths of their two buddies hit the Marines hard. I remember one Marine who told me that he had a roll of film in his camera with a picture of one of the dead men. He hoped it would come out, he said; he wanted a memento of his buddy.

After that shelling, the patrols through Hooterville were canceled, as were many of the Marines' more enjoyable outdoor activities. Soon they were spending day and night in their bunkers. As usual they made the best of it. With no walls on which to hang pictures of their wives, girlfriends and, yes, mothers, they pasted them on their cots, sandbags and duffel bags. I also noticed a lot of Bibles in those foxholes. Marines really do believe in God, Country and Mom.

For a period of about a week or two in early September, the Marines were shelled regularly but were under strict orders not to return the fire. That directive left them sitting ducks for snipers from Hooterville and artillery gunners up in the nearby mountains. The situation frustrated and angered them. When they were finally permitted to fight back, they spoke proudly of how they'd hit an enemy artillery battery on their first shot.

But even the ability to shoot back was frequently of little help. Under attack, the Marines would study the mountains where the fighting raged, searching for their enemies and seeing only smoke. It was frequently nearly impossible to figure out who was firing on them and who was shooting at somebody else. That problem was a microcosm of the entire Lebanese situation: It is a war between several sects and factions. As many a disgruntled Marine told me just before asking me not to quote him by name, the Lebanese have been fighting for centuries and it will take more than 1,600 Marines to keep the peace.

By the time I left Beirut three weeks before the Sunday massacre, a kind of gallows humor had replaced the youthful joie de vivre the men had exhibited all summer. As shells landed around them in the middle of the night, Marines in one bunker would start to giggle nervously—the true hysterical laughter. Then they'd hear the soldiers in the next bunker laughing.

"What the hell are you laughing at?" they'd yell.

"Same thing you're laughing at," would come the reply.

By that time the whole idea of being a "peacekeeping force" had become a grim joke among the Marines. They enjoyed repeating the story—perhaps apocryphal—about the Marine who summed up their predicament. Hunkered down in his bunker, he watched a shell fly over his head to explode with incredible violence. Then he turned to his sergeant. "Well, Sarge," he said, "I guess we'll just stay here and keep on keepin' the peace."

In recent weeks the Marines were counting the days until their November departure. So eager to arrive in May, they couldn't wait to leave.

"What will you tell the folks back home about this place," one Marine was asked.

"Why tell them anything?" he replied. "They're never gonna believe it anyway."

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