On November 4, 1979, nearly 3,000 fundamentalist Iranian students stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 63 American personnel hostage. The storming of the Embassy came after the fall of Iran’s U.S.-backed government and the rise of an Islamic republic. The United States feared for the safety of all the hostages and as a result, on April 16, 1980, after months of being held, U.S. President Jimmy Carter approved a military rescue operation to free the hostages and end the crisis, codenamed Eagle Claw.
The operation utilized the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force of the United States military in a complex, multi-stage mission.
Aircraft and Assault Forces
The first stage called for U.S. aircraft to the stage at Desert One landing zone, 320 kilometres southeast of Tehran. This staging site would allow for aircraft to refuel and enable the helicopters on the mission to successfully complete a round-trip flight with assault forces. According to the United States Air Force, the following aircraft were planned to be used throughout the operation:
- 3 – USAF Lockheed MC-130
- 3 – USAF Lockheed EC-130
- 8 – USMC Sikorsky RH-53D Helicopters
- USAF Lockheed C-141
- USAF AC-130 Gunship
The following ground troops were utilized to execute the mission:
- U.S. Army 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta
- U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment
- CIA Special Activities Division
Operation Eagle Claw would be the first-ever operation for the then newly formed Delta Force. The unit was led by their founder Colonel Charles Beckwith who served as the Ground Force Commander of the operation.
The Planned Operation
After time spent training and preparing, the Carter Administration began to execute the planned two-day rescue operation. The operation would begin with the MC-130s carrying the 118-man assault force. Additionally, EC-130s carried fuel to execute refuelling during the operation, taking off from Masirah Island in Oman to Desert One.
At the same time, the eight RH-53D helicopters would depart from the USS Nimitz en route to Desert One. After a refuelling process, the assault force would fly towards a destination just over 100 kilometres outside of Tehran. At this checkpoint, the assault team went into hiding with CIA personnel from the Special Activities Division and local assets.
The following day, the CIA personnel and assets would drive the assault force to the Embassy. At that point the hostages would be secured and a helicopter would collect everyone at the Embassy and transport them over 55 kilometres south to an area secured by the members of the 75th Ranger Regiment in Manzariyeh. At this point, the C-141 transports would fly the hostages out of the country.
A Failed Mission
On April 24, Operation Eagle Claw was put into action after weeks of training. The MC-130s and EC-130s took off from Masirah Island and headed for Desert One. After entering Iranian airspace, the aircraft encountered what Iranians call a “haboob.” A haboob is an intense dust storm sweeping across the southern part of the country. The aircraft were unaffected by the dust storm but aircrew radioed back to warn the vulnerable RH-53D helicopters following behind. Crucially, the message was not received by the helicopter crews who were already underway.
First Signs of Trouble
Importantly, of the eight helicopters at least six had to reach Desert One in order for the mission to continue. Along the journey, one of the helicopters encountered a warning that detailed a nitrogen leak in the rotor. The crew was forced to abandon the helicopter and be picked up by one of the other seven helicopters. At this point, the helicopters are just encountering their first haboob.
At this time, the MC-130s and EC-130s were beginning to land at Desert One when they spotted a passenger bus near the landing zone. Due to the risk of one of the passengers of the bus compromising the secrecy of the operation, U.S. forces detained the 45 passengers of the bus. Soon thereafter, a fuel truck came driving down the highway adjacent to the landing strip of Desert One. After giving orders to the truck drivers to stop the vehicle, to which they did not comply, American forces fired an M72 LAW anti-tank missile at the fuel truck which exploded. A pickup truck that was following the fuel truck picked up the sole occupant of the vehicle and quickly fled in the opposite direction of American forces. Despite this chaos, the assault force commander decided to continue with the operation.
As the helicopters continued their journey, the massive amounts of dust were causing critical issues. One of the helicopters developed a hydraulic leak though the air crew continued to push on. Another helicopter was less fortunate, experiencing electrical issues and loss of flight instruments while flying through what the pilots described as “flying in a darkened milk bowl.” This forced the helicopter to turn around and return to the USS Nimitz, leaving six helicopters left on the operation.
Challenges on the Ground
The ground forces were impatiently waiting at Desert One as the sunlight required for the operation was dwindling. Eventually, an hour and a half later, the helicopters arrived at Desert One. The ground force commander, Colonel Beckwith, decided the mission was to continue and began loading the assault force onto the helicopters and the Iranian bus passengers onto an MC-130 for transport to the Manzariyeh airport. After conferring with the air crew, the pilots determined that the helicopter with the hydraulic issue would not be able to make it to Tehran. This meant the mission had to be aborted.
As the men on the ground began to make way for the aircraft to line up for a departure with the American forces, the dust and confusion led to catastrophe. As one of the helicopters hovered and believed space was cleared, it rotated and hit the rear wing of one of the EC-130 aircraft. The result was an explosion that destroyed both helicopter and airplane, killing eight Americans.
The ground commander determined that they must load the remaining Americans on board the MC-130 and leave as quickly as possible for Masirah, leaving behind four functional helicopters and the dead Americans.
The Aftermath of Eagle Claw
Operation Eagle Claw is widely held as a total disaster. In addition to the loss of eight American servicemen, the American hostages remained at the Embassy and the helicopters left behind were put into service in the Iranian military.
Out of the failed operation came a number of significant steps in the United States military planning and operations. Soon after the operation, the United States began the formation of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the Air Forces’ contribution, the Air Force Special Operations Command. This development would lead to much greater coordination and planning between the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force on special operations that would follow.
Since Operation Eagle Claw and the founding of the U.S. Special Operations Command, the United States has been able to plan and execute high-profile operations with much more efficiency and success. SOCOM has been working at the tip of the spear in conflict since Eagle Claw, through the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and in lesser-known areas of the world where planning and success are critical.