How Operation Eagle Claw Unraveled
On the evening of April 24, 1980, eight RH-53 helicopters took off from the aircraft carrier Nimitz, in the Indian Ocean, and began a secret, 600-mile journey at low altitude, below radar detection, to a refueling stop in the Iranian desert, where they’d be met by C-130 Pathfinders flying in from another direction. Two hours into the journey, one of the helicopters’ rotor blades malfunctioned. The crew landed, abandoned the helicopter, and was picked up by another RH-53.
An hour after that, the seven remaining helicopters encountered a dust cloud. The squadron made it through, only to encounter a larger, denser cloud an hour later. Another helicopter malfunctioned and opted to return to the Nimitz. The six remaining helicopters made it one by one to their refueling spot, called Desert One, 50 to 85 minutes behind schedule. One of the helicopters’ hydraulic pumps failed on the way to the refueling spot. There was no replacement pump, and there’d have been no time to replace it had there been one. The mission was down to five operational helicopters, one short of the minimum commanders had agreed was required to succeed in a hostage rescue.
On the phone from Washington, President Carter aborted the mission, ordering the remaining helicopters and the C-130s back to the Nimitz after refueling.
While repositioning during the refueling operation, a helicopter slammed into a C-130, immediately engulfing both aircraft in flames, killing eight crew members and injuring five. Ammunition aboard the aircraft began to explode, damaging the remaining helicopters with shrapnel. The decision was made to abandon the helicopters and use the C-130s to fly back to the Nimitz. As the rescue of the rescue operation was unfolding, a bus full of Iranians drove by on the dirt road, forcing American troops to hold it hostage until the aircraft were ready to leave. Five of the helicopters were left behind intact, yielding valuable secret documents to Iranian authorities, which risked the lives of other Americans who’d infiltrated the country as part of the operation.
Within days of the failed rescue, Cyrus Vance, who had opposed it, resigned on principle, becoming ionly the second secretary of state to resign in 65 years (William Jennings Bryan resigned in 1915 to protest what he perceived were Woodrow Wilson’s belligerent policies). Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine followed Vance as secretary of state.
Carter’s presidency did not recover. He lost the election to Ronald Reagan. The hostages were released, unharmed, moments after Reagan’s inauguration, on Jan. 20, 1981, after 444 days in captivity.
“In the years that followed,” Vanced told the Asia Society in a speech in 1999, “I have watched from the sidelines with frustration and sadness as relations between our two countries plunges into increasing hostility, mistrust, name-calling, and mutual recrimination.”
What Might Have Been
Less known are the extent to which Brzezinski was ready to apply force, and the motives behind his approach. His April 1982 account of the failed operation revealed that one day before the operation, Carter had rejected a plan—in fact, Brzezinski’s plan—to cloak the rescue in a vast, punitive military assault on Iran.
As a diversionary tactic, the military had been instructed to stage a collision with a Russian ship to take attention away from Iran, and perhaps prevent the Soviet Union from intervening there. Brzezinski had proposed that Carter allow the talking of Iranian hostages as bargaining chips during the operation.
Outrage of a Former Hostage
The revelations elicited an incensed response from William J. Daugherty, a Department of State official who’d been one of the hostages in Tehran. In proposing to take “counterhostages,” Daugherty wrote in a letter to the editor published in the May 30, 1982 New York Times, “Mr. Brzezinski was proposing nothing less than a duplication of Iranian actions, actions which the United States had been condemning in international forums since the embassy takeover. Mr. Brzezinski stated that the counterhostages would serve as a form of insurance against the execution of myself, perhaps, and my colleagues, by the Iranians. What did Mr. Brzezinski intend to do with the counterhostages if our executions had begun? He does not give us the answer, but the implied threat is obvious.
“Beyond that, Mr. Brzezinski writes that he wanted to pursue a punitive, retaliatory strike against Iran, in addition to the rescue attempt. As deeply as I loathe revolutionary Iran (for what it did to my country, to my family and to myself), I am dismayed that a high United States Government official would urge the President to commit the indiscriminate killing of civilian personnel for no better purpose than revenge (the raid surely couldn't have been to demonstrate the power of the United States -it was five and a half months too late for that).”
The Dead of Operation Eagle Claw
Air Force Capt. Harold L. Lewis Jr.
Air Force Capt. Lyn D. McIntosh
Air Force Capt. Richard L. Bakke
Air Force Capt. Charles McMillian
Air Force Sgt. Joel C. Mayo
Marine Staff Sgt. Dewey Johnson
Marine Sgt. John D. Harvey
Marine Cpl. George N. Holmes