Hundreds of people gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing during the Beirut Memorial Observance Ceremony at the Lejeune Memorial Gardens, Oct. 23.
Veterans, military personnel and community members viewed a single granite wall broken down the middle that carries the names of the fallen service members and the famous words ‘They Came In Peace.’
“This event rocked us all,” said Sammy Phillips, mayor of the City of Jacksonville. “The community was so intertwined back then. A lot of the men who gave their lives in Beirut were members of our community. They were our Sunday school teachers, scout leaders and coaches. With several mayors before me and after me, we will always remember that occurrence that happened in 1983.”
Darrel Gibson, a retired senior chief petty officer, gained the strength to speak at the memorial after attending every year since the beginning, standing back, away from the wall.
“It took me about 10 years before I could approach the memorial,” said Gibson. “I just couldn’t, it was just too much. Men aren’t supposed to cry, but I couldn’t hold it back. It was time to break the silence.”
For the first time in 34 years, Gibson shares his memories of the tragic day.
“Sunday morning, I was at the library a little over a mile away from the barracks. We had heard the sound and thought we took a tank round. We all ran up top, and it took us two or three minutes to realize what had happened,” said Gibson. “The ones on post had binoculars and they looked at the Beirut Landing Team and saw this mushroom of smoke. We didn’t know how bad it was because all we could see of the BLT was smoke. Once the dust came down, we realized we couldn’t see the top of the BLT anymore. We tried to call them on the radio but all the lines were down. Right then, we knew it was something bad.”
“It became a recovery mission because the walls caved on top of each other. There wasn’t a whole lot we could do, except give people morphine. They were confined inside concrete and we couldn’t get them out,” said Gibson. “That was hard. Knowing that there is a man in there and you can’t get to him. It took us about five days to recover everybody.”
Some of the veterans who attended also shared their stories. Emmanuel Simmons is a retired master sergeant and was in the barracks when they collapsed.
“The morning of the bombing, I was sleeping. When I woke up, I was buried,” said Simmons. “What I came to find out was that I was buried under three stories of the building, but I just thought it was the ceiling in our room. I thought we were shelled. While I was laying there, I couldn’t move anything but my right hand. I was trying to not panic, I was actually trying to make myself laugh. I just assumed that in a matter of time,
they would get me out. There was about six of us in the room at the time. I didn’t see any of them again until we were at the hospital.”
The memorial that attendees saw started out very differently. Originally, the community came together to plant trees to remember the fallen. When the Marine Corps was asked for a place to put a sign that explained what the trees were for, the Marine Corps also gave them four acres to use. This prompted the process of building the memorial we see today.
“It took about three years to raise the funds for the design,” said Mike Ellzey, project manager for the construction of the memorial. “All the funds came from donations…One young girl knew she was going to be getting a Cabbage Patch Doll for Christmas later that year and so she auctioned off her Christmas present and raised about $1,500 dollars for this memorial.”
Every part of the memorial has a story, from McDonalds donating the flag poles to the statue being built with whatever funds the committee had left. While some parts of the memorial were created, others captured moments of history.
“They Came in Peace’ was something we saw in a magazine. After the bombing, somebody had stuck a structure into the ground, and on a C-ration box someone had written ‘They Came in Peace.’ We adopted that onto the wall. It showed the mission of the Marine Corps there at the time,” said Ellzey. “They came as peace keepers, they weren’t there to fight a war. ‘They Came in Peace’ reminds people that these men were not killed in a battle but killed while trying to keep the peace.”
Phillips said the community of Jacksonville and the military came together to build this memorial and it has brought everyone closer together.
“This one project probably did more to bring the Marine Corps and the civilians together than anything else since 1941 and we are extremely proud of that,” said Ellzey.
Every year, the military and civilian communities come together for this ceremony. There are no plans to stop honoring the lives lost on the tragic day of Oct. 23, 1983.
“We have been doing this every year since 1986 and we will be doing it forever,” said Ellzey. “Always remember and never forget.”