“Be strong, and let us show ourselves courageous for the sake of our people . . . and may the LORD do what is good in His sight” (II Samuel 10:12; I Chronicles 19:13).
[Note: The above verse of Scripture – spoken by David’s army commander Joab to his brother Abishai as they prepared to face the enemies of Israel – indicates the Bible’s affirmation of the legitimate acts of manly courage, carried out under proper authority, on behalf of one’s people; it affirms the Christian’s submission to the sovereign will of God; keeping in mind that it does not in any sense identify the United States of America with the Old Testament people of God – Reformed believers understand that the present day (spiritual) equivalent to Old Testament Israel is not a nation at all, but, rather, it is the Church (Galatians 6:16).]
In the 1980 Winter Olympics, held at Lake Placid, New York, a scrappy, amateur U.S. hockey team – of mostly college players – pulled off what many still consider the greatest upset in sports history when it defeated the Soviet Union’s professional (mostly Red Army) team enroute to winning the gold medal (the U.S. team went on to defeat Finland for the gold, but it was almost anticlimactic). One of the standout Soviet players, Slava Fetisov, recalled the 1980 Soviet team was “probably the best team ever put together in the Soviet Union. We never thought of losing, never thought it could happen. That’s why they call it a ‘miracle.’”
To a USA that was suffering from economic hardships, a recent Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, and the humiliation of a long-term hostage crisis in Iran – all in the context of the Cold War – the victory meant immeasurably more than medals. It was national rejuvenation. Sports Illustrated published its magazine the following week without any title on the front cover; only the photo from the game’s ending moments. No words needed. The picture said it all. For those old enough to be paying attention in 1980, it was one of those moments you never forget. In polls, the U.S. hockey team’s victory over the Soviets often ranks no. 1 among the greatest moments in sports history as well as the greatest upset, ever, in sports.
But that was in February, on smooth ice, in upstate New York. To Americans everywhere, it was the “miracle on ice.” Barely two months later, another team of equally committed, courageous Americans attempted another miracle. In April, on sprawling desert, in the Islamic Republic of Iran: the rescue of more than fifty fellow Americans held captive for nearly six months by a brutal Islamist revolutionary regime (Shi’a). This time, however, the would-be miracle faltered, and failed. The result was the loss of eight highly trained military personnel (a ninth member was permanently incapacitated), seven massive Sikorsky H-53 helicopters, one C-130 aircraft, military secrets, Cold War influence, and U.S. national pride. Devastating.
How did it happen?
At the start of 1979, Iran was in the midst of an Islamic revolution. After 37 years of rule under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi – characterized by many Iranians as secular, immoral, and repressive – growing instability in the country led the Shah to flee to safety in Egypt. Soon after, two million cheering Iranians welcomed the return from exile of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to become the country’s new ruler. In late October, U.S. President Jimmy Carter decided to allow the Shah into the United States for medical treatment. On November 4, Khomeini-inspired Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking some sixty U.S. citizens hostage. The resulting crisis consumed the remainder of Carter’s presidency. “There were two White Houses,” wrote former White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, “one working on the hostages, the other working on everything else.”
Within days of the embassy’s seizure, an ad hoc joint task force (joint meant all Services to be included) began forming at the Pentagon in the Joint Chiefs of Staff special operations division. A highly decorated Army officer, Maj. Gen. James Vaught, commanded the task force. His deputy was Air Force Col. James Kyle, highly experienced in the business of MC-130 Combat Talon special operations. The ground force commander, Col. Charlie Beckwith – who probably knew more about special operations than any other American at the time – had commanded the Army’s national counterterrorist force – the famed Delta – from its inception in 1977.
There were five-and-a-half months between the seizure and the carrying out of the hostage rescue attempt. One reason for the delay was that the task force had to be prepared to conduct the mission as best it could should the Iranians begin executing the hostages. That gave the task force a short-term perspective on their training. There were also several diplomatic initiatives that appeared close to bringing the hostages home, and each time the task force lowered its expectations for the approval of a rescue mission. As one task force member put it, “We didn’t have five months to get ready one time. We had one month to get ready five times.”
The final, approved plan was complicated and required some forty hours over two nights from start to finish. On Night 1, six C-130s (three MC-130 Talons and three EC-130 aircraft) were to fly from Masirah Island, Oman, into Iran and land at a semiprepared site (Desert One) well southeast of Tehran; eight U.S. Navy RH-53s – piloted mostly by Marine aviators – were to launch from the deck of the USS Nimitz and land at Desert One. After refueling the helicopters from bladders delivered by the EC-130s, the six C-130s were to return to Masirah; and the H-53s were to fly Beckwith’s troopers to a hide site about fifty miles from Tehran. There, U.S. agents were to meet the troopers and lead them on foot to a remote hilly area where they would hunker down for the day. Meanwhile, the helicopters would fly another fifty miles to a remote hideout and remain camouflaged during the upcoming daylight hours. The joint task force was to monitor communications throughout the day to determine whether or not the rescue force had been detected.
On Night 2, assuming all was well, Talons and AC-130 gunships were to launch from Wadi Kena, Egypt, to secure an abandoned Iranian airfield at Manzariyeh (Talons), south of the U.S. embassy, and provide close air support in the Tehran vicinity (gunships). Two C-141 Starlifters were to fly into Manzariyeh to await the arrival of the ground rescue force and the hostages. Meanwhile, the agents were to load Beckwith’s men into vehicles and drive them into Tehran for the embassy assault. Once Beckwith gave the signal, an AC-130 was to position itself overhead while the RH-53s flew to a nearby soccer stadium to receive the rescued hostages and take them to Manzariyeh. There, abandoning the helicopters, the C-141s were to evacuate the hostages, Beckwith’s force, and the H-53 crews out of Iran, and provide medical care as needed.
Two weeks prior to the operation – known as EAGLE CLAW – Air Force Maj. John Carney convinced the planners that a dual “runway” (used loosely, it was sand) operation was feasible at Desert One, but there was no time to practice it in the final rehearsal. Carney, leading a seven-man Air Force combat control team, was responsible for ensuring the desert airstrips were laid out safely and correctly, runway lights emplaced, and that a tactical aid to navigation (TACAN) was operational. His enlisted combat controllers would handle all air traffic control duties, and they were to marshal and direct the parking of all the aircraft at the site.
Finally, the mission was a “go.” Departing from Masirah Island at dusk on April 24, Carney’s team flew into Desert One on the lead Talon, piloted by Bob Brenci. Two other Talons and three EC-130s followed, along with the eight RH-53s that launched from the USS Nimitz. Enroute, Brenci encountered large areas of powdery, suspended dust associated with distant thunderstorms. Although the phenomenon was common in the region, the conditions had not been forecast, or, if they had, somehow did not reach the aircrews. Four hours after takeoff, Brenci’s Talon was five miles out from Desert One when Mitch Bryan activated the LED lights (then cutting-edge technology) that Carney had implanted in the ground three weeks earlier on a highly classified CIA flight into Iran. (If Carney had been caught by the Iranians taking soil samples, his cover story was that he was a geologist and had gotten lost . . . uh-huh, right.)
Within minutes of Brenci’s skillful landing on the blacked-out strip, two unsettling developments occurred. First, a bus with forty-some Iranians drove right through the landing zone. Ground force personnel stopped them and secured the terrified driver and passengers (they were later released). A few minutes later, a fuel truck followed by a pickup rumbled down the same road, which separated the north and south airstrips. After a warning shot that went unheeded, one of Beckwith’s men took out the truck with a light antitank weapon, but the driver tumbled out and jumped into the pickup, which escaped. Shrewdly, Beckwith surmised it was a fuel smuggling operation and the driver wouldn’t be informing Iranian authorities. Meanwhile, the combat controllers had set up the landing strips, turned on the lights, and were ready for the rest of the force to arrive. The mission continued.
Following Brenci on the south airstrip, Marty Jubelt landed his Talon on the north strip. Three minutes later, Steve Fleming brought the third Talon to a safe landing on the south. Hal Lewis’s was the first EC-130 to land, setting down on the north strip. The second EC-130 was piloted by Russ Tharp, whose landing on the south strip brought the number of C-130s on the ground to five.
It was time to launch Brenci and Jubelt for the return flight in order to make room for the third EC-130, piloted by Jerry Utarro. When the dust settled from Tharp’s touchdown, Brenci launched from the south, followed by Jubelt from the north. Utarro’s landing a few minutes later placed two EC-130s (Lewis, Utarro) on the north airstrip, with one Talon (Fleming) and the third EC-130 (Tharp) on the south. The parking plan called for only 20 feet of separation between C-130 wingtips and the rotor blade sweep of the H-53s. As combat controller John Koren related, that was “very close, at nighttime under night vision goggles in a dust environment in a combat zone.”
All the C-130s made it to Desert One, but the same was not true for the helicopters. Two of the eight failed to arrive, one abandoned in the desert with a blade warning light, the other returning to the USS Nimitz with multiple instrument and navigation system malfunctions. That left six helicopters, the absolute minimum number required for the mission. Arriving late and from different times, the RH-53s had been separated under the harrowing, near-zero visibility conditions created by the unexpected dust storm, which one pilot described as “a wall of talcum powder.” When all six had finally landed, four were positioned on the north strip behind the two remaining EC-130s (Lewis, Utarro) who were to provide them with fuel. The other two helicopters parked to the south behind the third tanker (Tharp).
The mission, though well behind schedule, continued up to that point. But enroute to Desert One, Helo-2 had lost one of its hydraulic systems, creating a serious flight control situation. The pilot had pressed on in hopes of being able resolve the problem at the landing site. It could not, which reduced the helicopter force to five, an “abort” situation the leadership had agreed to well before the mission. The on-scene leaders relayed their situation and the abort decision to the White House. With a heavy heart, President Carter accepted the decision of his field commanders.
The force now faced a withdrawal from the Iranian desert, and at that point disaster struck. On the north side, Hal Lewis’s tanker was so short on fuel that he needed to launch immediately to make it back to Masirah. But Helo-3 and Helo-4 were parked behind him. Lewis could not move until they were out of the way. Helo-3, unable to ground taxi, picked up to a hover and encountered a brownout – a serious reduction in the pilot’s visibility that obscures outside visual references necessary for aircraft control. The pilot drifted sideways into the left side of the tanker, resulting in a tremendous explosion.
Several combat controllers, who were on the ground, experienced the explosion from close quarters. Mike Lampe, positioned near Lewis’s tanker, recalled turning his back to avoid the rotor downwash (extremely powerful from an H-53’s 79-foot diameter blades). The next thing he remembered was the heat and “huge fireball from the explosion” that almost knocked him down. Lampe felt that the egress training the operators had practiced throughout their training in the American Southwest was partly responsible for enabling them to get out of the burning C-130 as well as they did.
It was perhaps remarkable that no operator or crewmember remained trapped inside the cargo compartment of Lewis’s aircraft. Indeed, two unnamed, heroic, troopers went back into the enveloping inferno to pull out Lewis’s radio operator. Although Joseph Beyers was badly burned, the troopers saved his life. Others were burned but managed to get out on their own, and they both survived and recovered. But, tragically, five crewmembers trapped inside the EC-130’s cabin perished, as did three of the crew of Helo-3.
Following the explosion, the survivors and the rest of the force quickly loaded onto the three remaining C-130s. Colonel Kyle ensured a full accounting of all personnel, adamant that after all that had gone wrong that night, they were not going to leave someone behind. Minutes later, Utarro’s tanker, the last aircraft on the ground at Desert One, departed. The last two men to board were Kyle, then Carney.
The force returned to Masirah Island. British personnel stationed at the base kindly sent over a case of beer with a note attached. It read: “To You All From Us All For Having The Guts To Try.” Today, the famous note is displayed at Hurlburt Field, Florida, the home of the Air Force Special Operations Command.
In the end, the events that unfolded at Desert One on the night of April 24/25, 1980, left an indelible mark on the minds and hearts of all its participants. Sadly, the “miracle” that a team of highly skilled and dedicated Americans had somehow pulled off on New York’s ice in February was not to be repeated on Iran’s desert two months later. One combat controller recalled, “It was a national mission and we let the country down.” Another said, “You had America’s best out there, and it didn’t work.” And a third felt “a whole lot of disappointment” coupled with uncertainty over the fate of the hostages once the Iranians realized what had taken place.
In the immediate aftermath, the Iranians dispersed the hostages, making any consideration of a second rescue attempt an even more difficult proposition. In the end, Ronald Reagan’s election in the fall of 1980 convinced the Iranian government that the course of wisdom – and perhaps self-preservation – was to release the hostages, which they did, on the day of Reagan’s inauguration, January 20, 1981. At Reagan’s request, former President Carter met with the hostages in Germany prior to their flight home to the United States.
There was no shortage of contributing factors to the debacle, but Colonel Beckwith captured the essence when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. When Senator Sam Nunn queried Beckwith on what he had learned from the mission’s failure, and his recommendations, he replied: “If coach Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama put his quarterback in Virginia, his backfield in North Carolina, his offensive line in Georgia and his defense in Texas and then got Delta Airlines to pick them up and fly them to Birmingham on game day, he wouldn’t have his winning teams.” The ground force commander referred to the fact that the task force elements that converged at Desert One had never experienced a full rehearsal with all the players. For instance, when interviewed, at least one combat controller told me that no one had any idea of the noise produced by so many large helicopters and C-130s, with their engines running, in such a small area. It was virtually impossible to hear anything, and all communications were extremely difficult at the landing zone that night.
But the failed operation held an invaluable silver-lining, and it served as a catalyst in two important respects. First, the tragedy signaled the undeniable need to rebuild the nation’s special operations capabilities, which began with the establishment of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) later in the year. Improvements took time, however. Three years later, in the brief operation at Grenada known as URGENT FURY – in part, another rescue operation, as the Reagan administration feared the U.S. medical students on the island might be taken hostage by the Marxist government – many problems had yet to be resolved in the joint arena. Finally, in the spring of 1987, President Reagan approved the activation of the U.S. Special Operations Command, of which the JSOC had been the genesis. Especially in the two decades since September 11, 2001, many Americans – and America’s adversaries to be sure – have become aware of the capabilities of our special operations forces.
Second, the loss of eight special operators that night in 1980 – five Airmen and three Marines – and a ninth warrior who remained incapacitated, left seventeen children in need of assistance with their education. In response, several special operators spearheaded an initiative that today is known as the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, an entity providing college funding for the children of fallen (and now, wounded) special operators. As of today, nearly four hundred have been graduated, thanks to the foundation. Fittingly, the son of one of those lost at Desert One (Air Force Capt. Hal Lewis) was one of the first graduates helped by the foundation; he went on to complete a doctorate.
As we reflect upon the momentous events from a generation ago at Desert One, may we do so in profound humility, thankful for the courage of each man who tried his best that terrible night – who had the guts to try – joining our voices with the warrior-psalmist, King David, to “. . . Lift up a song for Him who rides through the deserts, Whose name is the LORD, and exult before Him” (Psalm 68:4).
Dr. Forrest L. Marion is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and military historian; his most recent work is Flight Risk: The Coalition’s Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005-2015 (Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, Md., 2018).
 Risto Pakarinen, “1980 Soviet Union squad was history’s greatest international hockey team,” abcnews.go.com, Sep. 15, 2016.
 Of the eight H-53 helicopters that set out on the mission (the Navy version, RH-53), one was abandoned in the desert, short of the Desert One landing site, with a blade warning light; one returned to the USS Nimitz with multiple instrument and navigation system failures (this was the only helicopter not lost on the mission); of the six that arrived at Desert One, one was destroyed in the mishap; the remaining five were abandoned there (had the mission succeeded, the plan called for the helicopters to be abandoned after delivering the rescued hostages to the airfield outside Tehran, at which point where they were to be flown to safety on U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifters).
 Forrest L. Marion, Brothers in Berets: The Evolution of Air Force Special Tactics, 1953-2003 (Air University Press: Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., 2018), 135-45; Forrest L. Marion, “Air Force Combat Controllers at Desert One: April 24-25, 1980,” Air Power History, Spr. 2009, 46-55. Unless otherwise cited, all subsequent material in this article is drawn from these two works. Carter’s advisors had warned him against allowing the Shah into the United States, even for treatment for cancer.
 As an Air Force HH-53 copilot in 1981-82, I experienced blade warning lights on a couple of occasions, which called for a precautionary landing (a problem with the Blade Inspection Method, or BIM, was displayed on the caution panel). But on a mission of national importance, the aircraft commander should have continued on. If other factors were in play, I have not come across them.
 Steve Balestrieri, “Operation Eagle Claw, Disaster at Desert One Brings Changes to Special Operations,” sofrep.com, Apr. 24, 2017.
 “Empowering the Families of Fallen and Wounded Special Operations Forces,” Special Operations Warrior Foundation, specialops.org; E-mail, CMSgt. Wayne G. Norrad (USAF, Retired) to author, “Re: First College Graduate Funded by SOWF,” Apr. 11, 2020.