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Beirut 1958

Anyone who doubts the truth of the axiom, “History repeats itself,” only need compare the 1958 U.S. mission in Beirut, Lebanon, to the one 25 years later in 1983 to become a believer.

In both cases, there was considerable political/religious unrest in Lebanon; not unusual, since that was true most of its history. In both, issues in Lebanon stemmed from the historic Israeli-Arab/Christian-Moslem disagreements; again, not so unpredictable. In both, Marines were sent in for largely the same reasons, with nearly the same mission and rules of engagement. Some of the units involved were even the same. This was not so predictable.

A cursory examination of Beirut in the 1958 timeframe offers a glimpse at why Marines were sent in. The same general pattern existed in 1982.

Lebanon became an independent state after WWII, and a visible attempt was made to balance power among the many political and religious factions that co-existed within its small borders. Because of its multifaceted make up, Lebanon tried to play the honest broker between the Arab and Christian world in the mid-1950’s.

However, this attempt failed, and in May1958 unknown assailants assassinated the editor of the Beirut newspaper Al Telegraf. This set off riots that eventually led to the burning of the United States Information Agency in reaction to Lebanese President Chamoun’s sympathy with the Western powers. By late May, Chamoun had put in a request for the U.S. to stand by to aid them if necessary.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back came from outside Lebanon. On July 14, 1958, young Iraqi king Faisal was murdered, and the Iraqi Premier Nuri Said was killed while attempting to flee. The ensuing revolt put the entire fragile Middle Eastern house of cards in peril of toppling. Chamoun appealed to the U.S. and Britain to intervene within 48 hours.

Later that same day, President Dwight Eisenhower gave the order to send in the Marines. Britain had 3,700 troops on standby in Cyprus to assist if necessary. As in 1982, the 6th Fleet got the job. The 2nd Provisional Marine Force (Task Force 62 - same as in 1982) consisted of two battalion landing teams (BLT), one of which was 1st Battalion (Reinforced), 8th Marines (1/8), also involved in the 1980’s mission. The other was BLT 2/2.

Retired Marine Chief Warrant Officer-5 (Gunner) Dick Driggs was a 21-year-old buck sergeant assigned to BLT 1/8 in 1958.

“Our mission was to ensure there was no interference with the Lebanese government by outside countries,” he recalls. “Our rules of engagement were not to shoot back unless we had a clear target. We had extremely experienced staff NCO’s, and they were obeyed without question. So, I felt I was a Marine doing what Marines do.”

Ironically, Driggs’ son was a 20-year old lance corporal with BLT 1/8 in October 1983. In fact, he was in the BLT building on October 23rd when a terrorist bomb hit, killing 241 and injuring hundreds more.

“‘He was on guard duty in the basement when it hit,’ says Driggs. ”His eardrums got busted, but he survived and was able to find a hole and crawl out. Then he went to help dig out other survivors.

“As a Marine, and as a father of a Marine, when he went into Lebanon with 1/8, I was very proud and felt he was doing his duty.”

In 1958, Marines were supposed to have had 24 hours warning before they had to land so they could position themselves. President Eisenhower gave them half that time.

“When I pointed out that he had cut my warning time in half, he told me ‘I’m sure you can do that all right,’” recalled Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, then Chief of Naval Operations.

BLT 2/2 got the landing order because they were the only force close enough at the time to land within 24 hours. They were ordered to land on Red Beach near the Beirut International Airport to seize and control it (same objective as in 82-84).

The Marines didn’t know whether they would face opposition or not. Saab Salem, a rebel leader in Beirut, was quoted as saying, “You tell those Marines that if one Marine sets foot on the soil of my country I will regard it as an act of aggression and commit my forces against them.”

What awaited them was not exactly what they expected.

Khalde (Red) Beach was four miles from the heart of Beirut.

“The scene on the beach was perhaps one of the most colorful in the long history of Marine Corps landings,” recounts Jack Shulimson in the official historical account he wrote for the Marine Corps Historical Branch. “Witnessing the assault were bikini-clad-sunbathers, Khalde villagers and the beach workmen who dropped their tools and ran to the site to watch.”

The scene was almost identical to what Marines saw in 1982 when they made their first landing to help evacuate civilians from Jounieh, which started their 2-year saga. It was, almost to the day, 24 years after the 1958 landing.

Dickey Chapelle, a pioneer woman war correspondent, was in the third wave of the assault force as it landed. She later wrote, “The real thing here didn’t look much different from a rehearsal except for the hazard offered by Arab families sun-bathing on the sand.” She recalled the final sentence of the operations order to Marines, “You will make every effort in this assault not to disturb the swimmers on the beach…” a juxtaposition of ideas that surely had not occurred in Marine history.

Chapelle had combat experience in WWII and Korea and was later killed in Vietnam. She was astounded at the order that had been given to Brigadier General Sidney S. Wade, commander of Marines in Lebanon.

“All of us had considered it the most extraordinary order to a moving assault force we could imagine, and historically I later learned we were right to be astounded,” she recalled. “It was, ‘You will not shoot unless you are being shot at and then only at a clear target.’”

Sound familiar? It should, because it was the same rule of engagement given to the force in 1982-84.

Another common element in the two historical events was the Marines’ restraint under fire. After the 1958 event, retiring President Chamoun said, “Your Marines...they acted like angels,” which Chapelle jokingly said dealt a heavy blow to Marines’ reputation. In 1982-84, Marines were often lauded for their fire control under some of the most intense direct and indirect barrages since Vietnam.

One stark difference between the two actions was loss of life. The 1982-84 mission saw 268 killed and hundreds injured in their 2-year stay; Marines suffered no killed or injured in the four-month 1958 operation, and the army had one killed and one injured.

Another striking disparity is the difference in the commitment of forces. In 1958, the rule of overwhelming force prevailed.

“We had four battalion landing forces on the ground,” says Driggs, as compared to one BLT ashore supported by a Naval task force and other cat and dog units in 1982-84. In addition, in 1958 the Army had tanks and ground forces committed, the Air Force had B-57’s and F-110’s prepared to strike, and the Navy had two carriers off shore.

“We went in and surrounded the city,” Driggs recalls. “I felt we could control any type of interference by any force.”

To add to the parallel courses of these two historical events, on Oct. 23, 1958, the success of the Marine mission was validated when the Lebanese formed a government that included representatives of all major parties. That same day, 25 years later, was the day a terrorist truck bomber attacked the BLT 1/8 barracks, causing the largest loss of Marines in a single action since Vietnam.

Proving that history can not only repeat itself, but that it can do so in the most ironic of ways.

By Randy Gaddo

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