Marine barracks bombing, which killed Hampton Roads Marines, still echoes in the Middle East
Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff was a Navy chaplain stationed in Norfolk, before he arrived in Beirut the weekend of Oct. 23, 1983. When an explosion happened at 6:22 am, he thought his barracks had been shelled. The blast knocked him off his feet.
“As we got up, we were slapping each other on the back and thanking God that we made it. Whatever hit us didn't destroy us,” he said.
Resnicoff then heard the sound of chaos coming from outside.
“Only then, because of the screams from the building 75 yards away, and also the screams from the Marines outside yelling for us to come help, we realized we had only suffered the shock wave of the blast,” he said.
When all the bodies were finally unearthed from the rubble, 241 people were dead, including sailors and soldiers, but mostly U.S. Marines from Camp Lejeune North Carolina. A truck bomber had burst through the gates of the airports where they were sleeping on Sunday. More Marines died that day than on any day since Iwo Jima in World War II. With 2,000 pounds of explosives detonated, it was seen as one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, according to the Marines.
Over the next few days, Resnicoff lost his traditional head covering, called a kippah or yarmulke, while helping to dig out the wounded. One of his fellow chaplains took a piece from his own uniform and fashioned the rabbi another one out of camouflage.
“He said, ‘I want every Marine here, every military person here to know that unlike the country that we're in right now, where every religion is fighting other religions, we chaplains helped everyone. And not just that, we did it side by side,’” Resnicoff said.
President Ronald Reagan sent the U.S. into Beirut on the invitation of the Lebanese government at the time. It was supposed to be a peace-keeping operation, but the country was in the middle of a civil war, said Bilal Saab, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“We did not see the kind of opposition that we would face, and we did not read the terrain quite properly and also the regional context,” Saab said. “We truly believed that we were there to sort of keep the peace. But there was no peace to be kept. It was law of the jungle at the time in Lebanon.”
A second explosion killed 58 French paratroopers, who were part of the same peace-keeping force. A U.S. court would eventually determine that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah was responsible. In March, as part of a lawsuit, a federal court in New York ordered the banks tied to the Iranian government to pay $1.6 billion to the families of service members killed in the blast.
Forty years after the attack, the bombing is often cited as the beginning of what the U.S. would later call the War on Terror.
“I think that the modern era of spectacular terrorism, I would say, started with Hezbollah,” Saab said.
Mireille Rebeiz, an associate professor at Dickinson College, has been researching the incident. Rebeiz heard stories about the bombing growing up in Lebanon. She says the lessons are still being learned in Lebanon and in the U.S.
“It's important to address the roots of the problem, the systematic oppression and structural oppression,” she said. “The indignity in which some people live are the main reason that terrorism grows. People are not born hateful. People become hateful.”
She has spoken to veterans of the 1983 Barracks Bombing, after the attacks by Hamas and the Israeli response. Because of the conflict’s complexity, she says they’ve told her they hope the U.S. does not intervene directly in the current conflict.
Though the families don’t want the barracks bombing to fade from memory four decades later, says Stephanie Barrett-Smith, of Tappahannock, VA, sister of Lance Crpl. Richard Barrett.
“He was proud to be a Marine,” she said. “I don't think he really had any problems with being down. Because, you know, nobody ever expected any of that to happen.”
In 1983, Barrett-Smith waited for two weeks, before hearing any news about her brother. Because the four-story barracks had been so thoroughly destroyed, many of the dead were listed as missing in action.
“Basically, we were all hoping that no news was good news, kind of thing,” she said. “And then I think a couple of weeks go-on by and then the government car pulled up in front of my dad's work.”
Like so many families facing a loss, she says she and her father would watch the news from Beirut, believing to the end that her brother was somehow still alive despite the explosion.
“He just ran through the shop screaming because he knew, you know, what that car was there for,” she said.
There is a memorial to the bombing at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Originally, she avoided going there, but now she goes each year on the anniversary. She said it’s important to be around others who remember.
The Virginia War Memorial will have a ceremony Oct. 23 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Barracks Bombing, and to honor the victims, which include 11 Virginians, including Marines from Hampton Roads.
- Nicholas Baker (Alexandria)
- Richard E. Barrett (Tappahannock)
- James R. Baynard (Richmond)
- William B. Foster Jr. (Richmond)
- Michael D. Fulcher (Amherst)
- Warner Gibbs Jr. (Portsmouth)
- Douglas E. Held (Richmond)
- James C. Knipple (Alexandria)
- Jeffrey B. Owen (Virginia Beach)
- Joseph A. Owens (Chesterfield)
- Eric G. Washington (Alexandria)
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