Colonel tells story of Beirut bombing in new book

23 Oct 2009 | Cpl. Katie Densmore

In tumultuous times of civil unrest, the U.S. Marines can be deployed on short notice to anywhere in the world. On August 25, 1982, the Marines did just this by entering Beirut on a peacekeeping mission. However, the mission ended without peace and a great loss to not only the American forces, but also the French, Italian, and British.

The bombing of the Marine Corps barracks and French barracks on October 23, 1983 forever changed the rules of engagement during a peace keeping mission.

One Marine who witnessed it all decided not to let his and the story of everyone who was in Beirut at the time fade away. Retired Marine Col. Timothy J. Geraghty, the commanding officer of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit at the time, wrote Peacekeepers at War.

His book gives insight into the terrible reality of what occurred leading up to and beyond the bombings from the perspective of an officer trying to rationalize an appropriate response and coordinate the rescue effort. While at the same time he had to hold back the rage of a man who had lost his brothers in arms and wanted nothing more than to strike out at the attackers. 

“It is a tale of conflict, commitment, mistakes, violence and valor,” Geraghty stated in the beginning of his book. “It is an account of America undertaking a noble mission to assist a war-torn country whose own people were their own worst enemy.”

The escalation of force in the conflict began well before the bombing.

“In late August (1983), the environment definitely changed,” he said. “The sporadic shelling and intermittent exchanges of small arms fire increased with accuracy and intensity.”

Due to the fact the Marines were on a peacekeeping mission, their response to the attacks was restrained.

“Our rules of engagement stated that we were not to initiate any of the exchanges, and when we were forced to respond, our response should be structured on trying to terminate it at the lowest possible level and in the shortest period of time so that it did not escalate into a larger fracas,” according to the book.

The peacekeepers restraint and the Israelis withdrawing from the greater Beirut area set up the volatile scene for not only the September War, but also the devastating bombings.

October 23, was a Sunday like many others. The routine was slightly different than most days of the week to give Marines and sailors much needed rest from the unraveling peacekeeping mission they were on.

Reveille was an hour later than normal and chow was served between 8 and 10 a.m. However, at 6:22 a.m. this would prove to be no ordinary Sunday.

“A massive explosion rocked our headquarters, followed by enormous shock waves,” states Geraghty in the chapter describing the bombing from his office across from the barracks. “Shards of glass from blown-out windows, equipment manuals and paper flew across my office. Fortunately we had put duct tape on all the windows for such an eventuality, but a large section of the sandbag wall built on the outside ledge, was blasted away.”

He immediately headed out of his office to find the source of the blast, at this point believing it was a missile. His ears were ringing from the explosion and the air was thick with a fog of dust, ash and debris, but he continued to search for answers. Between the ringing and the fog he hardly had any senses left to guide him, it was only then that he ran into a Marine who informed him a truck had driven through the compound and detonated in the barracks lobby.

“The explosive force of the blast caused the concrete, steel-reinforced four-story structure, which is considered one of the strongest buildings in Lebanon, to completely collapse,” he said. “Its total devastation was astounding. I took in this carnage as cries for help pierced the air.”

He immediately began to focus his efforts on securing the area out of the certainty of another eminent attack.

“I instinctively expected follow-on attacks and began organizing revised defenses to thwart them,” he said.

Geraghty then enacted new rules of engagement, which included shooting any vehicle that refused to stop when nearing the compound.

The book further details his actions and the rescue effort, which happened simultaneously to protect and recover everyone at the facility.

This experience forever changed Geraghty and everyone who survived the attacks. He honors the memory of those who fought so valiantly for peace throughout the book.

For the 26th anniversary of the bombing, Geraghty is coming to Camp Lejeune for a book signing, Oct. 22, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and to meet with the families and survivors of the attacks.

“I am excited to come back to Lejeune,” he said. “I am really looking forward to the book signing and meeting with the families of survivors. I have a pretty jammed schedule for the couple of days I am in town.”

Geraghty is not only looking forward to seeing those affected by the bombing, but also to meeting the Marines who have served in today’s conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I really miss the Marine Corps,” Geraghty said. “I see what the Marines are out there doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are doing a fantastic job. Their performance is just above and beyond, exactly what I expect from the Marine Corps."