Janet Williams prayed that her husband had gone jogging that morning.
She knew his habits, so it was still a possibility. Besides being a tough Marine master sergeant, Scipio C. Williams Jr. was an early riser and a dedicated distance runner.
But the early images on her 1980s television set weren’t giving her much hope. The video was a before-and-after shot of the four-story Marine Corps barracks in far-off Lebanon. The first scenes were of a fully intact building with guards out front. The cut-away was to dust rising from unrecognizable rubble.
Stretchers were lifting away bloody, wounded Marines.
For the next several days Williams watched and waited for any snippet of news of her husband — “so handsome, so good-looking,” she said of the man everyone outside the military called “Scip.”
Just after the children left for school, a station wagon pulled up in front of her James Island home. Four somber
officers, one of them a chaplain, stepped out.
“I was standing in this room here,” she recalled from her dining room table. “And I heard the car doors slamming.”
In the next hours, “MIA” would become “KIA” after Williams’ body was recovered.
Thirty years ago this week, the United States became the victim of its first mass suicide bombing. Shortly after 6 a.m. on Oct. 23, 1983, a truck packed with thousands of pounds of explosives rammed into the U.S. barracks compound in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. servicemen, most of them Marines, and wounding many others.
At least four of the losses came from South Carolina, including Scipio Williams, 35, a lifelong resident of Charleston.
In the aftermath, Janet Williams tried to be tough. She had two children to raise: a son, Scipio Jason, 8, and a daughter, Keysha, 13, both of whom attended their father’s funeral at the small Payne Reformed Methodist Church on rural James Island.
A photograph of young Scipio receiving a folded American flag that day would splash across newspapers and television screens. For years afterward, including at memorials for the families of the bombing victims — and during his own future career as a Marine — those who had served under Master Sgt. Scipio J. Williams would stare at the boy’s face.
The likeness to his father was that strong.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan ordered 1,800 Marines to Beirut. It was new territory for many in America as the nation’s finest fighting force was sent to join a multinational peace-keeping mission in the sectarian-torn nation.
The goal was to stabilize Lebanon, by sheer presence of might, after years of fighting that had brought in factions from all over the Middle East, including Christian and Muslim militias, and the spillover between Israelis and Palestinians.
Not long into the mission, community anger began turning on the Marines, largely because Muslims began identifying their involvement as pro-Christian.
A first taste of what was to come surfaced in April 1983 when a van loaded with explosives struck the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 46 people. The Marines slogged on, even as the rules of engagement prevented them from heavily fortifying their barracks at the international airport. The image was not to appear “warlike,” according to media reports.
All that happened, though, long after Janet met Scip.
She was in high school at C.A. Brown on Charleston’s East Side. He was stationed at Charleston Naval Base. The attraction was strong. They were married on Sept. 11, 1971.
True to the military life, they traveled the world. He was a fully committed Marine who had served two tours in Vietnam. What he thought would be his last assignment was stateside with other Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. It was close enough that he could come home on weekends to the one-story brick ranch the couple bought off of Fort Johnson Road on James Island.
When word came that he was being shipped off to Lebanon, Scip saw it as just another duty station in a 16-year career. He told her and the kids not to get out of the car or give him a hug or make a scene when it was time to go. He was like that.
“I don’t want you to tell me ‘Bye,’” he said to her. “I don’t want you to ever tell me bye. Just pull off.”
She did just that. And she regrets it to this day.
The peacekeeping aspect of the mission in Lebanon didn’t sit well with a lot of people. Marines would be limited on when they could carry weapons. In his letters home, Williams told his wife how uncomfortable the restrictions had made the men as they moved around outside the wire, seeing so many armed bands of militia members driving around on trucks and in a chanting frenzy.
He had been encouraged to wear street clothes in public. Photographs he sent hone showed him seated on the barracks roof dressed in a casual blue sweatshirt and pants, not his camos.
Eventually, the Marines became targets of rifle-toting snipers and attackers with other weapons. “I knew before the bombing he was ready to come home,” Janet Williams said.
She has talked to Marines who survived the blast, but she never got a good fix on what Scip was doing in the last hours of his life. She does know he got up and sang “My Girl” at a USO show before his final days.
Historians would later declare the blast the deadliest attack on the Marines since the landing on Iwo Jima during World War II,
The attack was pegged to Iran and the terror group Hezbollah. But the Marine leadership also faced sharp criticism for allowing a state of poor security that led to their massive loss of life. Reagan pulled the U.S. forces out of Lebanon four months after the blast.
Still, nothing would stop young Scipio from following in his father’s footsteps.
At James Island High School, the teen had been a member of the Air Force ROTC. But he admits the Air Force route didn’t feel like the right fit.
At school he would carry his dad’s Marine rucksack and wear his oversize combat boots. “They looked like clown shoes” on his smaller feet, he said. And he would sneak into his dad’s closet and put on his dress blue uniform jacket. He enlisted in the Marines, serving 11 years on active duty and in the Reserve; he now lives and works in Charleston.
Marines he met who had been trained by his father were always eager to talk and unload. “They’d tell me stories like, ‘I got the best ass-chewing of my life from him.’”
Keysha also felt drawn to serve but not in the Armed Forces. Today she is an assistant principal at Garrett Academy of Technology in North Charleston. The loss of her father is a story she tells students at the start of every school year.
All three Williamses say they went through bouts of emotion in the months and years afterward as they tried to stay disciplined and busy moving forward with life. Still, they had questions that were never answered.
Why were the Marines left so exposed? Why wasn’t the terror threat immediately addressed with a heavy response force? Could the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been avoided if policies had gone in another direction because of the Marines’ final sacrifices?
“If more attention had been paid to these groups early on, maybe it wouldn’t be where it is now,” the married Keysha Williams Tolliver said of the confrontational state of the Middle East.
On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, the Williams family will attend 30th anniversary remembrances in and around Jacksonville, N.C., home to Camp Lejeune and the Beirut Memorial. Thousands are expected to attend.
Janet Williams still thinks about her former husband daily, even as she has moved on with her life, going to college and becoming a Charleston County teacher. And she sometimes sees glimpses of her younger self in the faces of today’s war widows whenever U.S. service dead come home.
“I sympathize with them a lot,” she said. “Anytime something like this happens and there’s a loss of life, and someone is left with a child, my heart bleeds. I walk with them.”
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 947-5551.