By Lt. Col. Michael Negard
April 27, 2005
After nearly five months of preparation to rescue 53 Americans taken hostage by Iranian militants, an aborted mission turned worse, and eight servicemen lost their lives in what would become a "watershed" event for the U.S. military.
On the eve of the anniversary, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, now the Army chief of staff, addressed an audience of more than 500 active military, veterans, and family members of those killed.
The audience included fellow members who formed Task Force 76, the elite group of Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine servicemen, whose failure in the Iranian desert that night set the stage for the development of what would become the US Special Operations Command.
"There was the fire, the confusion, the courage, the leadership, the frustration and the disappointment, and the sadness," Schoomaker said. "Then there was the recommitment to try again.
"But in reflection, from where I stand today, 'Eagle Claw' was a watershed event for this nation," he said.
Eagle Claw Plan
The planning for Operation Eagle Claw began almost immediately after Iranian militants stormed the U.S. embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, and took 99 hostages, 46 of whom later escaped or were freed. The bold concept called for members of the newly-certified US Army Special Forces Operational Detachment - Delta (Airborne), and a team of ground controllers, translators and truck drivers to fly in three MC-130s to a remote location south of the capital of Iran called Desert One.
Three EC-130s were to land at Desert One and refuel eight Marine RH-53 helicopters that would launch from the USS Nimitz stationed in the Indian Ocean. The helicopters would refuel while the rescue force transloaded from airplanes to helicopters.
Once refueled and loaded, the helicopters would fly the task force to Desert Two, an intermediate spot on the outskirts of Tehran. There the force would meet up with team members already in country who would lead them to a safe house for the following night's assault.
The plan then called for the EC-130s and MC-130s to transport 100 Army Rangers the following night with the mission to secure and hold Manzariyeh Airfield. At the same time, three AC-130s would support the main assault at the embassy, provide cover for the Rangers, and suppress any attempts by the Iranian Air Force to counter the rescue.
Delta troops would assault the embassy where the hostages were located, free them, and rally with the helicopters loitering at a nearby university stadium. The freed hostages would then be flown to Manzariyeh Airfield where two C-141s would fly them to freedom.
That was the plan, but it was not to be.
Night of 'Carnage'
As fate would have it, the Marine helicopters quickly became plagued by maintenance problems and an unforgiving desert sand storm enroute to the first rally point. Two of the eight RH-53s were unable to reach Desert One. The first three helicopters arrived an hour past the scheduled link-up time and the remaining flight arrived 15 minutes later.
The mission required a minimum of six operational aircraft. As men and equipment were quickly being moved between fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft, one of the six helicopters experienced a hydraulics failure. On-scene commanders assessed the situation and determined that there was no other choice but to abort the mission with the hope of preserving manpower, equipment, and the element of surprise for another chance to try again.
As one of the helicopters was repositioning, its rotor blades contacted the tail of a parked EC-130. The collision was horrific and turned an aborted mission into a deadly catastrophe.
The RH-53 and EC-130 erupted in flames. Five Air Force personnel and three Marines perished and many more were injured.
The Iranians in Tehran reacted by scattering the 53 hostages around the country making it all but impossible for another attempt by US forces to free them.
Dr. Jim Lewis, son of Capt Harold Lewis, a C-130 pilot who was killed at Desert One, told attendees at Monday's gathering that events which occur in our lives inevitably come to shape us to what we are today.
That sentiment was shared by many who attended the celebration, to include retired Army Lt. Gen. Jim Vaught, who commanded the rescue task force.
"Eagle Claw was a successful failure," Vaught said. "We wanted with all our being to rescue the Americans. However, had we succeeded, conventionalists in all likelihood would have said we did not need a full-time training and ready force which could quickly and successfully rescue Americans the world around.
"(Without Desert One) we would not have the competent, proven, ready Special Operations forces that are today the envy of the world."
Seven years after the failed mission, the U.S. Special Forces Command (SOCOM) was established as a result of the Goldwater- Nichols and Cohen-Nunn acts.
"This nation has a history of never being ready to go to war. We didn't do it in WWII. We didn't do it in Korea and we didn't do it here," Schoomaker said. "I keep a photo of the carnage that night to remind me that we should never confuse enthusiasm with capability.
"Eight of my comrades lost their lives," he said. "Those of us who survived knew grief and we knew failure, but we committed ourselves to a different future."