Operation Eagle Claw — April 25, 1980, just five years after Charlie Beckworth formed his Delta Force — is the tale of what happens when a military mission goes wrong. Yet it would later help forge the way for the current, highly trained, successful and deadly United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), the tip of the spear that would prove to be the global driving force in the War on Terror.
Hatred toward the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his government’s brutal practices over the decades fomented into revolution in 1978. To cover this is another story; the Iranian Revolution found its leader in Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini sent out vitriolic recordings from abroad to his followers there, stirring the pot of unrest. When the Shah finally fled Iran for the U.S., Khomeini returned to establish the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On Nov. 4, 1979, supporters of the Islamic Revolution seized the U.S. Embassy and the 52 Americans left inside. (A little-known fact: the same Khomeini fanatics seized the British embassy the next day but gave it up just hours later.) The American hostages were to remain until the Shah was returned to Iran to stand trial. When the Shah received a cancer diagnosis in New York, it was game over for any return.
The hostages became pawns for power. The world watched the scenario play out every day. Our updates came from Ted Koppel on what would be the birth of the long-running Nightline on ABC. It wasn’t just the civilian public watching; Delta and the CIA watched every night as well, studying footage from the taped embassy “tours,” gleaning what current intel they could as they prepared for their mission.
Operation Eagle Claw, the mission to rescue the hostages, was almost immediately sent into development and planning phases. But only months later would it be presented to President Carter as an option. As the mission was being planned, back in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard ran nightly television programs demonstrating how to operate semi-auto rifles to the Iranian public in anticipation of an American rescue attempt.
To say Operation Eagle Claw had a lot of moving parts is an understatement. Briefly summarized, eight RH-53D helicopters were to take off from the USS Nimitz and fly to “Desert One,” a dry lakebed with a small, less-traveled road. Six C-130s would fly Delta in from Oman to Desert One as well. Meanwhile, an advance C-130 with Rangers and Delta was to fly in and secure the landing zone.
From there, the helicopters would take Delta to a hiding spot where they would wait until agents already in-country would drive the team into Tehran. Delta would then rescue the hostages at the embassy and the foreign ministry building and take them to the nearby soccer field where the helicopters would exfil the group.
None of the units had ever worked together, and there was also never a full dress rehearsal. The details that unfolded belong filed under Murphy’s Law. After Rangers secured Desert One, they quickly discovered a bus full of Iranians headed toward them on the “untraveled road” and had to stop it and detain all the passengers. RH-53D Bluebeard 6 had a rotor blade failure on the Iranian coast and later abandoned. Bluebeard 5 flew into a haboob (intense dust storm) that caused navigation instruments to fail and forced it to return to the Nimitz.
Another truck appeared on the “untraveled road,” and after not stopping, Delta and Rangers launched a LAW rocket into it. The quickly discovered it was a fuel truck as it exploded, exposing their night cover. Finally, at Desert One, RH-53D Bluebeard 2 suffered a hydraulic system failure. This left the team without enough helicopters; with Iranian civilian prisoners and a fuel truck bonfire, the mission became scrubbed.
As Bluebeard 3 took off, the sandstorm was so intense that the airman directing the Bluebeard pilot faltered. Off the airman’s movements, the pilot thought his RH-53D was drifting backward. He moved the helicopter forward, and its rotors sliced into one of the C-130s on the ground. This created a giant fireball that tragically killed eight crewmen on both aircraft. The remaining operators and crew had to quickly scramble into the remaining aircraft to escape Iranian airspace before daylight. At that time, Iranian forces would be able to intercept them.
The airfield in Oman where Delta had taken off from was manned by British contractors who were a bit puzzled by seeing the American presence the night before. When they returned a day later with wounded and minus a plane, the Brits put two and two together on who their American guests were and what tragedy had occurred. The British contractors cobbled up two cases of beer and brought it over to where the Americans held up. On top of the cardboard flap they wrote “To you all, from us all, for having the guts to try.”
After the Iranians discovered the wreckage in the desert, they spread the hostages out to different parts of the country. This also made a second rescue attempt impossible. There would be no more negotiations with Khomeini’s regime. Notably, Khomeini released the hostages one minute after Ronald Reagan became sworn into office after 444 days in captivity.
After Operation Eagle Claw, it was painfully obvious there was a critical need for more joint training. This led to the creation of our USSOCOM in Tampa and to the incredibly talented 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), more famously known as the Night Stalkers.
As always, the special operations family looked after their own. The Special Warriors Foundation paid for the educations of the children of the soldiers killed that night on April 25, 1980.