Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort -- “The morning of Oct. 23, 1983, in Beirut was pleasant and sunny; there was a light breeze, and it was very quiet.”
The description is of the day one of the first direct acts of terrorism happened against the United States 30 years ago and almost 7,000 miles away.
On Oct. 23, 1983, at approximately 6:22 a.m., the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines Battalion Landing Team suffered the largest single-day loss of life for Marines since the World War II, Battle of Iwo Jima.
The United States had established a military presence in Beirut, Lebanon, to serve as a peacekeeping force in the conflict between warring militias. On March 24, 1983, the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, located at Camp Lejeune, N.C., received orders to support.
To the barracks
“They called us out in a battalion formation. They needed volunteers to go to Lebanon. I was a brand new corporal and I stepped out,” said Brian Kirkpatrick, then a combat engineer with 2nd combat engineer platoon, 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Marine Division. “We shipped out in May, got there in a couple of weeks. Our whole job there was to keep the peace.”
Kirkpatrick was a squad leader in “C” platoon and attached to 1st Battalion, 8th Marines with the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit. His platoon, nicknamed “Kirk’s Knights,” were living in the East wing of the Beirut barracks during the explosion.
“It was an old administrative building for the airport; others had stayed there before us,” explained Kirkpatrick, a native of Yale, Mich.
“The barracks was a fortress with two-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls,” recalls Randy Gaddo, a former Chief Warrant Officer 4 in the Marine Corps, who was a staff sergeant at the time of the bombing. “It had served as a headquarters for Israeli troops; it had withstood artillery and heavy naval gunfire with barely a scratch.”
Gaddo had been stationed in Beirut to document the deployment of the troops that were conducting peacekeeping operations.
After arriving, Kirkpatrick and his platoon noticed blemishes in the security of the barracks addressing them without any outcome.
“It was a weird balancing act. If we started building barricades and all kinds of crazy stuff, it would look like we were there for a siege or permanently and that wasn’t the intent,” commented Kirkpatrick about the barracks security and setup. “We were there to keep the peace. Nothing [could be constructed] that was going to look aggressive.”
Some of the regular duties of the BLT included patrolling the area to show a military presence in the community as part of peacekeeping operations. Although not a regular duty for his platoon, Kirkpatrick was not a stranger to touring the surrounding area. Throughout their patrols, his squad would try to match up war-torn buildings with old postcard pictures of the once graceful city.
“At one time Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. The city had been torn apart since the 70s, when we got there, there really wasn’t much standing,” said Kirkpatrick. “The way to keep the peace was through patrol.”
Kirkpatrick, who had said goodbye to his pregnant wife for the peacekeeping mission, soon found himself in an unnerving environment, one very different from that of previous months.
“When we first got there [in May, 1983], it was just to keep the peace between the warring militias, it wasn’t till August that things started to go bad. That’s when we started noticing problems,” recalls Kirkpatrick.
Soon the indirect attacks became a nightly occurrence.
“They began to attack, and have firefights around the base,” explained Kirkpatrick. “We started to get sniper fire. They would have a mortar in the back of the truck, drive into the perimeter, pop off a few rounds and then drive off. [The engineers] were concerned about this because we knew we were in a building that was not secured with restricted access ways.”
Last good time
Although the barracks were secured to an extent, it was surrounded by high ground occupied by militia artillery. According to Kirkpatrick, militia began attacking the Lebanese Army base next to the barracks and some of those attacks would carry over to their compound. In defense, U.S. military called in for naval gunfire to level the high ground and prevent further attacks on the Marines’ compound. This action sent a different message to the warring militia.
“We crossed a line that was perceived by everybody out there,” said Kirkpatrick. “Suddenly it became a Christian on Muslim thing and we got pulled into it.”
“The night before the bomb hit, we had the USO putting on a show, which was about the last good time there,” Kirkpatrick recalls.
Kirkpatrick had switched out roof watch, a roaming patrol on top of the barracks, with one of his Marines. During his shift he had rounds coming down toward the barracks hitting the walls, he described it as “all kinds of crazy stuff.”
“It was a loud night. I got off roof watch at about 2 a.m. I hung my up my rifle, put a mosquito netting over me and fell asleep,” remembers Kirkpatrick. “I woke up right before the bomb happened; I was cold, so I got inside my sleeping bag.”
Kirkpatrick had all 10 Marines of his squad at the barracks that night; he had sent two for duty aboard a nearby naval vessel. The squad had 20 days left on the deployment before returning home.
October 23, 1983, was a Sunday. As described by Gaddo, it was generally a day of rest.
“We were usually given an extra ration of sleep and then a treat, omelets, at the barracks mess hall,” wrote Gaddo. “We had no more omelets after Oct. 23.”
“I had gotten up early because I had work to do,” said Gaddo. “That morning I had eight rolls of film to develop and print, I had set up a makeshift photo lab in the only place we could find running water, a third floor bathroom in the barracks.
“I decided I needed a cup of coffee before I went to work, so I turned back to the combat operations center and got a cup and sat down,” wrote Gaddo, in a 2008 op-ed article. “About 20 minutes later I heard two or three shots from an M16. Before I had time to wonder, I felt a hot rush of air on my face, like a blast furnace.”
The heated blast was a truck loaded with 12,000 pounds of high explosives, wrapped around canisters filled with flammable gases. A suicide bomber had driven into the four-story barracks where more than 300 U.S. troops slept.
“I heard some yelling, I heard ‘pop, pop, pop,’ like some shots, I sat up, Doug [Kirkpatrick’s roommate] sat up. I looked at him he looked at me. He was about to open his mouth and that’s when it went off,” recalls Kirkpatrick. “When the truck hit you felt the building shake and next thing I know I was going up in the air and going backwards inside my sleeping bag.”
The FBI called the attack the largest non-nuclear bomb in history.
Kirkpatrick had been thrown off his rack, into the air and was immediately pinned down after landing by a section of a wall that had fell across his ribs, keeping him suspended.
“I remember hitting something then going back down, I woke up and I was lying diagonal with my legs hanging,” said Kirkpatrick. “I yelled for help until I couldn’t yell anymore, and then wiggled my way out of my sleeping bag.”
In another part of the compound, Gaddo was dazed after being lifted up and thrown back several feet like a rag doll.
“My first thought was that a rocket or artillery round must have hit close by, so I went outside expecting to see a smoldering hole outside the tent. What I did see is something I’ll never forget,” recalls Gaddo.
The blast created a crater measuring 39 feet by 29 feet. The building had collapsed on itself like a honeycomb leaving sections of space big enough to crawl through.
“I couldn’t see anything, so I kept going for the light,” said Kirkpatrick. “I had to crawl over and through stuff that if you tell me to do it again today, I couldn’t do it. Then, it didn’t matter because all I could think about was getting out.”
Fellow Marines whose living quarters were outside of the barracks were surveying the damage after digging themselves free of sandbags that had fallen on top of them. According to Kirkpatrick, they had been discussing among themselves that no one would be coming out of the barracks, at which point Kirkpatrick appeared through the dust and smoke.
“The building was just a mound,” said Kirkpatrick. “All the vehicles in the compound looked like a kid got angry with his toys and threw them all over. There were vehicles upside down, on top of vehicles, over the walls, crushed.”
He had suffered severe injuries. The blast had shattered his orbital socket, sinking his eye down into his head, broke two of his ribs and his lungs had been burned from the heat of the explosion. Even as Kirkpatrick sat with other casualties, he began to administer first aid to a fellow Marine, tying up his leg in a tourniquet to stop bleeding.
“It was… it was bad. There was a constant cry, moan or pain,” he recalls.
According to Kirkpatrick, even after the explosion there were snipers shooting Marines who were trying to rescue others out of the rubble.
As the morning went on, Lebanese army soldiers rushed to help the Marines at the barracks and helped provide security against the snipers and others.
Of the near 1,600 service members with the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit conducting peacekeeping operations in Beirut, around 300 were in the Barracks at the time of the blast. Of those 300, the blast killed 241 U.S. service members, 220 of which were Marines.
Ten minutes later, a mirror bombing followed when a truck pulled up to French paratroopers’ barracks about 6 kilometers away from the Marines’ barracks. The bomb, not as large as the first attack, exploded killing 58 French paratroopers.
After being transported to the Republic of Cyprus for medical treatment, Kirkpatrick recalls British soldiers and Royal Marines providing security at the medical compound due to terrorist threats because of the Marines’ presence.
“When I was in Cyprus they gave me a piece of paper and I started making a list of who was in the platoon and who was there [in the hospital],” said Kirkpatrick. “Out of 37 of us, there were eight out of the platoon left.”
Kirkpatrick was one of three survivors from his squad who were at the barracks at the time of the bombing.
After returning to Camp Lejeune, Kirkpatrick received a purple heart for his injuries and met with President Ronald Reagan, who spoke the words, “I’m sorry” to Kirkpatrick as he walked up to shake his hand. Kirkpatrick continued his Marine Corps career retiring as a first sergeant.
Kirkpatrick, now a 6th and 8th grade history teacher at Bolden Elementary/Middle School in Beaufort, S.C., is planning on attending the 30 year Beirut Memorial Service at Camp Johnson, N.C., where they will honor those who lost their lives on that October day. Each Oct. 23, survivors and relatives gather at 6 a.m. with burning candles. At precisely 6:22 a.m. they blow the candles out.
“We don’t talk that much about it. There has to be a point where you gain some perspective about it,” said Kirkpatrick. “I get asked questions sometimes about how long it took me to get over it.” “I reply, ‘you don’t. It’s never going to go away. You don’t forget, but you learn how to live with it. Cause you have to because if you don’t it will kill you’.”
Kirkpatrick has been married for 32 years, has two children and two grandchildren. He recalls the walls of a Frankfurt, Germany, hospital being lined with ‘get well soon’ cards from students at Department of Defense schools in Germany. Thirty years later, he’s in a Department of Defense Education Activity school teaching military dependents about his time in the Marine Corps as part of his history lesson.
He still has bundles of letters and cards from his deployment; he keeps the letters his wife sent him while in Beirut in a sealed bag. They remain covered in dust and debris that blanketed them 30 years ago.
“A lot of times you wonder ‘why did I survive?’ I start to look at it in a long term and 30 years later, I’m here in class. Maybe this is it,” he said. “It makes us who we are. Every decision I made [since Beirut] was based on what [my Marines] would want me to do.
“Thirty years is a long time, but you know if I close my eyes real tight… I can see it again… I can feel it… I can hear it.”
The “despicable act,” as labeled by President Reagan, led to an eventual withdrawal of American forces in Lebanon. The multinational forces conducting peacekeeping operations withdrew from the area as well. The warring militias, who were responsible for U.S. forces occupying Beirut, continued bringing suffering to Beirut following U.S. extraction.
Even those who came in peace suffered.