The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
11. The "Desert One" Disaster

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
A 1991 British film chronicled
the Iran hostage ordeal

On April 16, 1980 President Jimmy Carter met with his foreign policy staff in the White House Situation Room.  Also present was Col. Charles Beckwith, 51, a Georgia-born veteran of combat in Korea and Vietnam who had been chosen in 1977 to create and command the elite Delta Force.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff had recommended Beckwith to lead a daring mission to rescue the 53 American hostages who had been held for six months by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard at the U.S. embassy in Teheran.  (There were 52 hostages following the July 1980 release of Richard Queen.)
Eventually Iran would settle on four conditions the United States would be required to meet before the hostages were released: a pledge that the U.S. would not interfere in Iranian affairs; the return of the fortune of exiled Shah Reza Pahlavi, Iran's former ruler; the freeing of Iranian assets held in American banks, which had been frozen in response to the hostage-taking; and the cancellation of all American legal and financial claims against Iran.  But in early 1980 Carter was getting nowhere in his attempts to negotiate with the Iranians because Teheran didn't seem to know yet what it wanted in exchange for the hostages.  Furthermore, the president was being pressured by a humiliated American public to do something.  So Carter wanted to be briefed on the rescue plan Beckwith had been working on since the seizure of the embassy.
Delta Force had been engaged in exhaustive training in preparation for the mission.  Volunteers familiarized themselves with Iranian customs and the Farsi language.  Since no American intelligence agents were active in Iran, Beckwith collected a lot of vital information about the embassy layout and the routines of the Iranian guards by watching the evening newscasts.  Live reports from the scene were broadcast nightly, and from them Beckwith gleaned such essential details as which gates were chained and padlocked, which way doors opened, and how the Iranians were armed.  In March, Delta Force conducted an elaborate dress rehearsal for the rescue attempt at the Marine Corps Training Station near Yuma, Arizona.
Carter was impressed with Beckwith and the thoroughness of his planning.  But Secretary of State Cyrus Vance opposed any military action, while Vance's deputy, Warren Christopher, exhibited shock and dismay when Beckwith mentioned shooting Iranian guards. Beckwith bluntly estimated that as many as thirty Americans -- hostages and/or Delta Force commandos -- might lose their lives. Nonetheless, Carter gave the go-ahead shortly after the Situation Room briefing.
On April 21, Beckwith's 132-man team, who called themselves "Charlie's Angels," arrived at Egypt's Wadi Kena, the staging area for Operation Eagle Claw.  Three days later the team flew to Masirah Island off the coast of Oman in two C-141 transport planes.  From there they would fly in C-130s to Desert One, an advance staging area in the Dasht-e-Kavir region of Iran, 200 miles from Teheran, where they were to rendezvous with eight RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters dispatched from the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, located in the Gulf of Oman.  The Sea Stallions would refuel at Desert One before proceeding with the Delta Force team to a location codenamed Figbar in the mountains 65 miles southeast of Teheran. The following night, the rescue team was to enter the Iranian capital in four trucks supplied by several agents who had recently entered the country posing as Europeans.  While "Charlie's Angels" infiltrated the embassy and freed the hostages, the Sea Stallions would fly in, pick up the rescuers and the rescued, and deliver them to an abandoned airfield 35 miles outside of Teheran.  If everything went according to plan, by then the airfield would be in the capable hands of an Army Ranger team.  Transport planes would arrive there to take everyone out.
It was a daring plan.  The risks were high and surprise was of the essence.  Many things could go wrong.  Unfortunately, many did.
Beckwith and his men reached Desert One at 10 o' clock in the evening of April 24.  A short time later, a bus carrying 45 Iranian civilians blundered into the area.  The Iranians were taken into custody.  Then a fuel truck and a pickup appeared.  By then Beckwith's men must have been wondering at their bad luck, since Desert One was supposed to be a remote location.  The fuel truck was destroyed with an anti-tank weapon, but the driver of the pickup managed to escape.  The helicopters were due at 11:30 P.M.  They didn't show up on time.
The squadron of eight Sea Stallions had some bad luck, too.  One lost rotor blade pressure and was forced to land.  It was abandoned, and the squadron pushed on.  Later, the helicopters flew straight into a dust storm; another Sea Stallion lost its gyroscope and had to turn back.  The remaining six reached Desert One two hours behind schedule.  There it was discovered that one of the choppers had lost its hydraulic pump and could not take off.  That left five -- one less helicopter than the minimum needed to carry out the rescue.  A bitter Col. Beckwith scrubbed the mission.  As the Sea Stallions and C-130s began to depart, a helicopter collided with one of the transport planes.  The Sea Stallion exploded into flames.  Eight men lost their lives.
Congress and the press raised a furor over the failed mission.  Having opposed Operation Eagle Claw from the first, Secretary of State Vance resigned out of principle.  The administration prevailed on a reluctant Beckwith to hold a press conference and dispel rumors that President Carter had lost his nerve and aborted the mission at the last minute.  Since the publicity rendered him unable to continue as Delta Force leader, Charles Beckwith, a true American hero, ended his long and distinguished military career soon thereafter.

The Iran-Iraq War
Since the creation of Iraq following World War I, the border between that country and Iran had always been in dispute.  In the wake of the Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran, Iraq launched an offensive, which was countered in 1981 by Iran.  Though the Iranians had the advantage of numbers -- sometimes sending women and children into battle -- the Iraqi army was better trained and better equipped.  The result was a stalemate.  Eventually, many Arab nations sided with Iraq, fearing the spread of the revolutionary movement led by the Ayatollah Khomeini.  In 1986 American and Iranian naval forces clashed as the former  attempted to keep the Persian Gulf open for oil shipments.  In 1988, a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations Security Council ended the eight-year conflict, during which there were an estimated one million casualties.  The war cost both Iran and Iraq about $500 billion, and left their economies in a shambles.


Crisis: The True Story of an Unforgettable Year in the White House
Hamilton Jordan (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1982)

Delta Force: The U.S. Counter-Terrorist Unit and the Iran Hostage Rescue Mission
Charles A. Beckwith & Donald Knox (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1983)

On the Brink: The Dramatic Behind the Scenes Saga of the Reagan Era
and the Men and Women Who Won the Cold War
Jay Winik (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996)