BEIRUT, Lebanon -- When Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit left Camp Lejeune, N.C., and set sail with the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group in early June, they left with thoughts of continuing the war on terror and bringing the fight to the foes of freedom.
Six weeks later they found themselves in a war zone, in the middle of a fight that wasn’t theirs, aiding American citizens anxious to leave Lebanon.
There are 241 reasons for Marines assigned to Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, to return to Lebanon. On Oct. 23, 1983, an explosives-laden truck ran through blockades and barriers and detonated in front of the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines who had come in peace. Yet instead of kicking in the door, charging through with weapons blazing, demanding vengeance, they have again come in peace.
On July 15, as the 24th MEU conducted a training exercise in Jordan, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon requested military assistance to transport American citizens wishing to leave the country. That evening, the Marines left the Jordanian desert and flew to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to lay the groundwork for the operations ahead.
The USS Nashville, one of three Marine-bearing amphibious-assault ships in the Iwo Jima ESG, was the first to load its personnel and equipment and begin steaming toward the Mediterranean. On July 18, as the Nashville pulled within range of Lebanon, a detachment of some 40 Marines from Charlie Company, 1/8, and another group from MEU Service Support Group 24, flew ashore. Their jobs, respectively, were to provide additional security at the U.S. embassy and to help facilitate the departure of Americans through an evacuation control center.
The first American evacuees were flown from the embassy near Beirut aboard Marine CH-53E helicopters, which had been dispatched from Jordan to provide an immediate response prior to the arrival of the bulk of the Strike Group. In the first few days, the heavy-lift Super Stallions moved hundreds of Marines across the sea to Cyprus. By the ninth day, Marines, embassy employees and Lebanese soldiers had successfully transported nearly 13,000 American citizens out of Lebanon.
For the Marines of the 24th MEU, transitioning from the combat training environment of Jordan to the humanitarian effort in Beirut was a minor adjustment. The very Marines now in Lebanon had months earlier rendered similar assistance back home, helping Americans devastated and displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
“We are trained to go into combat, but at the same time we are a force in readiness for anything,” said Lance Cpl. Patrick Kanalley, a 23-year-old, Buffalo, N.Y., native assigned to Charlie Company, BLT 1/8. “This isn’t the first time providing humanitarian aid. We were down in Katrina in September, so we’ve kinda got the gist of what would be needed here, although the numbers here are far more overwhelming.”
The hurricane had killed hundreds and left thousands more without shelter or personal effects, but the many challenges in the Gulf Coast did not include the need to avoid being drawn into a shooting war.
Once it became clear that thousands of American citizens caught in the crossfire between Israel and Hezbollah would need help leaving, the call went to the 24th MEU.
The logistical challenges were imposing.
“We were in the middle of a training exercise. We had all of our equipment and all of our Marines in the desert,” explained Col. Ron Johnson, commander of the 24th MEU. “We are accustomed to switching gears quickly, but to move all of our resources a couple of hundred miles back to our ships takes time. We pulled out all of the stops, and when the rest of the MEU arrived, we were able to accelerate our efforts ten-fold.”
After hitting the ground, the Marines worked with U.S. embassy officials in both Beirut and Cyprus to coordinate the massive task of moving thousands of Americans safely and quickly out of Lebanon. Thousands of evacuees were grouped together and guided through checkpoints to ensure that families remained together. Luggage was checked to keep contraband from leaving Lebanon and ending up in the States.
Throughout the checkpoints, under the increasingly warm July sun, uncertainty and anxiety gave way to relief, as American citizens waited to take advantage of a trip back into the arms their loved ones and our of the grip of war-torn Lebanon.
MSSG-24 Marines, working with State Department officials, kept detailed manifests listing who was leaving, how they were leaving, and whether they had valid passports and visas.
The BLT 1/8 ‘devil dogs’ jumped at the chance to help American citizens and their belongings onto waiting military landing craft, helicopters and chartered ocean liners.
“I’ve never seen my platoon complain less. Their attitude has been fantastic,” said 2nd Lt. Matthew Johnson, platoon commander for Charlie Company’s 2nd Platoon.
“I think they really enjoy helping people. It’s tangible -- they can see the (difference) they’re (making).”
The Marines worked closely with Lebanese soldiers, in assisting those waiting to depart, demonstrating a shared interest in ensuring that innocents were given every opportunity to leave the country.
Some of the Americans spent time on warships attached to the Iwo Jima ESG. The USS Whidbey Island and the USS Nashville are two of the ships that opened their doors and flight decks to the evacuees.
The historical coincidence of BLT 1/8’s return to Lebanon wasn’t lost on the Marines, who from boot camp on are regularly reminded of the Marine Corps’ horrific loss two decades ago.
“Twenty-three years ago, 1/8 was here, and this is where the bombing took place,” Kanalley reflected. “We were able to take a look at the memorial. It’s an eerie but good feeling to be back here. It’s a terrible tragedy what happened back in ’83, but we’re glad to be back in here helping out and doing some good for the American people.”