I was in High school in Alabama when the Hostages were seized in 1979 and how impotent the United States appeared to be. We as a nation was humiliated by the seizure of the Embassy against all international Law. We were further humiliated when "Desert One" happened, it showed how poor shape the United States Armed forces were in after Vietnam and the resulting "Hollow Army" as it was called. I remembered the shame we felt as a nation when the hostage rescue failed from a myriad of reasons and plain bad luck, Murphy ran amuck with the planning and execution of the mission. I remembered President Jimmy Carter on national TV apologizing for the failure of the mission.
The April 24th
Op is a major event in the history of the United States’ Special Forces
operations not just because it was among the first missions of the
Delta Force, but because its widespread failure would be a moment of
profound humiliation for the United States.
Following the Iranian revolution, which saw the overthrow of Shah
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and an end to his 22 years of autocratic
leadership over Iran, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, on the 4th day of November 1979, ensued.
A group of militant students who supported the Iranian revolution had
stormed the US embassy in Tehran, capturing the building and taking 52
American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days, in what would
become the longest hostage crisis in history, and widely described by
western media as an entanglement of vengeance and mutual
In the state-sanctioned act, the Iranian assailants demanded the
return of Shah Reza, who had been taken to America for cancer treatment.
Reza had been accused of committing crimes against the people and was
summoned by Iran’s new leader, Ruholla Khomeini, to stand trial.
The hostage incident was initiated by Iran to spite America for her
alleged complicity in Reza’s atrocities. Jimmy Carter was less than
pleased by the event, and would succinctly declare that America would
never yield to blackmail. The hostage-taking, to America, was an
egregious violation of international law.
After 6 months of failed attempts at diplomatic negotiations, the United States, on April 16th,
1980, under President Jimmy Carter, approved a military action. The
president, having broken diplomatic associations with Iran, ordered the
Pentagon to draw up a plan in a bid to storm Iranian soil in a covert
rescue mission codenamed Operation Eagle’s Claw.
The US military spent about 5 months in planning the op. The aircrew
trained in Florida and Andersen Airfield in Guam. Based on the plan, 3
USAF MC-130 aircraft would fly an assault group of about 118 Delta Force
soldiers from Masirah Island to a remote spot located 200 miles
southeast of Tehran; this location was codenamed Desert One. The MC-130s
were accompanied by 3 EC-130s which served as fuel transport.
Under the cover of night, 8 US Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters,
would fly from the USS Nimitz, which was sailing in the Arabian Sea, to
rendezvous with the assault team where they would all fly to Desert Two,
another location 65 miles from the target zone, Tehran.
Once the force was in place it would be show time; the team would be
flown the rest of the way into Tehran where they would break into the
embassy, neutralize the security, and rescue the hostages. All through
the raid, an E-3 AWAC would keep a lookout on Iranian airspace, while
establishing command and control communications between Washington, the
Carrier Force, and the mission commander.
They would then fly to Manzarinyeh Air Base, which by that time would
have been secured by US Army Rangers. At Manzarinyeh, USAF C-141
Starlifters would fly the hostages and assault team out of Iran, while
the Rangers would stay behind to destroy all used equipment including
the helicopters before flying out themselves.
This was an extremely complex plan that required a lot of synergy
among all the units involved because Tehran was a city well inside
Iran’s airspace and far away from any friendly territory. Furthermore,
it was hard to get good intelligence about the forces inside the
embassy. As a matter of fact, there was no room for any deviation from
the stipulated plan as even the slightest mistake was bound to
jeopardize the mission.
The first part of the mission went according to plan, with the
arrival of the first MC-130 aircraft carrying Combat Control Team (CCT),
mission equipment and fuel on board to Desert one. The team’s task at
this point was to establish the airstrips and marshal the other aircraft
when they arrived. But this was the only successful part of the mission
because following the arrival of the other MC-130 aircraft, everything
began to fall apart.
First, a passenger bus was spotted on a highway crossing the landing
zone, and because this was supposed to be a covert op, the CCT was
forced to stop and detain the passengers of the bus. A tanker truck was
also found speeding close to Desert One. The truck, apparently
smuggling fuel, was blown up after refusing to stop, causing the death
of the passenger.
The rest of the C-130 aircraft arrived and waited for the
helicopters. The RH-53 helicopters took off from Nimitz but along the
way, one helicopter—Bluebeard 6—was grounded and abandoned. The crew
reported a damaged rotor blade as the cause of the malfunction. The
remaining helicopters ran into a severe sandstorm known as Haboob. This
would scatter the flight formation, with Bluebeard 5 also abandoning the
The scattered helicopters would arrive at Desert One individually,
running 50-90 minutes behind schedule. Bluebeard 2 arrived last but had
indications of a broken hydraulic system which consequently made it
unfit for the mission. With just five helicopters left and even more
losses anticipated, the on-scene commander, Col. James H. Kyle,
requested a mission abort.
The new focus was now on getting the assault team back on the MC-130s
while the Bluebeards refueled on the Nimitz. During this procedure,
Bluebeard 3 was blasted by a desert storm, putting the pilot in a
frenzied bid to maneuver his helicopter to stability. In the process,
the helicopter’s main rotor blade collided with the wing-root of an
EC-130 which was loaded with fuel. Both aircraft exploded, and in the
ensuing inferno, 8 servicemen lost their lives – 3 US marines and 5 USAF
The USAF pilot and co-pilot survived with severe burns. In the
desperate evacuation of the rest of the team, classified files
associated with the mission were burned, but the helicopters were
abandoned in the desert. With that, Operation Eagle’s Claw, the nadir of
the whole hostage rescue affair, came to an end.
The failed rescue op resulted in some rather undesirable
consequences. Firstly, the hostages were scattered across Iran, to make
another rescue mission impossible. Also, the US government received
heavy criticism from governments around the world for making such
blunders in a very critical situation. As a matter of fact, experts
believe that Jimmy Carter’s failure with Operation Eagle Claw was a
major reason he lost the presidential election the following year.
Additionally, the failure brought attention to deficiencies in the US
special operations system. The Joint Chiefs of Staff led an
investigation which birthed the Holloway Report. The report cited
failings in mission planning, command and control, and inter-service
It revealed that training was usually conducted in a
compartmentalized manner, taking place in scattered locations. Also,
there was poor selection and training of aircrew, and it was said that
not enough helicopters were put into the mission to counter any
unforeseen issues or problems that jeopardized the mission. The
hopscotch method of ground refueling which was chosen over air refueling
was also criticized.
In reaction to these findings, the US military established United
Special Operations Command, and the Air Force Special Operations
Command. The lessons learned prompted the creation of the Night Stalkers
(the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment) for the training of Army pilots in low-level night flying and aerial refueling.
A second rescue operation was planned, but it was never implemented. However, on 20th January 1981, just after Carter’s tenure, all 52 hostages were allowed to go back home.
To America, Operation Eagle Claw was a profound humiliation which
exposed their flaws and vulnerabilities. But to Khomeini and his people,
it was a plan foiled by divine intervention.
Operation Eagle Claw was the mission that marked the beginning of a change in America’s Special Operations.