Editor’s note: In 1982 Marines were sent to Lebanon as peacekeepers during the Lebanese Civil War. On Oct. 23, 1983, a truck filled with explosives crashed into a Marine barracks building in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. A similar truck struck a French military barracks building, killing 58 French service members. The Beirut bombing resulted in the withdrawal of international forces from Lebanon.
Tim McCoskey, a Beirut bombing survivor, shares his story from that day.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The barracks building was gone. The four-story building where hundreds of Marines with the Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, lived was gone.
No freakin’ way, I thought. Just to be sure, I ran to the other side of my
tent. I knew from here I’d have to see the building.
Sure enough, as I rounded the other side, there was nothing but a mushroom cloud where the barracks building once was.
It was at that moment I realized the cakewalk was over.
Now, this was for real.
I arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, May 29, 1983, aboard the USS El Paso. Half my platoon had been to Beirut the first time 24th Marine Amphibious Unit went to Lebanon in Oct. 1982. They told us being stationed here was like a holiday.
When outside the wire, though, we saw blown up motorcycles and buildings that hinted at a fight we weren’t a part of.
My days consisted of driving to the embassy to transport Marines or supplies, picking up troops from the beach, delivering chow to line troops and dumping trash. We always heard the fighting, but we were there to be peacekeepers and not get involved.
I woke up the morning of Oct. 23 when my buddy Lance Cpl. Ronald Putnam returned from his night duty around six. He wanted to go get chow at the BLT, but since I had Meals Ready to Eat in my tent already, I decided to just cook them up in there and deliver them to the line troops. As I began boiling water, Putnam told me how the base had been put on high alert because there had been a terrorist threat the night before.
By this time, a few other Marines in our tent began to get up and move around. Suddenly, we all heard an explosion that sounded like artillery round had hit right outside our tent.
A second later, chunks of concrete were coming through our tent. In an instant, chaos broke out. Everyone was yelling, “Get to the bunkers; get to the bunkers!”
I was already running to the bunker. As soon as we were all inside, I heard someone say that the BLT was gone. Slowly, we emerged from the bunkers and the rumors were confirmed.
Honestly, I can’t remember what happened on our trip from the bunker to the site of the explosion. Maybe I saw something so terrible my mind blocked it out. But my memory picks back up five minutes later as I stood next to a pile of rubble amidst the settling dust of the explosion.
All I could think was, What’s next? Will they attack again?
Those thoughts only lingered in my mind for a minute, because reality took over. We had to help our Marines.
The building was like nothing I’d ever seen. Everything was mangled. Dust was flying everywhere so it was difficult to breathe. People walked around who had just gotten out of the building. They were full of concrete dust. Some were bloody.
Right away, we started sifting through the rubble for survivors. Occasionally we could hear muffled cries for help. We would have to sift through the concrete to slowly uncover those trapped. We transported the injured to the Marine Security Guard building, which became our aid station. It was difficult work because debris was everywhere.
A few Marines found one body under the rubble that was still zipped up in a sleeping bag. They decided to take him out of his sleeping bag before putting him in a body bag. When they unzipped the bag he opened his eyes and said, “Anybody got a Pepsi?”
After a while of picking through the debris, we started to run out of survivors. That’s when we began to come across the dead. My buddies, Lance Cpl. Tony McVeigh and Putnam and I started hauling bodies and loading them onto the trucks. Eventually, we began piling the bodies any way we could so we could transport them faster. We took them to the airport hangar and stacked them in three rows of ten. The rows just went on and on down the hangar. I stopped counting at 150 bodies and went back to retrieve more.
When we didn’t have any bodies to take to the hangar, we sifted through the rubble. We found one Marine whose legs were pinned by a huge beam. We went to get a crane, but I was filled with this crazy-ass strength and just lifted the beam off of him. Another Marine grabbed him, and we pulled him out of there.
At one point as we were walking through the rubble looking for any signs of life, a Marine hollered that he had found another survivor.
We rushed over and began digging. We dug for what must have been 10 minutes, or maybe it was 30 minutes, but finally we saw two fingers – just two fingers moving. The sign of life motivated us to work harder and we started pulling out pieces of concrete. The more we dug, the more of the survivor we uncovered. There was a huge piece of concrete that was about three feet by three feet and six inches thick. I don’t know how I did it, but I just picked it up and moved it off of him. Eventually, we got to the point where we were able to identify him as the chaplain and uncovered all of his body except for one ankle.
The chaplain started screaming at us, “Get me out of here. Get me out of here!”
At that point we realized if we moved any more debris, the building would collapse on the chaplain. I wanted to just yank the chaplain out and run the risk that he would lose his foot, but was ordered to continue to uncover him.
I slid into the tiny space where the chaplain was trapped, with my arms protecting my head, so I could remove the rubble. Sure enough as soon as I moved the piece of concrete, that portion of the building collapsed on the chaplain and me. We were pinned underneath the rubble for about 30 minutes before the other Marines were able to free us.
Thankfully the chaplain was all right, and although I had no circulation in my arms for half an hour, I was uninjured.
Even while rescuing as many Marines as we could, we had to stay on our guard. While I was loading bodies on the truck, I caught sniper fire and had to lie down on the dead bodies for cover. We had to trust that our infantry Marines on the perimeter were doing their job, so we could take care of our own.
As we got deeper into the pile of rubble, we began to find arms and legs and bodies that were charred from the fire. There were some really mangled Marines in there. There was one Marine I will never forget. I could make out a Pegasus tattoo on his arm, but a concrete slab had taken his entire face off. Those are the things that haunt my dreams at night.
During the rescue efforts, we had to be cruel. We couldn’t have emotion. You had to block out what you were seeing, because there was no way any of us would have made it through otherwise.
When I was a teenager, I once attended an open-casket memorial and vowed I would never touch a dead body. Now, just a few years later, I was hauling countless of my fallen comrades from the rubble in Beirut.
After three days, I was ordered to get some food and sleep. I went back to my tent and tried to eat an MRE. I took one whiff of it and felt sick to my stomach. I laid down on my cot with my cammies still on, but when I closed my eyes, all I could see was dead people. Then I felt something brush against my leg and that was it – I was up and back at the rescue site.
About five days into the rescue efforts, they chased us off and the FBI came in to investigate. All the able-bodied Marines went back to our normal duties for the next few weeks until we pulled out of Lebanon. But none of us were ever quite the same.
Most of us wanted to stay. We wanted to find those responsible for the explosion and repay them for all our brothers lost. But we followed orders and returned to the States Dec. 7. It was then that reality began to set in.
When we shared our stories with those back home, they just didn’t understand. No one could comprehend what we went through there. No one could understand the nightmares that filled my nights and the faces I’d see when I closed my eyes. No one except for the Marines who were there will ever fully understand.
It’s been 29 years since the bombing, but I still have a nightmare every once in a while. I’ve stayed in touch with a handful of my buddies from Beirut, and we try to get together a few times a year. Although we all bear the scars of that day, we also learned just how valuable life is. We made it through Beirut together, and we will continue to look out for each other as long as we can because that’s what Marines