A retired Marine colonel, Kingsport Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Miles Burdine looks over photos and other items from the time he served in Beirut. Photo by Ned Jilton.
KINGSPORT — Thirty years ago today an Iranian terrorist drove a truck filled with explosives through the entrance of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The detonation killed 241 U.S. servicemen, including 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers.
It was the deadliest day for the U.S. Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
The Marines stationed at the barracks were attached to 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, known as the 1/8 or now the “Beirut Battalion.” For them, their first duty is to remember.
“We don’t call it an anniversary. We call it a remembrance because our first duty is to remember,” said Miles Burdine, a retired colonel with the Marines and the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “It’s important that we not forget the sacrifice that was made that day and never forget the significance of the attack.”
Remembrance events for the 1983 bombing are scheduled today all across the country, and stories similar to Burdine’s have been appearing in newspaper stories and on television for the past week.
Burdine — a lieutenant at the time — was at the barracks on the day of the attack, an executive officer for the 1/8 and assigned to protect the facility, which was housing both the British and U.S. Embassy personnel.
A car bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon in April 1983 resulted in U.S. personnel relocating to Britain’s facility at the Beirut National Airport, with U.S. Marines assigned the task of protecting the joint compound.
“Our mission was flawed from the start,” Burdine said. “Marines are trained how to shoot, move and communicate. We act violently and swiftly. A mission of peacekeepers is not something Marines are used to.”
U.S. forces, along with British, French and Italian troops, were in Lebanon as part of a multinational force during the Lebanese Civil War, at the request of the government, to oversee the withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the country.
Burdine, who arrived in Beirut in May 1983, said there were many attacks and assaults on U.S. forces leading up to the barracks bombing. In addition, a near simultaneous attack on the French Embassy took place on the same day as the attack on the Marine barracks, resulting in the deaths of 58 French paratroopers.
“You had all these different factions over there and a lot of strategy was how to pull Marines into fighting, but we were told not to fight because once you fight with one faction over another, you’ve taken sides,” Burdine said. “Once we did get drawn into the fighting, we were taking sides and that caused us even more assaults on our positions.”
Burdine was on the fourth floor of a nearby building to the barracks when the explosion occurred. It woke him up, but since explosions took place regularly in Beirut, he didn’t think too much of it. Soon after, a company commander told him about the reality of the blast, that the battalion headquarters was destroyed, completely done, Burdine said.
“There were around 400 Marines inside the building and we knew there would be a lot of casualties. Many were maimed and wounded for life. It was an unbelievable sight,” Burdine said, adding he was lucky when it came to his family learning that he was safe after the attack. “I went down to the command post and all of a sudden I hear a Marine, who is on the phone inside the embassy, say “Yes, Lt. Burdine is sitting right here.”
The person on the other line was a college friend of Burdine’s who had called, spur of the moment, to share the news of the University of Tennessee’s victory over Alabama. Burdine told his friend to turn on the television and tell his parents he was OK.
“My parents knew I was OK before they knew what had happened, possibly before the president of the United States knew,” Burdine said. “My family was lucky.”
The sight of the bombing was complete chaos, Burdine recalls, as U.S. military personnel worked to clear the rubble and search for survivors in the destruction.
Several Marines were pulled from the rubble, and the wounded were transported to U.S. Navy vessels located off the coast and hospitals in Cyprus, Germany and even Lebanon.
The Times-News interviewed Burdine in 1983, four days after the attack, and quoted him as saying morale among the Marines was still high.
“It was, but (the Marines) were p----- off,” he said. “Most of (the reaction) centered around revenge, but we couldn’t just go out and fight the enemy since we could not determine at the time who they were.”
Eventually, the attack was proven to have been carried out by Islamic extremists — the Islamic Jihad, elements of which would eventually become Hezbollah, an Islamic militant group and political party in Lebanon. The U.S. considers it a terrorist organization.
One of the key operatives in the attack — Rmad Fayez Mugniyah — was killed by a car bomb in 2008.
The U.S. government believes Osama bin Laden took inspiration from the 1983 bombing and used that model for al-Qaida’s first successful dual bombings against U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Within months of the attack, international forces withdrew from Lebanon.
“It gave terrorists the confidence to attack us. Now their operation is typical of what they do with IEDs and suicide bombers,” Burdine said. “But the Marines learned significantly from it. The lessons learned from Beirut are helping us not make the same mistakes while in Afghanistan and Iraq.”