Beirut Marine barracks bombing, 30 years later

Sgt. Maj. Frederick Douglass


By GEORGE BRENNAN | Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass. | Published: October 20, 2013

CATAUMET, Mass. — Shirley Douglass-Miller talks about her husband and a wide grin spreads across her face.

His 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound frame. His warm, compassionate side collecting toys and delivering them at Christmastime through Toys for Tots. And those Saturday mornings "cooking up a storm" with his daughter, Gina, in the kitchen.

He was a fierce competitor — once breaking his leg in a pickup softball game in his mid-40s. "I was safe, wasn't I?" Douglass said to his wife when she questioned whether he could still play with the younger guys.

They are memories held close, like the handsome snapshots of him in dress blues.

Sgt. Maj. Frederick Douglass was gone too soon. One of 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers killed in a terrorist attack in Beirut, Lebanon, 30 years ago this week. Hundreds more were injured. Douglass, leader of the 1,200-member battalion, had just turned 47 a month earlier, six months shy of his retirement from the U.S. Marines — a military branch he embraced with the same passion he had for family.

"It was his job, and he loved it," his wife of 27 years said.

Douglass-Miller and her daughter, Susan Baker, will travel to North Carolina for a ceremony at Camp Lejeune to remember the victims of that deadly attack on Oct. 23, 1983, when a suicide bomber drove a truck filled with 12,000 pounds of explosives into the barracks at Beirut International Airport.

Today, in Boston, Douglass and the eight other Massachusetts men killed in the attack will be remembered at the Massachusetts Beirut Memorial in Christopher Columbus Park in Boston's North End.

"Those of us who lived with this, never forget," Douglass-Miller, 78, said. "But now more and more people have never heard of Beirut. I think it's important that we remember."

Douglass didn't have to deploy to Lebanon in 1983, but he did. He was where he was supposed to be, his widow said. He had transferred from South Weymouth Naval Air Station for one more deployment out of Camp Lejeune. The Marines went to Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping mission to help stabilize the war-torn country.

The snapshots Douglass sent home to his family told a different story of what was happening there. Each time, the stacks of sandbags grew taller as tensions escalated in the wake of an attack that killed 63 at the U.S. Embassy.

"They knew it was getting worse all the time," Douglass-Miller said. "They felt more and more uneasy. They were being shot at."

The Marines were under orders not to shoot back, couldn't carry loaded weapons and even made light of their situation by erecting the 'Can't Shoot Back Saloon,'" she said.

And then, as many of them slept, they were attacked.

"I was angry, of course," Douglass-Miller said. "I was not happy. For him, I knew he wouldn't be anywhere else because that's what he trained for, for so many years, and he would want to be anywhere where his troops are. When you become a sergeant major, they're all your guys."

'We were so vulnerable'

Douglass-Miller's last phone conversation with her husband came as he was recovering from injuries suffered as a result of shots fired at the barracks weeks earlier. Douglass wasn't shot, but stepped on glass shattered in the attack. The real injury came as he hobbled on one leg, causing a stress fracture in his other leg, his wife said. He was shipped to a hospital in Naples, Italy.

"He couldn't wait to get back to his troops," Douglass-Miller said. "It was just a matter of weeks before (the attack)."

President Ronald Reagan would call the attack in Beirut the saddest day of his presidency.

"While they were there, those young men of ours prevented widespread killing in Beirut, and they added luster, not tarnish, to their saying, 'Semper fidelis,'" Reagan said of the Marines during a 1984 speech.

Beirut is considered by some historians as a seminal moment in U.S. history — a shift from the Cold War to the attacks on Americans by militant Islamist fundamentalists.

"We were all so naive," Douglass-Miller said. "We couldn't see that we were so vulnerable."

Shirley and Frederick met while they were working together in Boston at a company that made coats. They ate lunch together and eventually started dating. Frederick returned to Massachusetts to take care of his mother after his father died, but he soon returned to California.

"We were just friends," she said. "When he got his orders to go back to California, he asked me to marry him. I knew at that point that I didn't want him to go away."

Their journey brought them to different parts of the world and different parts of the country, but the Cape was always a constant for both of them.

Douglass-Miller's family lived on the Cape, and Douglass, who grew up in Dorchester, summered here and wanted to retire to Cataumet.

"We didn't have all the support that military families have now," she said, noting that times were tough after her husband returned from four tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was a Bronze Star recipient for valor. He also received a Purple Heart for a shooting injury.

Tough exterior, big heart

Despite how the military was viewed after Vietnam, Douglass never entertained the thought of leaving the Marines, she said.

He continues to be remembered by those who served under him. Douglass-Miller said she received hundreds of letters and calls after he was killed and, still, 30 years later, she hears from men whose lives her husband touched.

In the accounts after his death, friends and his fellow Marines described Douglass as someone who could be a hard-nosed drill sergeant one minute, and reach into his pocket and provide one of his young Marines with money for housing or food the next.

"Fred was an extraordinary man, the epitome of a sergeant major," said Brian O'Donnell of Barnstable, who served with Douglass at South Weymouth before Douglass transferred to Camp Lejeune for his Beirut assignment. "Fred was very disciplined. He could be stern and enforce the rules, but he also had a big heart."

Susan Baker, a sixth-grade teacher at Morse Pond School in Falmouth, recalled visiting her father in Weymouth with two of her daughters and watching as he chewed out a young Marine.

"He had his back to us; this kid was sweating bullets," Baker said. Her father noticed that the young Marine was no longer paying attention to him and turned around to see what had drawn him in. His mood changed immediately. "He softened up because of his grandchildren."

Baker said that defined her father. "He was just a big teddy bear," she said. "People always used to say, 'He must be so tough and so mean,' and I would say, 'No, not really.'"

When students slouch during the Pledge of Allegiance in her classroom, Baker turns to the photograph of her father and the Marine flag given to her by a vice principal and reminds them of the sacrifice made by Douglass and others in the military. "It's just important that we remember," she said.

'Just doing his job'

When he died, Douglass had two grown daughters and three grandchildren. That family has now blossomed to six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Several years after he died, Douglass' grandson, Jesse, was at a school library event when his grandfather's name came up. The librarian talked about his service in Vietnam and in Beirut. Jesse returned home quite impressed.

"Grandpa is famous," Douglass-Miller recalled him telling her. "We had told (Jesse) the stories, but when she was talking about him, it carried a lot more weight."

There are tributes to Douglass and his service — a road in North Falmouth, a bridge in Bourne, a room at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia and a United Services Organization Center at Logan Airport that was dedicated in his honor in 1986 by then-Vice President George Bush. Every year, a Marine who contributes the most to combat readiness in Marine aviation receives the Sgt. Maj. Frederick B. Douglass Award.

"He wouldn't like all the fuss," Douglass-Miller said. "He would say he was just doing his job. He was just being a Marine."