Survivor Of Deadly 1983 Beirut Bombing: 'We Don't Talk About It Much'

May 24, 2019
Originally published on May 24, 2019 5:05 pm

Editor's note: This story contains some graphic descriptions of injuries that some readers may find disturbing.

On Oct. 23, 1983, Navy hospital corpsman James Edward Brown survived one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on Americans.

When a bomb detonated at the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Brown was at his post in the sick hall on the Marine compound — about 200 yards away.

At the time, 1,800 Marines were stationed in the city during the Lebanese Civil War.

On a visit to StoryCorps last month, Brown's friend and fellow Beirut veteran, Navy hospital corpsman Mike Cline, interviewed him about that day.

"I woke up to myself falling on the floor to the crash of isopropyl alcohol bottles and a gust of wind coming through the windows," Brown, 59, told Cline, 55. "I got up and put my boots on and my flak jacket and ran out ... and didn't know what to expect."

Early that morning, a truck bearing what the Department of Defense says was the equivalent of 20,000 pounds of TNT was set off at the Marine barracks entrance, where an estimated 400 Marines were sleeping.

It was the first of two truck bombs that killed 241 U.S. service members and 58 French paratroopers — part of an international peacekeeping force housed in two barracks buildings. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on Americans prior to Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. government believes the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah was behind the attack.

"There was a four-story building that was now one-story tall," he said. "The walls had been blown outward and the ceilings came down on top of each other, and everybody in the basement had been buried in rubble."

In October 1983, rescuers probe the wreckage of the U.S. Marine command building near the Beirut airport, a day after a terrorist attack killed 241 U.S. service members.
Zouki / AP

As a Navy corpsman, he carried medical supplies in what's known as a Unit One combat bag. Still, he wasn't nearly equipped to assist the immense toll of injuries.

"[It] had eight battle dressings, a chicken wire-framed splint ... and that was it," he said. "You can't treat very many casualties with that many bandages — not successfully."

He remembered a Marine flagged him down for medical assistance.

"He had a casualty laying on a stretcher with a chunk out of his forehead where his brain was exposed and a 45-pound piece of concrete on his chest with a rebar impaled into him," he said.

"I told the Marine that there was nothing I could do and jumped down off the truck and went to help other people.

"You don't forget that," he said.

Brown is still coping with the loss, but he and Cline said not many people remember what happened in 1983.

"It's amazing," Cline said. "There's very little in the history books about Beirut."

"So we kinda feel like we're a little lost, you know, at least I do," Brown said. "It's like, we went over there, got beat up, came home, and we don't talk about it very much. And I'm pretty angry about it."

The Beirut bombing was the largest loss of life in Marines history since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

Speaking a month before Memorial Day, Brown said, "Our 1,800 families from 35 years ago remember it today and every day."


Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kelly Moffitt.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

It is time now for StoryCorps. And as we head into the Memorial Day weekend, we're going to hear from James Edward Brown. He's one of the survivors of the Beirut bombing of 1983. Two hundred and forty-one U.S. military personnel were killed in a terror attack on marine barracks in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. Brown was 200 yards away from the barracks when a bomb detonated. Quick warning here - this story has graphic language.

JAMES EDWARD BROWN: I was on duty that night. So I had to stay in sick hall. And I woke up to the crash of isopropyl alcohol bottles and a gust of wind coming through the windows. I got up and put my boots on and my flak jacket and ran out of my room and didn't know what to expect. That morning, a truck loaded with 20,000 pounds of TNT wrapped in flammable gas detonated in the entrance of the Marine barracks where 400 Marines were sleeping. There was a four-story building that was now one story tall. The walls had been blown outward. And the ceilings came down on top of each other. And everybody in the basement had been buried in rubble.

I had a little green bag that I carried called a Unit One. It had eight battle dressings, a chicken wire-framed splint. And that was it. And you can't treat very many casualties with that many bandages - not successfully. A Marine saw that I was a corpsman and yelled, hey, doc, come here. Hey, doc. And he had a casualty laying on a stretcher with a chunk out of his forehand where his brain was exposed and a 45-pound piece of concrete on his chest with a - rebar had been impaled into him. I told the Marine that there was nothing I could do and jumped down off the truck and went to help other people.

And you don't forget that. I remember it kind of every day since then. But not many people do remember what happened in 1983. So we kind of feel like we're a little lost. You know, at least I do. It's like we went over there, got beat up, came home. And we don't talk about it very much. And I'm pretty angry about it. It was the largest single loss of life by the Marines since World War II in Iwo Jima. And our 1,800 families from 35 years ago remember it today and every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: James Edward Brown remembering the Beirut bombing in 1983. He talked to his friend and fellow Beirut veteran Mike Cline at StoryCorps in Pensacola, Fla. That interview will be archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.