History

24 April 1980

A Battlefield Promise

At a remote airstrip known as DESERT ONE, a battlefield promise made to 17 American children – when 8 Special Operations Forces were tragically lost in a daring mission – OPERATION EAGLE CLAW – to rescue 52 American hostages in Iran. 

Operation Eagle Claw

 

On November 4, 1979, as many as 3,000 militant students stormed the United States Embassy in Tehrān, taking 63 Americans hostages. Three additional members of the United States diplomatic staff were seized at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The incident took place two weeks after United States President Jimmy Carter had allowed the deposed Iranian ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi into the United States for cancer treatment. Iran’s new leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, called for the United States to return the shah, also demanding an end to Western influence in Iran. In the Shah’s absence, the Ayatollah seized leadership and built his dictatorship. By mid-November, 13 hostages (combined women and African Americans) had been freed. 52 hostages remained while negotiations for release began.

Meanwhile, American military commanders constructed a plan regarding a possible rescue mission, and training exercises were initiated to determine the readiness of troops and equipment. When the diplomatic process stalled, President Carter approved a military rescue operation on April 16, 1980. The ambitious plan, called: Operation Eagle Claw, utilized elements of all four branches of the United States Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The two-day operation called for helicopters and MC-130 aircraft to rendezvous on a salt flat (code-named Desert One) some 200 miles southeast of Tehrān. There the helicopters would refuel from the MC-130s and pick up combat troops. The helicopters would then transport troops to the mountain location from which the actual rescue mission would be launched the following night. Starting on April 19 forces were deployed throughout Oman and the Arabian Sea and on April 24, Operation Eagle Claw was coordinated and intended to be implemented.

The operation was almost compromised when a local passenger bus and then a tanker truck entered the area via a nearby road. To maintain security, the ground forces intercepted the bus, detaining more than 40 Iranians, and when the tanker did not stop, they fired an M72LAW anti-tank weapon into the vehicle. 

Of the eight navy helicopters that left the USS Nimitz, two experienced mechanical failure and could not continue, and the entire group was hindered by a low-level dust storm that severely reduced visibility. The six remaining helicopters, piloted by Marines, landed at Desert One more than 90 minutes late. There, another helicopter was deemed unfit for service, and the mission, which could not be accomplished with only five helicopters, was stopped. On April 24, 1980, as the service members were exiting the area, a helicopter, due to an immense cloud of desert dust and unfortunate confusion, collided with a MC-130 and exploded, destroying both aircraft and killing five Air Force servicemen and three Marines. The remaining troops were quickly evacuated by plane, leaving behind those who perished along with several helicopters, pieces of equipment, weapons, and maps.

Eight service members were lost that day leaving behind 17 children. A battlefield, and enduring promise, was immediately made by the remaining service members to provide full educations to the surviving children of those lost in the line of duty then, and in future generations – from that promise, Special Operations Warrior Foundation traces its roots. 

Operation Eagle Claw helped transform United States military internal operating procedures. After investigations determined what occurred, the military developed the “joint doctrine.”  As we mourn those who were lost, and though the situation is difficult to reflect on, there was good that came out of Operation Eagle Claw. It inspired a rebirth of Special Operations Forces within the United States military. The lessons learned from the mission resulted in the establishment of United States Operations Command, and subordinate commands designed to organize and employ joint Special Operations Forces worldwide.

The official Operation Eagle Claw Memorial installed at Arlington National Cemetery is described by cemetery literature as follows:

Dedicated in 1983, the Iran Rescue Mission Memorial consists of a white marble column with a bronze plaque listing the names and ranks of those who lost their lives during the mission. Three of the men – Maj. Richard Bakke, Maj. Harold Lewis Jr. and Sgt. Joel Mayo – are buried in a grave marked by a common headstone, located about 25 feet from the group memorial.

A powerful documentary depicting the events of Operation Eagle Claw and the tragedy at Desert One base in Iran was produced in 2019. You can find more information here

From the documentary website: “Using new archival sources and unprecedented access, master documentarian Barbara Kopple reveals the story behind one of the most daring rescues in modern US history: a secret mission to free hostages of the 1979 Iranian revolution.”

Desert One Documentary cover image

A message from SOWF President
(1999-2013)
Colonel John T. Carney Jr,
USAF, Retired

John Carney was involved in Operation Eagle Claw and tells the story of how Special Operations Warrior Foundation initially started being proactive to find the surviving children of fallen special forces operators.

A message from Executive Vice President of SOWF
Colonel Sean Corrigan, U. S. Army, Ret