In a little-known operation during the opening days of the Iranian Islamic revolution, a Texas billionaire — who would later run for president twice as an Independent — put together a daring rescue mission for two employees imprisoned by revolutionaries.
Through cunning, guile, persistence — and a little luck — the Americans were secreted out of the country in the midst of a violent revolution that would see 52 other Americans held for 444 days and a failed rescue attempt that ended in the deaths of eight U.S. troops and a deeply wounded presidency.
A full year before the American embassy in Iran was seized by revolutionaries, militants resisting supreme leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi captured two employees of a Texas computer company who were in the country helping put together information systems for the government. Their boss, a Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, was determined to get them out — by skill or by force.
Perot is best remembered for his two third-party campaigns for the U.S. presidency. The now 86-year-old CEO was the last third-party candidate to poll neck-in-neck with the two major party candidates.
Perot founded IT equipment company Electronic Data Systems in 1962. Within six years, Perot became what Forbes called "the fastest, richest Texan." He would sell EDS to General Motors for $2.4 billion in 1984 — but in 1978, he was still the man in charge. He made a deal with the Shah to install EDS social security computer systems in Iran and sent Paul J. Chiapparone and William Gaylord to fulfill the contract.
In December 1978, Chiapparone and Gaylord were denied their passports to leave the country. When the two Americans went to negotiate their exit from Iran, they were thrown in jail by Islamic revolutionaries.
With bail set at $12.7 million, it was a good thing Ross Perot was their boss.
Perot was appointed by Secretary of the Navy John Warner to report on the conditions of Americans in Vietnamese and Laotian POW camps for four years until the prisoners were released in 1972 at the end of the Vietnam War.
The very next month the Shah abdicated his throne and fled the country, leaving a power vacuum that would eventually be filled by Islamic revolutionaries led by the cleric Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Americans all over Iran would be persecuted and some held prisoner, including 52 U.S. embassy personnel held for 444 days. But Perot refused to let his men suffer the same fate. And though he was willing to pay the ransom, there was concern that the captors might not receive the funds.
So Perot launched Operation HOTFOOT (Help Our Two Friends Out Of Tehran). He recruited a team of mercenaries with combat experience in Vietnam, including retired Army Col. Arthur "Bull" Simons, to lead the rescue.
"Bull" Simons preparing for the Son Tay raid, left.
The original plan called for Simons' team of former Green Berets to storm the Ministry of Justice building and walk out with the two employees. But the rescuers later learned Chiapparone and Gaylord were moved to Qasr Prison just outside Tehran.
Perot snuck into Iran on January 13 via a series of courier jets that moved news footage in and out of the country to try a negotiated release of his men. Coming up empty on a peaceful resolution, Perot lost patience.
With the two men in Qasr Prison, a commando raid became too dangerous. So instead they hatched a plan for an Iranian EDS employee named Rashid to start a riot and lead a crowd of angry, pro-Khomeini revolutionaries to storm the prison and free thousands of political prisoners held inside.
The prison is now a museum and memorial to the Shah's prisoners.
Simons and his team picked up the prisoners and moved them to Tehran, where they began the 500-mile journey to an EDS rescue team waiting in Turkey. Despite being arrested in almost every town they fled through, Rashid kept them from the executioner and guided their escape from Iran.
Courtroom sketch of the rescue by Ida Libby Dengrove (University of Virginia archives)
On February 17 — after 46 days in Iran — all of Perot's EDS employees and every member of his rescue team — including Rashid — arrived at his hotel room in Istanbul, and the next day were home safe in the United States.
Perot's men made it out of Iran in two Land Rovers in two days. By November 1979, almost a full year after the EDS employees were captured, 52 American Embassy workers would be held hostage while the world's most powerful military held its breath.