BANGOR, Maine — The massive suicide bombing that ripped apart the four-story Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, early Oct. 23, 1983 — killing 241 U.S. troops — violently shook Carmel, Maine, resident Mark Nevells and other Marines from their Sunday morning slumber, he remembers.
“I grabbed my gear and ran to the barracks,” Nevells, who was 21 and a lance corporal with what was then the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit’s service support group during the terrorist attack, recalled Friday. “We watched as the building dropped then we went over for the recovery mission. There were so many people in that building and we just wanted to get them out.”
The explosion was so violent that it created an 8-foot crater and buried Nevells’ friends and brothers-in-arms under 15 feet of the building’s rubble. He and other Marines spent five days digging for survivors and freeing the bodies of the men they served with during the multinational peacekeeping mission.
“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Nevells said while wearing a black Beirut veteran’s hat honoring those who perished during the bombing. “We just did what we had to do.”
The second-generation Marine is among those marking the 30th anniversary of the attack this week in Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., home of what is now known as the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the country’s Beirut Memorial. A total of 220 Marines, most with the 1st Battalion of the 8th Marines, as well as 18 Navy sailors and three Army soldiers, died during the suicide truck bombing.
Cpl. Bruce L. Howard from Strong is the only Maine resident listed as killed in the attack, according to the Beirut Memorial website.
It was the second deadly truck bombing in Beirut in a matter of months, and the first of two that occurred that day. The U.S. embassy in Beirut was hit by a truck bomb in April 1983 that killed 63 people, 17 of them Americans, and a second suicide bomber on Oct. 23, 1983, drove into the barracks of a French detachment in West Beirut within minutes of the first explosion and blew up their living quarters, taking the lives of 58 paratroopers inside.
The Marines were sent to Lebanon, along with troops from Great Britain, France and Italy, on a peacekeeping mission to broker a truce between clashing Christian and Muslim Lebanese factions.
About 300 service members slept in the destroyed barracks and another 1,500 were living nearby. Nevells’ sleeping quarters were about 100 yards away from the target of the bombers, he said.
The chaos that followed the 6:22 a.m. blast kept U.S. troops extremely busy, so much so that Nevells forgot to call home and let everyone know he had survived.
“It was three days before my mother knew I was alive,” the former transport officer said.
The only time before that the Marine Corps had suffered a larger loss of life in a single day was during the historic 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, according to military organization websites.
The last Marine left the area four months after the deadly barracks bombing.
“The worst part for me is that nobody remembers [Beirut],” Nevells said.
Nevells, who followed his father into the Marines, left Maine on Friday with his wife and stepson for Camp Lejeune. He met his stepdaughter, her boyfriend and his grandchildren in North Carolina. It’s the first time he has been back since taking off his uniform in 1985, he said.
The Beirut Veterans of America, of which he is a member, and The Beirut Connection, a group of families who met because of the attack and have stayed connected, are holding an all-day ceremony Wednesday to honor the fallen.
“The Remembrance also honors the service of those who participated 55 years ago during the 1958 Beirut landing and the scores of other servicemembers who died and were wounded in Beirut during 1982 through 1984,” a Beirut Veterans of America press release about the gathering states.
The 1983 bombings were the start of the war on terrorism and were a “precursor of what was to come,” Nevells said, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America.
A U.S. federal judge ruled in 2003 that the terrorist group Hezbollah was responsible for carrying out the attack on the U.S. barracks in Beirut at the direction of the Iranian government.
The Wednesday remembrance services will include a candlelight vigil, guest speakers, a wreath-laying ceremony, and the reading of the names of the Beirut bombing victims.
“It’s not about us who survived, it’s about those who didn’t survive and gave their lives,” Nevells, who is the service manager for Quirk Subaru on Hogan Road, said about the trip to the memorial.
“It’s something I’ve got to do,” he said. “Thirty years later, we just can’t forget.”