The Map to Bill’s Memories

October 18, 2023

Rebeiz Famiily in Martyr SquareI grew up in the civil war in Lebanon. When it ended, I was nearly 11. I heard whispers here and there about “the Americans” landing in Lebanon. My parents’ generation never spoke about the war. My history books were useless. They taught me all about Phoenicians’ glory, early Muslim conquests of the 8th century, and Lebanon’s rise to fame in the sixties. However, there was no mention of Lebanon’s war of 1975. 

I wanted to understand what happened, why I was robbed of my childhood, why some family members are disabled, why some friends had disappeared, and why there are stories only told behind closed doors and away from children’s ears. 

I wanted to understand who the “Americans” were. Were they real or the result of an overdeveloped imagination and addiction to action films? 

My research led me to meet Michael Gaines, a Gold Star Family member of the Beirut Veterans of America and founder of the William R. Gaines Jr. Foundation. 

Michael told me about his brother William Jr., or Bill for family and friends, and how he joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 19. 

On their second deployment, Bill and his best friend Jeff Mosher were sent to Beirut, Lebanon, where they were part of the joint multinational peacekeeping force composed of American, French, Italian, and British soldiers. 

Bill's letter with map of Beirut

In a letter Bill wrote home in September of 1983, he expressed to his family that he believed in his mission. As a devout Christian, he recognized his role as a peacekeeper. 

On October 23, 1983, Bill perished. A suicide attack targeted the American barracks in Beirut killing 241 American service members.  Witnesses reported seeing a large yellow truck speed up and hit the building. It flattened the concrete floors. 

Bill was 21.

For Michael who was 14 at the time, Bill was and will always be the best of brothers. They played sports together, they teased each other. Bill was also the older protective brother who loved yellow roses and his wife Carol. 

Like myself, Michael wanted to understand what happened during these years of the civil war. So, we decided to travel to Lebanon. Bill had sent a letter home with a hand drawn map of the patrol route he would drive in Beirut, and we decided to follow his path and footsteps. For Michael, it allowed him to feel closer to his brother and to understand his commitment to his duty. For me, it allowed me to retroactively understand some of the stories I heard as a child. 

Malcom Kerr Memorial at AUBOur search for Bill’s memories started mid-June. For our first stop, we went to Bliss Street where the American University of Beirut (AUB) stood proudly since 1866. Founded by American missionaries, AUB has seen some dark days. During the Lebanese civil war, the campus remained open and operative. However, many of its non-Arab faculty had fled. Some were threatened, others kidnapped for ransom. Dr. Malcom Kerr, professor of Middle East studies and AUB’s president, was killed in 1984. His killers were allegedly related to those who killed the Marines; they were never arrested. Michael and I visited the small memorial AUB had erected to honor him. 

Bill Gaines and Dave Baldree in Beirut

We walked on the green field where Jeff and other Marines jogged. We had a picture of Jeff in training shorts smiling as the hot sun beat down on him. Taken out of context, one would think that it is a picture of a peacetime Marine exercising with no fear for his life. Yet, reality was completely different.  

We saw the basketball courts where Marines played with Lebanese civilians. We could imagine them having a little bit of fun – as much as one could during a war – before duty called. 

We explored AUB campus and ended up on the Corniche facing the Mediterranean Sea. With our map, letters and photos from Bill, Jeff, and other Marines, we managed to locate the U.S. Embassy’s old site, which was bombed on April 18, 1983. 

Today, fancy buildings stand in its place, so it took us a while to locate the exact spot. We remembered Marines telling us that girls came out of AUB dorms to talk to them, flirt, and smoke cigarettes. We also had two pictures of Marines at the embassy: one was taken from inside the embassy looking out toward the Corniche. The second one was of Bill and another Marine sitting in his jeep, the Corniche behind them, and the Embassy in front of them. 

Mireille Rebeiz and Michael Gaines in BeirutForty years later, Michael stood where his brother stood. The location might have been the same, but not the time, nor the purpose of the visit. 

It was a solemn moment. We could hear sea gulls, waves crashing gently on the rocks, cars passing, and people chatting as they were exercising. We could also imagine the sound of the explosion that killed 63 people that day. 

With heavy hearts, we continued to downtown Beirut and ended up at Martyr Square. 

Erected in 1960, Martyr Square's monument was meant to commemorate the Lebanese nationalists who were executed in Beirut on May 6, 1916, by Jamal Pasha dubbed ‘Al Jazzar” or the Butcher. Their crime was they defended Lebanon's independence from the Ottoman Empire. They had dreams of forbidden freedom. Martyr Square

Back in the 1980s, the Marines passed by this site on their way to their different check points. The monument was cribbled with bullet holes as if fighters could not even stand looking at a symbol of freedom.  The Green Line, which is the demarcation line that separated East and West Beirut, cuts through Beirut’s center. While East Beirut was controlled by Christian militias, West Beirut was controlled by Muslim militias. It was also under Israeli siege, and the Marines had the impossible mission of keeping the peace between parties determined to kill each other.  

Downtown Beirut was the scene of numerous heinous crimes. No one lived there, except for snipers and drug addicts. Buildings were crumbling, and graffiti marked the few standing walls. Weeds and overgrown bushes were everywhere. Wild dogs and other animals roamed around. It smelled of urine and blood.  

Today, the scene is different but equally devastating. Although most buildings were beautifully renovated, scars of Beirut port explosion of August 4, 2020, could still be seen. Broken glass and boarded windows are still scattered around. More importantly, life did not return to Beirut’s heart. In 2019, Lebanon’s economy crashed. With triple-digit inflation, more than half of the population lives under the poverty line. Covid-19 drained the healthcare system. Political corruption and the unsustainable presence of thousands of refugees aggravate the situation. 

Martyr Square that was once the symbol of freedom, of Lebanese protesting for their independence, remains today virtually desolate. 

We continued with our journey chasing after Bill's memories. We went to the U.S. Embassy in Awkar, about 8 miles outside Beirut. We placed a wreath on the only memorial in Lebanon dedicated to all those who died in the barracks bombing. Bill’s name was on top of one of the grey stones. I touched the letters as if somehow, we are connected. Above the memorial, the American and U.S. Marine Corps flags flew high in the sky. I learned that this is the only American embassy in the world where the two flags stand proudly side by side. 

University in HadathWe went to the Lebanese University in Hadath. Located about 9 miles south of Beirut, the Lebanese University was established in 1951, and it is the only State-funded public university in Lebanon. Jeff and other Marines were stationed there. They were tasked to provide civic action projects, train the Lebanese Armed Forces, and represent the United States in the region. 

Michael and I stood there and looked around. The university is surrounded by mountains. The Marines who were there in 1982-1984 were without any doubt “sitting ducks.” Their position was vulnerable, and they were exposed to all kinds of enemy fire.  

We went to the Library building where most Marines slept. It was clean. A professor was teaching with his door open, and his voice echoed in the hallways. The building had no air conditioning, so it was hot and stuffy. We imagined the Marines sleeping there. One Marine had told us that his friend was shot and instantly killed on the building’s rooftop. Despite the shelling and snipers, another Marine went up to retrieve his body. He carried him on his shoulder down a very narrow rooftop ladder made of rebar. The concrete enclosure leading to the roof was small and dark. Sounds echoed in the chamber, and it was painful to imagine the horror that occurred there for those Marines.  

We moved to Hay es Sellom, which the Marines jokingly referred to as Hooterville. We could tell we were no longer in friendly territory. Hezbollah flags were everywhere. Oversized pictures of its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah were plastered on balconies, buildings, and window shops. 

MughniyehThe most painful of all were the pictures of Imad Mughniyeh and Mustafa Badreddine. The Islamic Jihad, a pro-Iranian Shiite group, claimed responsibility for the barracks attacks. The group is allegedly linked to Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite terrorist organization in Lebanon. Imad Mughniyeh and his cousin and brother-in-law Mustafa Badreddine were highly ranked officers in Hezbollah’s military branch; they were allegedly involved in the planning of the Beirut barracks bombing and have also been connected to Osama Bin Laden in helping plan 9/11. 

Mughniyeh was killed in 2008; Badreddine was killed in 2016. They were celebrated as heroes and martyrs in this part of the country. 

Although we were close, we did not go directly into Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. As a Lebanese, I could have, but not Michael who looks very much a westerner. The Marines did not go there either, but the events that took place in these two camps eventually led to the Marines being called for a second time into Lebanon. 

The initial mission was to help evacuate Palestinian fighters outside Lebanon to Tunisia. The mission was successfully accomplished, and most of the Marines left Beirut. However, On September 14, 1982, President-elect and leader of the Christian phalangist party, Bashir Gemayel, was killed. In retaliation, the phalangists – who are mostly Maronites, a Catholic Christian denomination in the Levant – entered the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and killed thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiite civilians under the claim there were PLO fighters hiding in the camps. 

The Kahan Commission of Inquiry found that Israel was indirectly responsible for the massacres. As a result, Army Chief of Staff, General Raful Eitan was dismissed. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon resigned on February 8, 1983. The international outrage over these massacres is why the Marines were sent back into Lebanon in late September of 1982. 

Sabra MarketMichael and I went to Sabra Street Market, and what we found was astonishing. No human should live in the conditions these refugees live in. We saw raw poverty, poorly dressed children running around in doubtful hygiene and overcrowded streets. There were a lot of young and old men chatting, smoking, and looking around. Unemployed, they had nowhere to go, so they just sat. The most disturbing scene was the huge pile of garbage on which children played, a couple of goats and a cow grazed peacefully, and man scavenged for metal. It felt surreal, and I felt ashamed. I was a voyeur looking straight into the eyes of misery with no powers to change it. 

The most painful visit was to the barracks original site. Located near Beirut airport, it is not accessible to civilians. For security reasons, we could not linger. The space is fenced in, but we could see the neglect. There were bushes, gravel, pine trees, and some litter. 

We stood there in silence. In the presence of so many lost souls, there were no words to be said.  Nothing could have described the magnitude of the pain that happened in this same spot 40 years prior. 

There was no memorial to remember the events of 1983. In fact, in all these places, there were no sign that the Marines ever arrived in Lebanon. There is no monument dedicated to the Lebanese civilians who died in the civil war either. 

Lebanon opted to forget its past. Lebanese officials, who were once warlords and arm smugglers, have been upgraded to politicians, members of the parliament and government, and they decreed that all crimes committed during the civil war from 1975 to 1991 should be forgiven and forgotten. That includes all the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and terrorist attacks against civilians and peacekeepers. 

Ironically, the United States did not do a better job in remembering the Beirut barracks bombing, which remains the deadliest single-day attack against the U.S. Marine Corps since World War II. A few days after the barracks bombing, President Ronald Reagan announced the invasion of Grenada, and life went on. The history behind the Marines mission and sacrifices there are not well known by most Americans today.

With Bill’s map as our guide, Michael and I tried to understand past events. We tried to make sense of all the stories we heard from Beirut veterans, Gold Star Families, war photographers, and civilians. We tried to honor the deceased and find closure in our hearts.  

All the places we visited carry a hidden world full of collective painful memories. To the naked eye, these were buildings, empty lots, and crowded streets. To Michael, these were places where Bill and his brothers in arms lived, fought, died, or survived. To me, these were places where hope for peace lived briefly. 

Not much has changed in Lebanon. While the civil war is something of the past, the evil that lived among us in the seventies remains: hatred, fear of the other, corruption, poverty, and conservatism. 

Gilbran MuseumTo end our trip, Michael and I decided to hike in the Ouadi Qadisha (Holy Valley) and the Cedars of God reserve. Classified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a world heritage site, the valley and its cedars gave us the space to breathe and reflect. 

Bill, Jeff, and the other Marines did not get to see Lebanon’s full beauty. Michael and I felt that we too have a mission. We have a duty toward a forgotten past, and it is our job to tell the story of what happened in Beirut in 1983. It is painful, but in the words of the Lebanese – American poet Gibran Khalil Gibran, this pain “is self-chosen. 

It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. 

Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility: 

For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,

Sunset in BeirutAnd the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”

Despite the pain, we chose to remember and to heal. Forgetting would be the second death of all those we lost in Beirut in 1983. 

Mireille Rebeiz, PhD. 

Chair of Middle East Studies & Associate Professor, Dickinson College 

[email protected]