At ceremonial mess nights, Marines toast to those who came before them: to the Marines who served in the Revolutionary War and Grenada and Afghanistan and everything in between, retired Marine Col. Chuck Dallachie said.
Everything, that is, except for Beirut, in Dallachie’s experience.
“Because it was a mistake,” said Dallachie, who served there in 1983. “The Marine Corps does not celebrate mistakes.”
On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber, later found to have links to the militant group Hezbollah, drove an explosives-laden truck onto the compound at Beirut International Airport that housed barracks where hundreds of Marines were sleeping.
What ensued was the largest nonnuclear blast in history, according to statements from FBI forensic experts at the time, initially lifting the barracks building off its foundations, according to the Pentagon’s December 1983 investigation into the event. Shortly after, another bomber drove a truck into a building that housed French peacekeepers, part of the same multinational force as the Marines.
Two hundred forty-one U.S. service members — 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers — died in the explosion of the barracks, according to the Pentagon’s tally. Fifty-eight French troops and six civilians were also killed.
The bombing remains the largest single-day loss of life for Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
The attack ushered in heightened worries about the security of service members, especially those stationed overseas, and led to the development of new security measures.
And it profoundly affected Marines across the Corps.
A new ‘way of life’
The Marines from 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, had been sent on a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon as it was racked by a turbulent civil war.
Even before the devastating bombing, Marines in Lebanon were subject to violence from grenades, shelling and small-arms fire, according to the Marine Corps University. In April 1983, a terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut killed 63 people, including one Marine security guard.
Dallachie, who was a first lieutenant during the bombing and was badly wounded, said he believes the Marines should have been pulled out of Beirut well before the bombing.
“If your mission is peacekeeping, and there is no peace to keep, shouldn’t you get out of there?” he said.
The Marines were situated on low ground near the airport in Beirut and were “sitting ducks” for fire from nearby mountains, Patrick Sloyan recounts in his 2019 book, “When Reagan Sent in the Marines.”
The Marines in Beirut didn’t receive enough support in gathering intelligence or turning it into useful analysis, the Defense Department’s investigation later found.
When a driver on a suicide mission accelerated his yellow Mercedes truck toward the Marine facility, “the only outer defensive perimeter” he faced was chest-high concertina barbed wire, Sloyan writes. The driver rammed right through it.
Marines at guard posts saw the truck breach the flimsy defenses and drive through an open gate, but their magazines weren’t in their weapons because of the peacekeeping rules of engagement, and they couldn’t fire in time, the DoD investigation found. Even if guards had managed to halt the truck on the roadway, the explosion still would have caused significant casualties, according to the investigation.
The investigators determined the commanders on-site should have done more to keep the Marines secure. The defense secretary in February 1984 ordered the issue of “nonpunitive letters of instruction” to Col. Tim Geraghty and Lt. Col. Larry Gerlach. Gerlach, whom Marine Corps Times attempted to reach out to and received no reply, received his letter while in a hospital bed from injuries that had left him partially paralyzed, according to “The Root,” a 1985 book by military historian Eric Hammel.
For many Marines who survived the attack, the reprimands of their commanders felt like “a personal insult,” Hammel wrote.
Later that month, the United States pulled the final Marines from the peacekeeping force out of Lebanon.
The DoD investigation into the attack also said the military needed to create new doctrine, procedures and training focused on preventing and combating terrorism.
Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni was a lieutenant colonel studying at the National War College in Washington when the barracks in Beirut were attacked. His next job was supposed to be to work with NATO at Headquarters Marine Corps.
Shortly after the bombing, he got a different assignment: heading the Marine Corps’ new anti-terrorism team.
In that role, Zinni reviewed the Marine Corps’ protections against terrorism, especially overseas, but also at bases in the United States, he recalled to Marine Corps Times.
Today, someone trying to get onto a Marine base must show identification to guards at the gate, Zinni noted. Guards are well trained to recognize explosives, including ones hidden under cars. Someone who tries to bulldoze past the guards likely will get thwarted by retractable bollards in the ground.
That’s because of the attack in Beirut, according to Zinni.
For contrast, when Zinni did his first tour in Okinawa, Japan, in 1970, the gates to his base were left open, he said.
“Enhanced security has become a way of life,” said Zinni, who served as commander of U.S. Central Command from 1997–2000. “The assumption that the threat is out there and that has to be paid attention to has become a way of life.”
One mistake the Marine Corps made in Beirut was maintaining predictable routines, such as letting Marines sleep in on Sunday mornings, Dallachie said. The retired colonel said the tactical lesson there was: Don’t be predictable.
The military learned from Beirut that it was unwise to put troops in a static location without very strong security, Zinni said. The 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 airmen, underscored that lesson.
Oct. 23, 1983, shifted Marines’ thinking of who their enemies were, according to retired Master Sgt. Fernando Schiefelbein.
The new mindset was, “We’re fighting terrorism now,” said Schiefelbein, who was a corporal stationed at Bangor, Washington, during the attack.
The tragedy in Beirut also was one of several Defense Department missteps that spurred the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, according to a 2022 article by Ufot Inamete in the Marine Corps University Press’ journal. The act streamlined chains of command, created more joint commands, and empowered the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders.
‘It made everything real’
But the Beirut bombing affected not just security procedures and leadership structures. It also left a mark on Marines, even those who hadn’t been stationed in Beirut.
In the days after the attack, young people — and even some people too old to enlist — headed to Marine recruiters at unusually high rates.
Some of these eager applicants said, “Send me to boot camp, or don’t send me to boot camp, just send me to the war, I want to fight in the war,” a recruiting officer told The New York Times at the time.
The young Schiefelbein had planned for his next duty station to be Camp Pendleton, California, close to his family in Los Angeles. But the tragedy in Beirut spurred him to move instead to the fallen Marines’ home base in Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where he spent much of his career and lives today as a retiree.
The service members who died in Beirut were around his age, many of them corporals and sergeants in their 20s, Schiefelbein noted.
Now, he’s a grandfather. So would be many of the fallen.
“It’s not just a name on a wall,” Schiefelbein said of those killed.
Eric Bembenek was a lance corporal in Beirut in 1982 and again in 1983, beginning in November. His battalion had been en route to Beirut days before the attack but got diverted briefly for the invasion of Grenada.
He missed the bombing, but he was witness to the aftermath and to the horrors Marines faced in Lebanon both before and after.
On Dec. 4, 1983, an artillery attack killed eight Marines in Lebanon, according to the Marine Corps University. One of them was Cpl. Sam Cherman, whom Bembenek remembered as a “wiseass kid” from Queens and “such a great young man.”
Bembenek owed Cherman $80. That debt haunted Bembenek, who said he has since dedicated volunteer work and a veterans’ motorcycle run to Cherman’s memory.
In 2016, when Bembenek was wrapping up his career at the New York City Police Department, he met a lieutenant on the force who was close friends with Cherman. Bembenek and that friend still text.
“I got to know Sammy a little bit more, what his family went through afterwards,” Bembenek said. “You never forget.”
In a bitter irony, the Marines who made it out of Beirut alive returned to Camp Lejeune — the North Carolina base where, unbeknownst to them, they were drinking and showering in toxic water linked to several cancers, Bembenek noted.
“It’s a wonder that I don’t have this USMC tattoo removed from my arm,” Bembenek said.
In 2023, for the first time since the attack, the Marine holding the top position in the Corps wasn’t yet a Marine in 1983. Gen. Eric Smith, officially the Marine commandant as of Sept. 22, received his commission in 1987.
Most of today’s active duty Marines weren’t even alive in 1983.
But for the past four decades, the top Marine leaders were people who lived through Oct. 23, 1983, as Marines, with all the emotional weight that entailed.
In 1983, then-Maj. Gen. Al Gray was based stateside as the leader of the 2nd Marine Division. The men who died in the attack were under his command.
Gray became commandant not even four years after the bombing — the event he later told Leatherneck Magazine was the worst day of his service.
Spurred in part by the tragedy in Beirut, Gray called for improvements to intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance to protect Marines against enemy threats, The Washington Post reported in 1988.
Now-retired Gen. David Berger, who ended his term as the 38th Marine commandant in July, told Defense News that the attack in Beirut was a foundational moment for him as a second lieutenant based in California.
Marines from his class at The Basic School were killed.
“We didn’t know how to prepare for it,” Berger said in June. “It wasn’t anything that was taught in The Basic School.”
“It made everything real,” he said.
Beirut shaped the Marines who have shaped the Marine Corps in the past 40 years, but it is impossible to know what the Marines and corpsmen who lost their lives in the attack could have contributed to the Marine Corps.
What valor would they have shown in battle? What bold ideas would they have put forward? How would they have guided younger Marines?
“This was a tragedy of people, where each was unique, and each had a story,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arnold Resnicoff, a now-retired Navy chaplain who lived through the bombing, wrote in a report that President Ronald Reagan read aloud in a 1984 speech.
“Each had a past, and each had been cheated of a future.”
Remembering the ‘black eye’
Even though the attack had lasting effects on Marine leaders and veterans, it is sometimes left out of the Corps’ public messaging.
The Marine Corps History Division’s “brief history” of the Corps, completed in 2006, makes no specific mention of the attack, saying instead that the Marines in Beirut “faced the hazards of their mission with courage and professionalism.”
In 2022, the official Marine Corps Instagram had posts commemorating events ranging from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir to the Korean War Armistice Day to the 75th Anniversary of Toys for Tots to the Space Force Birthday. But on Oct. 23, 2022, there was nothing posted on the page about the bombing in Beirut.
To be sure, the Corps has commemorated the attack in other social media posts and in a 2020 video featuring heartfelt words from top Marine leadership. In North Carolina, Camp Lejeune supports the annual commemoration organized by the Beirut Memorial Advisory Board in coordination with the city of Jacksonville, according to spokesman Maj. R J Powers.
The city and the base are working on joint video productions to mark this anniversary, Powers told Marine Corps Times in September.
In the trailer of the forthcoming documentary “We Came in Peace” by filmmaker Michael Ivey, Marine veterans who survived the attack said they were disappointed to see their country seemingly forget about the Marines’ service and sacrifices in Lebanon.
“It’s almost like we don’t want to remember it,” retired Sgt. Maj. Ronald Kirby, who was a gunnery sergeant in 1983, says in the opening moments of the trailer. “It’s like a black eye.”
“But for those that were involved in it, they’ll never forget it. And their families that were involved in it — they’ll never forget it.”
Jacksonville, North Carolina, hasn’t forgotten about the bombing.
The city is home to Camp Lejeune, the home base of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, now called the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and its ground combat element, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.
Since 1986, the North Carolina city also has been home to the granite memorial bearing the names of the 273 U.S. service members stationed in the community who were killed overseas from 1982–1984, according to the Marine Corps. Also inscribed on the memorial is the motto that has come to represent those who died in the attack: “They came in peace.”
Nearby, there’s a grove of 273 Chinese pistache trees, which are at their loveliest orange-red each October, the city said.
Every five years, Paul “Doc” Doolittle, a Marine veteran who was stationed in South Carolina in October 1983, walks 273 miles around Jacksonville, North Carolina, in memory of the service members whose names are inscribed on the city’s Beirut memorial wall.
“Our memories are erased or overwritten by other things, and this one just doesn’t deserve to be overwritten,” Doolittle said.
Schiefelbein said he expects 2,000–3,000 people to show up to 2023′s annual Beirut commemoration, an event he helps coordinate. Smith, the acting commandant, is slated to be the keynote speaker, according to Schiefelbein. Gray, 95, still makes it to the ceremony each year if he is able.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, Marines from 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, run a total of 241 consecutive miles to remember those killed in the bombing. There’s a candlelight ceremony in the early morning.
Bembenek, the Marine veteran who went on to work in the New York Police Department, won’t be at the 2023 commemoration, he told Marine Corps Times in September.
His niece is getting married in California the day before. When Bembenek was weighing whether to go to the Beirut commemoration instead, his friend, a fellow Marine veteran, told him: “Family first, Eric.”
But Beirut will be on his mind while he’s on the plane back to New York on Oct. 23. It already is, Bembenek said.
He previously spent a few years in therapy, working to “unravel this big ball of yarn,” as he said his therapist put it. It helped him a lot, he said.
About five years ago, while on a trip to Israel, Bembenek looked out at the sunset. Nearly four decades after his deployments to the Middle East, he was struck that it was just like the sunset he’d seen every evening from the airport in Beirut.
“The only thing I could think of was, ‘The sunset hasn’t changed, but thank God I have,” he said. “’My life has changed, and I’m OK today.’” ■
Defense News reporter Megan Eckstein contributed to this report.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.