Ramble On

Monday, April 9, 2012

Anniversary of the La Belle Disco Bombing

A friend – Arch – reminded me in a Facebook posting that last week (April 5) marked the anniversary of the La Belle Discotheque bombing in Berlin, 26 years ago.  That event occurred the night before I left Berlin for my discharge from my six-year USAF enlistment. 

I have my own story about the night of the bombing that I will share below, but I wanted to make a special note about the event.  Two servicemen were lost in this attack, and one German civilian.  More than 200 others were injured, some seriously, including 79 Americans – and I know a number of my Air Force buddies were at that disco that evening.

After taking a look at Wikipedia (source of the AP photo attached) and a BBC article (links to both below), I found this timeline for reference of the events since the bombing until the convicted terrorists were jailed:

  • 5 April 1986: A bomb explodes in the La Belle disco
  • 15 April 1986: US planes bomb Libya
  • 1990: After German reunification, prosecutors find files linking the Libyan embassy to the attack
  • 1996: Lebanon extradites Shraydi to Germany, the Chanaas are arrested and Eter admits his role in the bombing
  • Nov 1997: The trial begins
  • Nov 2001: Four jailed for bombing

So, my story about this event begins a little earlier than the bombing itself.  In March 1986, I was approaching the end of my enlistment – I’d planned to return to Florida so that I could complete my undergraduate degree (at either UCF in Orlando or USF in Tampa, eventually I decided on USF).  So my time was already short, and when there was a general warning for us to be diligent about an anticipated attack, I took it seriously.

These warnings continued for the two weeks leading up to the disco bombing.  As the articles I referenced mention, we’ve learned that the source of the warning was diplomatic traffic into the Libyan embassy in East Berlin.

My flight leaving Berlin was scheduled for early afternoon on April 5, after the bombing had taken place at around 2am.  Some friends and I went out for a farewell dinner just off-base, walking distance from Tempelhof Central Airport where we all lived.  We came back and had a few drinks at the base club, before I headed in “early” to be ready for my flight.

I do remember getting back to the club and being invited to tag along to La Belle that evening to celebrate.  That’s as close as I came to this particular event in history.  I remember hearing that the fellows who’d invited all of us were among those listed as being injured with burst eardrums – and I am quite sure that they were among those who helped bring out other more seriously injured patrons as long as they were able.

The next morning, I had planned an early breakfast at a place just off-base, and we went out for that.  There wasn’t any sign of something having occurred that night as we departed the base.
Upon our return, it was another matter – a complete security response was in-place with inspections and canine support.  But there wasn’t much information about why that was happening.

And then at the airport, after checking in, and as we prepared to board, unusual procedures were in place.  We walked through the gates as usual, but then descended to the Tarmac, walking across it to our plane.  As we passed our baggage – which was laid out along the pathway – we were instructed to put our hand on our bag so that it could be loaded onto the plane.

At the time, I still didn’t know what had occurred, and I wouldn’t know until I got back to the states that evening, despite the fact that the bombing had occurred 12 hours before I boarded and that we had made a layover stop in Frankfurt.  

When I did learn about it, of course I was concerned for my friends who had planned to go there.  I kept a diligent eye on the news, relieved not to hear their names.  It wasn’t until a few months later that I had confirmation of their status and whereabouts.

Then, about two weeks later, I followed the story of the reprisal attack closely, wishing that I could have been a part of that mission.  And of course, by the end of the month, Chernobyl happened, making for an even bigger scare for the community I had left behind.

During the time I was stationed in Berlin there were a number of events and close calls like this.  It was an interesting time to be there – the Cold War was approaching its end, and Ronald Reagan was president.  As I remember some of the events, I’ll add some more posts about them.

Links referenced above:

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