Hurlburt remembers Operation Eagle Claw

  • Published
  • 1st SOW History Office
On Nov. 4, 1979, 53 Americans were taken hostage by militant Iranian "students" at the United States Embassy in Teheran, Iran. Thus, began a period of 444 days in which these Americans were held captive.

That same day, the highest levels of the U.S. government made a commitment to return the hostages to freedom. A combination of helicopters and specialized aircraft would be used to accomplish the planned rescue mission.

The military assembled a rescue team comprised of highly-skilled personnel from all four military services. All of the men, both aircrews and the assault force, were volunteers.

By the end of November, these men began training at a desert site in the western U.S., where the terrain and climate were similar to those of Iran. By December, all the various mission components were being integrated into a cohesive rescue force.

As training progressed, the operational plan was to use a remote site well away from Teheran to refuel the helicopters carrying the rescue force for the planned mission. The mission is most often referred to as Desert One.

The planning for the rescue operation was code-named Rice Bowl; the operational phase carried out by Joint Task Force 1-79 was Eagle Claw. Rigorous training and exacting mission practice continued from January to March 1980.

Training demands were considerable, total secrecy was demanded. Special procedures under conditions of radio silence had to be rehearsed and special night visual devices employed.

The men's confidence grew, and their readiness was constantly evaluated. At the end of March, the rescue force was alerted to be ready to execute the mission on short notice.

President Jimmy Carter gave the authority to launch the mission the night of April 24, 1980, when visual illumination and weather appeared most favorable. At dusk that evening, eight RH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz.

Their mission was to fly in darkness at low altitude, in formation, across hostile Iranian territory and rendezvous with the special C-130 aircraft at Desert One. A total of six C-130 aircraft had already departed another location for Desert One.

The mission was about two hours old when the first difficulty occurred. Because of severe mechanical problems, one helicopter was forced to land and transfer crew and equipment to another helicopter.

A short time later, the C-130s followed by the RH-53s, encountered an unexpected dust storm, a "haboob," that dangerously degraded visibility and made navigation nearly impossible. As a result, a second helicopter aborted the mission, reversed its course and returned safely to the USS Nimitz.

The C-130s arrived first at the Desert One refueling site followed by the six remaining Sea Stallion helicopters. Unfortunately, a third helicopter had developed a hydraulic problem en route to Desert One.

The mission plan required a minimum of six operational helicopters to continue after the planned refueling. With this third helicopter out, the decision was reluctantly made to abort the rescue mission.

Preparations began to complete the refueling of the helicopters and evacuate the site at Desert One. Tragically, while an RH-53 helicopter was being repositioned on the ground, its rotary blade struck the fuselage of a C-130, setting the two aircraft ablaze.

Though courageous efforts were made to save lives, three Marines in the helicopter were killed, and five Air Force crewmembers died on the MC-130E, which was assigned to the 8th Special Operations Squadron.
A national ceremony commemorating the valor and dedication of all the veterans of the rescue force was held at Arlington National Cemetery May 9, 1980. At Hurlburt Field, a stained glass memorial window was dedicated at the base chapel on April 23, 1982.

The memorial honored those individuals killed during Desert One and all the Air Commandos who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The failed operation was seen by many as a turning point in special operations, at a time when people began investing the time, money and resources in this type of mission.

The bravery, professionalism and courage of those individuals participating in the aborted rescue mission was best summed up by Ambassador Bruce Laingen, a former hostage in Iran:

"While no day hurts more--than today and always--than the day when these brave men lost their lives in an attempt to reach us, no day makes us more proud as well, because of the way in which they stood for that cause of human freedom. For that, all of us (former hostages) will be forever grateful."

The hostages were released Jan. 20, 1981, the day President Ronald Regan was inaugurated into office. President Reagan dispatched former President Carter to Ramstein Air Base, where he met the repatriated hostages and welcomed them back from their nightmare ordeals.