On Oct. 23, 1983, Howard “Larry” Gerlach was in the Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, when suicide bombers detonated a truck bomb that killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. He was one of 128 wounded American.
The 1960 Lincoln High School graduate’s office was a corner room on the second story of the four story concrete reinforced building.
“It was a Sunday morning,” he recalled. “I had been outside walking around checking posts and talking to my Marines, and then I went back to my office. I heard a commotion and looked out the window and that is all I remember. It is not a good memory.
“The company commanders did a great job getting the wounded out.”
After a week in a Beirut hospital, Gerlach was flown to a ship, then to Cyprus by helicopter, and then to Germany. On Nov. 11, 1983, he arrived in the United States to recover and get rehabilitation at the Veterans Hospital in West Roxbury, Md.
“Our wives heard and saw it on CNN News. Then my wife, Patty, found out that I was still alive,” Gerlach said. “I suffered a spinal cord injury. I am an incomplete paraplegic, which means I get around in the wheelchair and can do short distance with the crutches.”
Gerlach went on to say that the United States was in Beirut as a neutral force to act as peacekeepers. It was the single highest death toll for the Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
Gerlach said he always knew he wanted to be a Marine. Four days after he graduated from Lincoln High School in 1960, he joined the Marines and went to Parris Island for boot camp.
“Boot camp was not a great deal of fun, but the discipline was good,” he said. “They took our ragtag bunch and turned us into Marines. It was a necessary experience. I believed the Marines were the best, and I still believe it.”
After his basic training, Gerlach went to the Naval Air Technical Training Center for aviation electronics. He worked on the Sikorsky H-34, which is now obsolete. He was there for a brief period when he had the opportunity to take the NROTC test for officer’s school and passed.
After six weeks at a prep school to take refresher courses in English, math and science, Gerlach entered the University of Mississippi. The Marines paid all of his academic expenses and gave him a $50 a month allowance for living expenses. But he needed more.
“I needed a job, and Mississippi University had a work program,” he said. “I worked in the cafeteria serving food. I started out at 60 cents an hour, and by the time I graduated I was making 75 cents an hour.”
Gerlach was at the university at the time that James Meredith, the first black to attend the university, was on campus. During the time of turmoil, federal marshals protected Meredith and there were riots with 160 marshals wounded and two bystanders killed.
“You couldn’t help but be aware of what was happening. It is a small campus, but I’m proud of the way Ole Miss has recovered and integrated,” Gerlach said.
Gerlach joined the NROTC drill team that marched in parades, and in his senior year he became a drill commander. He asked the students if anyone wanted to join the drill team and John McDonald, an African American, volunteered.
“I believe the drill team was the first activities group on campus to be integrated,” Gerlach said.
In 1966, Gerlach and James Meredith graduated from the University of Mississippi.
After graduating from college, Gerlach went to the basic infantry training at Quantico, Va. Normally it was a six-week school, but because of the Vietnam War men were needed in the service quickly and Gerlach finished in five weeks. He was sent to Vietnam as a rifle platoon leader.
Six weeks later, Gerlach was shot in the lower abdomen and the bullet exited his right hip. He recovered at the Naval Hospital in Maryland. While he regained his strength, he did light duty at the Marine Corps headquarters in Arlington, Va.
In 1969, Gerlach went to advanced infantry officers training and to jump school at Fort Benning, Ga.
After nine months, he was sent back to Vietnam. He served as an adviser to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam — the South Vietnamese army.
“When I hear they won’t fight, that is garbage. I get emotional. They fought hard. They were fighters for their country,” Gerlach said.
After his second stint in Vietnam, Gerlach went to a number of posts, including Okinawa, before being sent to Beirut in 1983.
“Okinawa wasn’t such a good duty because I missed my wife and kids, but I did a lot of running there,” he said. “I ran a couple marathons. I was a draft horse, not a thoroughbred or quarter horse. I wasn’t fast, but I finished.”
In April 1986, Gerlach was discharged as a lieutenant colonel. The next year he went to work in Washington, D.C., as a logistics expert for a contractor. Then he spent four years working with logistics at the Marine Corps headquarters.
“Seven years ago I retired. Retired,” Gerlach said.
Gerlach lives in Fairfax, Va., with Patty, his wife of 47 years.
When Gerlach was born, his parents, Howard E. and Vera Magee Gerlach, lived on 8th Street in Ellwood City. While he was in high school, his mother died in 1956 and his father in 1957. Gerlach then lived with his uncle and aunt, Floyd and Anna Gerlach, in Frisco.
By Louise Carroll at the Ellwood City Ledger