On the night of April 1, 1980, two CIA officers flew Major John T. Carney Jr., a U.S. Air Force Combat Controller, to a small strip of road in the South Khorasan Province, Iran.
This location would live in special operations infamy forever, by its code name – Desert One.
Maj. Carney installed infrared lights, a strobe for use as landing lights, and tested the ground, which was hard-packed sand. By this time, Iranian students had held 52 American diplomats and other embassy personnel hostage for 149 days.
The U.S. military was going to get them out.
This final, very complex mission was supposed to take two nights. Colonel James Kyle, commanding officer at Desert One and planner for Eagle Claw called it “the most colossal episode of hope, despair, and tragedy I had experienced in nearly three decades of military service.”
On the first night, three Air Force C-130s would bring 6000 gallons of fuel in bladders to Desert One. Then three EC-130Es would carry 120 Delta Force operators, 12 U.S. Army Rangers, and 15 Farsi-speaking Americans and Iranians. Three MC-130E Combat Talon aircraft would also carry supplies.
All would enter Iran from the Southern coast of the Gulf of Oman. Eight Navy Sea Stallion helicopters would fly in from the USS Nimitz, refuel, and carry the Deltas to Desert Two, a location 52 miles from Tehran. All would hide during the day.
The second night commenced the rescue operation.
The CIA was supposed to bring trucks to Desert Two and drive the operators into the capital. Other troops were to cut the power to the area around the embassy as the Rangers captured the abandoned Manzariyeh Air Base. This would give arriving USAF C-141 Starlifter aircraft a suitable place to land. Maj. Carney would command the Air Force combat-control team to provide ground control to the temporary airfield.
An Army Special Forces team would hit the foreign ministry to free the top three diplomats who were held separately. Meanwhile, Delta Force would storm the embassy, kill the guards, move the hostages to the stadium across the street where the helicopters would pick everyone up, and take them to the air base where the Starlifters would take them home.
U.S. forces, fuel, and supplies were delivered as planned. Everything else was a debacle. Ranger roadblock teams securing the deserted road blew up a tanker smuggling fuel and detained a civilian bus and its passengers.
On the way to Desert One, one of the Sea Stallions had to be abandoned on the ground because of a cracked rotor blade. Its crew was picked up by one of the other Sea Stallions.
The other six ran into an intense sandstorm known as a haboob – a windy mix of suspended sand and dust, moving at up to 60 mph. One of the remaining Sea Stallions had to return to base because of the storm while the rest took an extra 90 minutes getting to Desert One, one sustaining damage to its hydraulic system.
This left five total helicopters. The mission minimum was four – U.S. Army Col. Charles Beckwith, commander of the Delta Force, requested the okay to abort this mission, which President Carter granted.
Back at Desert One, the evacuation began in haste. The extra 90 minutes on the ground expended more fuel than planned.
When one of the Sea Stallion helicopters attempted to move into a position to refuel, it blew up a cloud of dust the road collected in the previous three weeks. Unable to see properly, the RH-53 crashed into the EC-130 carrying troops and fuel, killing eight, five of the 14 Airmen in the EC-130, and three of the five Marines in the RH-53.
All five remaining helicopters were left on the ground in the subsequent evacuation (two of them are still in active service with the Iranian Navy). The bodies of all eight Airmen and Marines were found by the Iranians the next day.
The failure of communications between branches during Eagle Claw is the reason each services’ special operations commands now fall under USSOCOM. Many further changes in structure resulted after intense scrutiny, research and a Congressional Committee.
Plans for a second rescue operation continued under the code name Project Honey Badger, but ended with the election of President Ronald Reagan and the hostages’ subsequent release.
Reagan sent Carter to greet the hostages as they arrived in Germany. When asked what he would do differently during his Presidency, Carter remarked “I would have sent one more helicopter, which would have meant that we could have brought out all the hostages and also the rescue team.”
Bruce Laingen, hostage and former charge d’affaires to the embassy in Iran on the operation:
“While no day hurts more — than today and always — than the day when these brave men lost their lives in an attempt to reach us, no day makes us more proud as well, because of the way in which they stood for that cause of human freedom. For that, all of us (former hostages) will be forever grateful.”
The men who died at Desert One:
Capt. Harold L. Lewis Jr., U.S. Air Force, Capt. Lyn D. McIntosh, U.S. Air Force, Capt. Richard L. Bakke, U.S. Air Force, Capt. Charles McMillian, U.S. Air Force, Tech. Sgt. Joel C. Mayo, U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Dewey Johnson, U.S. Marine Corps, Sgt. John D. Harvey, U.S. Marine Corps, Cpl. George N. Homes, U.S. Marine Corps.
Their remains were not recovered, but a memorial dedicated to their memory stands in Arlington National Cemetery.