Mission 7 - Detail
Tehran, Iran - April 24, 1980: America’s new elite counter terror group, Delta Force, launches a bold mission to rescue 53 hostages held in the US embassy.
Iranian militants seized the US embassy in November 1979. The American military and intelligence community immediately started developing a plan to raid the compound and rescue the hostages. That raid ended in disaster in the middle of the desert. But it came extremely close to success. What was the plan?
A Special Forces operative, Dick Meadows, went into the Iranian capital using a false passport, searched the area to get information on the numbers and disposition of guards, and rented a fleet of trucks on the Iranian black market for the raid. He also scored an unexpected coup - running into a former cook at the embassy with detailed knowledge of the location of the hostages and their captives within the compound.
Meanwhile, a team of CIA and Air Force combat controllers flew to a location in the middle of the desert outside Tehran, code named Desert One. They took core samples to make sure the ground would support heavy aircraft and planted several small infrared homing beacons. The Office of Technical Services, the CIA’s gadget division, developed the beacons which could be activated by remote control and would allow pilots with night vision goggles to see runway markings in pitch black darkness.
On April 24, 1980, six C-130 transport aircraft left an island near Oman. Onboard the C-130’s was a team of more than 100 Delta Force commandos and Army Rangers. About the same time, eight RH-53D helicopters took off from an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea.
When the planes hit the ground at Desert One, the plan was for the Rangers to secure the area and wait for the helos to fly in. This is where careful preparation met harsh reality. In an historic bit of poor planning and worse luck, US forces had chosen a smuggling route for their refueling site and encountered a bus of Iranian civilians. The bus was destroyed, but not all the Iranians were accounted for -- the lid was off the mission, and it began to implode. In the ensuing confusion a helicopter crashed into a transport plane, taking the life of 3 marines and 5 airmen. It was a grim end to a hopeful, noble mission and the practical end of the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
The mission plan has remained obscure for 25 years. Today you’ll live it yourself. Operation Eagle Claw was as daring a mission as ever conceived for Special Forces, seemingly reckless in the endless obstacles and details to be mastered. It is illustrative of the dangers that teams like Delta and the Rangers face every time they go into battle.
From Desert One, the helicopters would fly Delta Force from Desert One to a location in the hills outside of Tehran, codenamed Desert Two. A fleet of trucks would meet them there. The trucks - "lorry-style" vehicles with covered cargo areas - would take the Delta team right into the city, where they would break into the embassy compound, raid the different buildings that contained hostages, kill any guards that got in their way, and then use high explosives to blow a hole in the compound wall and escape.
The Delta team and the hostages would race across the street to a soccer stadium where the helos would fly in to meet them. Meanwhile, three AC-130 Spectre gunships would destroy nearby Iranian jet fighters on the ground and then provide close air support for the extraction. The company of Rangers would seize a nearby airfield and ready it for the helos to bring their cargo back home. C-141’s would land there and then fly the entire company back to a base in Egypt. The helos would be destroyed and left behind.
But even during the planning stages, the Delta team thought the helos might not make it. They prepared for a contingency. What if several helos crashed on their way in, and the team had only enough left to extract the hostages but not get Delta out of an enemy capital 700 miles away from the nearest border?
Delta Force brought "E and E" - Escape and Evasion- packs. They contained cardboard satellite signal panels so they could be spotted by American eyes in the sky. They also had car theft kits and bundles of Iranian cash with the pictures of the Shah cut out, just like the revolutionaries used. If they were stranded in Iran, their plan was to use the Spectre gunships to blow holes in the crowd so they could clear the area. Then they would blend in, steal cars, and high-tail it out as quickly as possible. The goal was to cross in Kazakhstan, then part of the USSR, and turn themselves into the guards.
Maybe being captured by the Soviets would be unpleasant, but it would be better than being nabbed by the revolutionaries and waiting out the crisis in the US embassy they’d come to raid.