January 20, 1981, hostages in Iran were released, after 444 days in captivity.
Jimmy Carter Library and Museum:
Sixty-six Americans were taken captive when Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, including three who were at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Six more Americans escaped. Of the 66 who were taken hostage, 13 were released on Nov. 19 and 20, 1979; one was released on July 11, 1980, and the remaining 52 were released on Jan. 20, 1981.
The year before, a secret combined-forces mission was planned to rescue the hostages. The mission, Operation Eagle Claw, was aborted following mechanical problems and ended in tragedy, with the deaths of three Marines and five Air Force service members.
The following list includes articles, images, declassified documents, and video about the Iranian hostage crisis and Operation Eagle Claw. As with other Command Posts lists it will be updated on an ongoing basis.
November 4, 1979: The Iran Hostage Crisis by Ray Takeyh
“During August 2005, American newspapers and television screens were unexpectedly filled with images of 1979. The scene of the U.S. embassy in Iran being taken over by radical students, effigies of Uncle Sam being burned, and angry mobs desecrating the American flag seemed the order of the day. The latest crisis in U.S.–Iranian relations was sparked by five former American hostages who identified the newly elected Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as one of their captors. The Iranian denials did not diminish the anger of the hostages and their demands for justice and recompense. The revival of the dramas of 1979 reveals that the hostage crisis is hardly a stale historic episode; its images and emotions continue to shape the collective conscious of the American public. For a generation of Americans, the hostage crisis remains an open wound, transforming Iran into an unsavory state unfit for rehabilitation.”
Hostage Robert C. Ode’s Diary (via the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum)
Beyond Hell and Back, by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and John D. Gresham
On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Fehran and took hostage all the Americans in the compound. Fheir proclaimed intent was twofold. Fhey wished to force the United States to return the exiled shah of Iran, who was in America for medical treatment. Fhey were also seeking evidence of a CIA plot to overthrow the new Islamic republic that had formed under the cleric Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. While publicly pursuing diplomatic efforts to free the captive Americans, President Jimmy Carter covertly authorized a top-secret rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw. It would be conducted by America’s new and equally secret counterterrorist unit, the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta—Delta Force, commanded by its founder, Colonel Charles Beckwith. Fhe hostage crisis dominated world news, the rescue attempt failed disastrously, the crisis ultimately lasted 444 days, and Eagle Claw’s failure in large part contributed to President Carter’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election. Fhe mission became a textbook example that has been studied by special operations personnel ever since. More importantly, Operation Eagle Claw became the touchstone for the creation of Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
President Carter on the Iran Hostage Crisis and Attempted Rescue, by Brian Michael Till
“What’s the single decision you made as president that you most regret?”
“I would say the hostage rescue effort in Iran in April of 1980. It was a perfectly planned, highly secret, somewhat complex procedure that everybody agreed to do. And in order to extract all of the hostages plus all the rescue team from Iran, we had to have six functioning helicopters. So I ordered eight helicopters and two of them had to fly from an aircraft carrier about 600 miles across areas of Iran and Oman and land in a desert, which we had already explored.”
White House Diary, by President Jimmy Carter
April 24, 1980
“The following account of the rescue attempt is drawn from a number of entries in my diary.
“The sole objective of the operation was to position the rescue team for the subsequent effort to withdraw the American hostages, which required my approval before [the team] executed the rescue itself. No such approval was requested or given because, as described below, the mission was aborted.”
Intelligence Support Activity: Frustration from Beirut to Grenada, by Michael Smith
“During the 1970s, the British Army’s special forces unit, the Special Air Service, and its marine equivalent, then known as the Special Boat Squadron, had exchange arrangements with their US counterparts, the US Army Special Forces and the US Navy SEALs. It was his time on attachment to the SAS that led Colonel Charlie Chargin’ Beckwith, the founder of Delta, to model his new unit on the SAS. Similarly SEAL Team Six, the US Navy counterterrorist force set up in the wake of Eagle Claw, the failed 1980 attempt to rescue the Americans held hostage in Tehran, drew inspiration from the SBS.
“But there were a number of other US special operations units created in reaction to the Eagle Claw debacle. One of them was set up by another Special Forces colonel with his own experience of working with the SAS. Jerry King, who set up a special operations intelligence team for a second effort to rescue the hostages, had an SAS sergeant attached to him in the early 1960s while he was at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.”
Beirut, Grenada and ISA Revisted, by Noel Koch
CP Note: October 25th, 2011, CommandPosts ran the piece “Intelligence Support Activity: Frustration from Beirut to Grenada,” excerpted from Michael Smith’s book Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America’s Most Secret Special Operations Team. Noel Koch, who was mentioned in the excerpt, served for eleven months as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy in the Obama Administration. He also served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa Region, and Director of Special Planning with responsibility for anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism as well as the restoration of Special Operations Forces during the Reagan Administration. The Special Planning Director was the precursor of SO/LIC.” Thank you to Noel for weighing in on the excerpt and providing an extended first-person view of 1983 Beirut, Grenada and the development of ISA within his post.
In May 1980, the Joint Chiefs of Staff commissioned a Special Operations Review Group to conduct a broad examination of the planning, organization, coordination, direction, and control of the Iranian hostage rescue mission, as a basis for recommending improvement in these areas for the future. The Review Group consisted of six military officers—three who had retired after distinguished careers, and three still on active duty: Admiral James L. Holloway III (USN, Ret.), Lieutenant General Samuel V. Wilson (USA, Ret.), Lieutenant General Leroy J. Manor (USAF, Ret.), Major General James C. Smith (USA), Major General John L. Piotrowski (USAF), and Major General Alfred M. Gray, Jr. (USMC).
“To You All, From Us All, For Having The Guts To Try—30 Years Later“, Senior Airman Ryan Whitney, Air Force Special Operations Command
Hurlbert Remembers Operation Eagle Claw, 1st SOW History Office, Hurlbert Field
The Desert One Debacle, by Mark Bowden, Atlantic Monthly
Operation Eagle Claw: The Iran Hostage Rescue Mission by Charles Tustin Camps
“In military history one can stand out as a splendid example or a disastrous reminder. The brave men who attempted to rescue American hostages in Iran in April of 1980 unfortunately became a disastrous reminder of the need for unity of command, joint training, and good communications, and the dangers of overly complex and needlessly compartmented planning. The failure of their mission, Operation Eagle Claw, would be a prime motivator in the subsequent formation of US Special Operations Command.”
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