Cokes for the landing forces: Veterans remember 1958 Operation Blue Bat in Lebanon

Local residents — and enterprising taxi drivers — watch as American forces land in Lebanon in July, 1958.


By KEVIN RIORDAN | Philly.com | Published: June 23, 2018

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Norman Berger, Carl Kanter, and Allan Mendelsohn were 26-year-old GIs with no idea where they were going, or why, in the summer of 1958.

Under sealed orders and through circuitous routes, the three judge advocate general (JAG) corpsmen joined 14,000 other U.S. military personnel being sent to Lebanon on a Cold War peacekeeping mission. They helped make a bit of history, too.

“I can’t specifically remember ever being told why we were there. But we knew that President Eisenhower had sent us,” recalled Berger, 86, of Ventnor.

“The Christian president of Lebanon wanted help to quell a potential civil war between Christians and Muslims,” he said. “Nobody knew that. My family didn’t know that. They called our congressman to find out where I was and if I was OK. They got back word that I was fine, but no other information.”

What was known as Operation Blue Bat marked the first use of the Eisenhower Doctrine, a policy aimed at preventing the spread of communism, particularly under the auspices of the Soviet Union, by authorizing military and other assistance to other nations asking for it.

Although the Lebanese government had made such a request, Operation Blue Bat is frequently characterized as an invasion, albeit one where Marines landing on Beirut beaches were welcomed by locals in bikinis and were offered bottles of Coca-Cola by eager youngsters.

The operation concluded successfully after just four months and has since largely been forgotten; after chatting with friends a few years ago about his Beirut experience, Berger got curious whether his U.S. Army buddies were still around.

“So I Googled them,” said the West Philly native. “We’re still alive and talking after 60 years!”

Retired now after successful law careers, the three first reunited in Philadelphia in 2017. At the Palm Restaurant in Center City last Thursday, the men celebrated their renewed friendship — and the 60th anniversary of their unusual Middle Eastern deployment.

“It was the best four months I spent in the Army,” said Mendelsohn, 86.

A Chicago native and Washington, D.C., resident, he brought along the jacket from his uniform. It still fits, more or less.

Being in Lebanon “was fascinating,” said Kanter, 86, who grew up in Danbury, Conn., and lives in Manhattan.

“It was exotic.”

“Exotic?” Berger questioned. “Where were you at?”

Law school graduates all — Berger from the University of Pennsylvania, Kanter and Mendelsohn from Harvard — the three mostly did routine work as claims officers.

They said a typical case might involve a request for compensation from a civilian whose property had been damaged by American military personnel or vehicles.

One fellow arrived in the office with his leg bleeding and had to be persuaded to visit a hospital before filing a claim.

“I had been sent to a place I never thought I’d be — with an office job,” Berger said. “I wouldn’t say it was fantastic. Maybe if I’d been an officer.”

The talk around the table at the Palm was fast and furious, with lots of laughter and frequent “let me tell you a story” interruptions.

Berger brought along a photo taken of the six lawyers and four support personnel in the JAG office in Beirut 60 years ago.

“Look at me! I look like an infant,” he said.

“I was a young bachelor,” said Mendelsohn, who held the rank of first lieutenant — his buddies were both PFCs.

“We were all young bachelors!” Kanter said.

“I was a serious guy. But I liked to have fun,” Mendelsohn said.

One fellow officer was so impressed by Mendelsohn’s skill at a Beirut bridge table that he asked him to help arrange Friday night services for Jewish personnel.

The Rosh Hashanah service featured two rabbis and kosher wine and was held at a hotel overlooking the city, Mendelsohn said.

The JAG corpsmen were issued rifles, but no ammunition. They did carry bayonets, however.

“I used to wander around Beirut, which was a sophisticated city, and you would turn a corner and see a tank. So you knew something was going on,” Kanter said.

“There were a lot of ice cream vendors on the street, so you would have the incongruity of carrying a rifle, a bayonet, and an ice cream cone.”

Sharing the table at the Palm was the soon-to-be-retired Lt. Col. Timothy A. Furin, who served as a JAG for 22 years and was attending the reunion at the request of JAG historian Fred L. Borch.

Berger, Kanter, and Mendelsohn “were in the first class to graduate from the JAG school” in Charlottesville, Va., Furin said.

“We try to capture the history of all our judge advocates, and the different units, and show the similarities between what they did then and what we do now,” he said.

“It’s a way to teach the lessons that were learned in the past.”

The three Operation Blue Bat veterans said they’re not sure if any of the dozen or so other men with whom they served closely are still living. After 60 years, the names of the other guys in the vintage photo are difficult to remember.

But Berger, Mendelsohn, and Kanter are proud to have served. They’re happy to have reconnected.

And they’re looking forward to their next get-together.

“See you at our 61st!” Berger said.

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