Wednesday, March 01, 2017

The interesting story of my American flag

The American flag that I sometimes hang outside my house has a most interesting story. As you can see below, it is a gold-fringed flag, which we used to call "a Navy flag" back in the days, because of who knows why... when I was an Executive Officer at the Naval Security Group Activity Skaggs Island, California in the 1990s, I was told that it was because it represented the ability to execute/hold a Captain's Mast.

But I meander away from the history of this flag... my flag.

In 1983 I was the OZ Division Officer for USS Virginia (CGN-38), and the ship was assigned Naval Gunfire Fire Support (NGFS) patrol off the coast of Beirut, Lebanon, in support of the US Marines ashore in Beirut as part of the Multi-National Peacekeeping Force.

We would routinely fly ashore for meetings, etc., and one day I will scan and show you a description that I put on my journal (in pre-blog days) many years ago where I described one such meeting and the interesting event that happened, with 50 cal bullets flying all over the place. Below is a picture of me, ashore in Beirut with the USMC.

From HistoryNet:
At 6:22 on Sunday morning Oct. 23, 1983, a 19-ton yellow Mercedes stake-bed truck entered a public parking lot at the heart of Beirut International Airport. The lot was adjacent to the headquarters of the U.S. 8th Marine Regiment’s 1st Battalion, where some 350 American soldiers lay asleep in a four-story concrete aviation administration building that had been successively occupied by various combatants in the ongoing Lebanese Civil War. Battalion Landing Team 1/8 was the ground element of the 1,800-man 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU), which had deployed to Lebanon a year earlier as part of a multinational peacekeeping force also comprising French, Italian and British troops. Its mission was to facilitate the withdrawal of foreign fighters from Lebanon and help restore the sovereignty of its government at a time when sectarian violence had riven the Mediterranean nation.
... Marine sentries initially paid little attention to the Mercedes truck. Heavy vehicles were a common sight at the airport, and in fact the BLT was expecting one that day with a water delivery. The truck circled the parking lot, then picked up speed as it traveled parallel to a line of concertina wire protecting the south end of the Marine compound. Suddenly, the vehicle veered left, plowed through the 5-foot-high wire barrier and rumbled between two guard posts.
By then it was obvious the driver of the truck—a bearded man with black hair—had hostile intentions, but there was no way to stop him. The Marines were operating under peacetime rules of engagement, and their weapons were not loaded. Lance Corporal Eddie DiFranco, manning the sentry post on the driver’s side of the truck, soon guessed the driver’s horrifying purpose. “He looked right at me…smiled, that’s it,” DiFranco later recalled. “Soon as I saw [the truck] over here, I knew what was going to happen.” By the time he managed to slap a magazine into his M16 and chamber a round, the truck had roared through an open vehicle gate, rumbled past a long steel pipe barrier, threaded between two other pipes and was closing on the BLT barracks.
Sergeant of the guard Stephen Russell was alone at his sandbag-and-plywood post at the front of the building but facing inside. Hearing a revving engine, he turned to see the Mercedes truck barreling straight toward him. He instinctively bolted through the lobby toward the building’s rear entrance, repeatedly yelling, “Hit the deck! Hit the deck!” It was futile gesture, given that nearly everyone was still asleep. As Russell dashed out the rear entrance, he looked over his shoulder and saw the truck slam through his post, smash through the entrance and come to a halt in the midst of the lobby. After an ominous pause of a second or two, the truck erupted in a massive explosion—so powerful that it lifted the building in the air, shearing off its steel-reinforced concrete support columns (each 15 feet in circumference) and collapsing the structure. Crushed to death within the resulting mountain of rubble were 241 U.S. military personnel—220 Marines, 18 Navy sailors and three Army soldiers. More than 100 others were injured. It was worst single-day death toll for the Marines since the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima.
Aboard USS Virginia, the ship's crew went into action, and within minutes our helo was airborne, carrying our ship's doctor and his Navy corpsmen to help with the wounded Marines. Minutes later the helo came back, looking for people and equipment to help assist with digging out the people from the collapsed building. Because my division was the only one that had an Arabic linguist, they came to us to see if he (Sgt. Bobby Jack Irvin, an amazing linguist and as far as I know the only Marine ever to qualify for the Enlisted Surface Warfare pin) could go ashore to help facilitate our doctor's mission, as he had radio'd that several Lebanese doctors had already come up to help him, and he might need language help.

Irvin and I had been ashore the day before (that's him in the photo a few paragraphs above - Irvin is to my left and to my right is Warrant Officer Carnes), but because of our shipboard mission, I felt that he could really help more by staying on the ship and doing what he did best.

Later on, they asked for volunteers to help ashore, and together with some other crew members, we headed to Beirut - other than Irvin, I was the only person on the ship who routinely flew back and forth between Beirut and the ship, and thus I wanted to ensure that I was part of the volunteer crew.
When we arrived at the airport, it was essentially controlled chaos, and dozens of bodies were already being tended to, and our ship's helo - along with others - began taking the wounded to a hospital in Sidon. There were also plenty of black body bags already filled.

With our doctor frenetically working to triage the wounded Marines, and since most Lebanese doctors actually spoke English, after donating blood, I left the medical area and began to help with the digging operations.

This story is not about that part, which was brutal and heart-breaking. This story is about the flag that I found in the rubble.

My American flag.

At the time, it seemed like a natural thing to "rescue" it from the rubble. I brought it back to the ship, where it flew often, as our mission shifted from routine patrol to Naval Gunfire Support (NGFS). When I left the ship, it was given to me, along with a ship's plaque. When I retired from the Navy two decades ago, I used it as my retirement flag and it was presented to me again, after flying over the Capitol - I never put it in a shadow box, as is the custom, but kept it flying every once in a while, as a flag deserves to do.
Last Saturday, when I hung it outside, it dawned on me that the history of this flag should merit some notice, and thus now I'm going to reach out to the Navy and/or the USMC to see if they are interested in receiving it back.