"That means we're clear to land"
Col. Alfred W. Studwell recounted that historic day in Lebanon that took place in 1983 one day before his 80th birthday as he received the Air Medal for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight award during a ceremony that took place in the 22nd Air Force media center June 5. Colonel Studwell was the flight surgeon on board an urgent aeromedical airlift mission to and from Beirut, Lebanon on Oct. 23 1983. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Danielle Campbell)
by Maj. (Retired) Joe Bunker
Senior Airman Daniell Campbell contributed to this article
6/7/2011 - DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga. -- In 1983, the Marines were sent to Beirut, Lebanon on a peacekeeping mission. However, there was little peace to keep.
On October 23, 1983, at 6:22 a.m. in Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, the birds started chirping at the start of Sunday morning. Approximately 200 miles away in Beirut, Lebanon the day was beginning as well, but the sounds of the morning had stopped. A Mercedes truck loaded with six tons of explosives broke through the perimeter of the Marine Headquarters compound at Beirut International Airport. The barracks were built of reinforced concrete and was considered the safest place in the airport compound by many Marines. That morning, more than 200 peacekeepers, most of them asleep, were in the barracks as the Mercedes truck drove into the lobby. 241 American servicemembers died in that terroristic bombing.
Rescue efforts started immediately. Marines scrambled to retrieve their fellow peacekeepers from the crumbling building. The Air Force was notified and quickly located a C-9 crew on the ground in Incirlik. The crew was diverted from a routine Aeromedical evacuation mission to the urgent mission in Beirut. The C-9 nurses called to request numerous medical supplies. They also needed other valuable assets... doctors!
The C-9 was reconfigured and medical supplies were loaded. The three doctors stationed at Incirlik who were ordered to Beirut also boarded the plane which took off for the 50 minute flight to Beirut.
On approach, the pilots expected to hear the phase "cleared to land." But the Beirut controller replied, "Sniper fire reported in the area, Marine helicopter gunships patrolling parallel to the runway, land at your own risk." Upon hearing that warning, a young lieutenant co-pilot looked over to the aircraft commander, who looked back at him and simply said, "That means we're cleared to land." At landing, the crew avoided craters in the taxi-ways, the result of artillery and mortar fire. This was a war zone, and the Marines had been in the middle of it for some time.
The crew taxied to their stopping spot under the threat of hostile anti-aircraft fire, SA-7 missiles and snipers. They noticed what, on first glance, appeared to be their patients lined up next to the hangar. Shortly afterward they noticed it wasn't a line of patients at all, it was a line of body bags. Two of the doctors onboard would disembark and remain in Beirut. The 3rd Doctor, Col. Alfred W. Studwell, a flight surgeon, would stay with the C-9 crew as the sole physician on board.
Within seconds of parking, helicopters landed nearby bringing severely wounded Marines to the C-9 air ambulance. The medical crew quickly began the job of triaging the patients. Medical technicians carried the litter patients aboard the aircraft. The pilots called the headquarters radio to determine they were to fly to Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany.
The flight from Beirut to Germany was extremely busy for the medical crew as they worked diligently to evaluate and stabilize the 24 patients. Shortly after take-off a Marine in the critical care section went into cardiac arrest. The medical crew tried valiantly, but was unable to save his life.
Col. Studwell demonstrated stellar clinical skills as he lead the team which saved the lives of the 23 remaining Marines which contributed immeasurably to this hazardous and historic mission.
He was awarded the Meritorious Achievement While Participating in Aerial Flight Award at a ceremony that took place in the 22nd Air Force media center here in June.
"Today we honor a fellow military member with an award that is 27 years overdue," said Joe Bunker, a retired Air Force major and the co-pilot on the first flight to Beirut. "More importantly, we are here to remember the 241 servicemembers who lost their lives," he said.
Several of Colonel Studwell's family and friends were present to see him be honored. Many of the Marines who were injured in Beirut also came to show gratitude and support and to reflect on the events that happened in Oct. 1983.
"Our first duty is to remember," said Randy Gaddo, a Marine who was injured on board the C-9 flight to Germany. "This is such an emotional event - almost 30 years later."
The Air Medal was established by executive order during World War II.
"This is a big deal and had to be approved by the president of the United States," said Col. Timothy E. Tarchick, Wing Commander of the 94th Airlift Wing. "I am pleased to be standing before a silent warrior - one who paved the way for people in uniform, particularly those in the medical field."
Colonel Tarchick presented the Air Medal award to Colonel Studwell.
"I didn't expect to receive this award," said Col. Studwell. "I just want to take the time to thank everyone who was involved in making this happen. And its true, our first duty is to remember."