CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A truck bomb ripped through the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut 20 years ago this week, marking the first major assault in a two-decade terrorist war that culminated on Sept. 11, 2001.
The shocking attack killed 241 U.S. servicemen in a single strike. Most of the Marines were stationed at Camp Lejeune. The names of those who died are inscribed on a memorial at the Onslow County base.
About 2,000 Beirut veterans and family members will gather Thursday at Camp Lejeune to mourn fallen comrades and remember a doomed mission.
The bombing on Oct. 23, 1983, drove the military from its peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and provided a blueprint for attacking Americans. The retreat of U.S. forces sent an unintended message to terrorists that enough body bags would prompt Western withdrawal, said John Lehman, then-secretary of the Navy, who today is a member of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
"There's no question it was a major cause of 9-11," he said. "We told the world that terrorism succeeds."
The 24th Marine Amphibious Unit from Camp Lejeune landed in Beirut in May 1983.
Their mission was to provide stability in a country wracked by civil war. It proved futile.
Within weeks, some Marines said they had seen and heard so many clashes they could pick out which factions were fighting and the weapons being fired by the sound and color of the flashes.
At dawn that October morning, Sgt. Steve Russell supervised guards at the main entrance to the Beirut barracks as most Marines slept.
No one worried about the familiar-looking yellow Mercedes truck circling the parking lot of the Marine base. The troops didn't know the terrorist group Hezbollah had replaced the real water-delivery truck with one the FBI later said carried the largest non-nuclear explosive device ever created.
The truck circled the parking lot at 6:22 a.m. and crashed through the barbed wire.
Guards struggled to get off a shot. Russell told others and later testified that he heard the noise, turned and ran as the truck gunned for his guard shack. It smashed through a sandbag barrier and rammed into the lobby. Russell ran through the building atrium and out the other side.
"Hit the deck!" he screamed as he ran. "Hit the deck!"
The driver smiled. Flames leapt from the truck.
The suicide bomber's payload flattened the entire four-story barracks.
The explosion ripped the steel door from Maj. Bob Jordan's quarters 100 yards away. He walked through smoke and dust. The smell of burnt flesh mixed with the stench of propane and powder from the explosives.
Jordan was struck by the eerie silence; other Marines heard their trapped comrades moaning.
Lance Cpl. Mike Toma, a 20-year-old from Pittsburgh who joined the Marines right out of high school, was laying on a slab of concrete when he struggled into consciousness. Rubble had collapsed on him and his best friend.
Toma could barely breathe. Dust filled his collapsed lung. He felt pain in his hip, where he later learned a piece of bone had chipped off. He couldn't hear anything but ringing. One of his eardrums had ruptured.
Rescuers remember lifting concrete chunks larger than coffee tables, searching for bodies. Toma was one of the first Marines found alive.
When they pulled him out, he couldn't understand why he could see bright, blue sky instead of the barracks that normally towered above him. Someone had to explain days later that it wasn't just Toma and his bunkmates who had been hit.
About 80 Marines were found alive in the rubble.
One of the dead was Lance Cpl. Johnny Copeland, who had sent his last letters home to Alamance County just days before.
Copeland might have risen at dawn to work out, as he usually did. His friends aren't sure. His parents in Burlington received his last five letters the day after the bombing, not yet knowing his fate.
Copeland had written that he was scared and frustrated by the constant shellings and the search for car bombs. "Mom and Dad," he wrote, "sometimes I think I'm going to lose it."