How a US Marine Single-handedly Stopped Israeli Tanks in Lebanon

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A U.S. Marine stands watch at the perimeter of Beirut International Airport as Marines jog in the background. (National Archives)

''After completion of the patrol, a U.S. Marine officer approached the Israeli unit and claimed that it should not be in this area. The Israeli commander explained that he was operating in the territory previously agreed upon and left.''

That was how the Israeli government described what happened in Beirut in February 1983. What the statement from Israel doesn't mention is that the Israel Defense Forces commander left when the Marine Corps' officer in charge climbed upon the Israeli tank, pistol drawn and told them they could cross Marine lines "over my dead body."

Marines were in Lebanon following a negotiated ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), hoping to end each side's involvement in the ongoing Lebanese Civil War. A four-nation Multinational Force (MNF) was created to keep the peace as the PLO evacuated the country, along with other foreign forces.

U.S. Marines take cover during a firefight in Beirut, 1983. (National Archives)

Lebanon's civil war had been going on since 1975. Christian militias, secular Arabs, Shi'a Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Druze, Maronites and Armenians all formed their militia groups alongside the external forces, which included the PLO, IDF, Syria and the Soviet Union.

In the middle of all of that were French, British and Italian peacekeeping troops, along with U.S. Marines. The MNF's mission was to prevent attacks between the Lebanese Army and Israel Defense Forces as the two sides negotiated a bilateral end to the war that had been raging since Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982.

Within a week of the Israeli invasion, Beirut was under siege. An estimated 6,000 people died, an overwhelming majority of whom were civilians. The loss of life was so bad, President Ronald Reagan called it a "holocaust" while on the phone with Israel's prime minister.

On Feb. 3, 1983, The New York Times reported an Israeli government claim that three tanks on a routine patrol happened across a unit of U.S. Marines. According to Israel, the tanks were operating in a previously agreed-upon area. The Marines on the ground didn't see it that way; all they saw were three Centurion tanks driving toward the MNF perimeter.

Marine Corps Capt. Charles B. Johnson walked into the path of the tanks and stood motionless as they stopped within a foot of his face. He stood there for a full five minutes while not much seemed to happen. Eventually, an Israeli lieutenant colonel exited the lead tank to talk to Johnson.

The Israeli told Johnson his mission, and when the Marine wouldn't budge, he demanded to speak to a general. When Johnson repeated his orders that the Israelis could not pass, the IDF commander told Johnson he would drive through the Marines. Johnson drew his sidearm, climbed up the tank and told the commander he could drive through the lines over his dead body.

A Washington Post report of the same incident was much more action-packed. According to the Post report, Johnson approached the lead tank with his sidearm drawn and in ready position. It also says the two other tanks approached the Marines at "battle speed," Johnson climbed the tank with his pistol in the air and demanded the commander order his tanks to stop.

However it happened, the standoff in Beirut lasted about 50 minutes, after which the IDF tanks withdrew. The Israeli government denied the tanks were ever trying to cross the Marines' line. Johnson was praised by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for his "courageous action."

U.S. Marines at Beirut International Airport in 1982. (National Archives)

Later that year, the Marine barracks in Beirut were hit by suicide bombers, killing 241 U.S. Marines. It soon became clear that the situation in Lebanon was getting out of hand and the Lebanese Army was collapsing. The Marines were moved offshore in February 1984, and the Multinational Force left Lebanon in July of that year.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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