Rescue mission

Special ops changed forever after a disastrous 1980 hostage rescue mission

Today, the most serious and sensitive American missions are carried out by special operations. Navy’s Seal Team 6 led the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Special ops teams, however, have not always been so ruthlessly effective. In fact, a failed operation in 1980 led to a significant change in the way special operators fight.

In 1979, a group of Iranian students took American hostages

Iranian students took 52 Americans hostage in 1979 with the support of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, there was a lot of anger directed at the United States. Supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini believed America had backed the ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi too strongly. With Khomeini’s support, students of the Imam-line Muslim students took 52 diplomats and American citizens hostage.

Jimmy Carter, facing an impending election, hoped to resolve the crisis through diplomacy. Angered by the US refusal to extradite the Shah, the Iranians refused to negotiate diplomatically. As a result, some members of Carter’s cabinet began pushing for military intervention.

An ambitious plan is taking shape

The plan for Operation Eagle Claw was drawn up when Jimmy Carter was in power
The plan for Operation Eagle Claw was hatched when Jimmy Carter was in power (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Once the decision for military intervention was made, a plan was drawn up that would include all branches of the military. The Navy, Marines, Air Force and Army had all expressed interest in rescuing the hostages. Command of the operation was given to Major General James B. Vaught.

There were many complications while planning the mission. The Americans found accurate intelligence almost impossible to obtain. Carter had previously limited CIA actions in Iran, so much of the intelligence gathered by US forces came from what they could pick up from Iranian state television.

Disaster has struck many times

CH-53 helicopters take off from a landing base in Bosnia
CH-53 helicopters take off from a landing base in Bosnia (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

For the mission to be successful, a number of moving parts had to fit together seamlessly. This included aircraft to move troops and equipment into the area, as well as combat ships ready to respond if the Iranians retaliated. But the most important were the CH-53 helicopters which not only transported troops, but also transported the hostages to safety.

On the evening of operations, problems arise quickly. Once they landed at Delta One, Delta Force operators encountered a bus full of Iranian civilians. This bus had to be held so that the mission would not be compromised. An Iranian tanker was also to be destroyed.

Due to bad weather and a mechanical failure, two helicopters had to be abandoned and one had to return to base. The mission was eventually aborted as there were not enough helicopters to rescue the hostages. Worse still, one of the CH-53s collided with an aircraft while leaving the scene. The accident killed three marines and five airmen.

The failure of the mission gave rise to heated discussions

Ronald Reagan speaks at a welcoming ceremony for Iranian hostages
Ronald Reagan speaks during a welcoming ceremony for Iranian hostages (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The deaths of 8 soldiers turned Each Claw from a failed mission into a tragedy.

Later Task Force Commander James Vaught wrote“Some say we failed. Others say it was a fiasco. It was none of that. It was the best effort of a team of brave volunteers to accomplish a difficult and dangerous mission. I have never seen such determined Americans trying so hard to do the right thing… Those we have lost have not died in vain.We will set our people free.

Nevertheless, the failed mission was a black mark for Carter. While he hoped to plan a second mission, the Iranians then dispersed the hostages throughout Iran. Ronald Reagan won the presidency from Carter that fall. And Reagan was the president when the hostages were taken home.

The incident ultimately led to the creation of SOCOM

General Richard D. Clarke is the current Commander of United States Special Operations Command
General Richard D. Clarke is the current Commander of United States Special Operations Command (Photo by Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images)

James L. Holloway III, a retired Navy admiral, was assigned to investigate the missteps of the mission. He determined that there were “shortcomings in mission planning, command and control, and inter-service operability, and provided a catalyst to reorganize the Department of Defense.”

7 years after the Holloway report, the decision was made to form the United Special Operations Command. All Special Forces groups within individual branches are overseen by SOCOM.

Additionally, the Army created the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment so that the helicopter problems that plagued Eagle Claw would not happen again.

With consolidated logistics, US Special Forces have become some of the best in the world, performing daring rescues and eliminating some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists.