Published October 23, 2013
It was Oct. 21, 1983, when the parents of Lt. William Scott Sommerhof received a letter from the 25-year-old Marine serving in Beirut, who wrote of his excitement to be returning home soon and who had already begun his Christmas shopping.
Two days later, Sommerhof and 240 other U.S. military personnel were killed when suicide bombers detonated two trucks of explosives at military barracks in Lebanon in the first major terrorist attack against the U.S. The attack was the deadliest day for the United States Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, and produced the highest death toll for the U.S. military since the first day of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War.
For the families of those killed, three decades and many more terror attacks have not diminished the memory of soldiers and sailors who paid the ultimate price in the savage bombing that ushered in an age of terror.
"He was an angel, he truly was," Jocelyn Sommerhof, of Evansville, Ill., said on the thirtieth anniversary of her son's death. "Even from the time he was a little boy, he looked up to the military."
At 6:22 a.m. on Oct. 23, a 19-ton, yellow, Mercedes-Benz stake-bed truck made its way toward the Beirut International Airport, where the U.S. 24th Marine Amphibious Unit was deployed. The driver, an Iranian national named Ismail Ascari, drove onto an access road leading to the compound, accelerating at great speed before crashing into a wire barrier separating the parking lot from the building.
The truck continued to barrel through the compound, eventually crashing into the lobby of the building that served as the barracks for the 1st Battalion 8th Marines. The force of the blast collapsed the four-story building, killing many instantly and crushing others inside. In all, 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers died. Another 58 French paratroopers were also killed in the attack.
The forces were part of a multinational team of American, British, French and Italian soldiers who were sent to Beirut to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces during the Lebanese Civil War. Their deployment followed massacres by militiamen at two refugee camps.
The bombings were blamed on the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran. At the time, President Reagan called the attack a "despicable act," although no perpetrators were ever brought to justice. The U.S. pulled out of Lebanon in 1984 after a Pentagon commission found the military lacked the training and expertise to deal with the terror threat.
In 2004, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security advisor, told the 9/11 Commission that the Beirut attack was what started the U.S. long-running war on terror.
"The terrorist threat to our nation did not emerge on Sept. 11, 2001," Rice said. "Long before that day, radical, freedom-hating terrorists declared war on America and on the civilized world. The attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985, the rise of Al Qaeda and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the attacks on American installations in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the East Africa bombings of 1998, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. These and other atrocities were part of a sustained, systematic campaign to spread devastation and chaos and to murder innocent Americans."
Still, some believe the Beirut attack has been forgotten as new acts of terror have occurred in the intervening years.
"I'd like to think that people will always remember this day," Sommerhof said, "Because it was the first horrific act of terrorism that this country ever faced."
Survivors, family members and supporters have long lobbied for an official postage stamp commemorating those who died in the attack. To date, the U.S. Postal Service and the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee have not agreed, although a private vendor stamp created by the group is approved for use as postage by the USPS.
At Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, N.C., military officials marked the anniversary Wednesday morning with a ceremony at the camp's Beirut Memorial. The special ceremony also honored other fallen service members and survivors who served in Lebanon from 1958 to 1984 and in Grenada. Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, was the featured speaker.
For Sommerhof, such recognition of her son's service helps keep his memory alive.
"He was a good student and fun loving," Sommerhof said of her son, who graduated the University of Illinois, where he went through the school's ROTC program. She said her son, who went by "Scott," admired two uncles who had long served in the military.
"They were heroes to him," she said.