Copyright 1983. Don Wright. The Miami News. Reprinted with permission.
and that of the Marines. This was done on 30 January. Four days earlier, the Israeli practice of reconnaissance by fire had ended, although patrolling continued.26
In February, the understanding with the Israelis over boundaries and the conduct of patrols--which was thought to be a settled matter--was found to be not so clearly understood as originally thought. The single-most notable demonstration of this lack of understanding occurred on 2 February, when three Israeli tanks attempted to go through Captain Charles B. Johnson's Company L position.
At about 0800, from his observation post, Captain Johnson, together with the advance party of the British MNF contingent,27 observed an Israeli patrol coming up Old Sidon Road from the south. This was normal. Half an hour later, he spotted a north-to-south patrol, which also was normal. It consisted of three tanks, two armored personnel carriers (APCs), and dismounted troops. "Again, we're seeing them about 3,000 meters off. We could see that far, all the way down the Sidon Road."28
The only thing that was unusual about this patrol was that the troops ere dismounted, for the Israeli patrols in the previous two weeks had all been mounted. Captain Johnson] then went on to say:
. . . sometime between 0830 and 0900, one of my surveillance people . . . spotted three additional tanks coming on the road . . . the one they had built along the railroad tracks, and then they [the tanks] broke off the road and they continued up the railroad tracks right up to the edge of the university grounds. . . .
That's when I knew something was up. There were three tanks road. . . There was no tactical reason for them to do that. . . . They brought tanks right through the middle of Shuwayfat, which is a Muslim area and it's relatively dangerous to do that.29
What Captain Johnson had spotted were three tanks ng from the north and three tanks coming from the south. He couldn't see them when they were in the town, but they were spotted shortly after as they left it and broke through the orchard on the western side of the Sidon Road into the buffer zone between the road and the university. The tanks were heading for a section of the fence where Captain johnson had confronted an APC-mounted Israeli patrol on 20 January.
The COmpany L commander quickly got in his jeep and went to the spot the tanks were approaching. Captain Johnson didn't think that:
. . . they would actually try to come through a joint Marine-lebanese checkpoint like that. But once it developed, I was very concerned that if the tanks were allowed to move forward, there was a very dangerous situation, because the road they were on . . . went right through the heart of the
university . . . divided the Marine company and the Lebanese company.30
Johnson feared that if the tanks attempted to pass, a firefight might erupt between the Lebanese and the Israelis. If a fight ensued, the Marines would have to support the lebanese. He wasn't worried about the Marines' fire discipline, but he was concerned about that of the Lebanese soldiers.
As the Israeli tanks approached the fence, Captain Johnson jumped out of his jeep, ran up to the tanks, and stood in the center of the road. The lead tank stopped about six inches in front of Johnson, would told the Israeli lieutenant colonel in the lead tank, "You will not pass through this position."
After a short pause, the Israeli dismounted, spoke with Johnson, and then climbed back aboard the tank, saying that he was going through. Johnson later stated that he replied, "You will have to kill me first."31 He drew his pistol, chambered a round, and held the weapon at the ready position.
There was another pause as the Israeli officer apparently spoke over his radio to his headquarters. The lead tank then pulled slowly to the side of the road with Captain Johnson walking alongside and then the two others suddenly revved up their engines and whipped forward toward the fence.
The young Marine captain jumped on the lead tank, grabbed the Israeli officer, and yelled at him to order his tanks halted. The tank commander complied and then purportedly told Johnson, "One thing we don't want to do is kill each other." Johnson answered, "Yes, but if you keep doing things like this, the likelihood is going to occur."32
While the local Arab radio stations were telling and retelling the story of the American who stopped the three Israeli tanks singlehandedly, the Israeli press was accusing Captain Johnson of having liquor on his breath and being drunk. Worse, they called the whole affair a misunderstanding on the part of the Marines. Confronted by evidence, among other things, that Johnson was a teetotaler, the Israelis quickly toned down, and finally stopped such comments when they saw they were not going to be given credence.
Within a few minutes of the confrontation, Johnson's battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Matthews, arrived on the scene. He had observed part of what happened and asked Johnson a full and immediate report, "And I gave him the whole thing . . . and we spent about 20 minutes walking the ground an so forth."33 Matthews then said they should tell the whole story to Colonel Stokes, who went back to the fence area with Johnson and rewalked the area where the confrontation took place.
The MAU commander reported the incident through the chain of command. The next day, 3 February, Israeli and American diplomats met in Beirut, where they agreed to mark the boundary lines more clearly so there would be no future misunderstandings.
A routine, daily press conference was held at 1600 on the afternoon of the 2d at Colonel Stokes' headquarters.
The most important topic concerned a ricochet 75mm tank round that had landed in Company I's positions. Nothing was said about Captain Johnson's experience until the press stormed back into the compound at 2300 that evening, undoubtedly having been queried by their home offices why stories had not been filed on the U.S.-Israeli affair. When the reporters asked Colonel Stokes why he hadn't told them about it, he replied that no one had asked, and said further, ". . . it's not my job to determine what's newsworthy and what's not. . . ."34
Normally a quiet officer despite his impressive military presence, Captain Johnson was told by his CO that he was going to have to submit to the questions of the print and television reporters at a press conference, much as he disliked the prospects of such an encounter. A by-product of this instant fame was heavy mail. A large number of former Marines and retired servicemen wrote and sent messages of support. "A lot of children wrote from schools and they were really nice letters. A lot of people wrote.
I got hundreds of letters." Captain Johnson also received a message from the Commandant after the 24th left Lebanon. "It was a wonderful message to my men, how he was proud of the men," Johnson said. In retrospect, Johnson never felt that what he had done was wrong. "I had no doubt in my mind that what I had done was the right thing. . . . I had regret that it happened, but I did not have any regret in what I had done."35
During the month of January, the MAU prepared for its scheduled relief in February. Like the previous October's turnover, it would be a relief in place. The advance party of the 22d MAU arrived in Beirut on 9 February and each member was taken in hand by his 24th MAU counterpart. Since the first relief had gone so smoothly, there was little reason to believe that the second would be otherwise.
It wasn't. At 0700 on 14 February, elements of the 22d MAU started landing and BLT 3/8 was relieved in place by BLT 2/6 by 1251, MSSG 24 was relieved by MSSG 22 at 1300, and HMM-264 relieved HMM-263 of the Cobra alert mission at 1326. Colonel Mead, commander of the 22d MAU, back in Beirut for a third time, assumed control of the forces ashore at 1515. The next day, 15 February, he assumed command of the U.S. Multi-National