Click here for audio interviews with survivors of Beirut bombing, Oct. 23, 1983.
Whenever he was out at sea, Staff Sgt. Mike Leiphart liked to test his men’s navigational skills. “What direction are we sailing in?” he asked the Marines in his platoon.
By checking the time on their watches against the sun’s position on the horizon, most men could make an educated guess which way the ship was heading.
Leiphart’s 36-man unit — 2nd Platoon, Golf Company — shipped out from Morehead City, N.C., on Oct. 18, 1983, in a five-ship convoy.
Their destination was Beirut, Lebanon. Based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines was due to relieve the 1st Battalion on duty as part of a multinational peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
As the float began on a cool, overcast day, even the most disoriented private knew they were heading east.
Which was why Leiphart, a tough farm boy from Pennsylvania, was surprised several days out at sea when he started playing his own game of “where are we?”
The early morning sun should have been dead ahead but, for some reason, Leiphart saw it was rising off the port side of the USS Manitowoc. The Navy ships were steaming south.
Leiphart, a careful, detail-oriented man, felt a bit disoriented. He was expecting a straight shot to Lebanon. The ships had been loaded to disembark on the beach at Beirut, once a crown jewel of the eastern Mediterranean. After years of fighting, the seaside resort had lost all its shine.
Leiphart had already pulled one tour in Lebanon but, amid reports of car bombings and snipings at the Marines, this second tour promised to be a tougher assignment.
“Since civil war erupted in 1975, the feuds of the Middle East had been fought on the streets of Beirut,” CBS News correspondent Larry Pintak wrote in his book “Beirut Outtakes.” “If a government wanted to make a point without itself going to war, it commissioned a battle in Beirut or hired an assassin to knock off one of its enemies there.”
Author and former Navy Secretary James Webb put it this way: “Never get involved in a five-sided argument that’s been going on for 2,000 years.”
— — —
Leiphart gathered with his men below decks around a shortwave radio. The British Broadcasting Corp. was reporting trouble on the tiny island of Grenada. They could make out only bits and pieces, but what they heard had the ring of a spy novel:
A Marxist military strongman had staged a coup, overthrowing the island’s socialist government and killing its president.
The coup leader, Gen. Hudson Austin, had imposed a round-the-clock curfew as his troops terrorized the mild-mannered citizens of Grenada and its capital, St. George’s.
The Reagan White House was particularly concerned about the fate of several hundred American students at St. George’s Medical School. The students, and a small band of other foreign nationals, were thought to be held hostage, but their fate was unknown.
Adding spice to the potboiler was the presence of Cuban engineers — and possibly soldiers — at a long-range airfield on the island.
Mike Leiphart heard a spokesman for the People’s Revolutionary Army railing on the BBC that “the beaches would run red with American blood.”
We’ll see about that, he thought.
— — —
At 3:20 a.m. Oct. 22, Lt. Col. Ray Smith, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, was awakened and handed a top-secret message from the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet headquarters.
The Navy-Marine task force was ordered to steer south and take station about 500 miles northeast of Grenada in the lower reaches of the Caribbean. The coded message imposed radio silence — known as “emissions control” — to avoid detection by Soviet satellites.
What little information they got came over the shortwave radios. Listening to the BBC and the Voice of America, Smith surmised that within 48 hours his 1,100-man unit would be asked to attack a well-guarded, hostile and basically unknown island.
American lives were at stake, and Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who himself served in the Marines, said America must act before its citizens were hurt or taken captive.
Still, some of the other officers in the task force doubted Washington was serious about sending in the Marines, along with a huge contingent of Army Rangers.
Smith was not one of the doubters. While most officers try to avoid taking sides in politics, he found himself drawn to the tough talk from the Reagan White House.
He applauded when President Reagan called the Soviet Union the “evil empire” in 1982. After years of battling communist forces in Vietnam, Smith felt his work was incomplete.
Fighting communism remained, in Smith’s view, his primary mission as a Marine. If it took a diversion to an obscure Caribbean island, so be it.
“From the very beginning, when we got that divert order, I felt certain that we were going to do it,” he said. “I just felt it in my bones.”
He wasn’t the only Vietnam-era officer itching for a fight. Grenada promised to be the first major U.S. military action since the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the ignominious exit in 1975.
“Precisely because Grenada was the first sustained American military action in a decade, each of the four services was hungry for a piece of the action,” Rick Atkinson wrote in “The Long Gray Line.” ” ‘It doesn’t matter which war you were in,’ according to a military truism, ‘as long as it was the last one.’ No one wanted to be left behind.”
Yet the military’s hunger to prove itself was tempered by recent debacles such as the failed rescue attempt in 1980 of the U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran.
That operation was aborted after the collision of a helicopter and a C-130 fuel tanker that killed eight American servicemen.
“One of the catastrophe’s lasting effects was an overkill mentality,” according to Atkinson, as the Pentagon sought to use overwhelming force in underwhelming situations.
Against this backdrop, Pentagon planners rejected a limited strike in Grenada to extricate the American medical students.
Instead, they cobbled together a larger, more complicated invasion plan worthy of the legendary landings of World War II and Korea.
“Most amphibious operations, from Guadalcanal to Inchon, required months of detailed planning,” Atkinson wrote. “In Grenada the military had only a few days to prepare, and Reagan did not sign the final invasion order until 6 p.m. on October 24, less than twelve hours before the operation was to commence.”
The hurried planning generated near-pandemonium in the wardroom of the Guam, the convoy’s command ship where Smith and his boss, Col. James P. Faulkner, worked to organize the Marine Corps’ part of the invasion, dubbed Operation Urgent Fury.
The Marines would seize an airstrip at Pearls Airport and the adjacent town of Grenville on the island’s northeast coast.
The Army, meanwhile, would secure the Cuban-built air base at Point Salines on the southern tip.
The Marines and Army, which often fought for dollars and prestige back in Washington, would act in unison for a change. At least that was the plan.
— — —
For the Marines gathering below decks, it quickly became evident that Operation Urgent Fury had a slapdash quality. The snafus started with the maps — there weren’t any, or at least none that was reliable.
Normally, Marine ground units use detailed maps of 1:50,000 scale but, according to the Corps’ official account, “in the case of Grenada, no maps of any type were available on the ships.”
After all, they had been expecting to land in Beirut — and stowed away plenty of maps of Lebanon. The Navy did have a full set of nautical charts, but they were based on a British reference chart from 1936.
Fortunately, the amphibious ready group’s chief of staff, Cmdr. Richard A. Butler, was an amateur yachtsman who had navigated the waters around Grenada a few years earlier.
Butler’s recall of the coast, tides, surf and beach proved invaluable in the invasion planning.
Lt. Col. Smith had his own curious link with Grenadan history. In the late 1970s, he returned to Oklahoma State University to finish his undergraduate degree. His faculty adviser was an Eastern European history professor who managed to travel through Soviet Bloc countries.
One of the more intriguing discoveries the professor discussed with Smith was the growing Soviet presence in the southern reaches of the Caribbean, on the island of Grenada.
So Smith wrote a paper about the seizure and occupation of Grenada “as a live-fire training exercise for a Marine amphibious brigade.”
Now, it seemed, his paper was becoming reality.
— — —
As the invasion planning sped along, a parade of brass arrived on the convoy.
The top-ranking Army officer was a major general named Norman Schwarzkopf. The stocky, outspoken general soon began to grate on the nerves of the Marine and Navy planners.
The command structure — who reported to whom — became as twisted as an old sail. Schwarzkopf appeared to have the Pentagon’s blessings and began barking orders at any officer in sight, including the Marine commanders.
After nearly losing his temper with the two-star general, Smith drew aside a high-ranking Navy officer. “Sir, we don’t have time for this — .”
The officer threw up his hands and said he didn’t know the Army general. “I think they sent him down here to spy on me.”
— — —
Adding to the stress was a shocking news report over shortwave radios on the morning of Oct. 23: The Marine barracks in Beirut had been destroyed by the massive explosion of a truck laden with TNT.
At least 200 Americans were dead, many from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. “When the last body had been retrieved from the ruins and the final death count had been tallied, it reached a total of 241 Americans,” Marine historian Benis M. Frank wrote. “Of this number, 220 were Marines; the remainder, Navy medical personnel and soldiers.
For the Marines, the truck bombing caused the largest loss of life since the day they invaded the Japanese stronghold Iwo Jima in 1945.
Across the convoy, the Marines of the 2nd Battalion wrestled with a storehouse of emotions — survivor’s guilt, anger and grief.
After all, they had been on their way to replace the Marines who died in the rubble of Beirut. They had lost more than 200 friends and fellow Marines.
Aboard the Manitowoc, Staff Sgt. Leiphart wondered why the U.S. government had left the Marines in such a vulnerable spot.
Leiphart, like about a third of the battalion, had already pulled one tour of duty in Lebanon. That was in the summer of 1982, when the Marines were sent in to help evacuate Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization before it was rubbed out by the advancing Israeli army.
In one of the strangest episodes in the Corps’ more than 200-year history, the Marines stood guard between two forces at each other’s throats — acting as a human buffer between the Israeli army and the fleeing PLO.
The assignment strained the patience and fighting instincts of the Marines as they dutifully held their M-16 rifles by their sides.
Leiphart watched as some 6,000 PLO fighters roared in by the truckload to Beirut and beat a retreat to Cyprus on leased cruise ships.
The sergeant gritted his teeth and gripped his rifle as the Palestinian fighters screamed wild epithets and curses against Israel and fired AK-47s into the air. The Marines were in a “peacekeeping” role, but there was nothing peaceful about the PLO’s earlier exit from Beirut.
Capt. Robert K. “Bob” Dobson had his own memories of Beirut. During his 1982 tour of duty, Dobson drew the task of finding a barracks for the returning Marines.
A tall, terse Californian, Dobson studied the terrain around Beirut International Airport. As he walked across the undulating land between the coast road and the airport, he noticed a structure near the terminal.
Once, the office building housed Lebanon’s federal aviation administration. Now, it was a bombed-out shell of its former self, with shards of glass everywhere. Yet Dobson could see that once it was cleaned up, the concrete building could provide protection against both “indirect fire” — that is, artillery, mortars and rockets launched from a distance — and any direct fire from tanks, machine guns or rifles.
It was also centrally located and on what Dobson viewed as defensible terrain since, at that point, “The main road into the airport was closed off,” he said.
It was only later, Dobson said, that a parking lot was built and a road to the barracks building was reopened.
— — —
As news of the carnage spread across the convoy in the Caribbean, Lt. Col. Smith started worrying about how his men might react once they hit Grenada.
Would their frustration boil over to the civilian populace?
This was supposed to be a rescue mission and any mistakes — particularly any inadvertent loss of life — could become an international incident.
Smith gathered his company commanders in the wardroom of the Trenton. Studying the faces of Dobson and other young officers, no one appeared too cocky.
Smith had gone into combat dozens of times in two tours of Vietnam. His nickname was “E-tool” because, according to Corps’ legend, he had once killed a North Vietnamese soldier in hand-to-hand combat with his entrenching tool. (Though he was in close combat and received a Navy Cross and numerous other medals, Smith said he had never actually used his shovel for that purpose.)
He wanted his men to be eager for the fight but not too cocky. As Gen. George S. Patton Jr. said, “No sane man is unafraid in battle.”
Smith pulled out a plug of Red Man tobacco and passed around the bag. “At ease,” he said. “Everyone sit down.”
Once his officers relaxed a bit, he chewed thoughtfully and explained the purpose of the meeting.
“I want you to think about how you brief your NCOs and squad leaders about this mission. I want you to say, ‘Hey guys, these are friendly people. These are not people who have blown up our brothers in Lebanon.’ I want you to tell your men, ‘Don’t take it out on them. Don’t kill anybody who doesn’t need to be killed.’ ”
— — —
D-Day, Oct. 25, 1983, 1 a.m.
“Reveille, reveille!” The order barked over the PA system. “All hands heave out and trice up.” The men of Golf Company rolled out of their cots on the Manitowoc. Some rubbed sleep from their eyes, while others rose after a sleepless few hours.
Staff Sgt. Leiphart couldn’t sleep as he went down his mental checklist — everything from making sure the men got the right amount of ammunition to reminding them to fill their canteens with water.
The ship quarters were hot and crowded. The men squared away packs, cleaned M-16s and scrawled final notes to wives, sweethearts and friends.
The drivers started their amphibious tractors, known as amtracs, that would carry them off the ship toward the beach. At 4 a.m., the 150 men of Golf Company started boarding more than a dozen amtracs in the tank deck of the Manitowoc. The amphibious warfare vessel’s long, narrow trough was several feet above sea level.
When the order came to launch the amtracs, the men would drive down the ramp at the rear of the ship and slide seaward. At this point, they were off the northeastern coast of Grenada.
If things went well, the airtight amtracs would splash into the sea like diesel-powered sea turtles. As the men settled into the vehicles, 2nd Lt. Matt Aylward realized something was missing. Talk. The men weren’t kidding around as much as usual. Some somberly shook hands and bid each other farewell. Months of training were behind them. It was time to see how they did hitting the beach, possibly under fire.
But a one-hour delay stretched into an interminable wait that lasted all day. Some managed to lean on their packs and doze off.
Many couldn’t sleep, though, for all the racket and rumors: The beaches are mined and we’re being taken to a new landing zone. The Army Airborne is involved in hand-to-hand combat with the Cubans. North Korean soldiers have been spotted on a nearby island.
Dobson worked through the day as his orders kept changing. At one point, he was told to get his men to the deck of the ship and prepare to board helicopters for an airborne assault. The men, with their full packs and weapons, squeezed through the ship’s narrow corridors and waited to start the mission.
Those orders changed, too, as the Manitowoc’s captain was told to navigate to the west side of the island and stand by. The Marines were growing anxious but, as nightfall came, Dobson was sure they would hold off any invasion until daybreak.
But just as they were sitting down to dinner, an order blared through the PA system: “L Hour is 30 minutes! L Hour is 30 minutes!”
A mad scramble ensued as the members of Golf Company rushed back to get their weapons and gear. They ran down to the tank deck and hopped in the amtracs.
Dobson looked at his watch: 1730 — or 5:30 p.m. It was getting dark, and the moon would not rise for many hours.
They would deploy in pitch-blackness, heading onto an unknown shore on an ill-defined mission.
At least the map problem had been solved: Lt. Col. Smith and some other battalion officers had put together a more current map of Grenada for the company commanders.
The stern gate at the rear of the ship started dropping like a creaky drawbridge. The Manitowoc opened up to the gray light and whitecaps of the Atlantic. Grenada was over the horizon.
The clang of metal on metal filled the well deck as the steel treads of the assault vehicles lumbered down the ramp.
They splashed into the ocean, bobbing underwater for a few tantalizing seconds.
Aylward, the second lieutenant, peered through the vision blocks as his amtrac slipped into the sea. He followed the trail of bubbles as the assault vehicle bobbed up to the surface. The water jets kicked in, and the vehicle lurched toward the shore.
A Navy guide boat led the assault. The formation moved together, roughly in line to hit the beach together.
The guide boat should have accompanied them to the shore but, for some reason, it veered off early, about 200 yards from land.
Semiautomatic-weapons fire crackled in the distance — the first sign of combat on Grenada. An Air Force AC-130 poured tracer rounds that shot over the mountains like dragon fire.
The Marines roared through the sea and instead of finding a beach, “We hit a rock wall,” Capt. Dobson said. “We started to stack up on the beach.”
They quickly found a better place to land. Dobson glanced warily at the hills. There’s no telling who or what is up there. Golf Company could be one big sitting duck. He was also leery of getting tied up with U.S. Army units in the area, since the bay was supposed to be in their area of responsibility.
Dobson ordered reconnaissance teams to spread out across the 1,000-meter-wide beach and up the steep hills.
Within minutes, a patrol reported they were on a stretch of muddy beach surrounded by a chain-link fence.
The squad leader pointed up to some looming shapes that Dobson could barely make out in the darkness.
Then he realized what they were: huge fuel tanks, probably containing thousands of gallons of gasoline.
One good shot of a rocket or mortar, whether by friend or foe, could turn the beach into a flaming pit.
Dobson ordered heavy machine guns and tanks to set up on either end of the beach, blocking anyone who might attack from a coast road.
Golf Company had secured the beach but, now, all it could do was await further orders. The members could communicate with each other but, because of the radio silence, could not get in touch with Lt. Col. Smith on the command ship.
The Marines had landed but, as Dobson ruefully reflected, they were completely in the dark.
“I didn’t know what we were going to do,” he said, “but we weren’t going to sit there.”