10 November 2010

An Untold Story from 1983

A really great story about Marines at their very best - from a Marine who was there - via another Marine and good friend.

We are all brothers and today is a very good day to remember that.



I wrote this email to a fellow Marine in October of 1998. I have sent it out on every Veterans Day since then. I thought you may like to read it and reflect a bit on the sacrifices made by our veterans in order to preserve our way of life.
Semper Fidelis,
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I was at Camp Lejeune, N.C. on Thursday for business. Every time I go down there I stop at the Beirut Memorial to pay my respects to the Marines who were killed in Lebanon. I always go there very early in the morning so I am sure to be alone as I visit the Memorial.
The Beirut operation was and still is largely a mystery to most people. It was simply not discussed among Marines like previous or subsequent Marine Corps operations were. Most folks believe that only the 241 Marines and sailors who were killed in the BLT HQ blast are listed on the wall. Not true, there are a few dozen more that were killed in firefights and by shelling both before and after the BLT tragedy. Many more Marines survived to wear Purple Hearts for gunshot and shrapnel wounds received in Beirut. This fact is relatively unknown by most people, Marines included.
There is a friend and TBS/IOC classmate of mine, 2nd Lt. George Losey, listed on the wall. George and his platoon sergeant were both killed during a mortar and artillery attack at the Beirut airport in August of 1983. I went to his funeral and was greatly affected by it. It was especially heartbreaking to see George's grandfather grieve at the sight of his grandson as he lay dead at such a tender age. One can only imagine what he was thinking. It was one of the saddest scenes I have ever witnessed.
Also listed is Sgt Manuel Cox, a squad leader in Golf Co., 2/8. Sgt Cox was an immigrant from somewhere in South America. He came to the battalion from what is now the School of Infantry where he was a very popular instructor. All of the young Marines in the battalion knew him from the school and were simply in awe of him.
Sgt Cox and his squad were put on an isolated Observation Post west of the Beirut airport. Our battalion’s (2/8) first big scrap in Beirut took place in early December of 1983. It lasted about three hours, on and off. The local Shiite militia apparently decided it was time to see what the new Marine unit had in the way of testosterone. They found out rather quickly that the rules had changed. The battalion shot everything; small arms, artillery, mortars, tank main gun rounds, and even TOW and Dragon missiles (normally used against armored vehicles, they proved to be very effective when shot at enemy gunners in distant buildings!).
I received a radio message from the airport informing me that they were engaged in a pitched fire-fight and warning me to be alert for attacks on my position, which was isolated several miles away in a very bad sector of West Beirut. I tuned a couple of spare radios to the frequencies used by Sgt Cox’s company and the Battalion Command Posts. For the next few hours, I sat in the dark on the roof of a building and listened to Marines I knew fight for their lives. It was evident from the radio traffic that Sgt Cox's position was really catching hell. Judging by the ferocity of the attack on his observation post, I believe the Shiites wanted to kill everyone there and take the weapons, ammo, etc., for their own use.
During the entire fire-fight Sgt Cox conducted himself in a manner that was simply awesome. The entire airport could hear him on the radio talking back to his Company CP. He called for and adjusted artillery fire, mortars, gave fire commands to his gunners; the whole deal. Sgt Cox and his Marines fought like hell that night. I have no doubt that they inflicted heavy casualties among their attackers. Someone had about an hour of the radio traffic on a tape recording. I always thought that they should have sent the tape to Squad Leader School and The Basic School, where the instructors could tell the students, "OK, listen to this. Here's how Marines should be led while in combat!”
As luck would have it, the last enemy mortar round of the night hit the roof of the building that Sgt Cox was on. It killed him and seven other Marines. Some of the M-203 gunners were wearing grenade vests and their extra rounds detonated. The rooftop position had been turned into a scene of utter carnage. The Company CP sent a lone, incredibly brave Marine, L/CPL Clayburn, down to Sgt. Cox’s position to assess the situation. He crawled about 300 meters on his belly as the Shiites attempted to shoot him. They actually shot through one of the canteens on his cartridge belt; he was very lucky not to take a round in his body. He got to Sgt Cox’s position, saw the gore and left in a panic for the Company Command Post. When he arrived back at the Company CP his Lieutenant asked, "Clayburn, did you remember to bring back the crypto gear?” He had not and the look on his face said it all. There was no way he wanted to have to make another trip to Sgt Cox’s position. The Lieutenant said, "Let's go back and get it". They both departed for Sgt. Cox’s position and it was the same shooting gallery as L/CPL Clayburn’s first trip.
When they reached Sgt Cox’s position, the Lieutenant, by his own admission, was badly shaken by what he saw. The dead Marines were in really bad shape; none remained in one entire piece. The Lieutenant found Sgt Cox’s body. The last time he had seen Sgt Cox two days prior he was passing out cigars celebrating the birth of his child. He respected and admired Sgt Cox and the loss of this fine Marine greatly affected him.
Whenever I look at Sgt Cox’s name on the wall of the Beirut Memorial I always think about the devastated family he left behind. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor. Throughout the remainder of my career, whenever I heard the term NCO or Squad Leader or Marine Sergeant, I always thought of Sgt Cox as the standard to measure everyone else by. What a Marine. What a loss.
The hardest name to look at is that of Edward J. Gargano. He was a Corporal assigned to the Dragons platoon. He had been assigned to support my company in the Grenada operation and had moved with my platoon at times.
In January of 1984, Corporal Gargano was told to bring up a squad of Marines from the airport to the temporary U.S. Embassy site where my platoon was. The helicopter landing zone was a large parking lot on the Mediterranean coast. Though it was not an ideal landing zone, we used it on and off because we had no other alternatives. It was located in a very dangerous West Beirut neighborhood, so we went loaded for bear every time we went down there.
The first helo landed on that fateful day and the Marines ran out and took cover behind a stone wall at the edge of the LZ. As the second helo touched down all hell broke loose. I was on top of a building and saw several RPG's streaking by the helicopters, heard the sound of automatic weapons fire and saw green and red tracers zipping around in every direction. Most of my positions were under small arms fire and I could tell that the Marines were returning the same.
A Marine next to me pointed at the LZ and said, “Sir, look!” I saw a Marine laid out in the open. I could see that bullets were hitting all around him. I then saw a Marine run about 75 yards to the wounded man. As he ran the enemy fire increased in volume and I saw bullets hitting the ground inches behind him. I could see tracers flying all around him. It was exactly like those war movies we watched as kids where the good guy always seems to outrun the bullets. The Marine reached down and scooped up the wounded man in one motion and started back to safety. Once again tracers were zipping around everywhere. I saw shrubbery and tree branches falling next to the LZ as bullets cut them away as the enemy tried to hit the Marines as they returned to a safe position.
Amazingly, PFC Gorham (the rescuer) was not hit during his heroic run to retrieve his wounded buddy, nor was Cpl Gargano. Cpl Gargano, however, had been hit earlier by a bullet (7.62). PFC Gorham was running the show at this point and he called me for a MedEvac helo and remembered to request that it go to another landing zone that was down the road a bit and not in the line of fire. His presence of mind and coolness under fire will remain with me for as long as I live. He was just a kid, maybe a year out of high school. But on that day, his actions were those from which legends are made!
I would estimate that the entire rescue of the Cpl Gargano took perhaps less than two minutes, but I remember it like a slow motion NFL highlight film. No matter how many times I recall this event, it always plays in my mind in the same exact slow motion manner.
By the time I linked up with Cpl Gargano he was unconscious and was probably already dead. As we worked on him trying to get him breathing via CPR, massive amounts of blood came out of his mouth and nose with each thrust of the Doc’s hands; it was obvious that the bullet had hit his heart or aorta. I think we all knew what the deal was, but the Doc and other Marines continued to at least try to do something.
The tactical situation faded quickly and quiet returned to the area. The radios were booming with traffic as we tried to assess if there were any other casualties. The Doc came over and told me that Corporal Gargano was dead. I had the radio-man call the Battalion CP and change the MedEvac from priority to routine, as I did not want to cause the MedEvac helo to risk flying into a hot LZ now that there was no chance of saving his life.
Evidently the MEU staff was getting micro-managed from Washington and they wanted specifics about where Corporal Gargano had been hit. I went back to Cpl Gargano to verify the specific location of his wound. I was alone at this point with his body and I lifted his shirt up and had to roll him over to get to the wound. Sure enough, just below his right armpit there was a jagged hole about as big as a dime, with no exit wound. As I moved him I could hear blood sloshing around inside his lungs and stomach; the bullet must have really torn things up inside of him.
To this day I remember how young and fresh faced he looked. He looked so peaceful, as if he was asleep. I had done a lot of thinking since the October 23rd suicide truck bombing of the BLT Headquarters and had read the stories about all of the shattered families back home. I thought of Corporal Gargano’s parents back in the states and could only imagine what this was going to do to them.
The only thing that I could think of to do was to reach down and give his face the caress that his mother would never be able to. I said a prayer, returned to my Marines and did my best to look composed and give them the direction they desperately needed. I don't know how well I pulled it off, but inside, my heart was aching with sadness.
A week later Newsweek magazine ran a short story on Cpl Gargano's death. The article contained a recruit picture of him in his Dress Blue uniform. I saved that article and for the rest of my career I kept it in my office. I would put it in a spot that caused me to look at it at least once a day. It always helped me keep things in perspective and to remember just how ugly our profession can be. Occasionally, other Marines would see me looking at the picture and they would ask me about it. I used to tell them that the picture reminded me of why I was a Marine and of the great responsibility I had to the parents and families of the Marines entrusted to me.
Rarely does a day go by that I do not think of that event. For better or worse, it shaped a great deal of who I was as a Marine and how I approached my role as a leader of the finest men I have ever known. Sorry to ramble so, Tom. The month of October always brings back memories of those days.
Semper Fi,

1 comment:

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Hey..It was nice to go through your story..