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.