BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 27, 1983 (UPI) - A key sentry during the bomb attack that killed 221 U.S. servicemen had no magazine in his rifle when a truck loaded with explosives barreled into the Marine headquarters, a Marine officer said today.
Col. Tim Geraghty, commander of the Marines in Beirut, said two days before the attack they had been warned that a car bombing was imminent. Asked if there was any culpability on the part of sentries, Geraghty, replied, ''No.''
''We receive a lot of warnings,'' he said. ''It is not uncommon.''
The sentry, who was not identified, was uninjured by the explosion.
''He (the sentry) saw the truck and went to put a magazine in his rifle,'' said 1st Lt. Joseph Jacobs of Milwaukee, who was one of the first on the scene after the explosion and spoke with the sentry later.
''He turned around and the truck was by him by that time. Then he (the sentry) was blown into the bunker,'' Jacobs said.
''It is my understanding that on that interior perimeter line they did not have magazines in their weapons.''
The ease with which the truck was able to break through fixed barriers and sentry posts was likely to raise questions about security at the installation, in which the Pentagon said at least 221 American servicemen were killed and 79 wounded.
At least 54 French paratroopers were killed in a nearly identical suicide bomb attack on a French barracks in west Beirut.
A Marine patrol had been hit by a car bomb booby trap four days before the headquarters tragedy, and Geraghty said, ''We had a clear indication there were new elements in town that were specifically targeting Marines.''
Nonetheless, a map drawn up by Marine intelligence indicated that few, if any, extra precautions had been taken.
The truck, packed with a ton of explosives, picked up speed in an adjacent airport parking lot, then rammed a barbed wire fence, a gate and an 8-inch sewer pipe blocking the entrance and sped in a straight line to the lobby, where the kamikaze driver detonated the charge.
The truck also smashed through a guard shack in the entrance to the building.
An unidentified sergeant of the watch, who miraculously survived the explosion and is recovering from serious injuries at an undisclosed location, saw the truck speeding into the compound.
Jacobs said he spoke to the sergeant immediately after the explosion while he was awaiting evacuation.
''He told me it was a yellow Mercedes about the size of a 2 -ton truck,'' Jacobs said. ''It drove over him and over the guard shack and went into the lobby of the building and detonated.''
Jacobs said the sergeant told him that a sentry standing by his side had managed to get off a couple of shots before being run over by the truck.
''He (the sergeant) knew exactly what it was as soon as he saw it coming,'' Jacobs said.
Geraghty said the sergeant and the sentries had only six or seven seconds to react as the truck raced across the 50 yards between the perimeter fence and the building housing the Marine Battalion Landing Team where about 300 men were sleeping.
Asked why no one had noticed the truck as it gathered speed in the parking lot, Geraghty said, ''circling in the parking lot is not an uncommon occurrence. Cars and trucks are in there as a matter of routine. Being next to a busy airfield is part of the problem.''
About 300 newly arrived Marines worked under tight security today to re-establish their bombed headquarters and the state of alert at the Marine compound was reduced to condition 2 for only the second time since Sunday.
The reduced state of alert meant the Marines could venture out of their bunkers without their flak jackets provided they are inside the main compound buildings.
Some 450 Marines made their calls on two free lines donated by the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. ''just to say, 'Hi, I'm OK and see you as soon as possible,''' said Maj. Robert Jordan, the Marine spokesman.
''We are going to continue as long as conditions permit. We hope to have another 500 to 700 through today,'' said Jordan.
''I talked to my wife. It was good to hear her voice, let her know I'm all right,'' said Cpl. Virgil Young of Philadelphia. ''She was worried about what went on over here. It's just a scary thing, but it relieved her mind that I'm all right.''
More than 1,200 Marines of the 1,500-man 24th Marine Amphibious Unit survived the twin attacks Sunday by terrorists who rammed trucks loaded with explosives into buildings occupied by American and French troops of Lebanon's multinational peace-keeping force.
Jordan would not elaborate on the shift from maximum alert, but said there was still a threat from three suspicious vehicles possibly loaded with explosives that were spotted on numerous occasions around the Marine base.
''It is very quiet this morning. We are in a relaxed condition 2 alert now,'' Jordan said at the site of the devastated Marine headquarters. ''The terrorist scare has not gone away, but (it is) reduced.''
The 300 new Marines, an air alert group from Camp Lejeune, N.C., arrived early Tuesday and went to work immediately setting up a new combat operations and communications room in Beirut.
Jordan refused to divulge details -- including the location -- of the new Battalion Landing Team headquarters, the nerve center of Marine operations.
At the La Celle St. Cloud Chateau outside Paris, Secretary of State George Shultz held an emergency meeting with the foreign ministers of France, Italy and Britain on maintaining the multinational peacekeeping force despite terrorist attacks.
Shultz said on his overnight flight from Washington the Marines would not be deterred by such attacks and declared the troops would remain in Lebanon.
Possibilities under discussion included basing the forces on ships offshore and their eventual replacement by ''Lebanese or U.N. troops,'' he said.
Lebanese President Amin Gemayel prepared for the opening of national reconciliation talks in Geneva next week. But opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, the Druze Moslem chief, threatened a boycott charging the Lebanese army was violating a cease-fire in effect since Sept. 26.