Early on a quiet Sunday morning — Oct. 23, 1983 — a yellow Mercedes-Benz stake-bed truck crashed through a wire barricade outside the barracks of the U.S. Marine Corps in Beirut.
The Marines had been ordered back into the war-torn city in September 1982 by President Reagan as part of the United States’ efforts to broker a peace in Lebanon after years of fighting between the dominant Christian faction and several Muslim groups.
The Americans joined a multinational force that included British, French and Italian troops. Their job was to guard Beirut International Airport and nearby parts of the city. The Marines slept, ate and relaxed in a concrete building that had once housed Lebanon’s federal aviation administration.
They operated under tight rules of engagement that often prohibited loaded weapons and required official approval to fire back at snipers.
As a Marine guard frantically tried to insert a magazine into his M-16 rifle, the yellow truck gained speed and crashed into the barracks lobby, “where it detonated with the explosive force of more than 12,000 pounds of TNT,” according to the Corps’ account.
Some eyewitnesses thought they had been hit by a tactical nuclear bomb. Others were convinced only a missile could have caused such damage.
After the last body had been retrieved, 241 members of the U.S. military — Marines, sailors and soldiers — were dead. For the Marines, it was the highest loss of life in a single day since D-Day on Iwo Jima in 1945.
On Thursday at the Beirut Memorial in Jacksonville, N.C., the Marine Corps will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack.