Thirty-three years have passed since the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II took the lives of 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. At about 6:20 in the morning on October 23, 1983, a yellow Mercedes truck charged through the barbed-wire fence around the American compound in Beirut and plowed past two guard stations. It drove straight into the barracks and exploded.
Eyewitnesses said that the force of the blast caused the entire building to float up above the ground for a moment before it pancaked down in a cloud of pulverized concrete and human remains. That day was the largest single-day loss of life of Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Americans were shocked at the devastation, but at the time few grasped the significance of the deadly bombing. It marked the emergence of a deadly new form of terrorism never seen on this scale. For those who served or joined soon thereafter, this was their generation’s 9/11 moment…a call to service in the midst of a terror attack.
Almost all of the 241 deceased service members were from Camp Lejeune, NC. 241 dads, husbands, and friends from one town gone in an instant…the impact was devastating to the small military town of Jacksonville, NC. Imagine what it would do to your community to lose that many of your men in one moment.
Today, near the entrance to Camp Johnson, a subsidiary base of Camp Lejeune, a memorial wall is nestled among the Carolina pines. The Beirut Memorial Wall, completed on Oct. 23, 1986, bears a list of those Americans who died in Lebanon. Only four words are inscribed on the Wall: “They Came in Peace.”
The Marines lost at Beirut are also remembered in another way. Soon after the attack, a middle school class in Jacksonville decided to raise money for a memorial for the Marines. The money they raised was used to purchase 241 trees.
For over a decade on my way to work, I would drive down Highway 24 (Lejeune Blvd) into the main entrance of Camp Lejeune. What makes this drive different is the center lane. It is lined with the 241 Bradford Pear Trees purchased by local students….one for each man lost.
What many don’t know is that on the other side of the world there is a matching set of trees. In 1992, the director of the Haifa, Israel USO coordinated the creation of a memorial park that included 241 olive trees. The trees lead to an overpass on Mount Carmel looking toward Beirut.
Col. Charles Dallachie, who was a survivor of the Beirut Bombing once wrote, “For Marines, great victories, great defeats and great sacrifices are never forgotten, but are remembered with battle streamers attached to unit colors. Unfortunately, there are no battle streamers to remember the ultimate sacrifice made in 1983 by Marines, sailors and soldiers in Beirut, Lebanon.”
He is correct, for the Marines lost at Beirut there are no battle streamers…there are only trees.