Marines in Beirut, Part I: 32d MAU Goes Ashore

23 Sep 2003 | Gunnery Sgt. Keith A. Milks

When the military arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began lobbing artillery shells against Jewish settlements in the northern Israeli province of Galilee from positions inside Lebanon, they brought to fruition long-simmering tensions in the region. The ensuing Israeli response was as swift and violent as it was predicable. On June 6, 1982, seven Israeli Defense Force (IDF) divisions numbering 78,000 men and more than 1,200 tanks crossed the border into Lebanon across a 63-mile front. The intent of Operation PEACE FOR GALILEE was to create a 40-kilometer buffer zone inside Lebanon to thwart future attacks against the Galilee settlements and crush PLO and Syrian forces in the country.Despite pockets of fierce resistance, the IDF sent the PLO fleeing toward the Lebanese capital of Beirut and severely mauled the 30 thousand-strong Syrian force both on the ground and in the air. After six days of intense combat, a ceasefire was signed between Syria and Israel, and later, the PLO. The Lebanese, who had stood aside as the IDF advanced, watched in horror as 14 thousand PLO fighters poured into Beirut, which prompted the IDF to encircle the city by both land and sea, laying siege to the city.Meanwhile, the 32d Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU), based out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. and commanded by Col. James M. Mead, was ordered to Lebanese coastal waters as the situation in Lebanon unfolded. The 32d MAU had left the United States on May 25, 1982 aboard the amphibious ships USS GUAM, NASHVILLE, HERITAGE, SAGINAW, and MANITOWOC, and consisted of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 2d Bn., 8th Marines, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), and MAU Service Support Group 32.Over the course of the next four months, the 32d MAU remained on station off Lebanon prepared to conduct missions ashore. On June 24, MSSG-32 oversaw the evacuation of 580 noncombatants from the port of Juniyah while HMM-261 (Rein) was kept busy supporting the ongoing efforts of the U.S. State Department to forge a lasting peace. Dubbed the 'Cammie Cab Service,' HMM-261 flew more than 60 missions in support of these diplomatic efforts.During this prolonged period afloat, the ships were able to break away piecemeal to make port visits in Italy. Doing so required the MAU to constantly shift personnel and equipment to ensure forces remained on hand to support any given mission, but gave the Marines and Sailors a much-needed break from the tedium of cutting 'gator squares.'In early August, a military liaison team went ashore to support the Special Envoy to Lebanon, Ambassador Phillip C. Habib. Representing the MAU was Lt. Col. Robert B. Johnston, commanding officer of the unit's ground combat element, BLT 2/8.The focus of the ongoing negotiations was to secure the evacuation of the PLO forces from Beirut as fighting continued to escalate in and around Beirut between the IDF, PLO, Lebanese Christians, and Shi'ite Moslems. Finally, after weeks of intense negotiations, an agreement was On Aug. 25, a 2,000-man peacekeeping force (composed of 400 Italians, 800 French, and 800 American troops) was ordered to land in Beirut. The 32d MAU provided the American contingent of the force, and was tasked with securing Beirut's port through which the PLO would be evacuated by ship. Via landing craft, utility (LCU), E and F Companies were the first ashore and immediately secured the port. G Company followed, as did elements of the MAU Command Element and MSSG-32.The next morning, the first ship arrived in port to begin evacuating PLO and Syrian forces. By the end of the day, 1,066 PLO fighters had been allowed to pass through the Marine lines and reach the ship. Elsewhere in Beirut, the Italian and French were also facilitating the departure of the PLO and Syrians.Over the course of the next 15 days, the evacuation went smoothly as the PLO streamed through the port facilities. The culminating event was the departure of PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, on Aug. 30. Escorted by French forces, Arafat's arrival at the port caused a huge crowd of well-wishers and media to congregate.As they approached the port gate, guarded by the grunts of E/2/8, some of Arafat's 25-man bodyguard detachment attempted to push their way past the Marines. The Marines coolly stood their ground and pushed back. The PLO thugs quickly backed down and within the hour, Arafat was aboard the merchant ship ATLANTIS and out of Beirut.By Sept. 9, the evacuation was complete, calm had more or less descended onto Beirut, and the 32d MAU began reboarding its amphibious shipping. During their 15 days ashore in Beirut, the 32d MAU oversaw the evacuation of 6,436 armed PLO and Syrian fighters, and do so firing a shot.Mere days after the Marines left, on Sept. 14, Lebanon's Christian president-elect, Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated by PLO supporters. Compounded by the massacre of several hundred Palestinian refugees by Christian militia, Beirut again exploded into violence. Lebanon's new president immediately requested a Multi-National Force (MNF) to arrive in Beirut to help restore the peace.In the midst of well-deserved liberty visits to Italy, the 32d MAU was again ordered to Beirut, and arrived there in late September. During the day of Sept. 29, more than 1,200 Marines came ashore at the port of Beirut and convoyed to their positions at Beirut International Airport. Italian troops occupied the areas to the south of Beirut that teemed with refugee camps and the French operated in Beirut itself. All told, the MNF numbered 3,000 troops.Sept. 30 brought the first casualties of the American presence in Beirut. As they cleared BIA, an unexploded piece of ordnance unexpectedly detonated, killing Cpl. David Reagan and wounding three other Marines. Reagan would be the first of 266 Americans to die in Beirut.The 32d MAU quickly went to work fortifying BIA, digging fighting positions, erecting guard posts, laying concertina wire, and clearing fields of fire. The headquarters for the MAU and its elements ashore were established in abandoned buildings throughout the BIA terminal area.While the MAU Command Element, BLT 2/8, and MSSG-32 had a sizable force presence ashore, all of HMM-261 (Rein) remained aboard ARG shipping except for a single CH-46E which stood ready at BIA in case of medical emergencies.Throughout October, the Marines conducted limited foot and vehicular patrols in the direct vicinity of BIA, and forged lasting relationships with the French and Italian contingents of the MNF through social functions and sporting events.At this time, the local populace of Beirut displayed little overt opposition to the MNF presence and the 32d MAU Marines were frequently. The area around BIA was essentially a Muslim enclave and the Marines were well-received as they were seen as a deterrent to further Israeli, Syrian, PLO, and Christian imposition on their neighborhoods.Despite a few desultory rounds landing on the Marine compound fired by the Lebanese, PLO, Israeli, and numerous militias operating in and around Beirut, the Americans were not an active target. Unfortunately, this would not last.By late October, the 32d MAU had been deployed longer than anticipated, and the arrival of the advance party from the 24th MAU on Oct. 26 was well-received. Turn-over between the two MAUs continued for four days as the incoming MAU was briefed on the situation in Beirut and disposition of forces ashore. Early on the morning of Oct. 30, elements of the 24th MAU came ashore and conducted a relief-in-place with the 32d. Col. Thomas M. Stokes, Jr., Commanding Officer of the 24th MAU, relieved Col. Mead as the Commander, Task Force 62, and assumed responsibility for American participation in the MNF.With their forces back aboard ship, the 22d MAU headed west toward an exercise in Morocco, then on to Rota, Spain and eventually the United States. Upon arrival at the port in Morehead City, N.C. the 32d MAU was met by a massive crowd of media representatives, well-wishers and official dignitaries, including the future Marine Corps Commandant, then-Maj. Gen. Alfred M. Gray, Jr., who was at that time the Commanding General of the 2d Marine Division. Meanwhile, back in Beirut, the 24th MAU was settling in for a sustained deployment in Lebanon that would bring the unit, and later, the 22d MAU, its share of heartache, exasperation, and frustration.This story is the first is a three-part series that details the role Marines played in Beirut from 1982 to 84. A fourth installment details the 22d MAU's participation in Operation URGENT FURY in Grenada. New chapters will be posted to www.usmc.mil and www.22meu.usmc.mil each Monday in October.
22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit