Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.
April 24 and 25 marked the 25th anniversary of Operation Eagle Claw, Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated attempt to salvage his presidency by rescuing 53 Americans held hostage in Tehran by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It’s also the date of one of the U.S. military’s worst self-inflicted public humiliations.
By the time the joint mission was canceled, eight American warriors – five from the Air Force, three from the Marines – had been killed, and dozens were wounded.
The after-action reports were unsparing in their criticism of everything from poor training and planning, to leadership by committee and interservice rivalry, to all-around shockingly bad intel, commo and heroic-but-faulty execution – including the inexplicable abandonment of top-secret operation orders and supporting intelligence documents in U.S. Navy choppers that were supposed to be torched but instead were allowed to fall into Iranian hands.
Carter’s never-tell-a-lie administration insisted that the commando raid was aborted after the number of helicopters available for the mission fell below six – apparently the agreed-upon magic minimum number. But like most misadventures involving the U.S. military, the whole truth – which would have caused even more embarrassing headlines than those that couldn’t be avoided – might well have been hidden under the usual Pentagon-White House spin of unpleasant events.
According to then-Marine Maj. Roger Charles, currently president of Soldiers for the Truth (SFTT.org): “Within a day of the disaster, before any cover-up was in place, a Marine major attending Command & Staff College with me phoned a Marine pilot pal in a naval hospital and was told the injured pilot received the ‘abort’ order before his aircraft reached the refueling site” – that is, before the birds were down to just six – “because the commando mission had been compromised by the Soviet Union telling the Iranians we were coming!”
Charles was hanging with several classmates when the shocked major returned from his call and immediately shared this startling skinny. Everyone’s reaction at the time, he recalls, was a big so-that’s-what’s-really-going-on. “The news was full of the claim that the mission-abort order was due to our being one helicopter short for the rescue plan. It didn’t make sense to any of us that such a critical mission would be canceled because we were just one helo short of some number ginned up by some Washington staff weenie.”
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before Jack Anderson, the premier investigative columnist back in those days, disclosed that once U.S. intelligence learned – almost too late – that Soviet Union snitches had warned the radical mullahs running Iran about the raid, the entire rescue force was ordered to land, refuel and return ASAP to the U.S. Navy carrier they’d launched from.
As Bill Corson, a veteran spook of some of the Cold War’s most sensitive counter-Soviet Union ops, put it:
Telling the American public that the commie thugs in Moscow had queered the raid would have aroused passions at home for strong action against the Soviet Union. Carter didn’t want to be forced into a faceoff with the Soviet Bear. He wanted to keep relations with the Sovs within “acceptable” limits. The solution was to blame the failure on a bad hydraulic pump on a Navy bird.
Whatever version you go with, the hard lessons learned from Eagle Claw and the haunting images of the charred corpses with clearly identifiable U.S. aircrew helmets were seared into the consciousness of a generation of our Special Operations warriors – who vowed to do whatever it would take to produce a valid commando capability for our country.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, formerly Special Operations Command CINC, commented in 1997, “I participated in the … hostage rescue attempt in Iran in 1980, and that became a watershed event.” Some years later, he said:
I keep a photo of the carnage that night to remind me that we should never confuse enthusiasm with capability. Eight of my comrades lost their lives. Those of us who survived knew grief … we knew failure – but we committed ourselves to a different future.
Operation Eagle Claw may have literally crashed and burned, but as they so brilliantly proved in Afghanistan and Iraq, Special Ops warriors – married up with 21st-century technology – emerged from the ashes and showed the world that America had the capability to control the new face of war.