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For a marine’s memory: Family mourns Lance Cpl. Thomas Shipp on anniversary of deadly Beirut bombing

October 23, 2013

Pictured is a photo collage of Lance Cpl. Thomas Shipp assembled by his brother, Russell.

LINCOLN -- Wednesday was a day of mixed feelings for Russell E. Shipp, 51, of Pleasant Street. It was a day to remember the loss of his brother, Lance Cpl. Thomas A. Shipp, a Woonsocket native, in the terrorist attack on a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, 30 years ago to the day. Oct. 23 is also the day Shipp’s son Travis, now 24, was born in 1989.

Thinking about losing his brother, then just 27, to a terrorist bombing – the first against U.S. forces in a litany running through the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies, the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole and Sept. 11th – is never easy for Shipp but something he does every day.
“When Oct. 23 comes, I tell everyone I am bi-polar. I am sad it is the day my brother died and yet I am happy for the fact my son was born that day,” he said.

“He kind of reminds me of my brother to tell you the truth,” Shipp said.

Shipp’s family was living in Woonsocket when his older brother, Thomas, one of eight siblings went off to the Marines after serving initially with the U.S. Coast Guard and spending time working for an area company. He had been completing time as a reservist when he made the decision to take on Marine training at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Thomas had married his second wife, Pauline, in January of 1983, and they moved to North Carolina. His unit, the of the 1st Marine 8th Battalion, the 24th MAU, was part of the U.S. peace keeping force sent to intercede in the violence consuming Beirut from rival factions both within and outside the country.

Shipp, 27, moved into the headquarters building from another assignment just about a month before his deployment was to end and sent word home about his misgivings over the location.

Those feelings proved to be valid at 6:22 a.m. on Oct. 23, as a 2 ½-ton truck driven by a terrorist crashed through gate of the Marine compound and headed toward the building. Marines on duty at the time tried to stop the vehicle but its payload of more than 2,500 pounds of explosives went off against the 4-story, concrete and steel, former office building causing its floors to collapse upon the Marines other U.S. service members sleeping inside.

Two other local Marines, Lance Cpl. Michael Harris of Woonsocket, and Sgt. Steven Russell of Bellingham, were in the building at the time and though wounded, survived.

A total of 241 Marines died in the attack including Shipp and seven other Rhode Islanders. The attack also claimed the lives of 18 members of the U.S. Navy and three members of the Army, and left 81 wounded. A second bombing on a French paratrooper headquarters killed 58 members of that peacekeeping force.

Russell Shipp and his wife, Sandra, had gone to bed on Oct. 22 and told each other how light hitting the door seemed to make a silhouette of Thomas before they went to sleep. Shipp said he dreamed of his brother that night and Thomas’ assurance that “he was ok.” In the morning, the couple heard the news about the early morning Beirut attack on the news.

Shipp was with his late mother, Theresa Desjardins, at her home in Woonsocket, when the two uniformed Marines arrived to tell the family that Thomas was among those killed in the attack.

“They told us my brother was one of the Marines who had perished in the Beirut bombing and that they were sorry. They gave us a card and asked us to call them if we needed any help,” Shipp said.

“It is like it happened yesterday,” he added. “It’s not haunting but you just wish he was here.”

The last communication with his brother was a letter he sent him announcing the birth of his son, Josh, on Sept. 19. Shipp doesn’t know if the letter and photo of Josh reached Thomas before the bombing but he hopes that it did. Josh, Shipp’s daughter, Alicia McBride, 26, and Travis never got the chance to know their uncle, he noted.

Thomas A. Shipp was brought home from Lebanon for his burial with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Shipp and his family attended the funeral and remember the service as a fitting tribute to his brother’s loss. He lies in Section 59 with 17 others killed in the attack, his brother said.

Shipp said he used to dream about Thomas quite a lot early on but less and less as the years passed.

There were things the two would have intuitive knowledge about and they just some how knew when things would happen. It was probably that intuition Thomas felt when he told a friend in the barracks that he feared something might happened there.

It would have been an uncharacteristic view for his brother, someone who was never afraid and was always fun to be around. “He was the life of the party and made everyone laugh,” his brother said.

Before he joined the Marines, Shipp showed his toughness when he saved a young boy from a burning yacht that his Point Judith patrol boat had responded to assist. He earned a commendation for that effort and also won praise from the Town Administrator of a town in Western, Mass., for his handling of an accident involving his milk company delivery truck.
“There was an accident in the road downhill from him and he turned his truck into a ditch and rolled it over to avoid hitting the other vehicles,” Shipp said. The cool-headed action prompted then Gov. Michael Dukakis to also send a letter of praise, Shipp said.

The anniversaries of his brother’s death also bring back Shipp’s anger that nothing was ever done to those responsible for the barracks bombing early on. President Ronald Reagan sent the Marines to Beirut but then did not take action against the suspected bases of the terrorists as the French did.

“President Reagan didn’t do anything about it and that still bothers me today,” he said. The Marines remained in Beirut for another four months, taking small arms and mortar fire during that time, and then were brought home, he said.

The Marines have done the most to remember the attack, Shipp said, and each year hold a ceremony honoring the bombing victims and making sure each new Marine knows what cost came that day.

Shipp went to the 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries at Camp Lejeune, but couldn’t make the trip this year. He watched it live instead over the Web and was pleased to see that retired Gen. A.M. Gray was there to remember his lost soldiers once again.

“The motto of Marines from Beirut is to never forget,” he said. “You can walk up to any Marine right now and ask them what happened on Oct. 23, and they know,” he said.

Thomas would be 58 years old today and he would still be that older brother always willing to help out, Russell Shipp said.

He is remembered in Woonsocket with a stone marker at Thomas A. Shipp Square at the corner of Worrall and Clinton Streets that former Public Safety Director John R. Dionne helped the family erect. Flowers and a small U.S. flag were found at the site on Wednesday.

The listing of Beirut bombing victims includes Rhode Islanders Pfc. Thomas A. Julian of Middletown, Cpl. David S. Massa of Warren, Lance Cpl. Edward S. Iacovino Jr., of Warwick, Cpl. Timothy R. Giblin of North Providence, Cpl. James F. Silva of Middletown, Lance Cpl. Edward Soares of Tiverton, and Lance Cpl. Stephen E. Spencer of Portsmouth.

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