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Sacrifices made during Operation Eagle Claw remembered 35 years later

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Katherine Holt
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
More than 300 people gathered to celebrate and remember the servicemembers who were a part of Operation Eagle Claw 35 years ago during a ceremony at the air park here, April 24.

Operation Eagle Claw, conducted April 24, 1980, was a joint-services mission to rescue Americans who were being held hostage by a mob in Tehran, Iran, since Nov. 4, 1979. Tragically, the attempt ended in the death of eight servicemembers, including five Air Commandos from Hurlburt Field’s 1st Special Operations Wing, 8th Special Operations Squadron.

“It is an extraordinary honor to have the role to partake and even be a part of this ceremony, and it is with great humility I stand before you,” said Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. “Why do I say that? Because I wasn’t there. I speak with great humility because those heroes, who are with us today, were there on that mission in Iran 35 years ago. As true quiet professionals, you sought no recognition then and frankly you seek no recognition today, but oh have you earned it, and this nation is going to provide that.”

At dusk April 24, 1980, eight RH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz. Their mission was to fly in darkness at low altitude, in formation, across hostile Iranian territory and rendezvous with the special operations C-130 aircraft at Desert One. A total of six C-130 aircraft had already departed another location for Desert One.

Because of severe mechanical problems, one helicopter was forced to land and transfer crew and equipment to another helicopter. A short time later, the C-130s followed by the RH-53s, encountered an unexpected dust storm, a "haboob," that dangerously degraded visibility and made navigation nearly impossible. As a result, a second helicopter aborted the mission, reversed its course and returned to the USS Nimitz.

The C-130s arrived first at the Desert One refueling site followed by the six remaining Sea Stallion helicopters. Unfortunately, a third helicopter had developed a hydraulic problem en route to Desert One. The mission plan required a minimum of six operational helicopters to continue after the planned refueling. With this third helicopter out, the decision was reluctantly made to abort the rescue mission.

Preparations began to complete the refueling of the helicopters and evacuate the site at Desert One. Tragically, while an RH-53 helicopter was being repositioned on the ground, its rotary blade struck the fuselage of a C-130, setting the two aircraft ablaze.

“In the same spirit you answer our nation’s call today, these men answered it then,” Heithold said. “Despite being willfully underfunded, undermanned, the word “no” was not, as it never has been, in the Air Commando vernacular, not then, not now.”

The surviving personnel and C-130s departed Desert One for the air base at Oman. Upon their return, the Air Commandos found a British contingent on the base had left them a gift: two cases of beer and a note that read, "to you all from us all for having the guts to try."

“Today you are in the presence of those legends, the legends living and lost,” said Heithold. “If it weren’t for these men and women, these Air Commandos and their families wouldn’t be where we are today. AFSOC would not be an Air Force Major Command, U.S. Special Operations Command wouldn’t be a unified command, and the American special operations forces would not be the most effective, most respected and most feared fighting force the world has ever seen.”

Heithold challenged the audience to “learn the lessons from these great warriors, carry forward the torch of excellence that makes every page of our Air Commando story.”

After the ceremony, an MC-130H Combat Talon II and two CV-22 Ospreys performed a flyover. Additionally, a rose wreath was placed in honor of the eight service members who died during the exercise; Maj. Richard Bakke, Maj. Harold Lewis Jr., Tech. Sgt. Joel C. Mayo, Maj. Lyn McIntosh and Capt. Charles McMillan II, all from the 8th SOS, as well as Marine Sgt. John Harvey, Cpl. George Holmes Jr. and Staff Sgt. Dewey Johnson.

Among the service members involved in Operation Eagle Claw was Col. Thomas J. Wicker, 1st SOW deputy commander for operations, who was awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal in a medal presentation that followed the Eagle Claw Anniversary ceremony.

“This award is not only for my efforts, it’s for the efforts of many people,” said Wicker. “They got that first airplane on the ground, and they got it off the ground. Our loadmasters got the stuff in the airplane and off the airplane. They are the ones that deserve this award, a lot more so than I.”

Wicker said he accepted his award on behalf of what he said was the 1st SOW back in 1980.

To close out the events held to commemorate the 35th Anniversary of Operation Eagle Claw, a Combat Talon Memorial stone was unveiled. The stone commemorates the Combat Talon I and II mission and memorializes crewmembers lost throughout the years.

“Special Operations is a complicated, hazardous, risk-filled business,” said Gen. (Ret) Norton Schwartz. “We ask Talon crews to execute this difficult and stressful mission, to devote themselves to a tradition of selflessness, mutual trust, precision and reliability in all of their mission activity. So often, Talon crews did this all, not out of misplaced courage or vanity, but because success in the business depends on the heart as much as it does the head. This memorial compels us to remember to recommit ourselves to the fire that drives us and drove those no longer able to be with us now.”

Although it was a failed mission, the operation has become known as the "most successful failed mission in history." Many tactics and procedures were first used and developed by the Airmen of Operation Eagle Claw, including blacked out landings, landing on unprepared runways, multi-aircraft air field seizure, clandestine insertion of small helicopters and many other procedures, some of which are still classified to this day.

“We are blessed by the selfless heroism of our eight lost at Desert One and by the blood and sweat and the tears shed by all members of our Air Commando family past, present and future,” said Heithold. “We are lifted to the level of excellence we could, not reach alone we see more than we ever could, we achieve more than we ever could, and we succeed in more endeavors than we ever could. Because a few brave men had the guts to try.”