Beirut bombing survivor dedicated career to comrades lost
By MIKE MCHUGH | The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C. | Published: October 23, 2017
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — The day is forever etched in his mind. Its date permanently tattooed on his left forearm.
Emanuel Simmons was a 24-year-old, lance corporal with H&S Company, 1st Batallion, 8th Marines, when he and other Marines and sailors arrived in Beirut, Lebanon on Memorial Day, 1983 and stepped off the USS El Paso, a Charleston class amphibious cargo ship.
The Americans were part of an international peace keeping mission. In reality, they walked into the middle of a sectarian civil war that had begun in 1975 and would continue to embroil the region for another seven years.
Even though Simmons had grown up in the Polo Grounds Towers in Harlem and had honed his street-fighting skills into a brief career as a professional boxer before enlisting in the United States Marine Corps in 1982, Simmons was taken aback by what he saw on his arrival to the Mediterranean city that was once on par with other financial capitals around the world — such as London, Tokyo and New York — during the 1960s and a time when Lebanon and its neighboring countries were referred to as the “Holy Lands” region.
“It was confusing for a ‘city slicker’ to be in an environment like that,” Simmons recalled from his soon-to-be-open boxing gym located a short jab away from the Beirut Memorial where many of his friends names are etched in stone and where Simmons continues to visit and find solace and reflection.
“When we got there, there were so many people in the streets. It was very noisy and I saw buildings all shot up,” Simmons recalled.
One of the duties Simmons performed in Beirut was to be driven in a 5-ton truck where he delivered MREs to troops guarding the perimeter.
“At that time, I was in warehouse supply and we would go out and deliver MREs to Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Company on the line," he said.
Simmons said tensions on the ground had already been heightened since the American Embassy had been destroyed by a car bomb killing dozens of American Foreign Service employees and Lebanese civilians on April 18, five weeks before he arrived in country.
“It was chaotic days leading up to the bombing,” Simmons said. “Weeks before the bombing, we were getting shelled and targeted with small-arms fire so we were getting prepared filling up sand bags. I mean everyone was filling sand bags from colonels on down,” Simmons said.
Simmons shared sleeping space with eight other Marines from warehouse and administration supply on the second floor of the barracks, a four-story building that had once housed Israel and Palestine Liberation Organization troops at different periods of time during the conflict and had served as a backstop to countless blasts, bullets and mortars over the years leaving its windows shattered and broken and its façade pock marked.
“When we got into the building when we arrived it was a shell of itself,” Simmons said. He and his bunk mates fashioned pieces of plywood together forming interior blinds and wooden shields in areas where windows stood affording the Marines privacy and a primitive layer of protection from enemy snipers. The side of the building in which Simmons bunked faced the airport and a large parking lot.
On the evening of Oct. 22, less than 12 hours before a dump truck packed with more than 12,000 pounds of explosives crashed through the gates of Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, Simmons and his comrades were in “condition one” or eminent attack.
“We were setting up. Everyone was in the station,” Simmons recalled.
Lights out was sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight and the Marines and sailors inside the barracks slept in their gear and flak jackets with their rifle held in a sling next to their cot. Simmons awakened between 1 and 2 a.m. to use the latrine positioned outside at the back of the entrance to the barracks.
“I could hear small arms fire in the distance and felt it was safe to go outside. I used the latrine and returned inside and went back to my cot,” Simmons said.
At 6:22 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 23, a terrorist driving a dump truck crashed through the gates and detonated its lethal munitions ripping the barracks from its foundation and imploding the four floors in an instant.
“I woke up and I found myself buried. I was a bit confused and was trying to figure out what had happened,” Simmons said. “The ceiling had collapsed and my first thought is that we got shelled. I heard a lot of yelling and moaning. I just laid there and tried to humor myself,” Simmons said.
The blast killed 241 servicemen with more succumbing to their wounds. At nearly the same time, in a coordinated attack, another blast in West Beirut carried out by similar methods killed 58 French paratroopers when their barracks was bombed.
Simmons was alive but immobilized from the tons of debris collapsed on top and around him. Unable to see and with something weighing on his back, Simmons was only able to move his right arm.
“I had no feeling in my left arm and believed it to have been severed. On my left hand, I had been wearing ring with a cobra snake on it. I felt the ring and grabbed hold of my arm thinking I was going to keep it and give it to a doctor to reattach to my body,” Simmons recalled.
While the blast did not dismember any of Simmons’ limbs he did sustain a broken left scapula, collapsed lung, burst eardrums, second and third degree burns, severe lacerations to the face, embedded shards of metal to his body and temporary blindness and paralysis.
Simmons is uncertain how long he remained trapped but soon — a period of time he said “felt like 30 minutes” — help arrived.
“I started hearing heavy machinery. I said ‘get me out of here.’ Then somebody said, ‘Hey are you okay, bud, we’re coming to get you,’” he remembered.
Simmons said he could feel dirt roll down his neck and cool air begin to hit his body as rescuers neared.
“I started feeling I was going to get out of this. I could hear everyone running around but I couldn’t see all the chaos,” Simmons said.
When Simmons was extricated from the rubble he was taken to another building where medics had set up a triage.
Simmons would be transported by helicopter to the USS Iwo Jima where he was treated until strong enough to be flown to Germany for further treatment.
Choking back tears, Simmons recalls laying on the deck of the Iwo Jima and pleading with sailors to “tell the other guys I’m OK.”
The horror Simmons endured and the death he avoided lives with him today.
“To this day, I can still smell Beirut and what sends shivers down my spine is the sound of helicopters. It was rough when I first came back to Jacksonville,” Simmons remembered.
Simmons returned to Jacksonville on the evening of Nov. 4, 1983, a day which Camp Lejeune played host to President Ronald Reagan who came to North Carolina to pay tribute the Beirut Marines and sailors. While Simmons did not meet the president, he was presented with a The Military Order of the Purple Heart by Maj. Gen. Alfred M. Gray Jr.
Though just into his second year as a Marine when the bombing occurred, Simmons would make a career out of the Marine Corps retiring on Oct. 23, 2008, as a Master Sergeant.
“I made myself stay in because I said ‘I’m going to retire as a Marine. I stayed in for all the guys that didn’t make it. We all had dreams of becoming sergeant majors and remaining connected,” Simmons said as he wiped tears from his eyes with his wife of one year, Margarita consoling him with a light stroke of her hand on his leg and her eyes locked onto his face.
“I love him. He is my hero,” Margarita said.
The 23rd day of the 10th month of the year is indelibly marked in Simmons mind. His ex-wife’s birthday is Oct. 23. Oct. 23 was the day in which he reenlisted in the Marine Corps. He would use Oct. 23 as his retirement day from the Marine Corps in 2008. His left, forearm, the appendage Simmons erroneously thought was ripped from his body after the blast is adorned with a tattoo commemorating that fateful day in 1983 with the date and the 1/8 logo “The Cutting edge.”
“Inevitably if I happen to look at a clock whether it’s morning or evening, the time displayed is always “10:23”,” Simmons said with a slight chuckle.
There isn’t a day go by that Simmons doesn’t reflect on Oct. 23, 1983.
When the retired Devil Dog who served as a Marine Corps boxing coach in his last years in uniform began searching for a vocation to fill his days in retirement he returned to his first love and passion and found it inside the square ring of boxing.
“For the last five years, I’ve run a summer boxing camp at the Combat Club in Jacksonville that teaches youth boxing,” Simmons said.
Simmons’ dream when he was a fledging fighter in the Big Apple sharing the card with up-and-comers in marquee fights at Madison Square Garden dreamed of a professional career as a boxer and one day having his own gym. Fate intervened and washed a portion of that dream away but Simmons is ready to realize the vision of owning his own gym.
Sometime within the next few weeks, “10 Rounds of Fitness” will open its doors in the shadow of the Beirut Memorial. On its two-color logo affixed to the façade of the Lejeune Boulevard building is the profile of a boxer super-imposed in front of the number 10. On the cuff of the left hand boxing glove is the inscription “They came in Peace 241.” On number “241” is repeated on the “1” character.
Today, Simmons and his wife will join others at the Beirut Memorial Observance Ceremony where they’ll pay tribute to the 273 Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice and remember those like Emanuel Simmons who came in peace.
©2017 The Daily News (Jacksonville, N.C.)
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