Cigarette’s for Ale

DiFranco watched as the yellow truck slowly drove by on the roadway that ran by the compound. It was 5:30 in the morning and the Lance Corporal was manning Post Six, jus’ south of the headquarters of Battalion Landing Team 1/8, 24th Marine Amphibious Unit.

The truck circled the parking lot, then left. It headed south at the gate towards Beirut International Airport. The feeling left him feeling guarded as it wasn’t an uncommon thing to have happen.

However, within the hour, the same vehicle returned, speeding up as it turned around in the parking lot. The driver aimed the truck at the lobby of the building as he crashed through the concertina wire between Post Six and Post Seven.

Sergeant Russell was at the main entrance of building, manning his post when he heard the truck accelerate and slam through the wire. With time only to save himself, the Sergeant of the Marines ran toward the rear entrance, yelling for other’s to “Hit the deck!”

Seconds later he felt the vehicle explode, sending him through the air and out of the building. Wounded, Russell found himself in the roadway outside the building with debris all around him.

Since it was Sunday, a modified holiday routine was in effect. Reveille would not sound until 6:30 am, and brunch would be served between eight and 1o o’clock. In the afternoon, there would be time to write letters, read, and toss a football around.

In the afternoon there was a barbecue planned — hamburgers, hot dogs, and all the fixings. Doc was up long before that, packed and ready for his unauthorized mission.

“Hurry back, Doc,” the Gunny said to Doc as he stepped passed the rows of neatly stacked sand bags.
The pair was standing near the stacked sand bags of the ground floor machine gun placement. The barrel of the weapon looked out over the back steps of the compound.

In the other direction was a road that led to the airport where other Marine’s were stationed. Earlier in the month, it had been the scene of an attack, which left one man dead and another severely wounded.

If it hadn’t been for the British moving an armored vehicle in between the Marines trying to recover their wounded and dead, more men would have either died or been wounded. That’s where Doc reconnected with Major Ian McNeil, a British doctor he’d met on assignment a few months before.

Doc carried an olive drab backpack as he bound down the steps of the building. In it he had a hoarded stash of cigarettes.

His mission this day was to trade them for whatever alcohol he could get. And Doc knew exactly where he was going to do that; the United Nations Peacekeeping delegation from Great Britain.

Earlier in the week he had discovered they had beer, which they called ale. They also would trade most anything for American cigarettes.

So Doc devised a plan with the Gunny. Together they gathered together about twenty cartons of cigarettes and since he had free reign by virtue of being a Corpsman, Doc walked the mile between the two fortifications.

The sun beat down on the street; heat wave wagged its fingers sky ward, distorting the distance traveled. The village was quiet, with only the songs of the Mosque echoing from corner to corner.

Doc always found it amazing that he could turn the corner from the splendor of white washed walls to the disgusting squalor of mud and card board shacks; the sun baked smells of stench everywhere.

“Maybe,” Doc thought to himself, “This is why we’re here.”

He also thought of the night before and how the USO had put on a great show. It was nice to see something from home firsthand for a change.

Doc forced his mind to focus on the task at hand. It was important that he concentrate on his surroundings.

A lone American could easily disappear in this country. The shadow at the next corner could hold death for him.

There was no concern for the fact that Doc wore a uniform. He snuggled the backpack tighter on his shoulders, then touched the canvassed flap of his service pistol, leaving him feeling oddly comfortable.

Twenty minutes after Doc had started his walk from the four-story U.S. defensive position he found himself at the barbed-wire gate of the British.

“What brings you out for a visit, Yank?” the guard at the gate asked.

Doc smiled, “Heard it was tea-time.”

The Brit snorted and rolled his eyes at him. Doc helped him pull the concertina wire back in place.

“Doc,” McNeil called out.

Doc turned and was met with by an out reached hand. Doc grabbed it and the two men shook.

“I didn’t know that you would be afoot this morning,” he said, “Otherwise I might have been able to send a driver around for you. “

They laughed at the obvious joke.

Doc handed him the pack as soon as they stepped inside the officers’ tent. McNeil pulled the tabs open.

“How much is there?” he asked.

”Four thousand,” Doc said.

The look on his face told of his surprise. Then McNeil smiled.

His white teeth flashing as he spoke, ”I have ten cases of ale as agreed,” adding, “it’s in the lorry out back, ready to go when you are.”

With a now empty backpack in hand, Doc pulled the flap of the tent back and stepped out into the glare of the sunshine. Together the doctor and the Corpsman walked towards the lorry.

It was an odd sound that vibrated the ground beneath them. Both men stopped and looked towards the village, as the sentries inside the camp became curiously attentive.

Raised in California Doc’s mind said, “Earthquake.”

Then there was a burst of sound, followed by silence.

The top floor of the U.S. rampart was visible from where Doc stood. The men on top were all gathered near the front, looking more like ants than humans.

Then he grew sick to his stomach and panic gripped him as he watched in horror as the rampart disappeared. In its place rose a cloud of yellow-red dust.

The dust just hung there and filtered downward, shafts of sunlight cutting through it. Doc jus’ stood there, stunned.

He watched as the building collapsed away and dust filled the air where it once stood. He could not move.

When Doc finally looked around, he found himself surrounded by eyes that looked to him for leadership. The British Peacekeepers were all on their feet, armed and ready to do battle.

“Well, Yank, what’s your order?” a voice called out.

Doc blinked a couple of times to clear his head of the fog that was seemingly encasing it. His mind suddenly snapped back.

“Advance door to door and kill anything that is a threat,” he heard himself say.

“You heard the Yank,” someone shouted.

The entire group dispersed. In less than five minutes, they had left the safety of their parameter.

“You’ll do more good with hospital,” McNeil said as he grabbed Doc’s upper arm.

He knew Doc wanted to lead the way, to go save his companions. But the Englishmen also knew that Doc’s skills were not that of a fighting man, but those of a skilled medical professional.

“Let my men sweep the area first,” he said. “They’ve trained for this. You’ll do no-one any good by getting yourself killed now.”

McNeil was right.

A few minutes later, the nine-story French barracks was attacked by a second truck bomb, leaving 58 paratroopers from the 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment dead and 15 wounded. Many of the dead paratroopers had gathered on their balconies moments earlier to see what was happening at the airport.

Within a short time, Italian and Lebanese forces joined the rescue efforts. Despite their own problems, the French sent a contingent to the blast site, as did the British and the Lebanese Red Cross.

Meanwhile surviving Marines had begun digging by hand through the ruins in a desperate attempt to rescue the living and to implement their mass casualty evacuation plan. Soon a medical officer arrived and had the triage process up and running; and these wounded were evacuated seaward, while others were forwarded to local hospital in Beirut for treatment.

Soon Doc joined seven other surviving Corpsmen and the two remaining Battalion surgeons at the site of now destroyed building. Aside for performing immediate emergency procedures, they also made lists made of those who had been in the building and who had survived.

As rescuers continued pulling bodies from the building, they faced a major problem in identifying the dead and injured. Many of the men had removed their dog-tags before going to sleep the night before because it made sleeping uncomfortable.

Many slept in their gym shorts or other athletic gear, which were not marked with their names as uniform items were required to be. Compounding the problem was the fact that all of the BLT’s service record books and medical records were in the battalion administration offices in the basement of the destroyed building.

The dust, though not thick as it had been when the building fell, still made the air hard to breath. Also making the job of recovering the dead difficult was the continuous sniper fire, causing men to scramble for cover over and over again.

Helicopters from the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima arrived to transport wounded to the ship for triage and stabilization. The first medical evacuation aircraft, an Air Force C-9 from Turkey, arrived before the last survivor was removed from the rubble.

A Royal Air Force C-130 landed shortly there­after, followed by a Navy C-9. Almost as soon as they were stabilized, the wounded were flown to the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship Naples, the RAF hospital in Cyprus and the Army hospitals at Landstuhl and Frankfurt, West Germany.

Eventually, the shattered remains of what had been the Marine’s four story barracks were left to the Sea-Bees. The lack of anything to do also weighed on the minds of those who had survived and it was welcomed news to learn the 24th MAU was being relieved by the 22nd.

Twenty-eight days later, Doc realized he had very little sleep and even less memory of those terrible days. How many amputations, broken bones, and torn skin and dead bodies did he work over and why couldn’t he recall their faces, names and voices?

He found himself unable to answer those questions, while seated on the helicopter taking him out to an awaiting ship.

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About Tom Darby

French-born, American-raised, U.S. citizen, husband, father, friend, veteran, and writer.
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