How The Iran Hostage Rescue Was Supposed To Go Down If It Hadn't Ended Early In Disaster

Operation Eagle Claw was amazingly complex with incredible risks at every turn. Here is exactly how it was supposed to go down, step by step.

A composite of images relating to the attempted rescue of US hostages from Iran in 1980.
USAF/USN/Estman via Wikimedia/ebay/Public Domain

At approximately 3:00 am local time on April 25, 1980, U.S. Marine Corps Major Jim Schaefer lifted off in Bluebeard 3, the Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter he was piloting. The helicopter’s massive rotors kicked up a dense cloud of sand at Desert One, a small patch of Iranian territory that had, in the last hour, been transformed into an American airbase of sorts.

Minutes earlier, their mission, rescuing the 52 Americans held hostage at the United States embassy in Tehran, had been aborted. Eight helicopters had launched for the task; two aborted en route, leaving six that made it to the first waypoint, Desert One, where they would refuel before heading onto the forward staging area deeper inside the country.

USN

RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz ahead of the attempted rescue of hostages from Iran in April 1980.

Soon after arrival, however, a third helicopter aborted due to problems with its second-stage hydraulic system that provided functionality for its flight controls. This left five helicopters, which was not enough to carry on with a mission that required 120 men to ultimately arrive safely in Tehran to affect the rescue.

Delta Force commander U.S. Army Colonel Charlie Beckwith, in charge of the mission’s ground element, called for the abort. The message was transmitted all the way up to the chain of command to the White House, where President Jimmy Carter deferred to the judgment of the men on the ground.

The mission was over. The hostages were not going to be rescued, at least not during the remaining days of April 1980.

Estman via Wikimedia

The disposition of the RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters and other aircraft at Desert One at approximately 1:30 AM on Apr. 25, 1980.

As Major Schaefer attempted to re-position his helicopter for refueling before departing Iran, he became disoriented. In the darkness and the swirling sand, his only point of reference was an Air Force Combat Controller standing forward and to the right of the Sea Stallion. To avoid getting lashed with blowing sand, the Combat Controller backed away. Without any other positioning references, this was perceived by Schaefer as though his helicopter was drifting backward.

It was not.

Schaefer corrected for the perceived drift by applying forward stick and crashed into one of the parked EC-130E Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) aircraft, which had brought fuel for the helicopters so they could press on to Tehran to accomplish their rescue mission. Both the Sea Stallion and Combat Talon were engulfed in a fireball, leading to pandemonium at Desert One.

USAF

A US Air Force EC-130E Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC) aircraft.

In the end, most of the men would escape, including Schaefer, but others did not. Eight Americans were killed, the RH-53D and the EC-130E it had collided with were destroyed, and the remaining five helicopters were abandoned in the Iranian desert.

The events that occurred at Desert One in the early morning of April 25, 1980, became a moment that would live in infamy. Forty years later, a burning question lingers: what if? What if the mission had not been canceled? What if the three helicopters had not suffered mechanical failures on the way? Could they have made it all the way to Tehran and successfully rescued the hostages?

Maybe. And that’s a big maybe.

A dark hour

In response to the abhorrent act in Iran, our Nation has never been aroused and unified so greatly in peacetime. Our position is clear. The United States will not yield to blackmail.

- President Jimmy Carter, State of the Union, January 23, 1980

On November 4, 1979, Iranian protesters and terrorists seized the American embassy, kicking off an excruciating ordeal that ended 444 days later on January 20, 1981.

It was arguably the first shot fired in a now four-decade-long shadow war between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which, in 1979, had recently overthrown the last vestiges of its imperial, monarchical past and established one of the world’s largest – and most violent – theocracies, in the unstable and war-ridden Middle East.

This enduring U.S-Iran conflict looms large in the present day, as recent tensions threaten to engulf the region in war. But the United States and Iran have seldom come closer to war than they did in 1980. Since the Desert One debacle, U.S. troops have not set foot on Iran territory—at least that we know of—and both sides have only exchanged direct fire on a few occasions, waging the fight from the shadows or via proxies instead.

Holding 52 Americans hostage, all of them diplomats or military personnel, certainly upped the ante in a way unrivaled until recent events such as the January 3, 2020 killing of Qasem Soleimani and the subsequent ballistic missile attack on an Iraqi base that hosted U.S. troops.

Finally, the Iran hostage crisis came at a time when the United States was least geared for a major conflict in the Middle East. The economy was in stagnation, energy prices were high, the U.S. military had left Vietnam only four years prior, and there were questions about America’s ability to effectively address the Soviet threat. It was a low point of sorts for the country and the sight of burned-out aircraft and charred bodies in the Iranian desert with nothing to show for it was an unpleasant wake-up call.

Operation Eagle Claw could have delivered a huge victory for the nation at a time when it desperately needed one. Instead, Americans were subjected to a shocking, demoralizing loss.

via SOCOM

An aerial view of Desert One the morning after the hostage rescue attempt.

"The guts to try"

The mission had to be considered high risk because people and equipment were called upon to perform at the upper limits of human capacity and equipment capability. There was little margin to compensate for mistakes or plain bad luck.

- The Holloway Report (IV. Conclusions)

In the end, however, the hostages all returned home alive, a fact that serves as a point of contemplation about the crisis in retrospect. But, for now, imagine a counterfactual in which the helicopter never collided with the parked plane. Better yet, imagine a scenario where all eight helicopters made it to Desert One, refueled, and, ultimately, the men of Operation Eagle Claw made it to Tehran and were in position to affect a rescue of the hostages. How successful could they expect to be?

Even the most state-of-the-art in counterfactual analysis cannot determine whether the mission would have succeeded had it continued, let alone how close the rescue team would have come to success. There are simply too many gambles and unknown variables to consider for even the most astute analyst or historian to convincingly argue the exact outcome of Eagle Claw had it not failed at Desert One.

It is, however, worth examining the facts of the mission to describe and assess what the men of Eagle Claw would have had to accomplish in order to succeed. Doing so not only allows observers to decide for themselves how likely the mission was to have been a success, but it also creates a sense of appreciation for the sorts of odds the men were up against.

AP / Ira Schwarz

President Jimmy Carter, alongside Vice President Walter Mondale, bows his head in prayer during a special service for the hostages at the National Cathedral in late-1979.

The Holloway Report,” an official post-incident investigation chaired by retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Holloway III, zeroed in on the events at Desert One, citing a wide range of issues contributing to the mission’s abrupt end there. The number of helicopters sent on the mission, quite likely, remains the most contentious factor of all. The Holloway Report’s judgment on the matter was as follows:

Planning was adequate except for the number of backup helicopters and provisions for weather contingencies. A larger helicopter force and better provisions for weather penetration would have increased the probability of mission success.

The investigation board qualified its remarks later in the report, however, stating:

It is too simplistic to suggest that adding more helicopters would have reduced the likelihood of the mission aborting due to mechanical failure. The problematic advantages of an increased helicopter force must be balanced against the increased threat posed to [operational security] throughout the continuum of training, deployment, and execution and the reduced contingency fuel reserve at Desert One. In retrospect, it appears that on balance an increase in the helicopter force was warranted; however, such an increase could not itself guarantee success.

While there is no way to know whether additional helicopters would have assured success, there is no question that any discussion of the mission going any further than Desert One begins and ends on that point. Colonel Beckwith had assessed a minimum of six choppers were required for the mission to continue, otherwise, he would need to leave men and equipment behind and attempt a high-risk rescue understaffed and under-resourced. By a margin of one helicopter, the mission was aborted.

History is often determined by the slimmest of margins and the proverbial coin toss, but this did not make the disappointment any easier to swallow. President Carter latched onto the narrative, remarking in 2015, “I wish I had sent one more helicopter to get the hostages, and we would have rescued them and I would have been reelected.” The Eagle Claw after-action report drew roughly the same conclusion: had it been known there existed even a “remote” possibility that three helicopters would suffer failure in a relatively short period of time, the task force responsible for planning the mission would have called for at least 10 helicopters to be deployed on the mission to mitigate this risk.

But, again, the success or failure of the mission came down to more than just the number of helicopters. Predicting mechanical failure is an imperfect science and the lack of reliable meteorological forecasts inside Iran were wild cards the mission had no choice but to roll the dice on. Furthermore, any additional helicopters would have been vulnerable to these same factors.

USN

Two Navy RH-53D helicopters are brought up to the Nimitz’s flight deck via elevator, April 1980.

It is a wide-open question as to how many more helicopters could have and should have been sent on the mission; consider instead the possibility that Eagle Claw had everything it needed at Desert One to press onward. After all, the minimum six helicopters required to continue with the mission had made it that far and, at least in the mind of U.S. Air Force Colonel James Kyle, two of the three helos were aborted unnecessarily.

Colonel Kyle served as the mission’s air element commander and was the on-scene commander at Desert One. In his 1994 account of the incident, Kyle delivers his verdict on why the mission failed:

It is my firm belief that the Joint Task Force never had less than seven flyable RH-53s that entire night. What’s more, some highly experienced helicopter pilots have told me that all eight helicopters should have made it to the [hide site] with the five in the best shape completing the mission.

The first helo to abort was Bluebeard 6, after the Blade Inspection Method (BIM) warning lights came on. Approximately 150 miles inside Iran, the RH-53D landed immediately to inspect the rotor blades, which were hollow and filled with nitrogen gas. A loss of gas would trigger the BIM warning, an indication of a crack in the rotors, thereby jeopardizing the aircraft and its crew.

Bluebeard 8 landed alongside Bluebeard 6. The crew of the latter determined the helo was no longer safe to fly, transferring equipment, classified material, and themselves to 8, then forging ahead to Desert One, minus one chopper. Kyle is not so sure 6 needed to be abandoned, however. “Sikorsky had run extensive tests on RH-53D rotor blades removed for BIM warnings and found all still demonstrated structural integrity,” he explained. “Moreover, Sikorsky performed a blade failure fatigue analysis and found that at reduced weights and airspeeds, rotor blades with cracked spars would retain structural integrity for up to seventy-nine hours.”

Bluebeard 6 should have flown on, no question, in the mind of Kyle. He finds it difficult to fault the decision by its Marine pilots, however – the RH-53D was a Navy asset. The CH-53s the Marines were familiar with had recently endured crashes associated with BIM warnings, so it was difficult to regard the same warning aboard the RH-53Ds as anything other than a call to stop flying. By the same token, Kyle believes the helicopter would have continued the mission had its pilots been more familiar with the operating limits of Navy variant H-53.

USMC

US Marines disembark from a CH-53D Sea Stallion during an exercise in 1981.

It is the abort of Bluebeard 5 Kyle finds inexcusable. At 167 miles and 25 minutes from Desert One, the Sea Stallion turned back for its base at sea, the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Nimitz sailing in the Gulf of Oman. The mission had run into severe unexpected sandstorms, or haboobs, that meteorologists failed to forecast.

Visibility deteriorated, making it difficult for the helicopters to maintain formation. The temperature inside the uncomfortably warm aircraft cabin rose dramatically to a dreadful 100 degrees. It was also inside the haboob that Bluebeard 2’s second-stage hydraulic system failed, setting up the fateful decision at the landing zone to abort the mission.

The video below shows an especially severe haboob in Tehran in 2014, giving a sense of how serious they can potentially be.

The crew of Bluebeard 5, like those in the other helicopters, had distanced themselves from the other aircraft to avoid a collision and the pilots were suffering from disorientation and vertigo. While increasing altitude to get above the sandstorm was an option, it was ruled out due to fears of detection by Iranian radar. After losing sight of 7, the pilots determined they were lost and, after weighing the risks, decided to return to Nimitz.

Kyle believes the pilot essentially lost his nerve, failing to consider his options thoroughly, and looked for a reason to turn around rather than push on. Questioning his decision-making, Kyle wonders, “…after turning around, the [Bluebeard 5] crew broke radio silence to notify the Nimitz that they were returning. If that warranted breaking radio silence, why not do it to obtain information that could prevent the abort?”

Simply put, if the Bluebird 5 crew were willing to jeopardize operational security by broadcasting over the radio, better to do so to find a way to fly on, instead of risking the rest of the force for little gain other than to essentially abandon the mission.

“There were three other choppers out in front of him,” continued Kyle, “And those crews did not know the weather conditions at Desert-I [sic] either. Yet they had the guts to keep going, and they made it. No. 5 should have too!”

Bluebeard 2, the third and decisive abort, does not escape Kyle’s criticisms either. Citing conversations with numerous pilots, including the one that flew the problematic helicopter to Desert One in 1980, he concludes “this helicopter could have been flown on just one hydraulic system, observing certain precautions.”

Furthermore, Kyle quoted the grounded helo’s pilot, B.J. McGuire, as wanting to press on, but being overruled by his superior, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Edward Seiffert. Both Kyle and McGuire were on the same page regarding the gravity and urgency of the mission. From Desert One to Delta Force’s insertion point was two-plus hours of flying; it was close enough to risk flying on. If 2 was truly unairworthy, it could have been abandoned after offloading its Delta Force operators or flown just a bit further to the helicopter hide-site and abandoned there. The number of choppers was important as far as getting to the hide-sites; as will be seen later, less than six operational helos would not necessarily result in mission failure. From a risk assessment standpoint, Kyle seems to believe the rewards clearly outweighed the risk.

DOD

A decision table offering commanders options and continue/abort criteria under specific scenarios.

Left unanswered, however, is what would have come of the occupants of that chopper had it failed en route to the hide-sites. The other aircraft could not accommodate them, and a rescue mission so far inland would have been extremely risky if not impossible to attempt. In fact, a search-and-rescue (SAR) mission was planned using the then-new HH-53H Pave Low helicopters flown by Air Force personnel, but any SAR attempt would not have taken place for at least 30 hours after the Eagle Claw began, since these forces would not be pre-deployed in-theater for operational security reasons. Furthermore, there was no telling, given potential changes in the tactical, operational, or even strategic picture, whether such a mission would be possible 30 hours after U.S. troops entered Iran. That left escape and evasion the only alternative, and a highly unfavorable one at that.

Kyle insists the situation called for such risks to be taken, describing the mission as akin to the “Super Bowl” and saying that all the stops should have been pulled to make it happen. More importantly, Kyle believes that the mission was more than likely to be successful, had they carried on.

“All that was lacking was the guts to try!” he cites as the missing ingredient. But, like many of the mission’s elements, the decision to fly on in the face of blinding sandstorms and a failed hydraulic system were tricky gambles. Colonel Beckwith and the mission’s other planners had staked the mission’s success on 93 members of Delta Force, a 13-man team composed of Army Special Forces soldiers, a.k.a. “Green Berets,” 12 drivers and Farsi linguists, and two former Iranian military officers participating as advisers – a total of 120 men – all making it to the embassy with all their equipment. The amount of weight toted by each man (270 pounds, bodyweight included) was a critical aspect of the decision to begin the mission with eight helicopters and proceed with a minimum of six. Weight is, after all, a limiting factor in flight. Each additional pound aboard must be compensated with fuel, adding still more weight to the aircraft, but there is also a limit to how much fuel, and gross weight overall, that can ultimately be carried.

Public Domain

Members of Delta Force board a cargo plane in Wadi Kena, Egypt, to fly to Masirah, Oman.

Had the six helicopters forged on and Bluebeard 2 broke down en route, the mission would have needed to be canceled or Colonel Beckwith would have had to make the decision to execute the mission with less than 120 people, something he and the rest of the mission’s command team had not intended to do. Finally, the broken-down helicopter and its occupants would be truly stranded. It would be impossible to cram 120 men aboard five helicopters without disposing of millions of dollars’ worth of valuable military equipment, assuming they could even accommodate the extra bodies aboard the helicopters at all. Those folks would then become liabilities to the mission and, as mentioned previously, there was no guarantee a rescue mission could or would be mounted, let alone in a timely fashion.

In retrospect, Colonel Kyle’s judgment might be valid, but so was Colonel Beckwith’s judgment in the heat of the moment. It simply is not feasible to plan for a mission requiring 120 personnel and their equipment making it all the way to the embassy, only to take a chance on a helicopter that has suffered a flight control system failure in an austere environment hundreds of miles from safety. With each helicopter ferrying over 5,000 pounds of men and equipment, their systems would be taxed to their limits, so moving forward under these conditions with a faulty aircraft seems severely reckless. There was no assurance, other than “the guts to try,” as Kyle insists, to breed any kind of confidence in such a leap of faith. 

Such analysis is bold, to say the least, but the act of pressing on could very well have led to an even bigger and more convoluted hostage crisis, or far worse. This was a belief related post-mission by Colonel Beckwith to the late Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski was President Carter’s National Security Adviser and an avid proponent of a rescue attempt.

As Carter weighed whether to abort or continue the mission, Brzezinski had considered recommending that the rescue force continue despite the failure of three of the helicopters. When asked by Brzezinski what would have happened had they pushed on with only five helicopters, Beckwith simply replied, “I wouldn’t be here today to tell you about it. It would have been a disaster.”

To which Brzezinski answered, “That’s good enough for me.”

Public Domain

Joint Task Force commander US Army Major General James Vaught, left, poses with Delta Force commander Colonel Charlie Beckwith, right, on the eve of Operation Eagle Claw.

All without getting caught

The force had concentrated on contingency and “what if” drills for months. If problems developed (they had in training) it was up to each commander to deal with them, request guidance, consultation or assistance as needed, and make every effort to continue to the point where mission completion was no longer feasible.

- Eagle Claw After-Action Report (Contingency Review)

Google Earth/Edward Chang

Map of the general mission outline. Blue represents the path taken by the helicopters. Red is the path flown by the planes transporting fuel and troops to Desert One. Green indicates the planes flying from Wadi Kena to extract and provide gunship support for the rescue on Night Two. Gold represents the path flown by combat aircraft from USS Nimitz tasked with escort and close air support (CAS) duties. Locations and paths approximate.

Using the decision to abort in the desert as an inflection point, we can more accurately assess the chances of success in rescuing the hostages from Tehran. Given that decision came down to the flyability of one helicopter, we can proceed with the premise that, given a bit more industriousness and some luck, at least six helicopters could have continued with the mission and that Colonel Kyle’s judgment was correct – the flight control system would hold all the way to the mission’s next waypoint. But all the “guts” in the world would not have diminished the magnitude of the challenges that lay ahead for Eagle Claw.

The mission was already running almost two hours behind schedule, due to the late arrival of the helicopters at Desert One. In a few hours, it would be daylight, drawing the risk of detection and possibly forcing an abort. The rescue force needed to get to its next staging point, fast.

After Desert One, the plan called for the following:

  • Fly two-and-a-half to three hours to an insertion point where the rescue team, composed of Delta Force operators, drivers, and interpreters, would be dropped off approximately 70 miles southeast of Tehran, hopefully, an hour before sunrise.
  • The RH-53Ds would fly to a hiding site of their own 15 miles to the north, where they planned to spend the daylight hours tucked away in the hills near the city of Garmsar.
  • The rescuers would be met by a team led by Richard Meadows, who would lead them five miles to a remote wadi that would be used as their hiding spot for the day. Meadows, a former Special Forces officer, had been called out of retirement to be secretly inserted, along with others, into Iran to gather intelligence for the operation and prepare transportation and hide sites for the rescue force. Their contributions would not only have made it easier to insert such a massive force so stealthily into Tehran, but their reconnaissance of the embassy grounds gave the mission a level of certainty it would have otherwise lacked.
  • The rescue team would hide and rest throughout the day. In the evening, two of Meadows’ men would bring back to the hide-site a Datsun pick-up truck and a Volkswagen bus. One vehicle would take Colonel Beckwith to Tehran for a reconnaissance mission of the embassy to gather last-minute intelligence. The other would transport six designated drivers and six translators to pick up six covered Mercedes trucks that would transport the rescue team to the embassy.

All of this would need to take place within a span of less than 24 hours, and without getting caught. It was this second phase of the operation that the risks taken became less calculated and more up to raw chance. In his comprehensive account of the hostage crisis from 2006, author Mark Bowden rattles off a list of “what-if” pitfalls that lay every step of the way. Examples included questions like, “What if the force was stumbled upon in its mountain hiding place outside Tehran on the mission’s second day, or stopped and attacked on its way into the city on that night?” Colonel Beckwith, as related in his memoir, had been concerned about the security of the hide-site. Meadows, who had staked out the location, assured him it was remote enough that secrecy was assured, assuming the helicopters took the prescribed course.

There was, of course, no guarantee of this. At Desert One, the force had encountered a fuel truck and a bus driving along a nearby road upon landing. An Army Ranger, part of a contingent tasked with securing the area, attempted to destroy the truck with a shoulder-fired missile, but the driver survived and was picked up by another vehicle and escaped. The bus, meanwhile, was stopped with 45 occupants onboard.

Beckwith, however, states that chance encounters were factored into the planning and the troops were ready for anything that happened. Therefore, these sorts of incidents were no reason on their own to abort the mission. 

Beckwith would later appear to have been justified in making such bets – no indications surfaced on the Iranian side that the truck that had escaped with two occupants ever reported their shocking desert encounter to the authorities. Colonel Kyle later estimated that “the clandestine nature of the mission could have been preserved for forty hours – sufficient time to complete the mission.”

Public Domain

Delta Force, equipment in tow, waiting on the tarmac in Egypt before flying to Oman.

Still, at Desert One, the team had the luxury of turning around. Any further and it would have been exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to leave the country the way they had come, given the distances involved and the lack of a refueling point as they had on the way in. As a result, beyond Desert One was a point-of-no-return of sorts, If they were caught from there on, escape and evasion was the only option, something the Delta Force operators were exceptionally good at, albeit undesirable. The rescue team was prepared to do whatever it took to leave the country, with or without the hostages.

The operators carried thousands of dollars in cash in Iranian currency, fake passports stamped with fake visas, documents providing key words and phrases in Farsi, had memorized escape routes, and were able and willing to steal or hot-wire cars and drive and shoot their way hundreds of miles out of the country to either Turkey or Afghanistan, the latter of which had recently been invaded by the Soviet Union. Hopefully, air support would be available from the carriers Nimitz and Coral Sea stationed in the Gulf of Oman or the AC-130 Spectre gunships attached to the operation; if not, the soldiers were not about to surrender or roll over and die just because the mission was compromised.

At Joint Task Force headquarters in Wadi Kena, Egypt, communications would be monitored to detect any signs that the mission had been compromised, such as an increase in security at the embassy. This was also where the presence of Richard Meadows and his team inside Iran would have proven invaluable. They provided the operation the closest thing it had to real-time, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) of the target. Bringing Beckwith to survey the embassy prior to the assault would also confirm some key details and allow the Delta commander to more accurately assess the level of opposition they could expect.

DOD

An aid to assist mission participants in saying useful words and key phrases in Farsi.

Satellite communications, or SATCOM, would be the primary means of communications throughout the operation, due to the distances involved, the remoteness of the situations the rescue team would encounter, and to provide a secure means of communications. SATCOM does have its drawbacks, such as requiring favorable environmental and geographic conditions to achieve a good connection.

As real-life experience both en route to and at Desert One revealed, however, SATCOM proved problematic and it is likely it would have continued to be problematic throughout the mission as the team snuck deeper into Iran. Unreliable long-distance communications meant they would find it difficult to coordinate the operation with the other players involved and keep their chain-of-command in the loop. 

This potential lack of communication was a problem difficult to mitigate and could have upended the mission entirely, even if everything else went off without a hitch. Delta Force had little recourse but to hope conditions were favorable during the entirety of the one-day, two-night operation to facilitate SATCOM utilization.

Extensively prepared as the mission was, a certain amount of luck was necessary to overcome each hurdle. Just reaching the hide-sites and remaining hidden throughout the day required vigilance and good fortune. The Eagle Claw team would have expended much of its allotment of the latter by this point.

In our alternative history of the raid that never was, the sun was now setting on Iran on April 25, 1980, with Tehran and the embassy looming on the horizon. Could they actually pull this improbable mission off, or was their luck about to run out?

Public Domain

Delta Force troopers. The one on the left is sporting AN/PVS-5 second-generation night-vision goggles.

Into the lion's den

The conferees were fully knowledgeable of the challenges ahead and the importance of the mission to the hostages and the United States. These were sobering thoughts but the group judged that their plan was feasible. They had been ready for several weeks but they were more ready than ever before. Their confidence was high.

- Eagle Claw After-Action Report (Overall Assessment)

Assuming Col. Beckwith was satisfied with the situation at the embassy, he would return to Delta Force’s hide-site at around 8:00 that night. By this time, the six trucks intended to carry the rescue team would have arrived, with the men and their equipment loaded aboard and hidden behind construction material and false walls installed inside the covered truck beds.

At 8:30, the force, now composed of 120 men (down from 132 at Desert One, where aircrews and additional personnel primarily tasked to the refueling operation had been present), would depart the hide-site and motor up the road for the 70-mile drive northwest to Tehran. From here on out, the margin for error would narrow dramatically.

There were two checkpoints along the route, located near the cities of Eyvanekey and Sherifabad. Hopefully, the Farsi-speaking translators would be able to convince the two guards at each site to allow them to pass without piquing suspicion. As before, however, the team was ready for anything – should the guards attempt to search the trucks, they would be seized, restrained, and carried along as cargo for the remainder of the ride or until they could be safely released without compromising the mission.

Google Earth/Edward Chang

Close-up of Night Two of the operation. Blue represents the path taken by the helicopters from the hide-site, to the embassy, then to the airfield at Manzariyeh. Green shows the general path taken by the rescue team to drive to the embassy. Locations and paths approximate.

Though hardly ideal, getting past the checkpoints was not judged to be a particularly difficult part of the mission. The in-country clandestine agents who had spent months setting up the infrastructure and resources necessary for Eagle Claw’s success had driven along the road connecting Tehran and Desert Two numerous times and had apparently concluded these were obstacles the team could easily navigate. Furthermore, the reconnaissance mission Meadows and Beckwith would have gone on earlier in the evening ran the same route. If the checkpoints really were a problem, it would likely be known long before the rest of the force left their hide-site for Tehran.

Once they got past the checkpoints, and Tehran drew closer, Beckwith would decide upon the specific route the vehicles would take to get to the embassy, depending on what the reconnaissance mission earlier in the evening had revealed. While sticking together was certainly preferable, the team was ready to split up to avoid drawing attention or take different routes to the embassy to avoid any obstacles that might have been spotted previously.

Finally, the Volkswagen bus would now be transporting the 13-man team of Green Berets to the Foreign Ministry building, where three of the American hostages were being held away from the embassy. They would take an entirely different route from the others and were largely on their own for the duration of the rescue. The Green Berets were part of a Special Forces detachment assigned to the Berlin Brigade stationed in the American Sector of the divided German city.

Meanwhile, a flurry of air activity would have already kicked off elsewhere in the region:

  • From mission headquarters in Wadi Kena, a company-sized force of U.S. Army Rangers would take off aboard four MC-130E Combat Talons. They were tasked with landing at Manzariyeh Air Base, approximately 60 miles south of Tehran, and securing it as an extraction location.
  • Four AC-130 Spectre gunships would depart Wadi Kena shortly after the Rangers left. The gunships would constitute Eagle Claw’s air support for most of the rescue portion. One was tasked with providing close air support (CAS) near the embassy, one would suppress Iranian Air Force activities at Mehrabad Air Base in Tehran, and a third would provide air support for the Rangers at Manzariyeh after it was seized. The fourth AC-130 would be a back-up.
  • Two C-141 Starlifter cargo planes would leave Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, with plans to land at Manzariyeh 10 minutes after the airfield’s seizure. One Starlifter was configured as a medevac platform, while the other was configured with seats like that aboard airliners. The C-141s would be responsible for flying the rescue team and the hostages out of the country.
USAF

Members of the Air Force's 8th Special Operations Squadron stand in front of an MC-130E Combat Talon ahead of the rescue attempt. Air Force Major Lyn McIntosh, fourth from right, was one of the eight individuals who perished in the accident at Desert One.

For the embassy assault, Delta Force had been partitioned into Red, Blue, and White elements. Their responsibilities were as follows:

  • Red: Consisting of 40 troops, would secure the western part of the embassy compound, rescuing the hostages and neutralizing the guards located in an area that included the consulate, staff cottages, office buildings, and motor pool.
  • Blue: Consisting of 40 troops, would secure the eastern part of the compound, which included the Deputy Chief of Mission’s residence, Ambassador’s house, and the chancery, which was the “main” building of the compound.
  • White: Consisting of 13 troops, would secure Roosevelt Avenue to the east of the compound and the insertion point for the team. They would cover the withdrawal of the Red and Blue teams and the hostages as they moved to Amjadieh Stadium (currently known as Shahid Shiroudi Stadium) slightly to the north and across the street from the embassy for extraction. During the rescue, White would cover the northern part of Roosevelt Ave. with an M60 machine gun and cover the south with an HK 21 machine gun.
DOD

‘A’ Squadron, Delta Force poses in front of an American flag, April 1980.

Timing was essential, but there was some flexibility built into the plan. To deal with any unforeseen events, obstacles, or changes to the tactical situation at the embassy, the plan permitted Colonel Beckwith to delay the assault for up to 40 minutes to reassess and wait for more favorable conditions to develop. Neither the seizure of Manzariyeh Air Base nor the arrival of the Spectre gunships would occur without Beckwith’s order.

Assuming the rescue took place on-schedule, between 11:00 p.m. and midnight, a group of Delta operators would drive down Roosevelt Ave., east of the embassy compound, in the Datsun pick-up truck and, using silenced .22-caliber pistols, neutralize two guard posts and the guards walking along the street.

Afterward, the trucks would arrive with the rest of the team. Using ladders, the troops would climb over the nine-foot wall surrounding the compound and drop into an area covered in trees. Red and Blue teams would get into position and await the signal to begin the assault. That signal constituted an explosion – the wall over which Delta Force climbed along Roosevelt would be blown open to create a convenient exit from the compound. After the explosion, the assault would commence and anyone inside the compound carrying a gun and not part of the rescue team would be killed as the hostages were rescued.

This portion of the mission was expected to last 45 minutes.

Google Earth/Edward Chang

Locations of the U.S. embassy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Mehrabad Airport, where Iranian Air Force fighters were on standby alert.

Meanwhile, the Rangers would land and seize Manzariyeh, the gunships would arrive overhead, and the helicopters from their hide-site to the east would fly towards Amjadieh Stadium. Hopefully, they would all start up after being shut down for almost an entire day. Once more, the helicopters would prove a decisive factor in the mission’s success.

Any mechanical issues would pose potentially grave risks from this point forward, since mission success depended on the helicopters being operational from lift-off at the hide-site to landing at the stadium to extract Delta Force and the hostages to Manzariyeh for final extraction and any additional trips necessary between there and the embassy. Once the final delivery to Manzariyeh was made, the helicopters would be abandoned and destroyed, and the crews would depart aboard MC-130s.

US Army

Rangers, including some riding in M151 jeeps and others on motorcycles, disembark from a C-130 during training for Operation Eagle Claw.

The mission plan underscores the importance of at least six helicopters remaining operational the entire mission. In theory, the operation could get away with just four for the rescue phase – one for carrying the hostages, one as a back-up for the first, and the last two for extracting Delta Force.

However, as Beckwith states, this was predicated on the risk of one or two helicopters being downed at the stadium. If necessary, one or more helicopters could make multiple trips between the stadium and Manzariyeh – as was done at Desert One, fuel would be brought to the airfield, making the multiple trips possible, though the refueling evolutions would certainly consume precious time. In such a scenario where the hostages and the rescuers could not depart the stadium together, Delta would form a defensive perimeter around the stadium and, with some help from above, would hold out until their extraction aircraft finally arrived.

Having helicopters shuttle back and forth from Manzariyeh and the stadium was undesirable, however. “We fervently hope we won’t have to do this. The risks are obvious,” U.S. Army Major General James Vaught, commander of the entire Joint Task Force assembled for the hostage rescue attempt, was quoted as saying by Colonel Beckwith in his memoir.

Easy to forget was the 13-man team tasked with rescuing the hostages at the Foreign Ministry. Unlike the embassy force, the Green Berets were largely on their own, but, thankfully, they needed to secure just three hostages and had a good fix on their location. However, the Green Berets would need to be extracted via helicopter separately. Again, any less than six helicopters would jeopardize the lives of the rescuers and hostages immensely, since one helicopter would have to be available to stop at the Foreign Ministry to pick up the 13 soldiers and three hostages. Furthermore, if they ran into trouble at the Foreign Ministry, they would not have nearly 100 other soldiers to rely on for support. Again, assistance from the AC-130s would be vital here.

Google Earth/Edward Chang

Map of the U.S. embassy, the soccer stadium to the northeast to be used for extraction, and the surrounding area. The street running perpendicular just east of the embassy compound was Roosevelt Ave.

If, for any reason, extraction was not possible, then, as stated before, the entire force was prepared to escape and evade.

If all went well, the rescuers and the hostages would be brought to Manzariyeh, where the Rangers hopefully would not have endured a nightmare of their own to secure. The rescuers and the hostages would be loaded aboard the C-141s and would be first to leave. The Rangers and the helicopter crews would leave aboard the MC-130s. The AC-130s and any other U.S. aircraft would follow suit and leave Iranian airspace and return to base.

Hopefully, everyone would go home alive.

Help from above

The review group concludes that the concept of a small, clandestine operation was sound. A larger, overt attempt would probably have resulted in the death of the hostages before they could be reached. It offered the best chance of getting the hostages out alive and the least danger of starting a war with Iran.

- The Holloway Report (IV. Conclusions)

One of the sticking points of the operation, unresolved until just prior to Eagle Claw’s commencement, was the matter of air support. Without it, there was a low likelihood of the mission’s success. But sending U.S. warplanes into the skies of Iran was no simple matter. The country still had formidable defenses built up from the days of the Shah. The circumstances of the operation also meant the threat had to be met “as is” – there would be no air campaign intended to soften up Iranian defenses prior to the rescue.

The Carter administration was understandably concerned with civilian casualties, but, without some big guns overhead to assist, even an elite contingent of warriors like Delta Force would not hold out for long in the face of fierce resistance. After all, they were neither equipped nor intended to sustain large engagements. Had the mission advanced far enough to affect the rescue, the AC-130s would be critical to success, holding off any hostile units attempting to interfere with the operation. It was hoped that their 105mm howitzers, 40mm Bofors cannons, and 20mm Vulcan cannons could handle any hostile forces that Delta could not handle and the AC-130’s presence would help ensure they and the hostages could not get pinned down with enemy fire.

USAF

AC-130 Spectre gunship as seen through night-vision goggles.

“There was never any intention just to arbitrarily shell Teheran [sic],” said Beckwith. A predetermined alphanumeric grid system had been established to more clearly delineate targeting zones in case the AC-130s needed to deliver fire support, entirely on-demand. Consistent with President Carter’s directive to avoid as much collateral damage as possible, the gunships would neither “engage at will” nor fire directly at crowds unless specifically requested by those on the ground. It was hoped that merely firing near the crowds would generate a visual impact of spectacular firepower, which would dissuade hostiles from interfering with the operation, and that raining fire directly down on Iranian heads would prove unnecessary.

Once the rescue team and the hostages moved to the stadium for extraction, the AC-130 would continue to provide air cover. In theory, attackers could be held off for quite some time with their assistance.

The AC-130 responsible for targeting Mehrabad would focus on two American-built McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II fighters known to be on ready-alert. Again, the gunship would not fire at will; it would destroy the F-4s only if they appeared to be taxiing for take-off. Doing so would buy time for the mission and reduce the possibility of an air-to-air threat presenting itself during the operation. If needed, this Spectre gunship could move north towards the embassy and assist the other in covering Delta Force.

Other targets designated for potential strikes, according to Colonel Kyle, included a ground-control radar north of Mehrabad used for controlling and vectoring Iran fighters, along with transport and tanker aircraft at the same air base.

Finally, the gunship at Manziryeh would be the Rangers’ only heavy artillery as they captured the airfield. Once their work was done, the AC-130 could also proceed to Tehran and assist in the embassy rescue if needed.

That left the matter of tactical air support provided by fast jets (TACAIR). During Eagle Claw planning sessions, Colonel Beckwith had been told he could count on fighter aircraft in the event something went wrong, with a caveat – due to the distances involved, TACAIR would take at least an hour to arrive on-scene.

DOD

Declassified report discussing tactical air (TACAIR) support for the mission by warplanes from the USS Nimitz.

“An hour to get on station was one hell of a long time,” Beckwith remarked in his memoir. “That was a hard bone to swallow.” In 1980, the U.S. military lacked the robust infrastructure in the Middle East necessary to host air assets in significant quantity. Therefore, TACAIR for Eagle Claw would be entirely aircraft carrier-borne, roaring off the flight decks of Nimitz and Coral Sea in the Gulf of Oman. Of the two, Nimitz possessed the more modern air wing and was tasked with providing the lion’s share of TACAIR during the mission. 

It was assigned two squadrons of the Grumman F-14A Tomcat fighter/interceptors, which had been in operational service for only six years at the time. The air wing was also equipped with one squadron of Grumman A-6E Intruder medium attack aircraft and two squadrons of LTV A-7E Corsair II light attack aircraft, both of which capable of flying close air support (CAS) missions. Coral Sea's air wing also had A-6Es and A-7Es, as well as older F-4 Phantom IIs.

Bill Lindner

An F-14A Tomcat of Fighter Squadron 41 (VF-41), the “Black Aces,” assigned to the USS Nimitz, flying high above the Arabian Sea, 1980.

There was another problem. “There was also no TACAIR support tasked to follow us out of Manzariyeh,” recalled Beckwith. He had expressed his concerns to mission commander Major General James Vaught, fearing they would depart Manzariyeh, only to get shot down by an Iranian fighter. But, in the words of Beckwith, the problem never seemed to get resolved throughout the planning stages.

Finally, President Carter settled the matter once and for all at a White House briefing on April 16. “There will be air cover from Manzariyeh all the way out of Iran,” Beckwith quoted the Commander-in-Chief as declaring. Ostensibly, carrier-based fighter aircraft would provide protection for the rescue team and hostages out of the country. It was a welcome relief for the special ops veteran.

USN

Flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz during its 1979-1980 deployment, which culminated in its participation in Operation Eagle Claw.

While the hostage rescue mission was underway, it was planned to have two of Nimitz’s F-14s, two A-6s, and a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker patrolling the North Persian Gulf. The F-14s were primarily tasked with protecting the tanker (and, later, escorting the transports out of Iran), while the A-6s were the designated CAS aircraft. Situation reports from the time indicate several airframes assigned to the Intruder squadron aboard Nimitz were equipped with the new Target Recognition and Attack Multisensor (TRAM) system, which provided the warplanes with, at the time, unprecedented night attack capability. The North Persian Gulf patrol station would be maintained throughout the operation with relief aircraft provided, as necessary.

If Delta requested additional air support beyond what the AC-130s could provide, the A-6s would top-off their tanks and speed towards Tehran. According to the official mission after-action report, the Intruders would fly 375 nautical miles (431.5 miles) to Tehran, where they would remain on-station for up to two hours before returning to the Persian Gulf for fuel.

It is difficult to say whether there was enough air support available to provide for all of Delta Force’s needs. Operational restrictions precluded the deployment of additional assets. Furthermore, American air-to-ground capabilities largely resembled that of the Vietnam War; a time when unguided munitions were predominant, and precision-strike had yet to become ubiquitous as it has become in the present day. Even while equipped with targeting aids such as low-light-level television (LLTV) and the TRAM system, the aircrews flying and operating the AC-130s and A-6s would rely almost entirely on Delta Force to provide them the proper verbal and visual guidance (such as smoke signals) necessary to provide accurate and timely air support. Likewise, the boots on the ground would rely on the training and experience of the aircrews to not only hit the target as they were supposed to, but to also avoid friendly fire.

Still, not everything can be seen from the air, especially at night, and the mission’s outcome would ultimately come down to the performance of the men on the ground who had a seemingly insurmountable challenge to overcome. However, as will be seen in the next section, the rescue team did have some factors in their favor that would increase their chances of success.

DOD

Declassified message suggesting ordnance loads for Navy F-14 Tomcats and A-6 Intruders supporting Eagle Claw.

Threat assessment

The group believes it virtually impossible to precisely appraise the remaining part of the operation and to measure probability of success. During that portion of the mission, the inevitability of hostile reaction would have become a major factor. The dynamics inherent in a recovery of the type envisioned would have produced a level of complexity that makes the study of probabilities essentially a matter of conjecture.

- Holloway Report (IV. Conclusions)

One of the most intriguing questions regarding Operation Eagle Claw is the quantity and quality of resistance Delta Force would have encountered at the embassy. While it is easy to imagine a “Black Hawk Down” scenario, especially when picturing a virulently hostile city such as Tehran, the reality is that the Americans faced a more permissive environment than generally appreciated.

According to the declassified Eagle Claw after-action report, the threat picture was summed up as follows:

Intelligence regarding the status of the Iranian Armed Forces, Gendarmerie, Police, and Pasdaran had not changed – if anything, conditions in the country had become more unstructured and chaotic and the capabilities of Iranian forces even less.

Unless spotted directly by Pasdaran or a Gendarmerie post, the probability of getting to the [American Embassy] compound wall undetected was high.

AP

Iranians burn an effigy of Uncle Sam, representing America, with “CIA” printed on its right arm, in Tehran in 1979.

Mission planners studied photographs and video footage from the nightly news of the embassy guards. In the eyes of Colonel Beckwith and his team, whether they were of the Pasdaran (Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard) variety or the militant-type, the guards were amateurs, not professionals. They arrived at this conclusion by examining details such as how the guards handled their weapons and the types of weapons they toted. While many were armed with rifles, their arsenal appeared limited to small arms – no grenades were seen, for example.

Equally important, the streets surrounding the embassy were busy during the day, indicating either an inability or unwillingness on the part of the guards to control crowds or command anyone else except themselves. This indicated that while the revolutionaries were certainly in charge at the embassy, they were not exactly in charge outside its walls, implying the Americans might not have to worry about an entire city turning against them, a la Mogadishu in October 1993. The Iranian people might not arrive en masse to aid the hostage-takers while the raid was underway. Or, the mob could show up and they would be as fearless and menacing as they appeared on television.

This had been a major concern since the early days of the hostage crisis, when Major General Vaught expressed worry over the rescue team clashing with violent mobs, like the ones originally seen overrunning the embassy. This was a strong mitigating factor during the early stages of planning, one that could have prevented a mission from taking place. Intelligence reports from November and December 1979 indicated that local mobs could begin showing up at the embassy within 15 to 20 minutes of commencing the rescue, in addition to anywhere from 100 to 300 armed revolutionaries estimated to be capable of responding within the same timeframe.

“Until we can find a way to get Delta into and out of the embassy without a massacre occurring in the streets, there will be no rescue attempt,” Colonel James Kyle recalled Major General Vaught as declaring.

DOD

Declassified intelligence report detailing estimated response times of various hostile forces in Tehran.

By attacking in the dead of night, the threat of mobs swarming the rescue team was minimized. With adequate air support, it further decreased the likelihood a mob would get close enough to interfere with the rescue. In addition to attacking at night, doing so almost half a year after the embassy was initially seized, gave the rescuers a better chance of not only catching the guards in a vulnerable, less-focused state, but with a high degree of surprise.

A daytime rescue was out of the question, but having a rescue take place so many months after the beginning of the crisis would inevitably create a sense of complacency or even fatigue in those guarding the hostages. It was reasonably expected that routines would be established by this point and the guards’ behavior would be more predictable, again lessening the risk of attempting a rescue.

Finally, President Carter, who was running for re-election in 1980, was being roundly criticized in the media and by political opponents who felt he was gun-shy and unable to make the tough choice to launch a rescue attempt. This could have helped in making Eagle Claw a success, since it apparently convinced both Americans and Iranians that Carter would not dare send U.S. troops into the heart of Tehran.

DOD

Declassified intelligence report detailing the disposition of hostiles at the embassy.

According to the after-action report, intelligence further indicated there were “up to 200 guards in the immediate area of the compound.” This seems to be a maximal estimate, however. According to Beckwith, their analysis told them to expect 70 to 125 potential hostiles on the compound. Between 20 to 25 guards were expected to be on duty while the rest were asleep, a seemingly reasonable expectation given the rescue would be taking place close to midnight. 

The building that intelligence indicated was housing the guards was to be covered with machine gunfire. Iranian reinforcements would have been mowed down as they exited their quarters to aid their comrades or pinned down inside. That left the on-duty guards as the greatest concern to Delta, but their mission would certainly be simpler with fewer armed hostiles to focus on.

Finally, the after-action-report mentions:

Perimeter security was at a low point just prior to mission launch. Several of the sandbag positions along the wall, for instance, were unoccupied and deteriorating.

This critical bit of intelligence was likely gleaned through the observations of Richard Meadows and his team of secret agents inside Iran. These observations not only lend credence to the judgment that a sense of complacency and “crisis fatigue” had set in for the amateurish Iranian guards, but that the six-month delay in launching a rescue attempt could very well have paid off in terms of providing tactical advantages the elite warriors of Delta Force could easily exploit.

This left the Iranian military, arguably the deadliest, yet the least-immediate threat to the Americans.  As the after-action report notes, the Iranian Revolution had thrown the nation’s military and security forces into disarray. The ranks of the military had been gutted, as the new government established under Ayatollah Khomeini sought to purge the leadership of anyone not on board with the revolution. As evidenced by the two former Iranian military officers advising Eagle Claw, the revolution had also led to defections among Iranian service members, not to mention executions of those who could not escape.

DOD

Intelligence section of the Eagle Claw after-action report describing the level of opposition expected to be encountered during the mission.

Colonel Beckwith cited the presence of an armored cavalry unit stationed in Tehran as their greatest military threat. The Iranian Army, then and now, was armed with American-built M48 and M60 Patton and British-built Chieftain main battle tanks, along with Soviet-built BTR-60 wheeled armored personnel carriers and ZSU-23-4 “Shilka” anti-aircraft systems. The Shilkas worried Beckwith most. They posed a threat to both the helicopters and the men on the ground. Equipped with its own radar and four 23mm cannons, Delta and the hostages could be sitting ducks against such a weapon, to say nothing about shooting down the Sea Stallions as they arrived at the stadium. Elements of this armored cavalry unit were known to be stationed only blocks from the embassy.

Analysis of various sources had led intelligence to conclude it would take 90 minutes for such a military formation to mobilize and respond to the situation at the embassy. Since the rescue was planned to take 45 minutes, there was plenty of time to secure the hostages and move to the stadium without needing to worry about an armored formation rolling down the street towards the embassy. Again, the AC-130s would prove instrumental in such a scenario, armed to deal with a threat such as armored vehicles.

“The division leadership had been decimated by the Khomeini government,” Beckwith recounted. “When this fact was coupled with the unit’s known lack of spare parts and maintenance capability, the intel planners determined that it posed little threat to Delta.” Intelligence assessments at the time validate Beckwith’s analysis, with poor maintenance and low morale due to politicization of the military by the Revolutionary Guard being consistent problems across the services.

If the element of surprise could be maintained and Delta Force did not run into serious problems at the embassy, then, with air support, the Iranian military could largely be a non-factor. The planners saw the National Police (known as the Shahrbani) as a more persistent threat than the military. Not only did they possess armored vehicles armed with .50-caliber machine guns or 76mm cannons, but they also exhibited greater loyalty to the new regime and the militants than the military. 

Intelligence was more limited regarding the police, so there was greater uncertainty regarding what to expect from them, other than that they would undoubtedly be the first responders to the situation at the embassy. Still, they were weaker than an armored force, so they presented a threat which Delta, with air support, could more easily manage.

As for an air threat, there were the F-4 fighters at Mehrabad, the Shilkas, and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). But an AC-130 had Mehrabad covered and the F-4s would be blasted if they showed any signs of taking off. While Delta was worried about the prospect of confronting Shilkas, again, the delay in their mobilization and cover from the gunships considerably reduced that threat, and most of their anti-aircraft artillery were stored away.

One last wrinkle - how would so many American military aircraft safely enter Iranian airspace, anyway? After all, even if the Iranian military as a whole were at a low state of readiness, they still retained some capacity to detect and defend against intruders. Electronic and signals intelligence gathered by U.S. forces in the region revealed a number of radars throughout the country were active, including the coastal installations, which could detect the C-130s and C-141s entering Iran east of the city of Abadan, close to the border with Iraq.

Again, there was little choice but to take a chance, since no air campaign to neutralize Iranian air defenses could take place and the mission was nearly impossible without the involvement of the gunships and transports. If detected, a plan was put in place to transmit radio broadcasts in Farsi to confuse and distract the Iranians (who also flew C-130s) and buy time for the C-130s to get to where they needed to be. In an emergency, there were Navy F-14s, A-6s, and A-7s ready to assist. It was still a dangerous endeavor, however, and the aircrews of the C-130s and C-141s were taking a risk that would likely be considered unacceptable by military planners today.

USN

A KA-6D uses a buddy store to refuel an F-14A Tomcat with another F-14A flies alongside.

Operation Eagle Claw also created the prospect of a seemingly inevitable clash between U.S. warplanes and that of Iran’s air force, made all the more intriguing by the fact the Islamic Republic operated many U.S.-built platforms and weapons, many of which had been delivered in the few years leading up to the revolution. The possibility that American F-14s and F-4s would encounter Iranian F-14s and F-4s might have been a fascinating match-up to contemplate for armchair warriors, but, for the pilots participating in the mission, it was yet another threat that would need to be addressed to ensure operational success.

One measure taken was to paint special mission markings on the outer portion of the right wings of the aircraft from Nimitz and Coral Sea. Done primarily to help aircrews visually distinguish between U.S. and Iranian fighters from a distance, they also helped distinguish the aircraft by the squadron to which they were assigned. For example, Navy F-14s assigned to Fighter Squadron 41 (VF-41), the “Black Aces,” had a red marking in between black stripes, while Tomcats from its sister squadron VF-84, the “Jolly Rogers,” bore a yellow marking in between the black stripes. Furthermore, any aircraft deemed as needing to fly overland into Iran during the mission, primarily the fighter and attack planes, were similarly marked.

Bill Lindner

A special black-red-black recognition marking is visible under the right wing of this F-14 assigned to VF-84.

USN

An F-4 Phantom II fighter jet and an A-6E Intruder strike aircraft on the deck of USS Coral Sea. Both carry the black-red-black identification markings on their right wings.

USN

A-7Es on the deck of the USS Coral Sea wearing the black-red-black identification markings.

Finally, Colonel Kyle described the SAM threat as “marginal” and “low-probability” since intelligence indicated the missiles were not loaded onto their launchers. Iran’s pre-revolution military did not have an extensive arsenal of SAMs beyond the American-built Hawks and British-built Rapiers. There were no man-portable air defense systems in their arsenal. Despite the likely probability that the Iranians would try to interfere with the extraction operation, intelligence also estimated the probability of enemy success as “extremely low,” so long as proper precautions, such as radio silence and low-altitude flying, were observed. With Iranian military response time calculated to be 90 minutes, it underscored the importance of quickly securing the hostages at the embassy.

Known unknowns, unknown unknowns

Rescue depended upon surprising the captors in the Embassy compound before the hostages could be harmed. If this surprise could not be achieved, the mission would fail - either canceled or aborted, with high probability of the hostages being removed or executed.

- Holloway Report (IV. Conclusions)

The success of Eagle Claw ultimately came down to two factors – preservation of the element of surprise and accurate, timely intelligence. Obviously, the mission would have been more difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish if the Iranians were aware the Americans were coming.

Preserving the element of surprise, unfortunately, conflicted with the fact that a number of critical gambles would have to pay off along the way, so there would have also been a lot of hoping and praying that nobody in Iran would be alerted to Eagle Claw’s presence until the rescue actually commenced. There were, unquestionably, many locations where Delta Force could have been compromised – Desert One, the hide-sites, at the checkpoints on the way to Tehran, within Tehran itself, etc.

Intelligence was another area in which the six-month delay between the embassy seizure and the rescue attempt worked to the rescue team’s benefit. Had an attempt been made earlier on in the crisis, Delta Force would have run into obstacles they would have not been able to prepare for. One of these were poles erected on the embassy grounds by the militants, ostensibly to obstruct any rescue attempt via helicopter. These poles were a big reason the stadium across the street was selected as the landing zone for the helicopters. If, however, it was determined on-scene that the poles could be removed, then a stadium landing would become unnecessary and the helicopters could land inside the embassy compound instead, making for easier extraction. Again, intelligence and planning permitted them to prepare for such a contingency.

AP

The U.S. Embassy in Tehran just days after its seizure.

Another critical element of the rescue’s success was the location of the hostages within the compound. Consisting of several buildings, there was no concrete information on where exactly the hostages were. So much planning came down to educated guesses on that point. It appeared as though every single building might have to be searched for hostages.

Then, on April 23, Delta Force caught a huge break. A cook, who had been working at the embassy throughout the crisis, had revealed to a CIA agent who just happened to sit next to him on a plane as he left the country, that most of the hostages were located in the chancery, including the exact rooms they were located in, along with the number of guards inside the chancery at night and where they were positioned. There were other hostages located in other buildings, but much fewer than anticipated. This information streamlined the assault plan considerably and the chancery would receive most of the attention at the outset, forcing Beckwith to make changes to the size of the assault elements.

Still, it was all too good to be true, as Colonel Kyle noted. A cook, who had worked inside the embassy all this time, got on an airplane to fly home, and a CIA agent just happens to sit next to him, and he spills the beans? Something was not right. The mission commanders took advantage of the intelligence, but did so cautiously and were ready to shift gears if it all turned out to be a ruse.

Years later, Steve Emerson, in his book Secret Warriors, explained that the cook story was, in fact, a ruse, but the information was not. It was obtained through a deep-cover CIA source in Iran who had gained access to the hostages. The cook story certainly makes sense in this context, as a cover to hide the fact the CIA did have assets deep within Iran, capable of gathering such valuable intelligence, at a time when it was widely-believed the U.S. had next to no sources on the ground. Furthermore, the information was consistent with what mission planners had surmised, minus the specifics.

To this day, there exists little further detail regarding the information on the cook story aside from what mission participants and Steve Emerson described. It is worth noting, interestingly, that declassified documents related to the Iran hostage crisis suggest the U.S. either had sources on the ground or attempted to insert clandestine agents inside the country throughout 1980. If the information related in the cook story was true, it could very well have spelled success for the mission. A 45-minute rescue may have needed only 20 minutes to find and secure all the hostages.

Finally, there was some concern as to how the hostages themselves would react to the rescue. It was feared some of the hostages, particularly the military service members, would attempt to overpower their guards and arm themselves with weapons. As mentioned earlier, however, Delta was planning on shooting anyone with a gun who did not arrive with the rescue team. It was very possible a hostage or two could be unintentionally killed in this fashion.

It was a sobering thought, yet another coin-flip they would be forced to face, and the president accepted the risk. The guards were the most immediate threat to Delta and the hostages, and they had to be neutralized on the spot, without hesitation. No mercy would be shown. Every last Iranian on embassy grounds would be killed if that was what it took to ensure success.

What could have been

This rescue mission was the most difficult and challenging recorded in the annals of military operations. Few will fully appreciate the international, geophysical, astronomical, security and operation complexities associated with this operation.

- Eagle Claw After-Action Report (Preface)

Despite the rescue attempt’s real-life tragic end, the Carter administration never abandoned efforts at securing the release of the hostages. For its part, the military continued to develop additional rescue options under a new project code-name of Snowbird (the first and only rescue attempt was developed under Rice Bowl). 

However, political, strategic, and operational changes that occurred in the wake of Desert One meant the window to rescue the hostages had likely passed once the April 24-25 mission ended in failure, making another rescue mission highly unlikely, unless the Iranians did something drastic like putting hostages on trial or killing them.

AP

President Jimmy Carter prepares to address the nation about the disaster at Desert One on April 25, 1980.

This brings us to the question - was Operation Eagle Claw the proverbial Mission: Impossible— a task beyond the capabilities of even the world’s most powerful military? Or was it something within the realm of the feasible, just in need of luck and guile to achieve success? The answer will never be known, but the consequences of a successful mission would have been profound.

Operation Eagle Claw has the feel of a Hollywood epic, one destined for a resounding and happy ending where the hostages and rescuers triumphantly return home and America receives a spiritual lift – if we can overcome this, we can overcome anything would have been the mantra of the moment. On that very high, the American people would enter the new decade having regained some of the optimism lost in the jungles of Vietnam.

As the old rule of warfare goes, no plan ever survives first contact. It is hard to imagine the ball bouncing the way of the rescuers at every critical juncture of the mission. The haboobs and the mechanical failures aboard the helicopters, were all manifestations of Murphy’s law – what can go wrong, will go wrong. All the preparation in the world cannot reverse the likelihood that bad things can happen, since all military operations, even successful ones, constitute an exercise in risk management. But Eagle Claw needed so much to go right, with so little margin for error. Every step of the way was a gamble, however calculated, and the rescuers would just have to hope no deadly surprises lay in store for them.

Even Delta Force commander Charlie Beckwith conceded, at the time, that the U.S. military “had neither the present resources nor the present capabilities” to pull the operation off. But, at least according to popular culture and the history books, it is precisely moments like these in which heroes are made. There exists a temptation to believe that the courage, ice-cold professionalism, phenomenal skill and training, and sheer willpower that are the hallmarks of an elite military unit such as Delta Force would have been enough to rescue those 52 hostages. Part of the mystique of special operations lies in the belief those who fight in the shadows possess some sort of “X-factor” that makes the impossible possible.

Public Domain

Portrait of Delta Force, 1979. Jerry Boykin, who would later participate in the hunt for Pablo Escobar and serve as an Undersecretary of Defense, is top right. Eric Haney, who would later produce the popular CBS television show The Unit, is third row down, fourth from left.

Everyone involved understood the stakes and what they were fighting for. In terms of mission clarity, it was as simple and righteous as it gets: save our fellow countrymen and women and deliver them from the clutches of evil. They were not going into Iran to seize the oil or enact regime change and deliver democracy. They were going in to save people. Our people. The mission had been given considerable resources to facilitate success and every effort would be made to bring everyone home the same night the mission took place. President Carter, who has been roundly derided for his handling of the crisis, had largely left the operation to the military’s devices, trusting in their judgment and their skills, a fact that members of the rescue team, including Colonel Beckwith, have confirmed.

“As far as I’m concerned, Colonel Beckwith has my approval to use whatever force he needs to save American lives,” Carter was quoted as saying.

Yet all the force in the world may not have been enough. If Delta Force and the hostages had run into fierce resistance at the embassy, if they had been pinned down at the stadium, if a helicopter or two had been shot down, if the Green Berets at the Foreign Ministry ran into serious trouble, the entire complexion of the mission would have changed. The Carter administration would then face an even greater dilemma - does the U.S. unleash the full power of their military forces stationed in the region in an all-out effort to save the hostages and their rescuers? Or do they concede defeat, accept the humiliation, and try to negotiate the release of what is likely to be even more hostages? In textbook fashion, Eagle Claw was an ultimate high-risk, high-reward operation and it is difficult to imagine Americans not being killed. After all, many of history’s most successful hostage rescue operations saw both hostages and rescuers dying in the process. Even a relatively successful operation in Tehran could have amounted to a pyrrhic victory, in the end.

On the other hand, if the hostages had been successfully rescued with minimal loss of life, it would have been a monumental military victory for the United States. Eagle Claw would come to possess a legend like that of other well-known long-distance hostage rescues, such as Israel’s Operation Entebbe in Uganda and the rescue of Lufthansa Flight 181 in Mogadishu, Somalia during the 1970s. Americans caught a further glimpse of what could have been less than two weeks later, as they witnessed the British Special Air Service (SAS) liberate, ironically enough, the Iranian embassy in London, from the clutches of Arab separatist militants. Like Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in the wake of the Japanese embassy rescue in 1997, President Carter’s political fortunes might have been reversed, possibly winning him re-election in November 1980 and denying Ronald Reagan the opportunity to become the transformational political figure he became. The Iran hostage crisis would not have become the lingering, open wound which it remains over 40 years later, clouding every interaction between Washington and Tehran. For better or for worse, the world would be a different place.

Regardless, a successful Eagle Claw is fascinating to think about.

The legacy of Eagle Claw

The facts are that, in the conduct of this review, we have seen infinitely more to be proud of than to complain about. The American servicemen who participated in this mission—planner, crewman, or trooper—deserved to have a successful outcome. It was the ability, dedication, and enthusiasm of these people who made what everyone thought was an impossibility into what should have been a success.

- Holloway Report (Forwarding Statement)

The 40th anniversary of Operation Eagle Claw came and went with little fanfare. Though the memory of the Iran hostage crisis is seared in the minds of some and remains a topic of considerable controversy in certain circles, the rescue attempt has faded from the consciousness of the general public. For better or for worse, Eagle Claw possesses a different level of notoriety compared to, for example, the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in 1993.

Perhaps this is due, in part, to the fact the Iran hostage crisis did have something of a happy ending. In 2004’s The Persian Puzzle, former CIA analyst and Middle East politico-military expert Kenneth Pollack put the crisis into perspective, stating the Carter administration’s strategy “ultimately ‘worked’ in the sense that all of the hostages came home alive. It is impossible to get around that fact.”

AP

Interior of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, present day.

Any judgment of Eagle Claw must be rendered within this context. Political partisanship aside, any fair, objective appraisal of the mission must also acknowledge that not only did President Carter’s strategy deliver the desired results in the end, that strategy was, in the words of Pollack, “the only one that could have worked [emphasis original].” Unfortunately, it took 444 grueling, stressful days to reach the desired conclusion. The ordeal endured by the hostages was no trivial matter, either. These facts are not lost on observers like Pollack, who willingly concedes that it is certainly fair to ask if there was an alternative strategy that could have brought the hostages home sooner and permitted the U.S. to save some face on the international stage.

But when faced with the choice between all 52 Americans returning home alive versus the loss of even a single hostage, talk of any alternative, particularly a more forceful response against Iran, loses momentum. Americans could have certainly done without the loss of eight troops in the Iranian desert and the accompanying demoralization and embarrassment that followed. However, even if Eagle Claw had succeeded, the Pentagon had still estimated the loss of 15 hostages and 30 soldiers.

Given the risks the rescue mission entailed, the fact is, there was no further American loss of life associated with the crisis beyond April 25, 1980. To further argue the matter is to miss the point, which was to bring home the Americans held captive. When asked to reflect upon her ordeal in a CBS interview televised on April 25, 2020, Kathryn Koob summed it up aptly by saying, “It was fourteen-and-a-half months out of over 80 years. I had to let go.”

Letting go, of course, is tough in any hardship or tragedy. For those who participated in Eagle Claw, there was a sense of disappointment and sadness that would linger for many years. But, it was an experience they did not face alone. 

For one, they had the backing of their Commander-in-Chief. Despite an attempt to apologize for the mission’s failure, President Carter refused to allow Colonel Beckwith nor Delta Force to shoulder the entire burden of the calamity. Beckwith quoted Carter as telling him, “I didn’t know we still had people like this, people who would sacrifice everything for their country. Colonel Beckwith, I am very proud of these men.”

It was a story corroborated by the air component commander, Colonel James Kyle. “The President didn’t abandon the rescue team, nor did he point the finger of blame at anyone,” he recalled in his memoir years later. “He was showing the forces we would face the consequences together.” The manifestation of solidarity from the top down arguably helped those responsible for picking up the pieces do precisely that in the face of tremendous adversity.

USAF

The hostages as they disembark a plane after being released. Kathryn Koob is in the middle.

Pick up the pieces, they did. From the ashes of Desert One rose a new era for special operations within the American military. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), along with its subordinate Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), was established in response to the perceived failures of Eagle Claw. For the first time in U.S. military history, special operations forces would be unified under a major command and be treated with the regard of a frontline, main-effort formation. Along with it would be incredible new advances in highly focused tactics and technologies that were specifically developed and procured to give special operators every advantage and to fill in glaring capability gaps, many of which were highlighted in the aftermath of Eagle Claw.  

Together, SOCOM and JSOC, for decades, have constituted the tip of the spear in the ongoing struggle against international terrorism. Equally significant was the long-overdue re-organization of the military command structure under the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. The Holloway Report had mentioned multiple issues concerning command-and-control and inter-service cooperation during Eagle Claw, serving as a final straw of sorts to simplify the way the military conducted business. 

Tragic as the outcome of Eagle Claw was, the release of all the hostages, combined with the transformation of the military in the wake of the disaster, ensured the sacrifices of the eight men who died at Desert One were not totally in vain. Furthermore, the mission’s premature tragic end, ironically, made it unnecessary to confront the exceeding dangers and uncertainties of the entire operation, perhaps sparing the hostages a worse fate, and certainly re-opening the door to a largely peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Despite championing military action early in the crisis, even National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski later concluded, “It relieved public pressure for a large-scale military action against Iran, and thus permitted the resumption of our diplomatic efforts, reinforced by sanctions, to obtain the release of our people.” The disaster in the desert was costly in many ways, but, in retrospect, it might have been the price of ensuring all the hostages came home alive.

Remember them not for how they died

For the men we honor today, duty required both daring and quiet courage. They were willing to face the relentless desert and the angry mobs, if necessary, to free fellow Americans who can be accused of doing nothing more than their own duty in a hostile place.

- President Jimmy Carter, Arlington National Cemetery, May 9, 1980

The eight men who lost their lives in the desert are buried at Arlington National Cemetery and elsewhere across America. On May 9, 1980, a memorial service was held at Arlington to eulogize the fallen and it was a moment never to be forgotten by those who were there.

J.V.O. Weaver, an Air Force officer who participated in the mission, recalled how President Carter knelt and embraced two young boys who had lost a loved one at Desert One. “Tears were streaming down his cheeks,” Weaver told Airman Magazine in 2001. “Here’s the president of the United States, on his knees, crying, holding these boys. That burned right in there.”

Colonel James Kyle reacted much the same, himself becoming overwhelmed with emotion, as he listened to the president pay tribute to the eight airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice. “It was an extremely moving ceremony,” Kyle remarked in his memoir. “I could not suppress the tears of grief any longer.”

Together, they would all watch as military jets flew overhead in the missing man formation to memorialize the men who did not make it back.

Like most events of great historical significance, such as the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, and the present-day COVID-19 epidemic, the Iran hostage crisis was endured by the nation as a whole. But, for the hostages and the servicemembers who participated in the rescue attempt, it was undeniably personal. The sacrifices of the eight men who perished, along with the efforts of all who took part in Operation Eagle Claw, hold deep meaning to the 52 hostages and their families despite its failure, a humbling and inspiring affirmation that there exists among us those willing to give everything for those whom they have never met, even at great risk to themselves.

It is a legacy worth honoring - the bravery, courage, and selflessness exhibited on April 25, 1980, in the desert by those who embarked on a mission against all odds.

Public Domain

Portraits of the fallen. Top, L to R: Maj. Richard Bakke, USAF, Sgt. John Harvey, USMC, Cpl. George Holmes, USMC, and SSgt. Dewey Johnson, USMC. Bottom, L to R: Maj. Harold Lewis, USAF, TSgt. Joel Mayo, USAF, Capt. Lyn McIntosh, USAF, and Capt. Charles McMillan II, USAF.

Edward Chang is a defense, military, and foreign policy writer. Follow him on Twitter at @Edward_Chang_8.