SINCE 1759

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Above, the USS Thuban, aboard which the author was assigned in 1958, when he was part of the Marines' deployment in Beirut. Below, what the welcoming committee would have looked like slightly updated (these are actual Lebanese girls on a Lebanese beach, pre-bombing), courtesy king13.

Eyewitness to Bikinis: 1958 Remembered
The Marines Storm Beirut’s Beaches

[Sam Conant lives in Vermont. In 1958, he was aboard the USS Thuban as she steamed to and anchored near the beaches of Beirut. Conant would become part of the U.S. Marines’ “invasion” of Beirut that year. That year nationalism was the Arab world’s “Great Balls of Fire,” to quote the summer’s big Jerry Lee Lewis hit. Egypt, Syria and Yemen had formed a pan-Arab nation glued by rancor for the West and by the revivalist speeches of Egypt’s Gamal abdel Nasser. The heads of Iraq’s pro-American governments rolled in a coup. Jordan’s pro-American king thought he was next. So did Lebanon’s Christian president, Camille Chamoun, who was facing a Muslim insurrection and called on Dwight Eisenhower to bail him out. In came the Sixth Fleet’s Marines in what would prove to be Lebanon’s equivalent of a phony war. The Marines landed, caught a tan, had a few quickies with Lebanese women already dressed for the occasion, patrolled a few Beirut streets for good form, and left. Sam Conant was among them. At the time, he writes, he was “a young, impressionable navy diver and radio operator accompanying a Marine Corps squad. We were ordered ashore to establish a beach head and perimeter against what we had been told was some sort of rebellion and/or takeover by communists.” They hadn’t been told about the bikinis. Subsequent Marine landings would be less folkloric. This one is worth remembering, if only to inject some harmless inanity in what has been a miserable three weeks along those same shores, now blockaded by Israel and insanity. The Sixth Fleet this time is a spectator, complicit through indifference. pt]

It was a dark, early morning. We stormed the beach, unopposed ... moved to just beneath the sea wall outside a fantastic looking hotel, and established our perimeter as others followed us in. About five hours later, as the sun came over the city and hotel’s roof, we got a better view of what we would be dealing with ... the strength of the rebels and communists was awesome to behold, especially for the 18 year old I was. Several folks left the hotel’s lobby carrying beach chairs, towels, umbrellas and other essential items for combating our invasion force. All of us noted the attire was certainly going to be effective in protecting this horde—bikinis and less was the “Uniform of the Day” for that army of resistance.

Our position and that of other groups was quickly overrun by the local rebellious forces comprised of men and women and children of all ages who, we determined, was the vanguard of the ultimate forces we would have to do battle with. It did not take long for our fearless leaders to determine that we could not overwhelm the first wave of the rebellious forces. We had children and youths sitting in and on the edges of the holes we had dug in the sand. We had women in various stages of dress and undress pointing and smiling at us ... and making hostile comments about the sheer lack of appropriateness of our attire ...

I recall cracking jokes at the time about the cowardly rebels who forced their civilian counterparts to take the brunt of our pending onslaught. Later that morning, the second wave of the horde assaulted the enemy’s command post ... dressed in white shirts and black pants and carrying what looked like silver-clad anti-personnel mines and glasses of some sort of poisonous liquid gasses. Imagine our surprise as they came directly at us, set up little folding tables, and displayed their wares. We observed the latest in military disguised technology: Those anti-personnel items were disguised as food and drinks. Of course, we followed orders at the time to not fraternize with the enemy and not be tempted by the new forms of weaponry.

By evening of our first day, we were beginning to wonder about this army of resistance, and our wonderment became even more confusing for everyone when representatives of the U.S. Embassy and American University in Beirut dropped in and distributed welcome cards and invitations to join them at various places for what they described as welcoming parties. The tactic immediately increased our suspicions, and we began to question if those folks were probably intruding spies inviting us to our doom in the streets of Beirut.

A few of us were dispatched inland that night to check out and verify the intelligence we had been gathering about the resistance and its various headquarters. We gathered our intel information quickly. But, having traveled into the city and beyond for several hours, with no supply replacements, we found ourselves lacking in energy and bodily fluids. So we did what any marauding marine and navy special forces unit would do. We commandeered transportation and a site that had food and drink, and reported our location and the fact that we were being held down by “enemy personnel” who seemed happy to meet and serve us.

After a couple of hours of gaining our energy and strength back, we took a local person hostage and demanded he guide us back to our beach head site. That fellow was amazing! He yelled to someone, and we found ourselves heading out from the compound in a new-smelling Mercedes Benz. Imagine our surprise on returning to our command post to report our gathered intel information: There were party lights surrounding the perimeter on the beach, and fraternization was clearly occurring. From that observation, our small team of five knew that the new weaponry that had been distributed to our troops by the enemy earlier that day must surely have contained something that sabotaged and neutralized our mighty troops.

We stayed in Beirut only a few days after learning that all was well. To this day, I’ve not been able to figure out how in hell we had been so mis-directed. But, having been part of the Bay of Pigs fiasco several years later, I guess it really isn’t that difficult a puzzle.

In a postscript, Conant wrote on Aug. 9: “Despite some embellishment, all of this occurred back in 1958. I returned to Beirut several times over the next two to three years, dated a student at the American University of Beirut, traveled to Baalbek and actually skied up in the mountains on one occasion. The city and the people of Lebanon back then were truly beautiful and wonderful and it saddens me no end to know the pain and suffering the destruction and polarization they have had to endure for so many years. A couple of acquaintences of mine here in Colchester are from Beirut and Ballbek, and we stop and chat from time to time about “the way it was.” This afternoon, I intend to stop in the businesses run by one of the families, just to touch base and let them know that someone here is thinking of them and of their family members who remain somewhere (now) in the region and hopefully alive. I’ll also offer to try and establish an amateur radio link with a Lebanese radio amateur in an effort to help obtain, provide and share information about those our local folks are concerned about.”


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