Operation BlueBat, The 24th Infantry Division’s Airborne Brigade’s July 1958 Deployment to Beirut, Lebanon
By SFC SEAN HARPER, 2nd Squad, 1st Platoon, Company A, 1st Airborne Battle Group, 187th Infantry For a related story, see also “First Battle Group of the 187th Infantry—Holds Reunion,” The Taro Leaf, Vol. 63(1) Winter 2009, page 44.
All hell was breaking loose. Someone was pounding on my door, Sgt. Mathis was yelling, whistles were blowing and what-all. It was 3:30 the morning of July 15, 1958; I had been sleeping in my quarters at Gablingen Kaserne.
Just another grandiose alert, I grumbled as I quickly slid into my herring bone twill fatigues, laced on my jump boots, grabbed my steel pot and duffel bag and headed out.
Our first platoon members got some items from supply, retrieved our firearms (all WWII and Korea vintage) from the weapons room, and picked up some C Rations.
We loaded our General Purpose bags with these items (these weigh up to 120 pounds, and are placed between our reserve chute and toes prior to jumping. They are to be cut loose when the trooper is about tree-top level, but they didn’t always work and then the trooper had to ride it to the ground—an excellent way to break both legs).
Commanding Officer Alves briefed us on the Mid-East situation, so, it looked like we might be going there, but no one said so! DeFazio, the Company Clerk, passed out small boxes for us to place wallets, IDs, photos, etc. We boarded vehicles and headed for Furstenfieldbruk Air Force Base at Munich.
Our dinner at the Furstenfieldbruk mess hall was roast chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots, bread, cake, but before dinner we made out our Wills!
Aircraft were arriving by the dozens—C-124s, C-54s, C-119s, C-130s (our normal jump planes), and even some C-47s and C-119s.
My platoon was assigned to a double-decker C-124. The rest of the Company boarded other planes. Because an entire unit had been killed in a crash two years prior, our whole unit was not allowed to travel together. So, there were five platoons from different companies on our plane.
On July 17, we flew to a U.S. Air Force base on the east coast of Italy. We stocked up on smokes, snacks, etc., at the Base Exchange (BX); a couple of men (unit unknown) sent letters to their wives in Augsburg telling where we were. A few days later Regiment Commander Col. Sharkey chewed us out royally for disclosing our location!
We next went to Incirclit Air Base at Adana, Turkey where the temperature was 130 degrees in the shade and the only shade we had was under the plane’s wings. There were no visits to the BX!
We learned we were going to Lebanon after leaving Turkey at four AM on July 19. We also learned we would be going to the airport, but not be jumping.
“A” Company set up outposts, sentry posts, and dug two-man holes at the South end of the airport. Our command and radio tents were in the middle, but no mess tent—cold C rations again!
Aircraft were bringing all sorts of supplies day and night, including food and water. But no water to wash in! Our fatigues were so stiff from sweat and dirt they could have stood by themselves, and we stunk like hell!. Mathis said “Don’t worry, you will have clean clothes when your bags arrive.”
And the C rations were so old the paper products were yellowed, the chocolate bar was white, the candy hard, the instant coffee evaporated and the cigarette ration powdered. But we ate the wet rations!
Squad-sized patrols went out each day—four during the day and two at night. I liked nights because it was cooler. I only got one!
But I didn’t like the fact that we took the same patrol route every day. The rebels knew this! So did the civilians; they constantly followed begging for food and tobacco. The Lebanese we saw were living in poverty, shacks of tin, cardboard and wood. Children begged. My men saved chocolate and candy for them.
No matter where soldiers go in this world, poverty follows. They come face to face with mothers wanting something for their children. Hungry kids touch the hearts of all dogfaces, mainly because they have their own children. The average soldier will give up their own meal so that a child can eat. I saw it often.
After 10 days we left the airport, and set up outposts on four hills near the village of Babaal. This was where the Turks had fought in WWI.
Our duffel bags finally arrived and we changed immediately. We had patches from both the 11th and the 24th.
We got new uniforms because of a very unpleasant situation that affected us all—diarrhea! Some blamed the water, some the food, and some dehydration. Guys were keeling over right and left, and rank didn’t matter to diarrhea!
We had the runs so bad we often didn’t make it to the latrine! Besides the smell, we had chapped-red testicles, butts and legs. It was pure hell when they blistered from the uniform rubbing. Finally, we were allowed new uniforms as often as we needed; one day I went thru six, literally!
Mail began arriving regularly; everyone looked forward to it, especially the goodies. Some guys bought guitars and harmonicas from peddlers, and Calibo got a radio.
Patrols increased and included many more villages. Babaal was still the main area because it was controlled by rebels.
One day while on patrol near Sayda, we formed a diamond to have a defense perimeter while stopping for lunch. Quite soon, our BAR man, “Beetle” Bailey, pointed to the hill in front of him where several men had opened a garage door and rolled out a 37mm AAA gun. They traversed the gun down toward us, and we all got ready to return fire. After several minutes where no one fired, they wheeled the gun back inside. Capt. Alves, who was on the radio with me, said to continue but change the route. When we got back Sgt Mathis said a bazooka team would go on all future patrols, which was fine with me.
This was also the end of our giving goodies to the locals; they would no longer be allowed near us.
In early September we received a six-hour pass to Beirut. We arrived at our drop off point at noon, and were to be back there at 6PM sharp. All the platoon went together, except for Sgt Tryon, Cpl Baiza, Cpl Williams and me; we were to serve as Security Patrol to keep an eye on the troops. Not much happened except for a brief skirmish with the Marines versus some Army and Navy guys.
The route back to the drop off point took us by the Hotel Bristol, and a swimming pool filled with tanned, beautiful, bikini-clad young women! We agreed to be good ambassadors and said hello. There was a diving board to the sea below. After talking to the ladies for a while, Bob Tryon dove off the board. He yelled “Air-borne,” and I followed immediately. Baiza and Williams joined us seconds later. We climbed up the rope ladder where the ladies were—one said “Crazy Americans!” We went on to the pick up point.
We moved to a rear area where we spent our time cleaning weapons and equipment, doing laundry, writing letters—and sewing on 24th ID patches!
Near the end of October, we gave the Lebanese all of our equipment except for our packs, rifles, duffel bags, and the CO’s jeep and radio, and headed back to Germany. “A” and “C” Companies flew back to ready the garrison while everyone else went by ship.
We arrived at Gablingen in early November; the rest arrived two weeks later. There was one hell of a celebration when passes were issued. In addition to our regular pay everyone received money they had in their clothing fund!
The 24th ID remained in Germany for many years after its brief stint to Lebanon. The two Airborne Brigades joined the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft Bragg, NC.
Thus ended the short but important period of the life of the 24th Infantry Division’s Airborne troops—Operation BlueBat!
Sean Harper, Life Member
1671 Kildare Rd.
Ponca City, OK 74604-6938
The Taro Leaf, Vol 63(2) Spring 2009, pg. 63-64.