Operation Eagle Claw (or Operation Evening Light or Operation Rice Bowl) was an American military operation ordered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter to attempt to end the Iran hostage crisis by rescuing 52 Americans held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on 24 April 1980. Its failure, and the humiliating public debacle that ensued, damaged American prestige worldwide. Carter and many experts concluded that the failure to free the hostages played a major role in Ronald Reagan's victory in the 1980 U.S. presidential election.
The operation encountered many obstacles and was eventually aborted. Eight helicopters were sent to the first staging area, Desert One, but only five arrived in operational condition. One encountered hydraulic problems, another got caught in a cloud of very fine sand, and the last one showed signs of a cracked rotor blade. During planning it was decided that the mission would be aborted if fewer than six helicopters remained, despite only four being absolutely necessary. In a move that is still discussed in military circles, the commanders asked President Carter for permission to abort and Carter granted the request.
As the U.S. force prepared to leave, one of the helicopters crashed into a transport aircraft which contained both servicemen and jet fuel. The resulting fire destroyed both aircraft and killed eight servicemen. Operation Eagle Claw was one of Delta Force's first missions.[Note 2]
Planning and preparation
Preparing for the operation
The Joint Task Force commander was Army Major General James B. Vaught, while the fixed-wing and air mission commander was Colonel James H. Kyle, the helicopter commander was Marine Lieutenant Colonel Edward R. Seiffert, and the Delta Force commander was Colonel Charlie Beckwith.
The Tehran CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary team, led by retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer Richard J. Meadows, had two assignments: to obtain information about the hostages and the embassy grounds, and to transport the rescuers from Desert Two, a site just outside of Tehran, to the embassy grounds in pre-staged vehicles. In reality, the most important information came from an embassy cook released by the Iranians. He was discovered on a flight from Tehran at the last minute by another CIA officer, and confirmed that the hostages were centrally located in the embassy compound – this was a key piece of information long sought by the planners.
On 1 April, three weeks before the operation, a U.S. Air Force Combat Controller, Major John T. Carney Jr., was flown in a Twin Otter to Desert One, a staging area in the South Khorasan Province of Iran, near Tabas by two CIA officers for a clandestine survey of an airstrip. Despite their casual approach to the mission, Carney successfully surveyed the airstrip, installed remotely operated infrared lights and a strobe to outline a landing pattern for pilots, and took soil samples to determine the load-bearing properties of the desert surface. At that time, the floor was hard-packed sand, but in the ensuing three weeks, an ankle-deep layer of powdery sand was deposited by sandstorms.[Note 3]
The operation was designed as a complex two-night mission.
On the first night, Desert One would be secured and established with a protection force and approximately 6,000 gallons of jet fuel would be brought to the area in collapsible fuel bladders carried by United States Air Force (USAF) C-130 aircraft. Four EC-130Es (Call signs: Republic 4 to 6) would carry the Delta Force and other protection elements and three MC-130E Combat Talons (Call signs: Dragon 1 to 3) would carry the logistical supplies. Next, eight United States Marine Corps (USMC) RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters (Call signs: Bluebeard 1 to 8) would arrive from the USS Nimitz. The helicopters would refuel and fly the Delta Force soldiers to Desert Two. Because it would be close to morning, the helicopters and ground forces would hide during the day at Desert Two.
The second night would involve the actual rescue operation. First, CIA agents that were already inside Iran would bring trucks to Desert Two. Together, the CIA agents and ground forces would then drive from Desert Two into Tehran. While the main assault force was moving to Tehran, other US troops would disable electrical power to the area, hopefully slowing any response from the Iranian military. In addition, AC-130 gunships would be deployed over Tehran to provide any necessary supporting fire. Lastly, Army Rangers would capture the nearby Manzariyeh Air Base ( ) so that several C-141 Starlifters could arrive. The ground troops would then assault the Embassy and eliminate the guards. Afterwards the hostages and troops would rendezvous with the helicopters across the street at the Shahid Shiroudi Stadium. Lastly, the helicopters would bring everyone to the Manzariyeh Air Base, where the C-141s could fly everyone back to friendly territory.
Protection for the operation was to be provided by Carrier Air Wing 8 (CVW-8) operating from the USS Nimitz and CVW-14 operating from the USS Coral Sea. For this operation, the aircraft bore special black-red-black identification stripes on their right wings.
Commencement of the mission
Only the delivery of the protection element / rescue team, equipment and fuel by the C-130 aircraft went according to plan. The special operations transports took off from their staging base at Masirah Island near Oman and were refueled in-flight by KC-135 tankers off of the Iranian coast.
Dragon 1 landed at 22:45 local time after the hidden lights were activated. The landing was made under blacked-out conditions using the improvised infrared landing light system installed by Carney on the airstrip, visible only through night vision goggles. The heavily loaded Dragon 1 required four passes to determine that there were no obstructions on the airstrip[Note 4] and that it could land successfully. The landing resulted in substantial wing damage to the aircraft that later required it be rebuilt "from the ground up", but no one was hurt and it remained flyable. Dragon 1 off-loaded Kyle, a USAF Combat Control Team, Carney and Beckwith. The assault team consisted of 120 Delta operators, 12 Rangers forming the roadblock team, and 15 Iranian and American Persian-speakers, most of whom would act as truck drivers. The Combat Controllers established a parallel landing zone north of the dirt road and set out TACAN beacons to guide in the helicopters. The second and third MC-130s landed and discharged the remainder of the Delta operators, after which Dragon 1 and 2 took off at 23:15 to make room for the EC-130s and the eight RH-53Ds.
While on route, Bluebeard 6 was grounded and abandoned in the desert when its pilots interpreted a sensor indication as a cracked rotor blade. Its crew was picked up by Bluebeard 8. Then, the remaining helicopters ran into an unexpected weather phenomenon known as a haboob  (fine particles of sand suspended to a milky consistency in the air following dissipation of a thunderstorm). Bluebeard 5 flew into the haboob, but abandoned the mission and returned to the Nimitz when erratic flight control instrumentation made navigating without visual reference points impossible. The scattered formation reached Desert One, 50 to 90 minutes behind schedule. Bluebeard 2 arrived at Desert One with a malfunctioning second-stage hydraulics system leaving one hydraulics system to control the aircraft. [Note 5]
Soon after the first crews landed and began securing Desert One, a tanker truck, apparently smuggling fuel, was blown up nearby by the Delta Force roadblock team using a shoulder-fired rocket as it tried to escape the site. The truck's passenger was killed, but the driver managed to escape in an accompanying pickup truck. As the tanker truck was evaluated to be engaged in clandestine smuggling, the driver was not considered to pose a security threat to the mission. The resulting fire illuminated the nighttime landscape for many miles around, and actually provided a visual guide to Desert One for the disoriented incoming helicopters. A civilian Iranian bus with a driver and 43 passengers traveling on the same road, which now served as the runway for the aircraft, was forced to halt at approximately the same time and the passengers were detained aboard Republic 3.[Note 6]
With only five helicopters remaining to transport the men and equipment to Desert Two, which Beckwith considered was the mission's abort threshold, the various commanders reached a stalemate. Helicopter commander Seiffert refused to use Bluebeard 2 on the mission, while Beckwith refused to reduce his rescue team's size. Beckwith failed to incorporate intelligence from a Canadian diplomatic source into an alternative plan in case of aircraft failure - additionally, he anticipated losing additional helicopters at later stages, especially as they were notorious for failing on cold starts and they were to be shut down for almost 24 hours at Desert Two. Kyle recommended to Vaught that the mission be aborted. The recommendation was passed on by satellite radio up to the President. After two and a half hours on the ground, the abort order was received.
Fuel consumption calculations showed that the extra 90 minutes idling on the ground had made fuel critical for one of the EC-130s. When it became clear that only six helicopters would arrive at Desert One, Kyle had authorized the EC-130s to transfer 1,000 U.S. gallons from the bladders to their own main fuel tanks, but Republic 4 had already expended all of its bladder fuel refueling three of the helicopters and had none to transfer. To make it to the tanker refueling track without running out of fuel, it had to leave immediately, and was already loaded with part of the Delta team. In addition, RH-53 Bluebeard 4 needed additional fuel, requiring it be moved to the opposite side of the road.
To accomplish both actions, Bluebeard 3 had to be moved from directly behind the EC-130. The aircraft couldn't be moved by ground taxi and had to be moved by "hover taxi" (flying a short distance at low speed and altitude).[Note 7] A USAF Combat Controller attempted to direct the maneuver from in front of the aircraft, but was blasted by desert sand churned up by the rotor. As the Controller attempted to back away, Bluebeard 3's pilot perceived he was drifting backward (engulfed in a dust cloud, the pilot only had the Controller as a point of reference) and thus attempted to "correct" this situation by applying forward stick in order to maintain the same distance from the rearward moving marshaller. The RH-53 struck the EC-130's vertical stabilizer with its main rotor and crashed into the EC-130's wing root.
In the ensuing explosion and fire, eight servicemen died: five USAF aircrew in the EC-130, and three USMC aircrew in the RH-53, with only the helicopter pilot and co-pilot (both badly burned) surviving.[Note 8] During the frantic evacuation to the EC-130s by the helicopter crews, attempts were made to retrieve their classified mission documents and destroy the aircraft. The helicopter crews boarded the EC-130s. Five RH-53 aircraft were left behind mostly intact, some damaged by shrapnel. Bluebeards 2 and 8 now serve with the Iranian Navy. EC-130E Republic 5 which returned successfully, was retired by the USAF in June 2013 and is now on display at the Carolinas Aviation Museum.
The EC-130s carried the remaining forces back to the intermediate airfield at Masirah Island, where two C-141 medical evacuation aircraft from the staging base at Wadi Abu Shihat, Egypt (referred to as Wadi Kena by the U.S. forces due to its location near Qena, ), picked up the injured personnel, helicopter crews, Rangers and Delta Force members, and returned to Wadi Kena. The injured were then transported to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The Tehran CIA team left Iran, unaware of their compromised presence.
The White House announced the failed rescue operation at 1:00 AM the following day. The embassy hostages were subsequently scattered across Iran to make a second rescue attempt impossible. Iranian Army investigators found nine bodies, eight Americans and one Iranian civilian. The 44 Iranian civilians captured on the bus were interviewed[Clarification needed] and gave eyewitness accounts of the operation.
The various services' failure to cohesively work together eventually forced the establishment of a new multi-service organization several years later. The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) became operational on 16 April 1987. Each service now has its own special operations forces under USSOCOM's overall control.[Note 9]
The lack of well-trained Army helicopter pilots who were capable of the low-level night flying needed for modern special operations missions prompted the creation of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) (Night Stalkers). In addition to the 160th SOAR's creation, the U.S. Defense Department now trains many military helicopter pilots in low-level penetration, aerial refueling and use of night-vision goggles. H-47, H-53, H-60 and V-22 aircraft all include special operations capabilities.
Planning for a second rescue mission was authorized under the name Project Honey Badger shortly after the first failed. Plans and exercises were conducted, but the manpower and aircraft requirements grew to involve nearly a battalion of troops, more than fifty aircraft, and such contingencies as transporting a 12-ton bulldozer to rapidly clear a blocked runway. Even though numerous rehearsal exercises were successful, the helicopters' failure during the first attempt resulted in development of a subsequent concept involving only fixed-wing STOL aircraft capable of flying from the U.S. to Iran using aerial refueling, then returning to land on an aircraft carrier for medical treatment of wounded.
The concept, called Operation Credible Sport, was developed but never implemented. It called for a modified Hercules, the YMC-130H, outfitted with rocket thrusters fore and aft to allow an extremely short landing and take-off in Amjadieh Stadium. Three aircraft were modified under a rushed secret program. The first fully modified aircraft crashed during a demonstration at Duke Field at Eglin Air Force Base on 29 October 1980, when its landing braking rockets were fired too soon. The misfire caused a hard touchdown that tore off the starboard wing and started a fire. All on board survived without injury. The impending change of administration in the White House forced this project's abandonment.
Despite Credible Sport's failure, the Honey Badger exercises continued until after the 1980 U.S. presidential election, when they became moot. Even so, numerous special operations applications and techniques were developed which became part of the emerging USSOCOM repertoire.
President Carter continued to attempt to secure the hostages' release before his presidency's end. Despite extensive last-minute negotiations, he didn't succeed. On 20 January 1981, minutes after Carter's term ended, the 52 U.S. captives held in Iran were released, ending the 444-day Iran hostage crisis.
Retired Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James L. Holloway III led the official investigation in 1980 into the causes of the operation's failure on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Holloway Report primarily cited deficiencies in mission planning, command and control, and inter-service operability, and provided a catalyst to reorganize the Department of Defense, and the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.
Eight U.S. servicemembers died during the mission. A memorial honoring the eight Americans who lost their lives during the rescue attempt is located in the Arlington National Cemetery.
Units involved in the operation
Units known to have participated:
U.S. Air Force
- 1st Special Operations Wing: 8th (EC-130), and 16th Special Operations Squadrons (AC-130)
- 18th Tactical Fighter Wing: 1st Special Operations Squadron (MC-130)
- SF-121 personnel involved (1 per aircraft) are still classified.
- RED HORSE units, and numerous support organizations
- 1st Combat Communications Squadron
- 30th Military Airlift Squadron (C-141A), 438th Military Airlift Wing, McGuire AFB
- 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing
- 26th Security Police Squadron, Zweibrucken AB Germany
- 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta ("Delta Force"), including Col. Charlie Beckwith, Maj. Peter Schoomaker, Maj. William G. Boykin, and MSG Eric L. Haney
- 75th Ranger Regiment
- Special Forces (United States Army) 39th Special Forces Detachment (Airborne)
- 235th Signal Detachment (TACSAT) (Wadi Qena)
- USS Nimitz (CVN-68) with Carrier Air Wing 8 and escorts (USS California (CGN-36), USS South Carolina (CGN-37), USS Texas (CGN-39) and USS Reeves (CG-24))
- USS Wichita (AOR-1)
- USS Coral Sea (CV-43) and escorts, USS William H. Standley (CG-32), USS Cook (FF-1083), USS Roanoke (AOR-7), with Carrier Air Wing 14
- USS Okinawa (LPH-3)
- USS Gridley (CG-21)
- USS Alamo (LPD-33)
- USS San Bernardino (LST-1189).
- USS Barbey (FF-1088)
- USS Mobile (LKA-115)
- Marine Aviation Weapons Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS-1)
- Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 16 (HM-16) aboard Nimitz
- Patrol Squadron 16 (VP-16)
Notes and References
- Iranian fuel-truck driver
- The Holloway Commission blamed the ad hoc nature of the task force and an excessive degree of security, both of which intensified command-and-control problems.
- The "box four and one" pattern acted like a gun sight, with the distant fifth light at the end of the runway lined up in the center of the near four lights positioned at the approach end. The box provided a touchdown area and the far light marked the end of the rollout area.
- This was done by use of a Forward looking infrared (FLIR) pass before attempting to land.
- The second-stage hydraulics system powers the number-one automatic flight control system and a portion of the primary flight controls
- It was originally planned to simulate a head-on accident between the tanker and the bus, flying the bus passengers out of Iran aboard Dragon 3 and then returning them to Manzaniyeh on the second night.
- Either because of a deflated nose gear tire, because of the layer of soft sand, or both. It had originally been positioned behind the EC-130 by a flight technique in which its nose gear was held off the ground while it rolled on its main gear.
- The 5 US Airmen killed were Major Richard L. Bakke, Navigator; Major Harold L Lewis Jr., Pilot & Aircraft Commander; TSgt Joel C. Mayo, Flight Engineer; Major Lyn D. McIntosh, Co-Pilot; and Captain Charles T. McMillan, Navigator. The 3 US Marine casualties were Sgt John D. Harvey, Cpl George N. Holmes Jr., and SSgt Dewey L Johnson, the 3 of them were Marine Helicopter crewmen & riflemen.
- For example, the Army has its own special operations command, which controls its special operations forces. The U.S.A.F. special operations units that supplied the rescue attempt's MC-130 elements were awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for both that year and the next, had the initial squadron of nine HH-53 Pave Low helicopters transferred from Military Airlift Command to its jurisdiction for long-range low-level night flying operations, and became co-hosts at its home base of Hurlburt Field with Air Force Special Operations Command.
- "Jimmy Carter: Iran hostage rescue should have worked". 17 September 2010. http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2010-09-17-iran-hostages-jimmy-carter_N.htm.
- Bowden, Mark. "The Desert One Debacle". The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/05/the-desert-one-debacle/304803/2/. Retrieved 20 September 2013.
- Operation Eagle Claw, 1980: A Case Study In Crisis Management and Military Planning
- Gabriel (1985), pp. 106–116.
- Bottoms (2007), pp 26-31
- Radvanyi, Richard, A. Maj. "Operation Eagle Claw: Lessons Learned". USMC Command and Staff College. http://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA402471. Retrieved 20 September 2013.
- Bowden (2006)
- Department of Transportation, US Government (2012), pp. 3-4
- Thigpen (2001), p. 226
- Holloway, James L. Adm. "The Holloway Report" (PDF). http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB63/doc8.pdf. Accessed 31 March 2007.
- James Bancroft. "The Hostage Rescue Attempt In Iran, 24–25 April 1980". http://rescueattempt.tripod.com/id1.html. Retrieved 11 November 2010.
- "Iran Hostage Crisis ends – History.com This Day in History – January 20, 1981". History.com. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/1/20. Retrieved 8 June 2010.
- US DoD DD214: Decorations/Sailor Present.
- Beckwith, Col. Charlie A., US Army (Ret.) (2000). Delta Force: The Army's Elite Counter Terrorist Unit. Avon. ISBN 0-380-80939-7.
- Bottoms, Mike (2007). "Carney receives Simons Award" (pdf). Tip of the Spear. United States Special Operations Command Public Affairs Office. pp. 26–31. http://www.specialoperations.net/Spear/tipspear.pdf. Retrieved 11 November 2010.
- Bowden, Mark (2006). Guests Of The Ayatollah: The First Battle In America's War With Militant Islam. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-925-1.
- Gabriel, Richard A. (1985). Military Incompetence: Why the American Military Doesn't Win. Hill and Wang. ISBN 0-374-52137-9.
- Haney, Eric (2002). Inside Delta Force: The Story Of America's Elite Counter Terrorist Unit. Random House. ISBN 0-385-33603-9.
- Kamps, Charles Tustin (2006). "Operation Eagle Claw: The Iran Hostage Rescue Mission". http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/apjinternational/apj-s/2006/3tri06/kampseng.html.
- Department of Transportation, US Government (2012). Aeronautical Information Manual. U.S. Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration. p. 4-3-18. http://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/media/AIMbasic_2-9-2012.pdf.
- Additional Reading
- Kyle, Col. James H., USAF (Ret.) (1990). The Guts to Try. New York: Orion Books. ISBN 0-517-57714-3.
- Lenahan, Rod (1998). Crippled Eagle: A Historical Perspective Of U.S. Special Operations 1976–1996. Narwhal Press. ISBN 1-886391-22-X.
- Olausson, Lars, Lockheed Hercules Production List 1954–2005, Såtenäs, Sweden, annually, no ISBN.
- Ryan, Paul B. (1985). The Iranian Rescue Mission: Why if Failed?. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-321-0.
Aircraft on Display
- EC-130E 62-1857 Republic 5 at Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.
- The Canadian Caper, the successful joint Canadian-CIA covert extraction operation of six fugitive American diplomats out of Iran.
- The Battle of Mogadishu (1993)
- "The Desert One Debacle" – The Atlantic, May 2006
- Modern Warfare: Special Operations, Operation Eagle Claw – The first part of a series of articles on Kuro5hin
- Pictorial overview
- Airman magazine – Archive of interviews with surviving participants
- The Holloway Report – The official DoD investigation into the incident
- Charles Cogan, Desert One and Its Disorders, The Journal of Military History 67.1 (2003) 201-216
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