In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979, then US president Jimmy Carter gave the go-ahead for “Operation Eagle Claw”, to rescue American hostages from Iranian captivity. But the rescue operation failed terribly. In this article, we will look into the operational planning, and where things went wrong which led to the failure of the operation
Background: Iranian Revolution
With Iranian revolution in 1979, led to the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was the leader of Iran from 1953 to 1979. With these Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who led the revolution against the Shah became Iran’s supreme leader. As the US gave asylum to Shah, hundreds of militants seized the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 63 hostages.
Iran’s new leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for the US to return the Shah, as well as for the end of Western influence in Iran.
The US started intense diplomatic efforts to relieve its citizen’s from Iranian captivity, even president Jimmy Carter gave assurance that he would not impose any additional sanctions on Iran, but all these efforts failed and eventually compelled carter to choose the military option to rescue its citizens.
Military Option: Presidential elections in the US were also coming close & so he ordered his national security advisors to come up with a military solution. It brought together all 4 branches of service.
- Arms Involved: U.S . Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
- Bases Involved: Masirah Island, Oman; Manzariyeh Airport, Tehran, Iran
- Assets Involved :
- Eight RH-53D helicopters,
- 4 MC-130 special missions aircraft,
- Three EC-130 airborne comm & jamming aircraft,
- Three Ac-130 gunships, &
- Two C-141 cargo lifters.
- Army “Maj-Gen Vaught” was appointed as the commander. Delta commander, “Col Beckwith” was to be the ground assault commander; Air Force “Col Kyle” was to command the fixed-wing transporter contingent; & Marine “Lt Col Seiffert” was to lead the helicopter force.
Operation Eagle, supported by 4 MC 130 carrying an assault force of 118 troops from the island of Masirah on the coast of Oman to Iran landed 200 miles from the Tehran-inhabited desert location named Desert one. But the Site was very close to the highway. Along with MC 130 aircraft, 3 EC 130 aircraft, were accompanied with carrying fuel for the helicopters which would be used to carry troops to strike location. After the aircraft landing in the desert, they would wait for 8 RH-53D helicopters, which will be launched from USS Nimitz located in the Gulf of Oman and they would arrive at desert one. For the mission minimum of 6 helicopters would be required to carry out the mission and USS Nimitz launched 8 helicopters designated as Bluebeards, so that if anything goes wrong with two helicopters, still the minimum 6 will be available for the mission. The helicopters would then refuel from the EC-130s and load the assault force. The MC-130s and EC130aircrafts would return to Masirah(Oman base) while the RH-53s proceeded to the assault force’s hiding site.
Helicopters loaded with assault forces then proceed to a hiding location 15 miles from Tehran somewhere in the hills where they would hide during daylight. At the same time, two CIA agents join the assaulting force and hide during day time and at sunset, the agent would then leave and pick up the van and a passenger truck and return to the hide location and transport 6 drivers and 6 translators to wear house where 6 Mercedes truck were stored. The drivers and translators would pick up the Mercedes trucks, return to the hiding site, pick up the assault force, and enter Tehran.
An assaulting force will enter the Tehran Tehran embassy building and separate 13 men of the assault team would rescue 3 hostages being held in the foreign ministry building and secure a landing site for rescuing helicopters. Then one helicopter would land and pick up hostages and then fly them to Manzariyeh airport approximately 35 miles from Tehran.
The rest of the helicopter would then pick up the assaulting force and will head to Manzariyeh airport. If there is no site for the landing of helicopters then the assaulting force would destroy the entire embassy building and take the hostages to the nearby football stadium where the rescue helicopters would rescue the hostages and take them to the Manzariyeh airport. US Army rangers contingent would fly and secure the airfield to facilitate the landing of helicopters carrying hostages.
Once everyone arrived at Manzariyeh, all of the hostages, drivers, translators, helicopter crews, agents, Special Forces personnel, and the assault force would be airlifted out of Iran on C-141 aircraft. The Rangers would then destroy any American equipment left on the field and fly out.
This was how the actual plan was to unfold, but some weather changes turned the destiny of the entire operation, which resulted in the disastrous failure of the mission.
Let’s see where things went wrong.
According to the plan the Hercules took off from Masirah & headed into desert one from the Gulf of Oman. At the same time, the 8 helicopter force also took off from the USS Nimitz and headed straight to the desert one. To their surprise (because they haven’t anticipated any changes in the weather pattern in process of planning the strike, and they were unprepared for it) the Hercules flew into a sandstorm known as Haboob, (a windy mix of suspended sand & dust, moving at up to 90km/h), and somehow navigated through the storm but they later hit another denser sandstorm & were unable establish contact with the helicopter pilots to give them a warning. Because of radio silence(to avoid detection by Iranian), no sort of communication was established between the Hercules & the Helicopters.
As the Helicopters maneuvered through the dust to desert 1, one of the helicopters had to be abandoned on the ground because it cracked its rotor blade, their crew was picked up, but the helicopter stopped to pick them up and was now 20 minutes behind the rest of the formation. As they encountered the haboob, one of the other helicopters began experiencing issues with its electrical systems. Many of their navigational & flight instruments began to fail, and were unable to navigate, they decided to abort the mission & returned to the Nimitz. The task force was now down to the bare minimum of six helicopters. Somehow navigating through the dust storms & heavy winds, the remaining helicopters continued their way to Desert 1. The Hercules landed at Desert 1 at 10:45 PM. The landing was made possible by using the improvised infrared landing lights installed by CIA operators on the airstrip, which were visible only through NVGs. The troops began to unload their equipment. They also began preparing for refueling operations for the helicopters.
As the troops were securing the area, a bus full of civilians came in front of them(Since the Desert one was near to highway). The bus was stopped by the Rangers & their passengers were detained. After a few minutes, a fuel tanker truck also came in from behind, rangers ordered the truck to halt but the driver ignored it, so it was blown up by a Ranger team using an M72 LAW anti-tank rocket as it tried to escape the site, resulting in a fire that illuminated the site for many miles around, but also helped the helicopters to find Desert One.
The remaining six helicopters reached Desert One, 50-90 minutes behind schedule. After turning off its engines, Bluebeard 2 suffered a catastrophic failure of its hydraulic system, making it useless for operation. With no way of fixing it, the team was left with just 5 operational helicopters. Commander Beckwith together consulting with Kyle & Seifert, decided to abort the mission. Before leaving they threw Russian documents on the ground so that the US will be not blamed for it.
The helicopters & aircraft were parked behind each other, so the helicopters had to be moved to allow the aircraft to take off. As Bluebeard 3 started to hover the downwash of the rotor created a cloud of dust. Unable to see properly, the pilot drifted the aircraft onto the parked aircraft. Its rotor blades collided with the aircraft igniting fuel & ammunition, it created a fireball that ended up killing eight of the crewmen on both aircraft. After the crash, it was decided to abandon the helicopters(remaining 5) & they released the Iranian civilians. The helicopter crews boarded the aircraft & left Iran. Five RH-53d helicopters were left behind as it is. They could not be destroyed, because they were loaded with ammunition & any fire or explosion would have endangered the aircraft.
Because they failed to destroy the helicopters, the US troops also left behind the top-secret plans, which fell into the hands of the Iranians the next day & the agents waiting for in-country to help the assault team were almost captured. After Iran found out what happened, they separated the hostages from one another & kept them scattered throughout the country. They found nine bodies at the crash site. The bodies were later returned to the US. The 5 Helicopters were inducted into the Iranian Navy & 2 of them are still in use. On the next day, Carter went on TV to announce the failure of the mission & also took full responsibility for it.
The failure of communications between branches led to the creation of the “United States Special Operations Command” which became operational in 1987. US Army created its own special operations aviation element, one of them is the 160th Aviation Regiment (NightStalkers). The other 3 branches also created their special units.
The hostage crisis led severe blow to Carter’s presidential campaign during the 1980s presidential race. His inability to resolve the problem made him look like a weak & ineffective leader. After the elections, Reagan defeated Carter in a landslide victory. On Jan 21, 1981, just a few hours after Reagan delivered his inaugural address, the remaining hostages were released after being held in captivity for 444 days.