The Desert One Debacle

In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back fifty-three American citizens held hostage in Iran. Everything went wrong. The fireball in the Iranian desert took the Carter presidency with it.
Gulf of Oman, April 24, 1980, Dusk

Through the failing light a lone plane moved fast and low over dark waters toward the coast of Iran. It was a big four-propeller U.S. Air Force workhorse, a C-130 Hercules, painted in a mottled black-and-green camouflage that made it all but invisible against the black water and the night sky. It flew with no lights. Inside, in the eerie red glow of the plane’s blackout lamps, seventy-four men struggled to get comfortable in a cramped, unaccommodating space. Only the eleven men of the plane’s usual crew had assigned seats; the others sprawled on and around a Jeep, five motorcycles, two long sheets of heavy aluminum (to wedge under the plane’s tires if it became stuck in desert sand), and a bulky portable guidance system that would help the other planes and helicopters find their way to Desert One. Their rendezvous was a flat, empty spot in the Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert, fifty-eight miles from Tabas, the nearest town.

Just after dark, the Hercules moved in over the coast of Iran at 250 feet, well below Iranian radar, and began a gradual ascent to 5,000 feet. It was still flying dangerously low even at that altitude, because the land rose up abruptly in row after row of jagged ridges—the Zagros Mountains, which looked jet black in the gray-green tints of the pilots’ night-vision goggles. Its terrain-hugging radar was so sensitive that even though the plane was safely above the peaks, the highest ridges triggered the loud, disconcerting horn of its warning system. The co-pilot kept one finger over the override button, poised to silence it.

The decision had been made to fly into Iran on fixed-wing transports rather than helicopters, and since then Beckwith had added still more men to “Eagle Claw,” as the rescue mission was now code-named. Most notable among them were a group of soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment, out of Fort Benning, Georgia, who would block off both ends of the dirt road that angled through Desert One and man Redeye missile launchers to protect the force on the first night in the event it was discovered and attacked from the air. A separate thirteen-man Army Special Forces team would assault the foreign ministry to free the three diplomats being held there: Bruce Laingen, Victor Tomseth, and Mike Howland. Also on Beckwith’s lead plane was John Carney, an Air Force major from the team that had slipped into Iran weeks earlier to scout the desert landing strip and bury infrared lights to mark a runway. He would command a small Air Force combat-control team that would orchestrate the complex maneuvers at the impromptu airfield.

Some of these men sat on and around the Jeep. The mood was relaxed. If there was one trait these men shared, it was professional calm.

They had taken off at dusk from the tiny island of Masirah. An hour behind them would come five more C-130s—one of them carrying most of the remainder of Beckwith’s assault force, which now numbered 132 men; three serving as “bladder planes,” each one’s hold occupied by two gigantic rubber balloons filled with fuel; and a back-up fuel plane carrying the last Deltas and pieces of sophisticated telecommunications-monitoring equipment.

Days earlier the entire force had flown from Florida to Egypt on big Army jet transports. His mission under way, Beckwith had been wound tight, at once anxious and arrogant. To the pilot’s question “Where are we going?” he’d answered, “Just shut up and fly, and I’ll tell you when to stop.” They spent a few days at Wadi Kena, which had been amply outfitted for their arrival, with two refrigerators and pallets full of beer and soda. When the refrigerators were finally emptied of beer, they were stocked with blood.

On the morning of the mission, the men had assembled in a warehouse, where Major Jerry Boykin had offered a prayer. Tall and lean, with a long, dark beard, Boykin stood at a podium before a plug box where electrical wires intersected and formed a big cross on the wall. Behind him was a poster-sized sheet displaying photographs of the Americans held hostage. Boykin chose a passage from the first Book of Samuel:

And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in the forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell on his face to the earth. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone …

They had flown from Wadi Kena to Masirah, where they had hunkered in tents through a bright and broiling afternoon, fighting off large stinging flies and waiting impatiently for dusk. They would make a four-hour flight over the Gulf of Oman and across Iran to Desert One. The route had been calculated to exploit gaps in Iran’s coastal defenses, and to avoid passing over military bases and populated areas. Major Wayne Long, Delta’s intelligence officer, was at a console in the telecommunications plane with a National Security Agency linguist, who was monitoring Iranian telecommunications for any sign that the aircraft had been discovered and the mission compromised. None came.

Not long after the lead plane departed Masirah, eight Sea Stallions left the Nimitz and moved out over the gulf in order to make landfall shortly after sunset. The choppers took their own route, crossing into Iran between the towns of Jask and Konarak, and flying even closer to the ground than the planes. Word of the successful helicopter launch—“Eight off the deck”—reached those in the lead plane as especially welcome news, because they had expected only seven. Earlier reports had indicated that the eighth was having mechanical problems. Eight widened the margin of error.

The men expected breakdowns. In their many rehearsals, they had determined that six choppers were essential for carrying all the men and equipment from Desert One to the hide sites. The load was finely calibrated; every assaulter had an assigned limit and was weighed to make sure he met it. Not all six choppers would be needed to haul the hostages and assaulters from the stadium the next night (two would do in a pinch), but some of the aircraft that made it to the hideouts were expected to fail the next morning. If seven were enough, eight provided comfort.

The final decision to launch had come earlier that day, after Dick Meadows, Delta’s advance man, broadcast a signal from Tehran that all was ready. He had returned to the city disguised as an Irish businessman, and had met up with “Fred,” his Iranian-American guide and interpreter, and with two U.S. soldiers who had themselves entered Iran as Irish and West German businessmen. They had spent that day reconnoitering all of the various hide sites, the embassy, the foreign ministry, and the soccer stadium.

As the lead plane pushed on into Iran, Major Bucky Burruss, Beckwith’s deputy, was on the second C-130, sprawled on a mattress near the front of the plane. Burruss was still somewhat startled to find himself on the actual mission, although there was still no telling if they were really going to go through with it. One thing President Carter had insisted on was the option of calling off the raid right up to the last minute: right before they were to storm the embassy walls. To make sure they could get real-time instructions from Washington, a satellite radio and relay system had been put in place at Wadi Kena.

Another presidential directive concerned the use of nonlethal riot-control agents. Given that the shah’s occasionally violent riot control during the revolution was now Exhibit A in Iran’s human-rights case against the former regime and America, Carter wanted to avoid killing Iranians, so he had insisted that if a hostile crowd formed during the raid, Delta should attempt to control it without shooting people. Burruss considered this ridiculous. He and his men were going to assault a guarded compound in the middle of a city of more than 5 million people, most of them presumed to be aggressively hostile. It was unbelievably risky; everyone on the mission knew there was a very good chance they would not get home alive. Wade Ishmoto, a Delta captain who worked with the unit’s intelligence division, had joked, “The only difference between this and the Alamo is that Davy Crockett didn’t have to fight his way in.” And Carter had the idea that this vastly outnumbered force was first going to try holding off the city with nonviolent crowd control? Burruss understood the president’s thinking on this, but with their hides so nakedly on the line, shouldn’t they be free to decide how best to defend themselves? He had complained about the directive to General Jones, who had said he would look into it, but the answer had come back “No, the president insists.” So Burruss had made his own peace with it. He had with him one tear-gas grenade—one—which he intended to throw as soon as necessary; he would then use its smoke as a marker to call in devastatingly lethal 40 mm AC-130 gunship fire.

Delta was made up of men who would have felt crushed to be excluded from this mission. They were ambitious for glory. They had volunteered to serve with Beckwith and had undergone the trials of a grueling selection process precisely to serve in improbable exploits like this. Some of the men had read about wildly heroic feats in history and longed to have taken part; here was such a moment. If they pulled it off, it would go down as one of the boldest maneuvers in military history. They would snatch the innocent Americans from the jaws of the Islamist dragon. Their nation would cheer them in the streets!

The fact that people wouldn’t know exactly whom they were toasting made it all the more appealing. The heroism would be pure. They as individuals would not be celebrated—only their achievement. None of these men would be in ticker-tape parades, or sitting down for interviews on national TV, or having their pictures on the covers of magazines, or cashing in on fat book contracts. They were quiet professionals. In a world of brag and hype, they embodied substance. They would come home and, after a few days off, go right back to work. Of course, within their own world they would not just be respected; they would be legends. For the rest of their lives, knowing soldiers would murmur, “He was on Eagle Claw.”

They were a motley, deliberately unmilitary-looking bunch of young men. In fact, they looked a lot like the students who had seized the embassy. Most were just a few years older than the hostage-takers. They had long hair and had grown moustaches and beards, or at least gone unshaven. Many of those with fair hair had dyed it dark brown or black, figuring that might nudge the odds at least slightly in their favor if they were forced to fight their way out of Iran. The loose-fitting, many-pocketed field jackets they wore, also dyed black, were just like the ones favored by young men in Iran. Under the Geneva Conventions, soldiers (as opposed to spies) must enter combat in uniform, so for the occasion the men all wore matching black knit caps and on their jacket sleeves had American flags that could be covered by small black Velcro patches. On the streets of Tehran the flags would invite trouble, but inside the embassy compound they would reassure the hostages that they weren’t just being kidnapped by some rival Iranian faction. The men wore faded blue jeans and combat boots, and beneath their jackets some wore armored vests. Much of their gear was improvised. They had sewn additional pockets inside the jackets to carry weapons, ammo, and water. Most of the men carried sidearms, grenades, small MP-5 submachine guns with silencers, and various explosive devices.

Beckwith had insisted on a Ranger tradition: each man carried clips and a length of rope wrapped around his waist, in case the need arose to rappel. With his white stubble, dangling cigarette or cigar, and wild eyes under thick dark eyebrows, Beckwith himself looked like a dangerous vagrant. Before leaving Masirah, the men had joked about which actors would portray them in the movie version of the raid, and they decided that the hillbilly actor Slim Pickens, who in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove had ridden a nuclear weapon down into doomsday waving his cowboy hat and hallooing, would be the perfect choice for the colonel.

Presented by

Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of Black Hawk Down. He has written a book about the hostage crisis and its aftermath, Guests of the Ayatollah, to be published by Grove/Atlantic in May. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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