Desert Tragedy: Untold stories of Operation Eagle Claw

Jessica Evans
Updated onMay 1, 2023
4 minute read
Operation Eagle Claw

Rangers offload an aircraft on jeeps and motorcycles as part of Operation Eagle Claw.


It was April 24, 1980, when Operation Eagle Claw was put into motion. A daring mission to rescue American hostages held in Iran. The mission, however, would go down in…

It was April 24, 1980, when Operation Eagle Claw was put into motion. A daring mission to rescue American hostages held in Iran. The mission, however, would go down in history as one of the most tragic failures in U.S. military history.

For retired Sergeant Major Charles Kiser, the memories of the day remained fresh in his mind, long after the mission. "I remember looking at my watch and thinking, 'we're behind schedule.' That's when things started to go wrong," he said.

Kiser was part of the ground team tasked with securing the rescue site. He recalled the chaos that ensued when the helicopters crashed, and the mission was aborted. "It was a huge blow to all of us. We had put everything into this mission, and it failed."

The mission involved a complex operation that required precision execution, but things quickly spiraled out of control. Helicopters malfunctioned, and accidents happened that led to the death of eight service members. Those who participated in the operation would never forget that fateful day.

Understanding the operation means taking a step back in time and taking a closer look at what life was like on the ground in Iran during those days.

Photo by Senior Airman Andrea Posey.

The Pahlavi Dynasty and the Iranian Revolution

By the late 1970s, the people of Iran had grown dissatisfied with the authoritarian leadership of the Pahlavi Dynasty, which was the last royal family to rule the Imperial State of Iran. The shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was supported by the U.S., but not all Iranians agreed with his plans to modernize the country. Some saw him as a secular leader and wanted a more Islamic state. The clashes eventually led to a revolution that ousted the shah in February of 1979, and Ruhollah Khomeini, an Islamic cleric who sought friendship with the Soviets of Russia, came to power.

U.S. Involvement in the Iranian Revolution and the Hostage Crisis

After the fall of the monarchy, Iranians grew resentful of U.S. intervention in Iran. In 1980, the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took fifty-five U.S. diplomats hostage, demanding the return of the shah to Iranian soil. The U.S. considered the taking of the embassy an act of terrorism and refused to comply with the demands.

Operation Eagle Claw: The Failed Rescue Mission

By April of 1980, the hostage crisis had dragged on with no resolution in sight. President Jimmy Carter ordered Special Forces to deploy to Tehran to rescue the hostages in a mission called Operation Eagle Claw. The operation faced problems from the beginning, with only five out of eight helicopters being operational upon arrival in Iran. The poor condition of the helicopters led to President Carter's decision to abort the mission. As one helicopter tried to leave Iran, it crashed into another aircraft, killing the service members aboard.

A member of the Hurlburt Field Honor Guard lays a wreath of roses at the Operation Eagle Claw Memorial, April 24, 2018, at Hurlburt Field, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Conroy)

In His Own Words

One of those who participated in the operation was retired Colonel James Kyle. He was the pilot of one of the helicopters that crashed in the Iranian desert. "It was chaotic," he said. "We were trying to land the helicopter, and suddenly, the landing gear malfunctioned, and we crashed."

The crash left Kyle with injuries that would plague him for the rest of his life. Despite the physical scars, however, Kyle remained committed to his service, saying that he was proud to have been a part of Operation Eagle Claw.

The impact of Operation Eagle Claw went beyond the physical injuries and loss of life. It was a mission that left a lasting emotional toll on those who participated. For many, it was a mission that they would never forget, and one that would shape their lives forever.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Bill Gowen was another service member who participated in the mission. "I lost a lot of friends that day," he said. "It was a tragedy that could have been avoided."

Despite the failure of the mission, Gowen remained committed to his service and continued to serve his country. He believed that the lessons learned from Operation Eagle Claw would help make future missions more successful.

Aftermath and Consequences

The failed mission had disastrous consequences. Khomeini used it to strengthen his position as a ruler and to establish Iran as a religious state and an enemy of the West. The hostages remained in the custody of the Muslim Student Followers for a total of 444 days, and they were released on January 20, 1981, the same day that President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office. The failed mission contributed to President Carter's re-election loss, and U.S./Iranian relations remained strained. The incident also led to sanctions against Iran.