Americans Taken Hostage
Ranger reunion honors historic task force
Left: Approximately 20 rangers from the Operation Eagle Claw met for a reunion following the 1980 historic military operation. Photos by James Pratt
Forty years ago in 1980, headlines began blasting across the media: “Americans Taken Hostage.” Gene Peters, a member of the Cimarron Electric Cooperative, was at that time an army sergeant with “Hardrock Charlie” Company, 1/75th Ranger Division; he participated in one of the most daring events of international intrigue as part of an American task force that swept into Iran to rescue Americans held hostage by Islamic revolutionaries at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Recently, Peters and his wife Laura hosted a Ranger reunion at their Geary, Oklahoma, home to honor the rescue task force and commemorate brothers-in-arms who died in the operation. About 20 former Rangers attended.
In early 1979, Islamic revolutionaries ousted President Mohammed Pahlavi and returned to power exiled dictator Ayatollah Khomeini, who blamed President Jimmy Carter for Iran’s troubles.
Carter pulled U.S. citizens out of Iran, leaving a skeletal staff at the U.S. Embassy. In May 1979, a mob of about 150,000 stormed the embassy and seized 66 U.S. diplomats to hold as hostages against any American retaliation.
Sgt. Gene Peters and six other Army Rangers undergoing jumpmaster parachute training at Fort Benning, Georgia, were summoned back to “Hardrock Charlie” Company on secret orders for an unspecified mission.
“Something big is going down,” they speculated.
The U.S. National Security Council weighed military options against Iran. President Carter decided on a rescue attempt dubbed Operation Eagle Claw.
Eleven groups of men were assembled in a task force from among elite units of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, as well as from the CIA. Army Gen. James Vaught assumed overall command. Delta Force founder and commander Col. Charlie Beckwith spearheaded the operation.
Training lasted for five hard months, up to 22 hours a day. The purpose of Eagle Claw remained a closely guarded secret even from most of the troops involved.
A total of 44 aircraft would be utilized. Cargo planes would transport troops of the task force to selected penetration points at Desert One and Desert Two. Helicopters, along with civilian vans obtained clandestinely by CIA agents, would follow assault elements into the embassy to transport rescued and rescuers to an isolated little-used airport on the desert to be airlifted out by C-141s. More than 900 troops would participate in the rescue.
The plan began unfolding on the night of April 24, 1980. By then, 52 hostages remained at the embassy. The others had been released for one reason or another.
Peters’ “Hardrock Charlie” Company flew in on a C-130 to the forward staging point to provide tactical security for Desert One.
Tension mounted as the massive cargo plane approached at 400 feet AGL in total darkness using only infrared lights. It touched down in the desert silence and Rangers hustled to their security points. Things suddenly began to go wrong.
The headlights of a civilian passenger bus approached along a nearby road. Rangers fired on the bus to stop it and detained 45 Iranian passengers.
Almost immediately after, an Iranian gasoline truck came barreling down the road. When it refused to stop, Rangers launched a LAW rocket that ignited the truck in a blaze. Then came a small pickup truck. Peters wryly considered that Desert One could have been located next to a freeway, considering all the traffic. The pickup driver spotted flames ahead, executed a screeching U-turn and fled.
The U.S. ground commander decided to let the pickup go and continue the mission.
At this same time, one of eight RH-53 Sea Stallion choppers en route from USS Nimitz developed rotor-blade failure and had to be abandoned.
Shortly thereafter, the remaining seven helicopters flew into a massive cyclonic dust storm called a haboob. Buffeted by intense winds, pilots flew nearly blind at low level through the night storm.
A second bird suffered navigation problems. The pilot had to abort and return to Nimitz.
A third chopper experienced hydraulic problems but continued to the staging area where it was deemed irreparable, leaving only five helicopters, the absolute minimum required to accomplish the rescue. The chopper flight had also arrived 90 minutes late and daylight was approaching.
These combined events critically cut the task force’s resources. Delta Force commander Beckwith requested President Carter abort the mission, to which Carter acceded.
As Peters and other ground forces hastened to vacate Iran, a chopper maneuvering to refuel from a C-130 struck the cargo plane with its rotors and exploded. Eight American rescuers died in the disaster. Ground commanders decided to abandon the four remaining choppers and load everyone on C-130s to return to Masirah. Operation Eagle Claw failed disastrously.
Plans and training for a second rescue operation ended with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in a 1980 landslide victory. Iran released the remaining embassy hostages just minutes after Reagan was sworn into office.
Five days after the failed rescue attempt, two British airmen had delivered a case of beer to their American brethren. Scribbled across the box: “To you all, from us all, for having the guts to try.”
“Some say we failed,” said Gen. James Vaught, the task force commander. “Others say it was a fiasco. It was none of that. It was the best effort by a team of brave volunteers to accomplish a difficult and dangerous mission. Never have I seen more determined Americans try so hard to do the right thing.”