Letters to the editor

The Desert One Debacle

Mark Bowden’s account of the Desert One mission (“The Desert One Debacle,” May Atlantic) is inaccurate in one significant respect: his assertion that I “directed” Harold Brown, the secretary of defense, to convey to the commanders on the ground that “if they were prepared to go ahead with only five choppers, they had White House approval.” I did no such thing. I reported to the president about the ongoing mishap and urged him to inquire, through Harold Brown, whether the mission commander would be prepared to go forward with a smaller number of available helicopters. The commander, as it turned out, wisely decided that this would not be workable. A detailed account of that episode, confirming the above, is to be found on page 498 of my White House memoir, Power and Principle.

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Washington, D.C.

Mark Bowden accepts mission commander Charles Beckwith’s claim that without six helicopters the mission could not proceed, because Beckwith could not transport his entire rescue team from Desert One to the hide site outside Tehran. But there were solutions to the transportation problem. Colonel Jerry King, the operations planner for the mission, suggested that helicopter crews be reduced (each helicopter had a crew of five), leaving the gunners and their equipment behind to create additional space for the rescue team. The gunners were superfluous, as the rescue team was armed to the teeth. Removing them would have accommodated at least ten of the men, and removing one or both of the internal auxiliary fuel tanks would have provided room for the rest. The flight to the hide site was only 270 miles, and the plan was to jettison the auxiliary tanks at the hide site anyway, to make room for the hostages.

Alternatively, the helicopter with the mechanical failure could have continued the mission. The failure turned out to be a burned-out hydraulic pump on the backup flight-controls system. In combat situations, aircraft have flown without backup controls, and flying in a spare pump from the Nimitz was also feasible: the jet could have made the trip in two hours, and the repair would have taken about an hour. The helicopter would have had to spend the day at Desert One and proceed to the hide site the following evening, but it would have arrived in plenty of time for the mission, which was not to commence until after midnight the next day.

Most of these solutions were suggested at the time. That President Carter decided not to proceed anyway raises questions about his true intentions.

Professor Richard C. Thornton
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.

In “The Desert One Debacle,” Mark Bowden writes, “Days earlier the entire force had flown from Florida to Egypt on big Army jet transports.” The Army does not have big jet transports. Those planes would have been provided by the Air Force.

Steve Harper
Fayetteville, N.C.

Some of the charts that Mark Bowden uses to depict aircraft positioning in the Atlantic Online supplement to his article very closely resemble those in my book, The Guts to Try, and some bits and pieces of dialogue and comments, unique to my book, show up in Bowden’s piece. I do not see any reference or credit for this material.

James H. Kyle, Col., U.S. Air Force (Ret.)
Honolulu, Hawaii

Mark Bowden replies:

I am sorry for the error in portraying Mr. Brzezinski’s advice, am grateful for his correction, and will see that it makes it into the book and onto my Web site. Mr. Harper is exactly right about the transports being Air Force, not Army, a correction that I have made to the book and Web site.

Colonel Kyle’s book, The Guts to Try, is referenced as a source in my book, Guests of the Ayatollah, from which the May cover story was excerpted. His is one of the better accounts of the rescue mission, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the incident. My story was based primarily on interviews with participants in the mission, many of whom have never been interviewed, by Colonel Kyle or anyone else. Since we did interview some of the same men, however, and wrote about the same episode, it is hardly surprising that some snatches of dialogue and descriptions of the position of aircraft would be similar or the same. If Colonel Kyle wishes to correct significant inadequacies or errors in my account, I will be grateful.

Professor Thornton notes correctly, as I did in the story, that serious consideration was given to proceeding with the mission using only five helicopters, and while there was some support for going ahead, the decision was made to abort, as pre-planning for the mission dictated. I have not made an effort to critique or second-guess that decision; it is an argument that I leave to those who know a lot more about helicopters and load requirements than I do. President Carter left the decision to the men who were risking their lives on the mission, which I think was the right thing to do.

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