By NANCY J. SEMON Staff Writer
The mood was somber Wednesday as over 1,000 gathered at the William R. Gaines Jr. Veterans Memorial Park for the groundbreaking of the Beirut Peacekeepers Memorial Tower.
Once complete in about a year, the 3-story tower will stand 45 feet tall with 241 rods — one for each of the 241 lives lost on Oct. 23, 1983, when a suicide bomber drove a truck into the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut.
The park is named after the Charlotte County High School graduate and Marine who was killed along with 240 others in the terrorist attack.
James Breckenridge, who was among the speakers, was an Army field artillery captain working with the Marines in Beirut in 1983.
“This launched a new era in America,” he said, adding that the War on Terror “didn’t begin on September 11, 2001 but on October 23, 1983.”
One of the Marines in the barracks that day who did survive was Chip Shields.
To a hushed crowd, he talked about what he witnessed.
Shields told of being pinned under a beam and column after a large truck laden with explosives crashed into the barracks.
The driver was “hell bent on destruction and death,” Shields said.
Later, at an airport awaiting transport, he recalled seeing “the hangar filled with bodies as far as I could see. These were my brothers.”
The Rev. Kevin B. Shaw, who gave the benediction, grew emotional when he talked about what he witnessed.
He was in a tent across from the barracks and heard the explosion, which shook the ground.
Telling his commanding officers they had to help, Shaw discovered he had lost some of his platoon.
“This is really hard for us,” he said. “It brings back memories.”
Also sharing stories were Judith Young, chair of Gold Star Mothers National Monument Foundation, who came down from her home in New Jersey to take part in the ceremony.
She lost her son in Beirut.
“The first duty is to remember,” Young said, noting that the day was the largest single loss of life for the Marine Corps since Iwo Jima.
Congressman Greg Pence, brother of former vice president Mike Pence, as well as a Marine in 1983, was unable to attend because his plane had mechanical problems.
On hand at the service was William Gaines’ brother, Michael, who started the nonprofit foundation in his brother’s memory. The foundation will pay for the $4 million tower.
Michael Gaines read a statement from Pence about the event.
Retired Major Gen. James S. Hartsell also spoke and provided history on the event.
At the conclusion of the service, which included three flyovers from the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, a Warbirds flyover in T-28 Trojans, and a KC-135 6th Air Refueling Wing from MacDill Air Force Base, the groundbreaking commenced.
Row after row of government officials, former Marines, other military personnel, and related groups took turns picking up shovels to symbolize the start of construction.
In addition to American service members, the tower will memorialize the 58 French paratroopers who were killed in a second suicide attack in another part of Beirut.
Charlotte County Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch, who serves on the memorial fund board, had been working to bring the memorial tower and enhancements at the park for about seven years.
The county and state, in cooperation with the Gaines memorial fund and the Military Heritage Museum, worked together in putting on the event.