Pulled from the Pit in Beirut
In 1983, a suicide bombing was the last thing the Marines in Beirut expected. Forty years later, a survivor remembers the shock.
The Marine commander was awake most of the night, checking on his men at guard posts spread across the sprawling peacekeeping complex near the Beirut airport. Attacks had escalated and the Marines were on heightened alert. It was after midnight on October 23, 1983. Most of Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach’s men slept. Nearby, other young men were awake in the same darkness preparing for suicide and murder.
The mounting death toll weighed heavily on Gerlach. Days earlier, Sergeant Allen Soifert had been killed by a sniper. Soifert’s body had been returned to his family in New Hampshire for burial, in accordance with Jewish custom, but the Marines nonetheless insisted on a local memorial service and a rabbi to perform it. Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a chaplain with the U.S. Sixth Fleet, had arrived from Italy that Friday and held a service that day.
Tensions had worsened since August. Each faction in the civil war, then in its eighth year, had agreed to invite the peacekeepers, but Iranian operatives in Lebanon preyed on the suspicions of local Shia that the peacekeepers were tacitly taking the side of Lebanon’s Christians. As far as the Iranian regime was concerned, it was already at war with America. All this would become clear soon enough, but in the darkness of that Sunday morning, little was known of Iran’s Quds Force or Hezbollah or the suicide terrorism soon to be unleashed on the region—and the world.
On Memorial Day, May 30, 1983, Gerlach’s Marines arrived in Lebanon. They inherited a discontinuous compound woven into that of the airport—no perimeter at all, but a series of scattered sentry posts between which vehicles and pedestrians traversed. Gerlach routinely visited the posts day and night, on foot or by jeep, to speak with his Marines—enlisted men, as he himself had been before earning an officer’s commission over twenty years before. He recalled often on his rounds the words of an idealistic black Marine from the deep South: “Sir, I just got a letter from my folks and they’re very proud of me. We’re here doing something good. I’m proud of being a Marine.” Gerlach said he was proud of him, too, and shared his sense of the nobility of their mission.
Policymakers in Washington, fearful that an overzealous response might undermine U.S. neutrality, hamstrung the Marines through strict rules of engagement. Details of those constraints were published in the media, where South Beirut militias could read them. The Marines took to calling the snack bar on the compound the “Can’t Shoot Back Saloon.”
At a ceremony honoring two Marines killed in August 1983, two months earlier, Gerlach had said, “They died in a very difficult mission. They died in a mission of peacekeeping. It calls for dedication, it calls for discipline, and it calls for restraint.” As the situation deteriorated, the Marines fortified the headquarters position with sandbags, obstacles, and barbed wire. Meanwhile, the rules of engagement still forbade the chambering of rounds—even for sentries.
In that early morning darkness on October 23, Gerlach awoke around 3 a.m., walked the inner perimeter near headquarters, stopped at the main gate, and spoke with the guards. In a few hours, Gerlach and other Catholics would attend Mass, said by Fr. George Pucciarelli. After Mass, Gerlach and Sergeant Major Frederick Douglass planned to breakfast with the artillery unit on a hill nearby.
Douglass was from Massachusetts, where his namesake had lived for a time, and was the highest-ranking enlisted man in Lebanon. The U.S. military has parallel hierarchies for officers and enlisted, and at the top of each in the battalion are the lieutenant colonel and sergeant major. They bear the burdens of leadership together with mutual respect, able to look one another in the eye—in their case literally: both Gerlach and Douglass were over six foot-three. Gerlach thought Douglass was as excellent a Marine as he’d ever known. Now, Douglass was asleep in his barracks room.
Gerlach returned to his room on the second floor and took off his helmet, his wedding band, and Ole Miss graduation ring. He leaned back, partially upright, his boots still on. Soon the sun would break over Mount Lebanon to the East. From a nearby rooftop, Imad Mughniyeh, the young Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist who planned the unfolding attack, allegedly watched the truck approach the barracks.
As the truck neared the gate, Marines stepped forward, arms outstretched to bring it to a halt. But the truck sped on, crashed through a barrier, and drove beneath the barracks. One of the Marines saw the maniacal face of the driver and knew it was too late but still chambered his rifle and fired. Gerlach heard shouts and perhaps shots and stood to look out the window. Then he was struck by something. A blast. Then there was darkness and then nothing.
There was no Mass that morning. For hundreds of peacekeepers, there was no morning. Most were killed in an instant, an act of self-immolation and mass murder. Minutes after the Marine barracks attack, a second suicide bomber struck the French peacekeepers’ compound nearby. Imad Mughniyeh watched with approval from a safe distance the most sensational and successful of his operations, but neither his first nor his last.
The sun broke over Mount Lebanon onto a scene of blood and severed limbs, concrete dust and metal debris, cries muted and heard. As Mughniyeh left the roof, he no doubt expected a swift response, but it never came. Mughniyeh disappeared into the chaos of the civil war—a ghost to those who sought justice, a legend among terrorists. Meanwhile most of America, and Larry Gerlach’s family, slept.
Eight-year-old Megan Gerlach awoke in the dark that same Sunday morning to the sound of her mother in the kitchen. It wasn’t yet 6 a.m. in Jacksonville, North Carolina, home of Camp Lejeune, where the Gerlach family lived. Megan climbed out of bed and went down to the kitchen where she saw her mother, Patty, in tears on the phone. Beside her stood Megan’s ten-year-old brother, Travis. “Dad might be dead,” he said. “I remember the news being on and we just sat there and watched,” Megan says, nearly forty years later. “We knew the Marine officers coming on the screen to be interviewed.”
The family gathered in front of the television and waited. “If he were alive, he’d be on that screen,” Patty said. “No,” Megan said matter-of-factly. “He’s alive. I know he’s alive.” Even today she can’t account for her certainty. “I never doubted it,” she says.
Several Marines arrived at the Gerlach home and set up a kind of command post: fielding calls, driving the children to school, helping Patty and the other families as needed. “My brother and I each had a Marine assigned to us, he had a male and I had a female. They took us to lunch. They kept us distracted from everything.”
The death notifications poured into the neighborhood of Marine families in Jacksonville one after the other. “As the calls were coming in, and the names of the deceased were coming in, they were coming to my mom,” Megan says. “I remember going with her to a couple of women’s houses.” Travis paced through the woods outside their home, coming in every so often to ask his mother, “Is he dead?” Every call, every car that pulled up, every knock at the door seemed to confirm a new death. Rescuers searched the rubble. The Gerlachs waited.
“He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay,
and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm.” – Psalm 40
Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff arrived in Beirut Friday for Sergeant Soifert’s memorial service and remained because travel on Shabbat wasn’t permitted absent life-threatening danger. He planned to return to Sixth Fleet headquarters on Sunday. Resnicoff was no stranger to combat: he had enlisted to serve in Vietnam, where a chaplain encouraged him to become a rabbi. He normally stayed in the main barracks when he visited Beirut but Fr. Pucciarelli had asked him to stay in a neighboring building so they could discuss some matters. The rabbi cannot recall what it was today but it likely saved his life. He was shaving when the blast knocked them to the floor.
At first they thought their own building had been bombed. The dust slowly cleared and they saw that the main barracks building, perhaps a hundred yards away, was gone. “Then we started to hear unearthly screams,” Resnicoff recalls. Rabbi and priest rushed to the crater and joined the search for survivors.
Larry Gerlach’s mangled body was found near the crater, a manmade caldera where the barracks had dissolved into the earth. Somehow he was alive. Colonel Timothy Geraghty came upon Gerlach and thought he was dead. “He was covered with a ubiquitous gray dust,” Geraghty later wrote. “As I knelt down for a closer look, I came very close to getting sick. I was surprised that he was still living but frankly didn’t give him much of a chance for survival.”
Italian peacekeepers arrived and put Gerlach into an ambulance for the multinational force’s hospital. He was later sent—unknown to the Marines—to a hospital several miles away. Doctors there pinned a note for U.S. medical personnel that he wasn’t expected to live.
Gerlach emerged from his coma and found himself surrounded by bearded Lebanese men. “What are you doing here?” they asked. “Peacekeeping force,” he managed to say. It then occurred to him that he might have been captured. He recalled the Code of Conduct, under which American prisoners of war may divulge only name, rank, service number, and date of birth. As the Marines searched for survivors, they also searched for the now-missing Gerlach.
Robin Wright, a journalist covering the conflict for the Christian Science Monitor, found Gerlach later that week and immediately notified the Marines. Gerlach had met Wright at a meeting with correspondents months before and recognized her. “You could hear shots being fired outside,” Gerlach says. “I was concerned for her safety.”
It was Wright who had reason to be concerned for him: both she and the doctors knew that if the Iranians or Hezbollah learned that Gerlach was in the hospital, they’d arrive to kill him or take him hostage. So he was frequently moved to different rooms until he was stable enough to be flown to Germany. Patty recalls the hospital today with gratitude. “They took good care of him.”
After emergency medical attention in Landstuhl, Germany, Gerlach was transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital. He had a concussion and Patty soon realized that her husband thought he’d been wounded in an isolated rocket attack. “He could recognize people if he’d known them before,” Patty says. “But he didn’t know what’d happened, even when he got to Bethesda. His mind didn’t clear up until that December.” Then he was told.
Gerlach was transferred to the veterans’ hospital in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, to treat his spinal injury. There, Fred Douglass’s widow visited him. He recalls how he wept when she visited and, in recalling, stops speaking and turns his face away.
Forty years later, he has a list with every name of the First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment from Beirut, the living and the dead, ever close at hand. He remembers them and wants to know that they’re remembered. He keeps faith with the dead. “He almost never talks about it,” Megan says. “But he’s said that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about those men. Not one. It’s a huge burden.”
Nor does a day pass for each member of the Gerlach family without reliving the attack. “That was the before and after moment,” Megan says. “Everything changed.” It’s from that October morning that time was irrevocably divided and measured: everything before and everything after.
Larry Gerlach might have claimed several other life-altering moments before the barracks bombing that made him a partial quadriplegic. His mother and father died in successive years, making him an orphan at age fifteen. Raised by his aunt and uncle in rural Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, which recognized his aptitude for leadership.
He was accepted into Naval ROTC and attended Ole Miss in the fall of 1962, the same semester that James Meredith became the first African American student to attend the university amid violent protests. Gerlach, on scholarship, sought employment in the cafeteria and was asked whether he would be willing to serve a black student. Gerlach explained that he had served in the integrated Marine Corps and had no problem serving Meredith, who had also served in the military. Gerlach took the job for sixty cents an hour and served Meredith, whom he got to know, and as a midshipman oversaw the first integrated Naval ROTC drill team at Ole Miss. Years later he would return to Ole Miss to teach Naval ROTC candidates and earn an MBA.
Upon graduation, Gerlach became a commissioned Marine officer. In 1967, he deployed to Vietnam and was shot through the abdomen. When he was able to walk again, he returned to Vietnam and served another tour. But it was in distant Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission that Gerlach—and his family—experienced the event that forever altered their lives.
The barracks attack was devastating for Megan and perhaps more so for her brother Travis. “He didn’t handle it very well,” she says. “He kept everything to himself. He became angry.” Gerlach was in the hospital for almost a year. In 1986, the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia. Gerlach, though in a wheelchair, went to work for a defense contractor and continued his convalescence.
While Larry Gerlach labored to walk with crutches, a lurid mystique arose around Imad Mughniyeh, the ghost, the terrorist.
The U.S. is notorious for its institutional amnesia in the Middle East, a place where memories are long and every transaction is personal. Favors are requested and granted, often at personal risk, but when a favor is granted in return, the U.S. too often forgets. Policies change with elections or constantly rotating personnel. So to be America’s enemy or ally means little. But for the man who killed 241 servicemen while they slept, there was a long memory.
In 1994, a Hezbollah suicide bomber drove a truck with explosives into a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 85 and injuring over three hundred, an operation planned by Mughniyeh.
Israeli institutions may be personal or impersonal as circumstances warrant, but they have a long memory, an imperative of both national security and scripture: “Do not forget what Amalek did to you on the road out of Egypt…. Do not forget.” The Amalekites had slaughtered the most vulnerable, defenseless stragglers, rather than confront Israelite soldiers—proto-terrorism that targeted civilians. So God commanded them to remember, for “the Lord will be at war with Amalek in every generation.”
“Our rules of engagement were set up with this in mind: the other guy got the first shot every time,” Gerlach says. “That’s why they called it the ‘Can’t Shoot Back Saloon.’ We’d be fired upon from a building, then we’d watch the sniper leave the building later. We weren’t permitted to engage.” Of that terrible morning, he says, “Even if we’d had a perfect shot and killed the driver, the effect of the blast at that point would’ve been essentially the same. That’s what I was told. If they’d simply parked the truck nearby and run and then it detonated, the damage would likely have been comparable.”
One of the criticisms of U.S. efforts during the war on terror is that its personnel were walled up within forbidding, ugly, inaccessible fortresses that resembled colonial outposts, with little local contact. The peacekeepers in 1983 were more interwoven with the community. That, of course, came with risks but also a better apprehension of local dynamics.
“Washington was very slow to recognize the shifting ground during the Lebanese civil war,” says a U.S. intelligence officer, speaking on background. “The initial focus was all about the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization], despite a stream of subsequent signals and other reporting. We just didn’t understand the Shia dynamic or Iran’s role.” The Sunni–Shia lens through which policymakers came to see the region after the Iraq War simply didn’t exist in 1983. “You might as well have been talking about people coming from another planet. Headquarters wasn’t interested.”
“They called it peacekeeping,” says Gerlach. “There wasn’t any peace to keep. If we’d been designated peacemakers, that might’ve made more sense. ‘The peacemaker’ is what the sheriffs called the Colt 45 [in the American West]. My Marines and sailors and soldiers—they did their job. They followed every rule and regulation that was required.” On this point, the old Marine is at peace.
“When we withdrew from Lebanon,” he says, “the Pentagon spokesman said something like, ‘We can’t guarantee it won’t happen again.’ Well, that’s right. But when you go in to do something, you have to make people pay a cost if they’re going to attack you like [the way we were attacked], one way or the other.” “And we didn’t,” says Patty. “We didn’t.”
Nor is he blind to the complexity of the region and its ancient enmities. “There was hostility there, obviously—a lot of hostility that goes back a long time. One of the villages could cite the date centuries before of a battle and were thirsting for revenge. Centuries don’t seem to have made much difference. We can’t really do anything about that. We can’t really fix people’s attitudes with war. That’s one thing about the military. A few months ago, I came across some notes from Keith Helms,” a Marine instructor. “He said that any legitimate military objective must be physical. You can attack an objective, defend, withdraw, or reinforce. Those are the four missions. But it has to be something physical. It can’t be hearts and minds.”
“I was handed the rules of engagement,” Gerlach says. “I was handed my positions. I used to spend hours thinking about what I could’ve done differently. But I haven’t come up with anything. And no one has told me.”
Rabbi Resnicoff, who wore a camouflage kippah cut for him by Fr. Pucciarelli when his was lost in the attack, and whose eyewitness account was later read verbatim by President Ronald Reagan in a speech, understood the second-guessing survivors but had no patience for the second-guessing of others. “So many big shots had visited and nobody brought up issues raised later,” Resnicoff says today. “We always fight the last war. The idea of a suicide bomber then...” His unfinished sentence recalls the innocence of the world in 1983.
In the days and weeks that followed, he and the other chaplains encountered the “gnawing feeling of guilt” among the survivors, as he wrote in his now-famous account, “that they had somehow let down their comrades by not dying with them.”
So, our job was to tell them how every life saved was important to us: how their survival was important to our faith, and our hope. They had to give thanks—with us—that they still had the gift, and the responsibility of lives that would go on.
The Gerlach home in Northern Virginia has drawings by the grandchildren on the refrigerator, Christian icons, many bookshelves, military decorations—the outward symbols of deep interior love for faith, family, and country. There is also the unmistakable love between husband and wife, both now in wheelchairs.
The 80-year-old Marine, ruddy and white-haired, still retains a stature and commanding voice. Gerlach recalls the names and faces of Marines lost that day, as Patty recalls the names and faces of their wives and children. Several times she stops, her eyes filling with tears. “I’m really okay,” she says. “I just wish I could get through this without crying.” As his beloved wife struggles in the retelling, he suffers with her. The effect of the bombing on everyone around him—all before himself. Even the people of Lebanon he recalls graciously. Four decades later, he worries about the safety of the Lebanese who saved his life, whose names he does not know.
The gravity of 1983 is regularly offset by levity. As Patty struggles to recall a military acronym, Gerlach smiles and says, “As you can see, my bride has complete mastery of Marine Corps terminology.” On being shot in Vietnam and learning to walk again in the hospital: “My girlfriend at the time came to visit me—” “That was me,” says a smiling Patty. “—and unfortunately heard me snap at the physical therapist,” he says with a laugh.
“Faith has been a very important part of my life. My mother made me promise before she died—I didn’t know she was going to die—that I’d marry in the faith, in other words that I’d marry a Catholic. So Patty was a Catholic and was one of the reasons I came back to the faith. Then we got married in the Church. The best sales job I ever did. I talked this woman into marrying me. She’s been a wonderful wife—a wonderful Marine wife. She stuck with me and has been one of the reasons why I’ve recovered as much as I have. She would’ve been very unpleasant if I hadn’t.”
“When I was in West Roxbury at the spinal injury facility, I got to know the Catholic chaplain in the hospital there,” Gerlach says. “I was going to daily Mass. And I prayed. I prayed that God would give me the strength to adapt and make it through. And so far, he’s answered that prayer.”
Suicide bombing was virtually unknown until 1983. Three decades later, suicide bombings have occurred on average once a day. Tens of thousands have been killed in that time, most civilians.
In 2008, Israel’s Mossad tracked Imad Mughniyeh to a Damascus suburb. They notified the CIA, an occurrence rarer than is supposed. A joint operation was planned. Much attention was given to not harming bystanders, innocent or not. An Iranian associate known to spend time with Mughniyeh in Syria was Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force. It was Soleimani who described Mughniyeh as “the legend of our time”—for targeting sleeping peacekeepers and murdering civilians at a community center. National security officials debated the ethics of affixing a shaped charge explosive to a vehicle, which may have spared Soleimani. (There was no presidential finding, and thus no legal basis, to kill Soleimani in 2008.) On the night of February 12, 2008, the device killed Mughniyeh as he walked down the street in Syria.
Larry and Patty Gerlach received a call from an old friend. “Robin Wright drew our attention to the fact that that guy was killed,” says Patty. “Of course, over there, they treated him as a hero, a martyr.” There was no delight in the death of Mughniyeh in the Gerlach home, merely the sense that justice had been done, that hopefully lives had been saved. “We felt guilty for being glad that he was killed,” Patty says. “Well, I don’t feel guilty,” Gerlach adds calmly. “It was a justifiable kill.” Megan remembers the call from her parents that night. “They got him,” was the simple message. Some closure, some justice.
“I told a priest I had a very hard time forgiving the terrorists,” Gerlach says. “He said, ‘You don’t have a choice.’ Well, I’m working on it. Some days I’m better than others. But I’m still glad that he was killed when he was killed because he was just going to keep killing people.”
Later that year, Gerlach retired from the Defense Logistics Agency. Ten years later, in 2018, 35 years after the barracks attack, Larry Gerlach, Ole Miss cafeteria worker and professor, Marine Corps officer, and hero, was inducted into the Ole Miss Hall of Fame. So was Gerlach’s former schoolmate, James Meredith. “I was prouder of him than I was of myself.”
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“Forty years,” Gerlach says near the end of one of our visits, as if all the years passed quickly, even if many did not. Not all thoughts are of the past. “My dream is to fish one day in the Sea of Galilee,” he says with a wide smile. The extraordinary spirit that survived in the mangled body pulled from the pit in Beirut doesn’t dwell on old wounds but on his wife and their children and grandchildren. “I’m a very happy man,” he says. “I’m proud to have served. I always wanted to be a Marine. So I joined the Marine Corps, and I’m not sorry I did.”
Many in the halls of power could learn much from this Marine, who inspires not with hubris but humility. There is much in him to admire: his courage, his virtue, his manners, his family, his faith, his good humor. If the world still makes men like him, it makes fewer.
Larry Gerlach’s bent, mangled body houses a giant spirit; the awe one feels in his company is just a glimpse of what we might know when all deeds and faults are laid bare in the divine light. Others might have given in to self-pity or despair—pardonable responses to the horror he survived. Instead, he keeps the list of his men ever near at hand, beside photos of loved ones and the drawings of grandchildren. The man pulled from the rubble and returned to his family keeps a tireless vigil with his men, pacing the perimeter that guards their memory. His heroic life, well lived, is a monument to their sacrifice.