It was a quiet morning in Beirut, Lebanon. With the country divided during a civil war, Marines and other service members were present in the country conducting peacetime operations and took up headquarters at the Beirut International Airport. No one could have guessed on this morning at approximately 6:20 a.m., the Marine Corps, and the United States Military as a whole would experience one of its most devastating blows in recent history.
Oct. 23, 1983, 241 service members were killed in a bombing at the barracks in Beirut. Every year, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and the Jacksonville, N.C., communities observe the tragedy through an event at the Beirut Memorial to honor the service members who lost their lives in the attack.
Enlisted and commissioned service members from the Marine Corps, Army and Navy, and even members of foreign militaries packed the memorial to pay their respects at the 29th anniversary of what many call the original act of terrorism.
Ron Bower, a member of the Beirut Memorial advisory board, recalled the impact the attack had on the Marines back in the States.
“Ironically, I started working for the Marine Corps on the day of the attack,” he said. “I accepted a job offer at Camp Johnson, and I remember seeing it on the news that morning.”
Bower said he loves history, which caused him to research what happened at Beirut to educate himself, and it led him to become involved with the memorial and the yearly ceremony.
“I was involved with this since the ground breaking,” Bower said. “I developed the first ceremonial sequence for the event, and when I retired in 1999, I became a permanent member of the advisory board.”
The ceremony itself was a big affair, drawing hundreds of service members from various areas together to pay tribute to their fallen Americans. The guest speaker for the ceremony was Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Gorry, commanding general of Marine Corps Installations East – Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
“This morning has both personal and professional significance for me,” said Gorry. “I am truly honored to be able to address it during this ceremony. It was the deadliest single-day attack on Americans overseas since World War II, the deadliest single-day death toll in American history since the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, and the deadliest single-day in the Marine Corps since the battle of Iwo Jima.”
Gorry explained the Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Force were there to secure peace in Beirut. He said they were there to guard the Beirut airport and were true to the phrase etched into the wall of the memorial: “They came in peace.”
“They went to Lebanon to bring peace,” said Maj. Kemper Jones, the executive officer for 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, the battalion that was in Beirut during the bombing. “Many factions were fighting, and they went there to build peace and make it a safer place for people to live”
The battalion’s leadership was present at the ceremony and was a part of the wreath-laying portion of the observance.
“The Marines of 1st Battalion, 8th Marines are very proud to be a part of the heritage,” said Sgt. Maj. Manuel Colon, the battalion’s sergeant major. “They know what they represent as a part of the battalion, and they are proud of it.”
Jones said the ceremony is a great way to remember the Marines lost that day 29 years ago, and it’s a way to show respect to them as well.
After Gorry spoke, Gunnery Sgt. Angela Mink sang two songs honoring the fallen service members. Once she finished singing, three wreaths were laid in front of the memorial. One was to honor the connection between the Jacksonville and MCB Camp Lejeune communities, one to pay respect to the Marines and sailors who died during the attack and were a part of the community, and one representing the Marines of 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.
After the sobering ceremony, people in attendance were able to go up to the wall, many of whom searched for the name of a loved one they lost in the bombing.
“This has an unbelievable impact on the battalion and the community,” said Jones. “It’s part of what makes this such a special event. It pulls both the Marines and Jacksonville community together to share in the reaction of what happened.”