A DEATH IN BEIRUT
by Eric Hammel

Copyright © 1994 by Eric Hammel



The 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) and Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/8 arrived in a quiescent Beirut in May 1983 as part of the Multinational Force of Western peacekeepers. On August 29, 1983, at the sudden renewal of the Lebanese Civil War, the Marine battalion lost two killed and fourteen wounded and began a series of fire fights that went largely unreported in the American media. On September 6, two more Marines were killed and fighting involving Marines seriously intensified. Throughout September, Marines were engaged in daily warfare with Moslem militiamen belonging to various factions of the Shiite Amal (Hope) coalition. In addition to the four Marines who were killed, nearly seventy were wounded, many seriously. Hampered by rules of engagement that seriously curtailed their retaliatory options, Marines nevertheless killed dozens and perhaps scores of the Moslem militiamen who daily fired on their positions.

The part 2d Lieutenant Bill Harris liked best about Charlie Company, 1/8's rotation to the northern end of the Beirut International Airport (BIA) on October 3, 1983, was the opportunity it afforded him to exercise some independent command. Harris's 1st Platoon was strung out in a line of sandbagged posts across the northern end of the BIA and for several hundred meters down along the eastern edge of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit's compound. The 3d Platoon line began more than a kilometer away, and the 2d Platoon was holding Combat Post 11 and isolated Combat Post 76. More important, from Lieutenant Harris's standpoint, the Charlie Company command post was more than a kilometer away.

The hotbed of militia activity in Charlie Company's new sector was the Cafe Daniel, just across from Harris's platoon, at the northeastern corner of the BIA compound. This Amal meetingplace was under the control of a local warlord known to Marines as Castro, a nickname derived from his martial bearing and heavy beard. Castro was something of a renegade, a man dedicated to achieving his own fundamentalist Moslem program of social change in the Shiite Moslem slum of Hay es Salaam. Thus, though peace talks were getting underway and the Shiite Amal would be a party to them, Castro underscored his independence by applying almost constant pressure upon the Marines within his reach--Bill Harris's platoon of Charlie Company, 1/8. The closest Amal bunkers were only a hundred meters to the north of Harris's sector, an easy shot, and Cafe Daniel was about four hundred meters from the nearest Marine position, as was a red-and-white- striped concrete structure known as The Armory, after its apparent chief function. Behind Harris's line was a Lebanese Armed Forces training camp, the perfect excuse for Amal warriors to fire "through" the 1st Platoon.

The sniper fire was intermittent during Harris's first week in the new position, not worth a response that might upset the uneasy peace that had descended upon most of the rest of the BIA following a deadly Marine-Moslem shooting war throughout the month of September. But the low-key harassment that had replaced the September War became uglier one night when a sentry heard a loud pop and realized that a hand grenade had detonated in an unmanned bunker just beneath his post. Next, three militia riflemen opened fire. The Marine popped a flare and saw several dark forms heading across an adjacent field. Next morning, Captain Chris Cowdrey, the Charlie Company commander, joined Lieutenant Harris for a walk across the road that divided the Marines from Castro's militia. The two Marine officers found the spoon from a Soviet-manufactured hand grenade in the open field to the east of the roadway, but they could find no shell casings left by the riflemen. As Cowdrey and Harris turned to leave, a small boy ran up and showed them a handful of shell casings he had collected at first light. Three different kinds of weapons had been fired during the night, a sure sign that the incident had been perpetrated by Castro's ragtag Amal militia.

The tempo of shooting incidents picked up. Two nights after the grenade incident, four rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) flew over 1st Platoon outposts, then machine-gun fire cut through the night air. The Marines responded by bringing up two snipers, who located favorite militia firing positions and prepared to make a few examples. Then, with great ostentation, the Marines moved up four Dragon antitank rocket launchers and an M-60 tank to positions just behind the 1st Platoon. The new weapons were dug in, but their fire was withheld in the hope that Castro and his subordinates would see the light.

All of a sudden, during the latter part of the week of October 10, some new players appeared in Hooterville, as the Marines called Hay es Salaam. Many of these were hard-bitten, professional-looking soldiers wearing Soviet battledress uniforms, similar to Marine camouflage uniforms but colored rust- and-brown. It was assumed that Castro had made a deal with the Syrian Army. In addition, another ragtag group, distinctly different from Amal fighting units, took up residence around Cafe Daniel. The thing that set this group apart was the red-lettered white headband sported by each fighter. It was presumed that these were members of Islamic Amal, Iranians from the Syrian- sponsored training camp at Baalbek, in Lebanon's Syria-controlled Beqa'a Valley. Immediately, the number and quality of bunkers that could be observed by Marines increased, as did the accuracy of incoming small-arms sniper fire.

Adding to the growing sense of discomfort and isolation along the northern BIA perimeter was news that large numbers of Hooterville residents were leaving town. Soon, Charlie Company Marines could see flag-festooned buses picking up whole families from nearby neighborhoods. It was axiomatic that the sudden departure of noncombatants presaged a big fight.

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Staff Sergeant Dennis Allston had been in Beirut longer than any other Marine; it had been nearly four hundred days since he accompanied the first Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) detachment sent to the BIA to clear unexploded ordnance in October 1982. The twenty-five-year-old Philadelphian had seen it all, had come to have mixed feelings about the city in which he had spent two birthdays--loved the city and its diverse peoples, hated what those people did to one another in the name of religion and politics.

On October 15, 1983, a Friday, Allston was temporarily in charge of the EOD detachment. He and his good friend, Staff Sergeant Allen Soifert, a twenty-five-year-old Canadian-born professional Marine, had decided to respond personally to a routine call by a Lebanese Army unit in Hooterville that had discovered what appeared to be an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade round. The two left the MAU Service Support Group (MSSG) 24 headquarters building and drove out along the Perimeter Road to Hooterville, where they found the casing of a defective RPG that had apparently detonated without actually blowing up. The reasonably intact steel casing was thrown into the back of the EOD jeep and the two staff sergeants climbed aboard for the ride home.

Between the time Allston and Soifert passed Lieutenant Bill Harris's platoon on the way to the RPG and the time they approached the corner on the way home, the Syrian Army snipers around Cafe Daniel had begun taking potshots at passing American vehicles. The first such shooting occurred as an MSSG-24 dump truck lumbered past the corner. A few rounds ricocheted off the heavy-gauge steel frame of the truck before the driver realized that he was in danger. As he pushed the truck into high gear and ran from the area, the shaken youngster mouthed a hurried warning into the handset of the vehicle's radio. Several other vehicles that happened to be passing at the time were also the objects of sniper fire from the vicinity of Cafe Daniel. One of them, a jeep, was under the control Lance Corporal Bill Riddle, who was taking his military driving test. Riddle was shot through both legs as he passed Cafe Daniel. Other vehicles on the Outer Perimeter Road highballed out of the area as the radio waves crackled with blunt warnings. A back-hoe operator was forced to pull over and hide behind the rear tire of his vehicle as Charlie Company Marines engaged the Moslem riflemen. The MAU headquarters ordered the Outer Perimeter Road closed to all traffic. Bill Harris's platoon was placed on full alert, ready to battle the snipers if they could be pinpointed.

The EOD jeep, with Staff Sergeant Allston driving, was neither halted nor contacted about of the closure of the roadway. Allston and Soifert were bantering to pass the time until they got back to the MSSG-24 headquarters, which was just a few minutes away. Moments before the jeep arrived in the vicinity of Cafe Daniel, the Charlie Company sentries assigned to block the road to vehicular traffic were forced by heavy Moslem gunfire to seek cover.

It was about 1000. As the jeep headed south toward the corner opposite Cafe Daniel, both staff sergeants involuntarily leaned back, then exclaimed their surprise when they simultaneously realized that several rounds had passed in front of them, between their faces and the windshield. It dawned on Allston that the gunfire was coming from a treeline about one hundred meters to his right. As Allston turned his head to pinpoint the source of the fire, other weapons along the route opened fire on the jeep. Allston instinctively thumped his booted foot hard upon the accelerator, hoping to run the gantlet.

"I've been hit," said Staff Sergeant Soifert in a calm voice, "In the chest." Allston then felt his passenger slump down beside him.

The jeep was rapidly approaching an intersection where Lebanese civilian construction workers had been building a culvert. This was the path to safety, so Allston started the jeep into a tight right turn. At that instant, he sensed that Soifert was slipping out of the right side of the vehicle. Without thinking, the driver took his right hand from the steering wheel and grabbed his tottering partner. This action prevented Allston from completing the turn. The jeep turned wide and both left tires bounced across a low berm shielding the newly emplaced culvert. The jeep overbalanced and Allston was thrown clear over a distance of about ten feet.

There was just time to duck and roll, then Allston came up running--under continuous fire--back to the jeep, which had turned over on its side, driver's side up. The only good fortune was that the jeep now formed a substantial barrier between the two Marines and the direct fire.

Allen Soifert's right foot was beneath the side of the jeep, and the laces of his left boot were entangled in the framework of the passenger seat. He had landed on his buttocks and his head was scraped or cut by the lip of his helmet. Or perhaps he had been grazed by a passing bullet when several Iranian gunmen first opened fire.

Soifert was fully conscious and spoke to Allston in a very calm voice. Allston had the feeling that the wounded man was more in control of himself than he, Allston, was. Soifert reaffirmed that he had been shot in the chest, but when Allston probed beneath Soifert's flak jacket, he could find neither an entry wound nor any blood. In fact, Soifert had been shot just beneath his right nipple. The round had penetrated his sternum, cut through his trachea and lungs, rearranged vital organs, and lodged near his left kidney.

Allston reached into the jeep's cargo compartment for their squad radio. It was not there. As he cast about for the missing radio, he spotted a lone gunman in the treeline. Allston drew and cocked his .45-caliber automatic pistol and fired several rounds without hitting the man. As he ducked back behind the jeep, however, he saw the radio, which had been thrown clear when the jeep rolled over. It was now in the open, about where he had landed earlier. Allston screwed up his courage and darted into the open. He was lucky, for no one fired directly at him, though he had heard rounds passing overhead since landing on the ground. Allston pulled the radio back to the lee side of the jeep and keyed the handset. Nothing.

As Allston thought about his next move, he saw some movement about three hundred meters away, on the BIA side of the road. Marines were pouring rifle and machine-gun fire at the Amal positions and nearby rooftops in Hooterville. Staff Sergeant Allston shouted at them in the hope they would send help, but he knew that their doing so would likely result in additional casualties. Allen Soifert, who was fully cogent and who had a very keen sense of the severity of his injuries, verbalized Allston's feelings of desperation, actually announcing that he did not want other Marines risking their lives in his behalf. There was no need to worry. Lieutenant Bill Harris's heart went out to the two men trapped in the open, but he knew he would sustain dead and wounded if he sent any of his men to help them. His decision to keep his Marines under cover was confirmed within minutes in a message from Captain Chris Cowdrey, the Charlie Company commander.

Soifert next chided Allston for his failure to get through on the radio, suggesting in a bantering voice that his nominal superior had forgotten to turn it on, or failed to key the handset, or improperly set the antenna. This was typical of Soifert's well-honed sense of humor. Allston was not feeling the wounded man's mirthful energy, so responded in less-than- charitable manner, which caused Soifert to respond in a humorous fashion.

Continued efforts by Allston to work the radio were unsuccessful. At length, Soifert said that he would try to get through. Allston obliged him, but it was by then apparent that the radio had been damaged in the accident or, more likely, had not been working at all that morning.

As the two sat tight, Allston thought he heard a tank moving nearby. In fact, Staff Sergeant Richard Smith was attempting to maneuver his M-60 tank to the roadway, either to provide direct fire support or, if the opportunity arose, to dash out and snatch the two EOD staff sergeants. The racket from the tank drew the attention of Amal militia fighters on the opposite flank, and several of their RPGs passed close enough to the tank to force Smith to reconsider his boldness. He well knew that an RPG could destroy a tank.

Next, a jeep bearing 1st Lieutenant Nick Nanna and two enlisted Marines pulled up right beside the overturned jeep. Nanna stepped out behind the damaged vehicle just as heavy fire from the Moslem-held treeline whipped by overhead. He grabbed a small radio, ordered the jeep to get clear, and hunkered down next to Soifert to see if he could help.

Lieutenant Nanna took charge, forcing his way onto the Marine tactical net with a report on his arrival and Soifert's injuries. The radioman on the other end of the conversation was infuriatingly dense, getting the message completely fouled up three or four times. Dennis Allston's simmering frustration grew to overt ire, and he yelled at Nanna to "stop playing word games" and order up some help. Nanna requested that corpsmen be dispatched with an ambulance jeep.

Second Lieutenant Mike Murphy, the MSSG-24 communicator, was incensed by the events unfolding on his tactical net. When Murphy volunteered to lead the rescue, he was turned down, but he could not be kept down.

Chief Hospital Corpsman B. C. Miller and Hospital Corpsman 3d Class Ken Boyer were on duty at the MSSG-24 aid station when a runner arrived to announce that a member of the MSSG had been shot on the Outer Perimeter Road. Miller and Boyer grabbed their medical kits and headed upstairs to get the ambulance. They discovered that it was on a run elsewhere. The two corpsmen next headed for the battalion landing team motorpool, intent upon borrowing the battalion aid station's (BAS) ambulance jeep. Their request was turned down. Boyer and Miller cursed up a storm, applied a liberal dose of guilt, and won the day. As Boyer started the engine, he and Miller were joined by Hospitalman Gary Cooper and Lieutenant Mike Murphy.

The roadway was blocked at a Marine checkpoint by a dump truck, perhaps the one that had earlier been hit by militia gunfire. As the corpsmen and Lieutenant Murphy fretted, the driver and the sentry chattered away. Murphy yelled "Hey, Marine!" several times before the truck driver looked up. When Murphy identified himself, the dump truck pulled out of the way, but the sentry moved to bar the road. "Hey! We got sniper fire down there."

"Yeah," Doc Boyer called as he passed, "We're going to pick up the guy who got shot."

As Doc Boyer pulled up behind a dirt berm, Lieutenant Murphy, Doc Cooper, and Chief Miller jumped out, grabbed a backboard and headed for the roadway. Boyer was out of the vehicle, but he decided to turn off the jeep's engine. He was just about to lean back in when the windshield on the driver's side was blown out by a high-velocity bullet. He left the engine running.

Sergeant Foster Hill, one of Lieutenant Bill Harris's squad leaders, was watching the corpsmen tear across the open ground to the overturned jeep when he was asked for an up-to-the-moment report by the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach, who had arrived at his elbow without warning or an entourage. Hill gave his report, then turned back to watch the unfolding drama.

By the time Murphy, Miller, Cooper, and Boyer reached Staff Sergeant Soifert's side, the wounded man was sinking. He had remained in a jocular mood until then, realistic about his condition, but very much in control of his emotions. As bullets continued to fly overhead, Soifert got into an argument with the corpsmen over his condition. He knew he had been hit in the lungs, and he said so, but the docs initially thought he was not, for he was not coughing blood. He also felt himself going into shock, and he offered advice as to how the docs might treat him. Doc Boyer ran his hands down Soifert's torso to feel for wounds. When he reached back to the wounded man's kidneys, a 7.62mm round fell into his hand. This he handed to Staff Sergeant Allston, and then he applied a battle dressing.

As Chief Miller continued to treat the wounded Marine, who was by now drooling blood from between bluish lips, Boyer and Cooper went to work getting Soifert's foot untangled from the seat. It was clear that the ankle had been broken by the twisting fall, so it was decided to keep Soifert's boot on if possible; at least it was providing some support. The laces were so badly entangled that Boyer decided to disassemble the seat. He twisted nuts and bolts and worked a set of oversized wire-cutters where they could do their job. At length, as Soifert's eyes began rolling back and a pink froth appeared on his lips, the seat was pulled from the jeep and the wounded man was stretched out on the roadway. A little shove on the jeep itself by all hands freed the trapped right foot. Doc Boyer kneeled over the declining wounded man to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Staff Sergeant Richard Smith briefly returned with his M-60 tank to traverse its 105mm main gun in the direction of the Moslem-held buildings, but he was again threatened by RPGs, and also ordered to withdraw. This time, at least, the Marines and corpsmen behind the overturned jeep could see the attempt, and that was mildly heartening. As a Marine amphibian tractor rolled up behind a nearby berm, everyone grabbed the backboard on which Soifert had been placed, and ran up the tractor's rear ramp into the lighted interior.

Charlie Company's 1st Platoon opened fire on the Moslem fighters, forcing many of them to seek cover in The Armory. Next, Lieutenant Harris unleashed his grenadiers, who volleyed M-203 40mm high-explosive rounds into the building's thick concrete walls. It is doubtful that any Moslems died, but they were certainly bounced around.

Allen Soifert finally lost consciousness as the amphibian- tractor driver pivoted the huge vehicle and headed directly up the roadway to the BAS, where a litter team was standing by. Dennis Allston stood by the door of the battalion landing team headquarters building for a moment, then heard himself called to the MSSG-24 building. He reluctantly tore himself away, knowing that he would be put to work to get his mind off the morning's trauma.

Dr. John Hudson was in the Navy for just one reason: he had run out of tuition money midway through medical school, and the Navy had paid his way. He was a good, caring doctor, but he either had no sense of military discipline or superbly resisted the growth of an officer-like veneer. Tales of his military ineptitude were legend in the battalion, and he went out of his way to put on weight, his way of bearding the slim-trim Marines with whom he served. This day, the games were left at the operating-room door. John Hudson simply wanted to save a life.

Grim-faced Lieutenant Danny Wheeler, the battalion chaplain, stripped off Allen Soifert's flak jacket and camouflage blouse. The surgeon probed the bloodless wound beneath the right nipple. At first, Dr. Hudson was certain that Soifert's heart had been nicked, and he was ready to open the staff sergeant's chest, but he decided within seconds that the heart was not involved. He also determined that Soifert was as good as dead. But as good as isn't the same as already, so the overweight Georgia country doctor worked to stabilize his patient, who would not survive surgery of any sort if his shock could not be controlled.

The wisdom and curse of a BAS is that complex and sophisticated equipment is reserved for medical facilities farther up the line. All a battalion surgeon is supposed to do is patch the wounded who might live and pass them along to better- manned and better-equipped surgical teams. Most often, the system works. Large numbers of surgeons are not risked in the close combat that is the lot of an infantry battalion; they are available in safer places, where they can better serve the majority. Marine battalions facing the hardest combat in Vietnam each drew just one surgeon, a team of fewer than twenty corpsmen, and limited equipment. This is hard-nosed wisdom, but where John Hudson and Allen Soifert were concerned this October noon hour, it was a curse. Treating Soifert was simply beyond the capabilities of the BAS's spartan facilities, and Soifert was in no condition to be moved. Hudson did what he could, but it was not enough. Within minutes of his arrival, Allen Soifert slipped into a coma and then stopped breathing. Hudson got Soifert's heart pumping, but it failed again. And again. Then there was no bringing him back.

Chaplain Danny Wheeler, a Lutheran, administered Last Rites, a Catholic ritual, to the dead Marine, who was Jewish. Allen Soifert, who had become a United States citizen in 1968 at the age of ten, was buried a week after his death in Beirut at age the age of twenty-five at the Jewish cemetery in Nashua, New Hampshire.

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When news that Allen Soifert had died reached Charlie Company on the afternoon of October 15, Lieutenant Bill Harris's 1st Platoon took matters into its own hands. M-203 rounds were accurately placed just behind many of the walls the Amal snipers were using for cover. Some of the grenadiers were able to bounce high-explosive 40mm rounds off buildings to get them into hard-to-hit Moslem emplacements. The Marine platoon's M-60 machine guns were used to suppress the militia automatic weapons.

Word arrived that night through the civilian news reporters who daily traveled between Hooterville and the BIA that women and children had been hurt by the Marines, so Harris was obliged to order his men to withhold their general fire. However, though the 24th MAU Headquarters was loath to allow Harris's platoon to undertake a general fire fight, it sanctioned the use of trained snipers to begin a routine of careful, aimed target suppression the next day. Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach sent four additional snipers to Harris's sector, bringing the total to six. In addition to their own specialized equipment, the snipers were to make use of the optical range-finding equipment aboard Staff Sergeant Richard Smith's M-60 tank, a terrific plus for pinpointing targets in the built-up areas opposite Harris's positions.

Sergeant Foster Hill put forth a plan aimed at achieving a balance more favorable to the Marines without endangering the lives of noncombatants. In Hill's opinion, it was not worth the expenditure of a great deal of ammunition to go after five or six militia fighters here, and five or six there. Instead, grenadiers could force the small groups toward the alley fronting Cafe Daniel and The Armory, and the snipers could pick them off, almost at their leisure. Bill Harris felt it was worth a try.

When militia warriors opened fire on Harris's platoon on the morning of October 16, Harris grenadiers drew extra ammunition and went to work. Sergeant Hill did the honors. His M-203 gunner dropped several rounds right on top of The Armory. The smallish rounds could not penetrate the concrete roof, but the deafening noise did force the gunmen hiding inside to run into the alleyway. Aided by spotters, the Marine snipers had a field day. With the full but tacit concurrence of higher headquarters, Lieutenant Harris simply overlooked the hitherto extremely constraining rules of engagement under which Marines most often could not engage known gunmen. This day, Harris decided that, as long as there was shooting going on, anyone caught with a weapon in his hands was fair game. This slight shift in the rules caught many hitherto untouchable militiamen off guard. Militia gunmen exiting The Armory simply holding their weapons were dropped without warning in the alleyway between it and Cafe Daniel. Really liberal interpretation of the new reading found the snipers shooting a man who went to the aid of an injured or dead comrade; the helper picked up the fallen man's weapon, so he was summarily executed. One Shiite who was spared, on orders from on high, was the local warlord, Castro. Though at least one sniper had Castro in his sights, the Marine was not permitted to fire. In sum, however, there was no way that Harris or his Marines were about to let the rank-and-file militiamen ply their trade with the impunity they had enjoyed for so long. In this, they were fully supported by their senior commanders, who felt it was time to make an impression, and particularly in light of the city-wide ceasefire that was supposed to be in effect.

Five Amal warriors definitely were killed this day, and at least ten others were severely wounded. (Next day, newspeople returning from Hooterville told Bill Harris the names of the dead and wounded militiamen, a truly bizarre turn in this strange little war.)

At length, news arrived that the Amal leadership had asked for a ceasefire. Harris's Marines immediately complied. They knew that the Moslems would not have asked for a ceasefire if Charlie Company's fire had not been effective.

Only eight days after Staff Sergeant Allen Soifert was slain--on October 23, 1983--the Marine Battalion Landing Team headquarters was blown up and 241 more Marines were killed. Among the dead that morning was Dr. John Hudson. Chaplain Danny Wheeler and Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach were injured in the blast. Captain Chris Cowdry, Lieutenant Mike Murphy, Staff Sergeant Dennis Allston, and the MSSG-24 corpsman who brought Allen Soifert in were among the rescuers. It is virtually certain that Lieutenant Bill Harris's Shiite adversary, Castro, was the chief implementer of the plan that placed the truck bomb inside the Marine headquarters building. He eventually became a leading military commander in the Iranian-backed fundamentalist Shiite faction, Hesbollah, but it appears that he was assassinated by Israeli commandos in the early 1990s.