04/24 – Operation Eagle Claw

Delta Force assaulters preparing for the rescue mission. Operators dressed in civilian clothes and concealed their weapons and ammunition beneath black-dyed BDU jackets. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1980, Operation Eagle Claw – the US mission to rescue the 52 hostages held at the American embassy in Tehran, Iran – began after months of planning. A recent regime change in the country, during which the pro-Western government was overthrown by a popular Islamic movement, had resulted in American diplomatic workers being held by the new Iranian government as hostages. The hostage crisis was an embarrassment to the American administration, and, although US president Jimmy Carter resolved to avoid violence, a rescue mission was eventually authorized in early 1980. The rescue mission was to be led by Delta Force, an elite counter-terrorist (CT) unit. Tasked with their new mission, Delta operators began rehearsing for the embassy assault using life-size mockups of the embassy buildings. Their plan was to fly into Iran, set up a staging site known as Desert One, and then board 8 Navy helicopters to fly 420 km (260 miles) to their next staging site on the outskirts of Tehran. From there, Delta would assault the embassy and free the 52 American hostages.

A rough map of the planned rescue mission. The force flew in from Oman (off bottom of map) before proceeding to Desert 1. After the disaster on the runway, the force flew back to the USS Nimitz (lower right). (Free World Maps)

Late in the evening of April 24th, the task force – comprised of over 100 Delta operators and Ranger security elements – took off from a base in Oman and flew to Desert One in a C-130 aircraft, where they awaited the arrival of their helicopter transport. En route to Desert One, however, three of the helicopters (Bluebeards 6, 5 and 2) suffered mechanical failure due to poor weather conditions. With only 5 functioning helicopters remaining, US leadership resented the idea of reducing the size of their already-small rescue force; the mission was cancelled, and plans were made to return to the USS Nimitz (a US aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf). A minor haboob sandstorm combined with poor coordination on the ground led to disaster: while taxiing to the runway, an EC-130 aircraft carrying 3,800 L of fuel struck a transport helicopter, igniting a massive firestorm. 8 American personnel were killed in the flames, and the remainder of the rescue force returned to the Nimitz in shock and disappointment.

Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s new leader, soon after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The new regime made quick use of the Eagle Claw fiasco for propaganda purposes. (Radio Free Europe)

Eagle Claw was doomed from the start due to over-complicated planning and poor coordination between the various elements. Delta was a top-tier unit, but their reliance on conventional helicopter pilots unused to flying in treacherous desert conditions resulted in disaster (which led to the formation of the elite 160th SOAR, a special-operations helicopter unit). On a larger scale, however, Eagle Claw had massive ramifications beyond the hostage crisis. The new Iranian regime used the disaster for propaganda purposes, claiming Delta had been stopped by “angels of God” and revelling in the impotence of Carter’s administration. In the US, confidence in the government plummeted; the political fallout cost Carter his re-election and paved the way for the Reagan Era – a period of radical conservative reform in the United States and increased American military actions that brought the Cold War to dangerous new heights.

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