The first wounded marines from the Beirut bombing to arrive and be treated in the Washington area got off an Air Force transport plane late yesterday afternoon at Andrews Air Force Base and declared that it was great to be home.
Three of the marines, including Lance Cpl. James Dudney, 20, of Millersville in Anne Arundel County, were well enough to walk off the plane, which arrived about 4:40 p.m. Four other marines and one Navy recruit were carried off the plane on stretchers, and two of those were quickly transported by helicopter to Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Several marines recalled the horror of Sunday's bombing of their compound in Beirut with vivid detail.
"I was at a modified post near the motor pool when I heard a big crash," Dudney said after he deplaned from the C141. "I thought it was a car accident. I saw a big yellow truck running through the guard check. . . . People came running out of the building saying 'hit the deck' and 'stop the truck.'
"I turned to run. There was a big yellow flash. . . . Things started raining down on me. We heard screaming and moaning and started to help our fellow marines."
Dudney, who like his colleagues, was wearing pajamas, a striped bathrobe and bed slippers, said pieces of wood hit him in the head and nose, which were still severely bruised yesterday.
He said the first face he saw "through the debris" was that of Lance Cpl. Burham Matthews of Odenton, Md., who also was on the transport plane to Andrews yesterday.
Lance Cpl. Michael Balcom, 20, of Vernon, N.Y., said he had ended his night shift as a cook and arrived back at his quarters on the fourth floor of the Marine compound when he heard a truck arriving. The next thing he remembers, he said, was waking up two or three hours later and looking through two holes in the debris that shrouded him.
"I hollered out, but nobody had seen me or heard me," said Balcom, who wore a white bandage around his head and was wearing a St. Christopher's medal around his neck. Eventually, he said, "I dug myself out."
Dudney, Matthews and Balcom carried bottles of wine off the plane that they said they had been given as gifts at the hospital in Germany. All of the injured marines who arrived last night were given Purple Hearts before they left the plane by Gen. John K. Davis, the assistant Marine commandant.
Lance Cpl. Renard Manley, 25, of Panama City, Fla., said that he endured being buried in rubble by talking with a fellow marine whom he could only hear and who was also trapped in the debris.
Lance Cpl. Stephen Diaz, 20, of Chicago, said he was one of the guards outside the compound at the time of the blast, but did not have a loaded rifle with him. He said there was one sergeant near him who did have a loaded rifle. It would not have helped if the guards had carried loaded rifles, he said.
Dudney, Balcom, Matthews, Manley, Diaz and one naval petty officer, Pedro Alvarado will spend the night at the 10th Aero Medical Staging Flight Facility at Andrews and then go to Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The two seriously wounded marines, Cpl. Michael Toma, 20, of Ellwood City, Pa., and Lance Cpl. Anthony Banks, 21, of St. Louis, nonetheless arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital "fully lucid, joking, alert," according to a hospital spokesman.
Toma, who was sleeping on the first floor of the Marine building at the time of the explosion, suffered fractures of his lower spine and left hip, he and his doctors said. Banks, whose right eye was severely injured by a piece of rubble from the explosion, was brought to the hospital for special treatment at the facility's ophthalmology unit.
Capt. John R. Fletcher, the hospital's director of surgical specialties, said the two men were in excellent physical condition and would not be permantly disabled.
Toma, confined to a hospital bed, and Banks, who was in wheelchair, appeared exhausted but happy during a brief meeting with reporters. "It feels great to be back," said Toma, whose parents, two brothers and sisters had a tearful reunion with him at the hospital. He called the Marines' mission in Beirut "necessary to keep the country of Lebanon together."
Toma, who said the Marines had "good security around the area" when the explosion occurred, was unconscious for two hours after the blast. "I was lying in sort of a crater," he said. "When I woke up, I was covered with rubble."
He added that he hopes that U.S. forces will stay in Beirut "until they get their mission accomplished."
Despite extremely tight security at the hospital, several naval officers left their offices late in the afternoon to watch the arrival of Toma and Banks. At least a dozen military police officers roamed the hospital grounds for an hour before the soldiers arrived.
A second transport plane bearing wounded--this time from Grenada--landed at Andrews at 7:40 last night. Military officials kept the press far from the plane and allowed no interviews with the eight wounded soldiers, who they said they would not identify because relatives had not yet been notified.