At 6:22 on Sunday morning Oct. 23, 1983, a 19-ton yellow Mercedes stake-bed truck entered a public parking lot at the heart of Beirut International Airport. The lot was adjacent to the headquarters of the U.S. 8th Marine Regiment’s 1st Battalion, where some 350 American service members lay asleep in a four-story concrete aviation administration building that had been successively occupied by various combatants in the ongoing Lebanese Civil War. Battalion Landing Team 1/8 was the ground element of the 1,800-man 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU), which had deployed to Lebanon a year earlier as part of a multinational peacekeeping force also comprising French, Italian and British troops. Its mission was to facilitate the withdrawal of foreign fighters from Lebanon and help restore the sovereignty of its government at a time when sectarian violence had riven the Mediterranean nation.
The force represented a neutral and stabilizing presence, and the Lebanese people welcomed its arrival. But it soon got caught up in the burgeoning conflict, and what peacekeepers had described as a benign environment became decidedly hostile. Indeed, on April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber had detonated an explosives-laden delivery van outside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. In subsequent weeks Druze and Shiite militias sporadically fired artillery shells, mortar rounds and rockets at the Marines on or near their Beirut airport base. Still, the airport largely remained open, and, astoundingly, U.S. commanders seemingly did little to bolster base security.
It was an oversight that would have fatal consequences.
Marine sentries initially paid little attention to the Mercedes truck. Heavy vehicles were a common sight at the airport, and in fact the BLT was expecting one that day with a water delivery. The truck circled the parking lot, then picked up speed as it traveled parallel to a line of concertina wire protecting the south end of the Marine compound. Suddenly, the vehicle veered left, plowed through the 5-foot-high wire barrier and rumbled between two guard posts.