“He just looked at me...and smiled.”
This is how Lance Corporal Eddie DeFranco, who was on guard duty at the Multinational Forces Headquarters in Beirut, remembers the suicide bomber who crashed his yellow Mercedes-Benz into the building - loaded with 12,000 pounds of TNT - ramming through its 1.5-meter barrier of concrete wire on 23 October 1983.
Two hundred and twenty American marines were killed, along with 20 sailors, and three US soldiers. Another 28 were wounded, thirteen of whom would die in due course.
Less than ten minutes later another suicide bomber struck at a nearby building housing French servicemen in the Ramlet al-Bayda neighborhood, killing 58. Many rushed to their balconies after hearing the first explosion at the Multinational Forces HQ.
It was a turning point in the then-eight-year-old Lebanese Civil War. US President Ronald Reagan called it a “despicable act”. At the same time, his French counterpart Francois Mitterand rushed to Beirut to visit the bomb sites, and so did US Vice-President George HW Bush on 26 October 1983, announcing: “Terrorists will not cow us.”
The marines had originally come to Lebanon to oversee the withdrawal of Palestinian troops from West Beirut, ironically, at the request of none other than Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat.
He believed that only a US umbrella would deter the Israelis from overrunning what remained of the Lebanese capital, having invaded Lebanon with the declared objective of creating a 40-km buffer zone between the PLO and Israel. The undeclared objective was to crush Arafat and the PLO.