Gen. Paul Kelley, who was only four months into his tenure as Marine Corps commandant when a suicide bomber drove a truck with thousands of pounds of explosives into the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 U.S. service members in the single largest loss of U.S. military life since World War II, died Dec. 29 at a retirement community in McLean, Va. He was 91.
Kelley served 37 years in the Marine Corps before his retirement in 1987 as commandant, a post that accorded him membership on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had been nominated by President Ronald Reagan.
Kelley distinguished himself during the Vietnam War, receiving the Silver Star, among other decorations, during two tours of duty. He was a battalion commander in 1965 and 1966, later returning to the war zone in 1970 to lead the last Marine regiment to serve in combat there.
During the Carter administration, Kelley led what was then known as the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, a team created to heighten U.S. preparedness for crises in the Persian Gulf. Today it is known as the U.S. Central Command, or Centcom, and in recent years has overseen the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
But his highest-profile assignment, and the one that led to what he described as “the worst emotional trauma of my life,” was the terrorist attack in Beirut in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 1983.
He rushed to the scene in Lebanon, where the Marines had been tasked with establishing a stabilizing presence amid a yearslong civil war.
“In the aftermath of the bombing,” the New York Times reported, Gen. Kelley “was the symbol of the Corps. He hastened to the scene, comforted the wounded, mourned the dead, all in the style that has closely identified him with the marine in the trench, an emotional link to the fighting man.”
Kelley endured sometimes withering questions from Capitol Hill lawmakers who suggested that more might have been done to prevent the attack in Beirut. It was noted that two sentries at the Marine headquarters carried unloaded weapons. Loaded or not, Kelley insisted, “there was no way on God’s Earth that those two sentries could have stopped that truck.”
A Pentagon commission tasked with investigating the incident later faulted the operational chain of command, which did not include Kelley.
Paul Xavier Kelley was born in Boston on Nov. 11, 1928. His mother, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, was a librarian. His father, also of Irish heritage, was an Army major who was wounded in World War I and was later recalled to active duty when the U.S. entered World War II.