Freeze column: Remembering the Fallen at Beirut

  • Posted: Monday, March 25, 2013 12:22 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, March 25, 2013 12:23 a.m.
Nick Darconte at the Beirut Memorial in Jacksonville, North Carolina. The 30th Anniversary of the barracks bombing will be on October 23.
Nick Darconte at the Beirut Memorial in Jacksonville, North Carolina. The 30th Anniversary of the barracks bombing will be on October 23.

Seldom does a day go by that Nick Darconte doesn’t think about his time in Beirut, Lebanon. “I lived with those reminders for almost 30 years now, and they never leave me for long.” Darconte helped evacuate those who survived the deadly blast of the Marine Corps barracks on October 23, 1983.

The Beirut barracks bombing occurred when two separate buildings housing part of the multinational peacekeeping force were hit by truck bombers. Deaths of American servicemen totaled 241, including 220 Marines, 18 sailors and 3 soldiers. At least 60 more Marines were injured. French deaths totaled 58, with 15 injured. The American loss of life represented the largest single day death total for the US Marines since Iwo Jima. The US military had not experienced such a large single day death total since the first day of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. It was also the largest single loss of life resulting from an attack on Americans overseas since World War ll.

For years following the end of his military service, Darconte had sought out other Marines who experienced life in Beirut. He had been stationed at the Beirut airport, right beside the runway. Darconte served as a sheet metal mechanic and a door gunner on transport helicopters. He wanted to share his stories with other Marines, and looked online for other groups of Beirut veterans.

This past Saturday evening in Salisbury, Gold Hill’s Darconte and three other veterans met in Salisbury for the first time face to face. All are members of the E-Club, a private group of ex-Marines who seek camaraderie with other veterans. Nicholas Mottola was a Lance Corporal and engineer, and currently lives in Franklin, NC. He founded the E-club, honoring those enlisted men who served in Beirut from 1982-1984. Mike Snowdy, of Mocksville, was a combat engineer. Both Mottola and Snowdy, members of the 2nd Combat Engineering Battalion, were responsible for building bunkers and laying barbed wire. Southmont’s Duane Swink, a combat infantryman from the 6th Marines, 2nd Battalion Reaction Force, filled out the group. Snowdy, Mottola, and Swink were deployed to the Beirut area following the barrack’s bombing.

Darconte, serving with the HMM 162nd Air Wing, said, “Technically, we weren’t in a war. So, we have been forgotten about. We were there for five months before they gave us ammunition, but we were told not to chamber a round. All the while, the ‘peacekeepers’ were being shot at regularly. RPG’s, sold by the US government, were being shot back at us. We found the markings on the remains.”

Marines didn’t have chambered rounds when the Hezbollah truck bombers were able to reach the American and French barracks. Darconte remembers, “They sounded general quarters and ‘This is not a drill!’ I will never forget all the choppers, and the sights, smells and sounds of that day. We helped medevac the injured to the aircraft carrier Iwo Jima and then on to Germany.”

“My parents heard the news of the blast, and for some reason the Marines didn’t put my name on the survivor list. About 2400 Marines were serving in Beirut at the time, and my parents were really worried that I might be dead. There was no real communication at the time, but I was finally able to call them from Israel a few days later,” said Darconte before continuing, “I normally could only call home about every six months anyway.”

Snowdy and Mottola did have some pleasant memories of their time in Beirut. ‘Good times were few, but we did have some,” said Mottola. “About the best time that I remember was dancing with Cathy Lee Crosby. I really got into that. We got to meet the actor Robert Conrad,” he continued with a smile.

Snowdy remembers, “Before the bombing, it was pretty easy duty. There was formation twice a day, they ran PT in formation, did patrols through the city. After the bombing, it all changed. I went in for payback. We were in a firefight almost every day, with mortars and rocket attacks. Hard to build bunkers and wire obstacles with that going on.”

On the minds of each of the Marine veterans is the feeling that their service isn’t remembered. Darconte said ,”The VA doesn’t recognize the Marines in Beirut. They skip from Vietnam to Iraq.” Snowdy added, “We went into Beirut in 1982 to help the Palestine Liberation Organization evacuate so that Israel would stop attacking. After the bombing, there was no more peacekeeping.” Mottola said, “Overall, they probably shot at us 1000 times more than we could shoot back!”

“It was cool to be a Marine. We lost so many good men, in fact our sister platoon took the brunt of the barracks attack. I will always remember them.” Darconte, Mottola, Snowdy, and Swink all plan to attend the 30th Annual Remembrance of the bombing in Jacksonville, NC later this year. Still, in other venues, they feel forgotten. Darconte hopes to soon get a Purple Heart for a combat injury in Beirut. “It’s been a long struggle. I keep getting told that we were a peacekeeping force. But for every man here tonight, our pride and joy is the Marine Corps Combat Ribbon.”

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