'We All Grew Up That Day:' Marines Mark 35th Anniversary of Deadly Beirut Bombing

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller speaks to U.S. Marines with 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, on Camp Lejeune, N.C., Oct. 23, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Tojyea G. Matally)
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller speaks to U.S. Marines with 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, on Camp Lejeune, N.C., Oct. 23, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Tojyea G. Matally)

Marines and families of the fallen gathered Tuesday to mark the 35th anniversary of the 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 in what the Trump administration has called the "opening salvo" in the global war on terror.

"I think we all kind of grew up that day, because we knew the world had changed," Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said at the annual ceremony of remembrance at the memorial for the fallen in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

The memorial bears the inscription "They Came In Peace" and lists the names of the 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers who died that day as part of the multinational peacekeeping force in Lebanon at the time that was trying to maintain order in the midst of a sectarian civil war. Most of the Marines killed in the attack were assigned to the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, based out of Camp Lejeune.

It was the worst single day for Marine casualties since the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. The FBI later estimated that the suicide truck bomber who roared past sentries, who were forbidden by their rules of engagement, set off a blast equivalent to 21,000 pounds of TNT.

On that same day, another suicide truck bomber hit the French barracks, killing 58 French paratroopers.

In his remarks at Lejeune Tuesday, Neller noted that "many would state that that event -- the loss of those Marines, along with the French paratroopers -- started the global war on terror."

"Maybe that's true, I don't know," he said, "but I know it changed the way we saw the world. It changed the way we looked at threats. It changed the way we operated -- and those lessons learned carried through the rest of our time as Marines. And that impact of Beirut still shapes us today."

The Lejeune appearance was possibly the beginning of a long farewell to service for Neller, whose term as Commandant will end in the coming months. Neller said he had not been to the Lejeune ceremony before.

"I realized I was getting near the end of this journey. It has been my honor to serve this Marine Corps and to serve with you," he said.

When the barracks bombing occurred, Neller said he was a naïve young captain at The Basic School, the training ground for Marine officers in Quantico, Virginia.

He remembered someone telling him to turn on the TV, because the Marine barracks had just been attacked.

"It was kind of like 9/11," he said. "'They did what?'"

Neller said the attack came at a moment of rebuilding as a nation, following the end of the Vietnam War, with a new president, Ronald Reagan in the White House.

I know there are no words that can express our sorrow and grief for the loss of those splendid young men," Reagan told the world from the White House lawn. "Likewise, there are no words to properly express our outrage at this despicable act. But I think we should all recognize these deeds make so evident the bestial nature of those who would assume power if they could have their way and drive us out of that area."

Neller said the attacks forced the Marine Corps to rethink training and tactics.

"I think it changed how we all look at the world," he said. "I think it changed all of us and I think it made us realize that it's a dangerous place out there and the reason our nation has Marines is so we that can go to bed at night and not have to worry about stuff like that."

Neller was joined at the ceremony by the legendary 90-year-old retired Gen. Al Gray, a former enlisted Marine who ultimately served as the 29th Commandant.

Gray, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam who commanded the 2nd Marine Division at Lejeune at the time of the attacks, delivered much the same message of a world changed by terror.

"I used to worry after the Beirut bombing," Gray said. "I didn't worry about your Marines. Our fallen comrades wouldn't tolerate our not being ready to go, but I was worried about the nation -- what was this going to do to the nation? I worried about that."

Later that year, on his way to a remembrance ceremony, Gray said he noticed passersby standing at the roadside and saluting.

"I knew then that we were going to be all right," Gray said.

Responsibility for the Beirut bombings has never been officially pinned down, but a previously unknown group called "Islamic Jihad" initially claimed to have perpetrated the attacks. Islamic Jihad reportedly had links to Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, but Iran and Hezbollah have continued to deny involvement.

The memorial at Lejeune is one of several for the Beirut bombings. There is another at the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center in Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, and at Arlington National Cemetery one of the iconic cedars of Lebanon stands near the graves of some of the fallen from Beirut.

Neller said the Beirut bombings were at the back of his mind when he was interviewed by a journalist at the end of a tour in Iraq. She asked what he would tell the families of those in his command who had been killed.

"'I would tell them that they did their duty,'" Neller said he told the reporter, but he quickly realized that what he had said was not equal to the moment.

He went back to the reporter and asked her to try to imagine a place where there were no Marines and soldiers to step forward in the face of a threat.

"We don't live there," Neller said he told the reporter. "We live here. And as long as we have men and women from communities like this, who are willing to stand up and raise their hand and say, 'I'll go;' we're going to be just fine. And when I think of the names on the wall behind me, that's what those Marines did -- they said: 'I'll go; I'll accept the risk; I will do my duty.'"

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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