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This Day in History: Operation Eagle Claw ends in tragedy

On this day in 1980, a special operations team attempts to rescue 53 American hostages in Iran. That mission would unfortunately end in tragedy.

The Iran Hostage Crisis had been ongoing for months, ever since revolutionary Iranians stormed the American embassy in November 1979. Jimmy Carter’s administration had tried economic sanctions, freezing Iranian assets, and embargoing oil—and yet the hostage crisis continued. Something had to be done! In April 1980, Carter approved a military attempt to extract the hostages—Operation Eagle Claw.

Helicopters in flight before Operation Eagle Claw.

The move was risky. Three MC-130s would carry Delta Force troops to a remote landing spot (“Desert One”) in Iran. Meanwhile, three EC-130s would bring extra fuel, and eight helicopters would fly in from USS Nimitz. Those helicopters would refuel, then carry troops to a predetermined hiding spot closer to Tehran. An assault on the embassy had been carefully planned and would begin the next night.

But Delta Force faced a serious challenge: No one knew exactly where the hostages were in the embassy. Fortunately, they got a lucky break. Or, at least, they thought they did.

Would you believe that a CIA agent found himself on a plane, sitting next to a man who happened to be a cook from the American embassy? The CIA agent was able to find out exactly where the hostages were being held in the compound.

“When I got the cable giving us the intelligence on that,” one CIA officer later said, “I knew the operation was going to succeed. Because at that point I said, ‘God’s on our side.’ I mean this just doesn’t happen in real life. To have a CIA case officer sit next to a Pakistani cook for the American Embassy in Tehran [who] came out yesterday!”

Unfortunately, the coincidental meeting wasn’t such a good omen after all. The mission would go horribly awry, practically before it got started.

The planned rendezvous point, Desert One, proved to be remote but also too close to a freeway. The American planes were seen soon after they landed. Some Iranians were detained and a gasoline tanker was fired upon. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. The eight helicopters ran into a fierce sand storm after they left USS Nimitz. One helicopter went down; a second had to turn back. A third arrived too badly damaged to continue.

The mission would have to be aborted. Five helicopters weren’t enough.

But things got even worse. As one helicopter refueled, its rotary blade hit a plane. The explosion that followed destroyed both aircraft and killed eight men. Footage of the wreckage later emerged, letting the world know that we had tried and failed to save our citizens.

Much criticism and second-guessing followed, as you can imagine. The Pentagon was criticized for not giving Delta Force everything that it needed. Lack of communication among departments was condemned. It was a miserable time, but many lessons were learned, too. Future Special Forces operations would benefit.

Naturally, the happiest news came in January 1981, when the hostages were finally freed. By then, Ronald Reagan was President. A White House ceremony welcomed home the newly released hostages. The families of the men who lost their lives during Operation Eagle Claw were present. “One couple lost their only son,” Reagan noted in his diary. “His widow was also here. I’ve had a lump in my throat all day.”

Today is the anniversary of a tragedy. But it’s also a day to remember our nation’s many, remarkable heroes—and the families who’ve supported them.

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