In the summer of 1982, at the request of the Lebanese government, the United States agreed to establish a U.S. Military presence in that country to serve as a peacekeeping force in the conflict between warring Muslim and Christian factions. On March 24, 1983, the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, received orders to Beirut, Lebanon in support of that commitment.
Initially, the U.S. Forces, along with French and Italian Forces, provided a measure of stability; however, as diplomatic efforts failed to achieve a basis for a lasting settlement, the Muslim factions came to perceive the Marines as enemies. This led to artillery, mortar, and small arms fires being directed at the Marine Corps positions — with appropriate, measured response being taken against identified targets.
In the early morning of October 23, 1983, the First Battalion, 8th Marines Headquarters building was destroyed by a non-Lebanese, terrorist-driven truck, laden with compressed gas-enhanced explosives. This truck, like many others, had become a familiar sight at the airport and so did not raise any alarm on this morning. The resulting explosion and the collapse of the building killed 241 Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers.
Many of the victims of the atrocity were residents of Jacksonville, North Carolina. They were known as fathers, neighbors, fellow church members, and little league baseball and soccer coaches. The community was stunned over the loss of these fine men. The City of Jacksonville Beautification and Appearance Commission had previously established a memorial tree program to plant trees as a living memorial to deceased friends and family members. On the afternoon of this tragic bombing, the Commission met and decided to seek permission to plant memorial trees on Lejeune Boulevard, the main traffic artery joining Jacksonville and Camp Lejeune, to honor our fallen neighbors. This action resulted in an immediate response from the general public, locally, and nationally, as funds began coming in to support this project. This became the “birth” of the Beirut Memorial.
At the Northwoods Park Middle School, a group of classes, taught by Mrs. Martha Warren, initiated a support project to write the families of the men who had lost their lives. These students also helped to raise funds for the memorial trees and became a focal point in this effort. A ninth grader auctioned her Cabbage patch doll and raised $1500 for the project. One tree was planted for each lost serviceman along Lejeune Boulevard and the completed tree project was dedicated on March 24, 1984.
Following the tree dedication, contributions continued to come in. The Commission began seeking a means to erect a simple marker to depict the history and significance of the trees. Camp Lejeune offered the Commission 4.5 acres of highly visible and publicly accessible land at the corner of Lejeune Boulevard and Montford Landing Road. This gift expanded the Commission's vision of the final form of the Memorial and serious fund raising was launched. The selected design was the result of a design competition among the graduate students of the School of Design at North Carolina State University.
The Commission faced a number of funding challenges, but with the assistance of some tremendous people and organizations, sufficient funds were finally received to begin the construction in May 1986. The general contractor was Onslow Construction and Utility Company under the direction of Mr. Woody Myers and Mr. Ron Ellen. The electrical work was performed by Mr. John Baysden of Big John's Electric Company. Mr. Ray Brown of McDonalds donated the flag poles. The bricks are from North Carolina and the Georgia granite was engraved by Joyner Memorials of Wilson, North Carolina. The completed Memorial was dedicated on October 23, 1986 with approximately 2000 people in attendance.
In the niche between the two broken walls, which depict the crumbled walls of the bombed headquarters building, there was a pedestal to support a statue. With the completion of the memorial plaza and funds still remaining, the Commission began to explore ways to commission the statue and achieve the ultimate long-range completion of the Memorial. After a year-long study of sculpture and artists, the Commission agreed that Abbé Godwin, creator of North Carolina's Vietnam Memorial in Raleigh, should be their sculptor. Abbé agreed to meet with the Commission to discuss the statue concept and the financial aspects. She insisted on visiting the site for about two hours prior to the scheduled meeting. Upon meeting with the Commission, she expressed her intense desire to create the sculpture, and agreed to perform the work for the available funds — $60,000. This final phase would bring the total cost of the Memorial to $271,000.
Almost a year later, Abbé was in Long Island, New York to personally oversee the casting of an exquisite bronze statue. The statue was dedicated on October 22, 1988, some five years after that tragic day in Beirut, Lebanon. A full-size epoxy replica of the statue now stands in the National Fleet Reserve Associated Headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Miniatures of the statue have been created for the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation to fund scholarships for military dependents.
In 1991, the Beirut families added the poem, The Other Wall, written by Robert A. Gannon of Derry, New Hampshire. The poem was cast in bronze and dedicated at a 1991 observance ceremony.
There are 273 names and the words “THEY CAME IN PEACE” engraved on the walls of the Memorial. In addition to the inscribed names of those who died in Beirut and those who have died since of injuries from that blast, there are the names of the three Marine pilots from our community who were killed in Grenada.
The full impact of the project is far beyond the beautiful memorial that now occupies the wooded site between Camp Lejeune and Jacksonville. The fund raising efforts, the cooperation of the entire community, the construction of the Memorial, and the commissioning of the statue have brought our civilian and military communities together so that we are virtually one. Annually, an observance is held that includes the families of the deceased, military personnel and the civilian community, further cementing that relationship. Never before has a civilian community constructed a memorial of this dimension, honoring their military neighbors. Forty-three years of proximity had not accomplished the unity that this one project has. This unity is the true impact of the Beirut Memorial.