In June 1982, Israeli tanks rolled across their border into neighboring Lebanon. Their mission was to stop the terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization from repeating further attacks on Israeli officials and civilians.
All this was in the middle of Lebanon’s Civil War, which raged from 1975 to 1990. When their tanks tried to roll through the U.S. Marines’ camp in Beirut, one Leatherneck told them they could do it “over his dead body.”
The Lebanese Civil War was in many ways like Syria’s civil war today. The country was a fractured group of religions, sects of those religions, political parties, refugees, and outright armed militias. The various factions vying for power were also aided by the patronage of other countries, like Iran, Iraq, Syria, Israel, the Soviet Union, and their Cold War adversary, the United States.
It was a mess.
Israel Defense Forces began to surround Beirut within a week of the invasion. The siege was particularly brutal. Of the more than 6,000 Lebanese and Palestinians who died in the siege, 84 percent were civilians. It was so bad, then-President Ronald Reagan reportedly called an August artillery barrage on Beirut a “holocaust” in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
The brutality of the war as a whole is what prompted Reagan to send Marines to Lebanon’s capital as part of a multi-national force of peacekeepers. The MNF were there to protect foreigners and civilians while trying to protect the legally-recognized government and restore its sovereignty.
Later in 1982, Israel again drew worldwide condemnation for failing to stop the massacre of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians in refugee camps Sabra and Shatila. A militia allied with Israel began killing inhabitants of the camps as Israeli forces stood by. The PLO also blamed the United States for not living up to the MNF agreements to protect civilians.
So when three Israeli Centurion tanks rolled to the MNF perimeter manned by the Marines, Capt. Charles B. Johnson stood still as the tanks stopped only within one foot of his face. A full five minutes later, the IDF commander dismounted to talk to the captain. The Israeli told the Marine the tanks were on their way to nearby railroad tracks. He then demanded to speak to a Marine general.
Johnson replied by repeating he had orders not to allow the tanks to pass. The Israeli told him he would drive through anyway and began to mount his tank. That’s when the Marine drew his sidearm, climbed the lead tank and told the Israelis they could pass “over his dead body.”
One account in the Washington Post even recalls Johnson jumping on a tank as it raced toward his checkpoint, warning the Israelis that the likelihood of shooting each other was going to increase. A UPI report at the time says Johnson “grabbed the Israeli lieutenant colonel with his left hand and pointed his loaded pistol into the air.”
After a 50-minute stand-off, the tanks backed down and left the perimeter.
In response, the United States summoned then-charge d’affaires Benjamin Netanyahu to protest Israeli provocations against American forces in Beirut. The tank incident turned out to be one of many. The Israelis denied the incident occurred, saying tanks were in the area to investigate the death of an Israeli soldier.
Johnson was lauded for his “courageous action” by Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger.
The next month, a car bomb was detonated next to the Marine barracks at Beirut airport, killing 241 Marines (Johnson survived the attack) and 58 French paratroopers. By Feb. 26, 1984, the Marines withdrew to ships offshore and much of the MNF departed from Lebanon entirely.