• The rookie network radio reporter gets sent in with the Marines
• Beirut was beautiful, once
• Going to war in a London taxi cab
One of my first assignments as Reporter on the Road for ABC Radio News found me in Beirut, Lebanon, which was embroiled in civil war in 1983. As I was tasked to “go anywhere anything of interest to young people” was happening, it was pointed out by my editors that US Marines were, of course, young people and a contingent of them had been sent to Beirut to try to enforce a tenuous peace among warring factions. I was to visit and report on what their experience was like.
My overseas travel to that point had totaled a week’s vacation in Jamaica and a day in Tijuana, so you can imagine what an eye-opener this journey was.
After a stop in London to familiarize myself with the ABC News bureau there, I flew to Larnaca, Cyprus, where the network had a Middle East listening post in a seafront hotel.
From there I boarded a small passenger ferry bound for Beirut. I was startled when, about halfway there, we were buzzed by a low-flying jet fighter. Unlike the ear-splitting roar when jets fly over a football stadium and are anticipated as part of the militaristic opening ceremony, this one came out of nowhere and scared the daylights out of me. “Israeli. Just checking us out,” said a blasé passenger more familiar with this commute.
In Beirut, I stayed at the Commodore Hotel, famous by then as the unofficial international press corps HQ. A series of “Doonesbury” comic strips set at the Commodore and humorously depicting the news media were framed on the wall behind the concierge desk.
In the lobby, a UPI newswire machine spit out copy night and day for the convenience of the reporters billeted in the Commodore. One afternoon I heard the machine’s alarm bell ringing, signifying a big, breaking news story. I seemed to be the only one curious enough to walk over and see. It was a sports bulletin: for the first time in 132 years of U.S. dominance, the America’s Cup sailing trophy had been surrendered to a challenger, an Australian boat.
The poolside bar at the Commodore was the nightly forum for gossip and intel exchange. It was also the home of a parrot who could simulate the sound of incoming artillery and explosions.
The hotel had bought a small fleet of London taxicabs and painted them white, their spacious back seat areas perfect for TV news crews with their cumbersome gear. At the suggestion of a Paris-based ABC radio freelancer who’d been in Lebanon for some time, we requisitioned one of the taxicabs for a trip up the Chouf mountain range east of the city to see if reports of fighting having broken out were true. As we rounded a corner on a winding road, we heard the “crump” of a mortar round landing up ahead. We pulled over. A passerby stuck his head in the driver’s side window and told us not to go further; there was, indeed, fighting. The freelancer thought it best we not proceed; I deferred to his judgment and experience. We turned back and returned to the Commodore to file reports that, yes, the cease-fire was threatened.
From the mountains, Beirut looked like a gorgeous Mediterranean seaside city; “The Paris of the Middle East,” used to be its sobriquet. Close up, much of the city was rubble. Hollowed out buildings, pock marks on virtually every wall from 35 mm gunfire, a “Green Zone” – a no man’s land between the sectors of the city controlled by the different factions.
I visited the Marines’ base out along the road to the international airport. A self-contained FM radio station inside a large shipping container had been shipped in and was on the air, being operated by Marines, for Marines. This traveling radio station had turntables, mics, audio boards, wire service machines and Marine disc jockeys. I interviewed them off the air for a feature in which I reported on what, at that moment in the fall of 1983, was the most-requested song. It was “King of Pain” by the Police. It made sense to me, given the training and survival skills the Corps is known for.
I spent a couple of days with a company of Marines manning (no female troops back then) a forward observation post at the southernmost end of the runway at Beirut International Airport. They showed me a little “garden” that they had constructed, full of mortar shells which had landed in and around their sandbagged post. They had seen or heard a news report about how the troops at the airport had been safe from harm since only a few “stray rounds” had fallen.
I stayed up late, interviewing the men of C (or “Charlie”) Company on the night watch in a sandbagged bunker, where I watched trucks moving up and down the winding Chouf mountain roads through night-vision binoculars. I learned something that night about the benefits of doing radio journalism in total blackout conditions. It was pitch black in the bunker; all light sources were covered. Per regulations, the red light on my portable tape recorder had to be covered over with tape. I found that once an interview got underway, the Marines – perhaps because they couldn’t see the microphone I was holding – began to speak more casually and freely. A couple of them talked about how unnerving their Beirut experience actually was. Marines don’t usually talk about being afraid, but these guys were very candid. The long-form report I assembled, called “A Night With Charlie Company,” won a National Headliner Award.
A few weeks after I left Beirut, a terrorist driving a truck full of explosives blew up the Marines’ barracks, killing some 245 troops. I was called into the newsroom in New York that day, a Sunday, to go through my cassette tapes and see if any of the guys I had interviewed showed up on the casualty list. One, a Marine from Brooklyn, did appear on the injured list. We aired some of his comments from a few weeks earlier.
Two years later, AP correspondent Terry Anderson was kidnapped in Beirut by Shiite Hezbollah militants, signaling that journalists had no special status. American news correspondents began to be pulled out of Beirut, as were the Marines. By 1987 the Commodore was looted and heavily damaged by Druse militia.