By Carol L. Bowers
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 15, 2008 - With the 25th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut just nine days away, the National Museum of the Marine Corps here today unveiled a temporary exhibit in memory of the 238 U.S. Marines who were killed that day. "This remains the single most deadly attack on Americans on foreign soil – ever. In this post-9/11 world ... this event should be remembered and studied by us all," said Lin Ezell, director of the museum located just outside of Quantico Marine Corps Base.
"Historians tracking the global war on terrorism will find that it is a quarter century old," Ezell told a small group of military veterans and museum visitors at the opening of the exhibit.
In the Oct. 23, 1983, attack, a terrorist driving a bomb-laden truck struck the headquarters of Battalion Landing Team 1, 8th Marines, killing 241 Americans, including 238 Marines. Moments later, 58 French paratroopers died in a similar truck-bomb attack.
The exhibit, which consists of a three-panel story board that chronicles the Marines' peacekeeping mission from August 1982 through February 1984, is titled "Where Do We Get Such Men?"
The title is taken from the text of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Paul X. Kelley's welcome to the Marines and sailors who survived the bombing and returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C.:
"When I met the first flight of your fallen comrades as they arrived at Dover, Delaware, after the mass murder of 23 October, I asked the question, Lord, where do we get such men? As you stand here today I ask the same question. Where do we get such men of courage -- such men of dedication -- such men of patriotism -- such men of pride? The simple answer is that we get them from every clime and place, from every race, from every creed, and from every color."
The exhibit, the first in a series of mini-exhibits, will be available to the public via an electronic library in 2009, Ezell said.
More than a half dozen Marines and sailors who were in Beirut the day of the barracks bombing attended the ceremony at the museum.
Michael N. Pocalyko, managing director and chief executive officer of Monticello Capital, was a young Navy pilot at the time of the bombing. He was airborne at the time, flying a helicopter on an intelligence mission about 25 miles north of Beirut. He found out about the bombing upon his return to his ship.
"My journal that day talks about the dead. So many dead at this time, so many dead at that time, and the numbers just kept going up," Pocalyko said. "It was outside of anyone's expectations that a suicide bombing would occur."
Later, Pocalyko would attend Harvard University and study the international events that pre-dated the bombing as part of his studies on international affairs and economics.
Pocalyko returned to Beirut years later. "The Marine deployment area is now part of the Beirut airport," he recalled. "The actual site is now part building and part parking lot. It's nothing like it was."
Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Mark T. Hacala, who still serves in the reserves, was a medical corpsman on the day of the bombing. Hacala, director of history and education at the U.S. Navy Memorial, said the exhibit highlighted what to some is a forgotten portion of history.
"What people don't realize is that there was a ground war going on. The bombing is one element," Hacala said. "To the rest of the world, it was an incident without context."
Gregory Balzer, chief of operations for the Marine Corps' training and education command, had left the Marine barracks one day before the bombing to go to the presidential palace, located a few miles away.
"I woke up to the loudest noise you ever heard. Then I heard a second explosion," Balzer recalled.
Initially, he feared the palace was under attack. Then came the reports of mass casualties at the barracks. TV reports brought home the devastation visually.
"There's so much activity in coordinating the evacuation, you go on auto-pilot. You're just sort of numb," Balzer said.
Then, the realization hits home, hard. "You've just lost every friend you have made in your short Marine Corps career," Balzer said. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about them."
As for the exhibit, Balzer said it is recognition that is long overdue.
"It was a tragic defeat, and the Marine Corps doesn't like to celebrate defeat," Balzer said. "The first lesson in exegesis is to look at what went wrong, what went right. Some people would say we're celebrating a tragedy, ... but we need to learn from that experience."
Mike Bangert, a builder from Petersburg, Pa., had the honor of being the only former Marine to bicycle to the museum for the opening of the exhibit.
Bangert, who served in Beirut in 1984, after the bombing, is on a 500-plus-mile bicycle ride to raise support for the issuance of Beirut Memorial U.S. postage stamp. That his journey, independent of other commemorations, brought him here in time for the exhibit's opening was coincidence, Bangert said. He plans to be in Jacksonville, N.C., in time for the commemoration ceremonies for the bombing later this month at Camp Lejeune.
"My experience in Beirut pales in comparison to that of the real Beirut veterans," Bangert said.
A House of Representatives resolution expressing the recommendation that a commemorative postage stamp should be issued in remembrance of the victims and in honor of the veterans of the peacekeeping mission in Beirut from 1982 to 1984 is hung up in committee. The resolution has 21 co-sponsors so far, but 50 are needed for action.
"I'm just trying to do my part to raise awareness," Bangert said.