April 2001

A mission of hope turned tragic. A case of what could've been.

by Master Sgt. Jim Greeley

Nov. 4, 1979 — More than 3,000 Iranian militant students storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking 66 Americans hostage and setting the stage for a showdown with the United States.

April 25, 1980 — A defining moment for President Jimmy Carter, for the American people and for America’s military. At 7 a.m. a somber President Carter announces to the nation, and the world, that eight American servicemen are dead and several others are seriously injured, after a super-secret hostage rescue mission failed.

April 26, 1980 — Staff Sgt. J.J. Beyers lies unconscious in a Texas hospital bed. The Air Force radio operator was one of the lucky few C-130 aircrew members to survive a ghastly collision and explosion between his aircraft and a helicopter on Iran’s Great Salt Desert. The accident took place after the rescue team was forced to abort its mission at a location from then on known as Desert One.

The living room walls in J.J. Beyers’ Florida home tell a story of intense pride and patriotism — a shrine to days and friends long past. The dark paneling in this modest, single-story house is the canvas for a riveting collection of photos, citations and plaques. Although faded over the years, the collection possesses an unspoken power.

Beyers’ hands and arms tell another side of the story. Settling into his favorite recliner, the former Air Force sergeant rolls up the sleeves of his checkered shirt. The scars on his arms and his disfigured hands tell their own harrowing tale. Even after all these years, the tale of courage, hope, pain, fear and disappointment jump out and scream, listen!

In 1980, Beyers was part of an elite group of airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines who volunteered for Operation Eagle Claw — a bold and daring rescue attempt of Americans held hostage in Tehran, Iran.

Beyers’ scars and mementos are emblematic of the rescue mission. They’re constant reminders of the friends he lost. A reminder of the disaster he survived. A reminder of what could’ve been.

“I was lucky,” Beyers said. “I lived.”

Five of his crewmates from the 8th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., died in the Iranian desert, along with three Marine helicopter crewmen (See “Remembering Heroes,” Page 9).

“They were a brave, courageous and determined group of guys,” Beyers said. “I miss them.”

Countdown to tragedy
The countdown to Desert One began in spring 1979 when a popular uprising in Iran forced longtime Iranian ruler, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, into exile. After months of internal turmoil, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, a Shiite Muslim cleric, took power in the country.

On Nov. 4, 1979, just a few weeks after President Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment, thousands of Iranian students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, taking 66 hostages and demanding the return of the Shah to stand trial in Iran.

American diplomatic efforts to release the hostages were thwarted by Khomeni supporters. At the same time, Pentagon planners began examining rescue options.

Planning a rescue
The original intent was to launch a rapid rescue effort. But, every quick-reaction alternative was dismissed. For planners, the situation was bleak. Intelligence information was difficult to get. The hostages were heavily guarded in the massive embassy compound. Logistically, Tehran was a city crammed with 4 million people, yet it was very isolated — surrounded by about 700 miles of desert and mountains in every direction. There was no easy way to get a rescue team into the embassy.

One scenario was parachuting an elite Army special forces team in. The team would fight its way in and out of the embassy, rescuing the hostages along the way. That plan was deemed suicidal.

After realizing there was no infrastructure or support for a quick strike, planners started mapping out a long-range, multifaceted rescue.

What emerged was a complex, two-night operation. An Army rescue team would be brought into Iran with a combination of helicopters and C-130s. The “Hercs” would fly the troopers into a desert staging area from Oman. They would load the rescue team on the helicopters, refuel the choppers, and then the helos and shooters would move forward to hide in areas about 50 miles outside Tehran.

On day two, the Army team would be escorted to the embassy in trucks by American intelligence agents. The Army team would take down the embassy, rescue the hostages and move them to a nearby soccer stadium. The helos would pick up the shooters and hostages at the stadium and evacuate them to Manzariyeh Air Base, about 40 miles southeast of Tehran.

MC-130s would fly Army Rangers and combat controllers into Manzariyeh. The Rangers would take the field and hold it for the evacuation. Meanwhile, AC-130H Spectre gunships would be over the embassy and the airfield to “fix” any problems encountered. Finally, C-141s would arrive at Manzariyeh to fly the hostages and rescue team to safety.

Secrecy and surprise were critical to the plan. The entire mission would be done at night, and surprise was the Army shooters’ greatest advantage.

It was an ambitious plan; some say too ambitious.

“This mission required a lot of things we had never done before,” said retired Col. (then-Capt.) Bob Brenci, the lead C-130 pilot on the mission. “We were literally making it up as we went along.”

Flying using night-vision goggles was almost unheard of. There was no capability, or for that matter, a need, to refuel helicopters at remote, inaccessible landing zones. All these skills and procedures would be tested and honed for this mission.

“These capabilities are routine now for special operators, but at the time we were right there on the edge of the envelope,” said retired Col. (then-Capt.) George Ferkes, Brenci’s co-pilot.

The aircrews weren’t the only ones pushing the envelope. Airman First Class Jessie Rowe was a fuels specialist at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., when he got a late night call to pack his bags and show up at the Tampa International Airport. He met his boss, Tech. Sgt. Bill Jerome, and the pair flew to Arizona. They were now a part of Eagle Claw. Their job? Devise a self contained refueling system the C-130s could carry into the desert to refuel the helicopters at the forward staging area.

“No one told us why,” said Rowe, who’s now a major at Hurlburt Field and one of just two operation participants still on active duty. “But, you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure it out.

“We begged, borrowed and stole the stuff we needed to make it work,” he said. “We got it done. In less than a month, we had a working system.”

The Eagle Claw players were spread out, training around the world. The Hurlburt crews spent most of their time training in Florida and the southwestern United States. The pieces were coming together.

At the same time, negotiations to free the hostages continued to go nowhere. By the time April 1980 rolled around, the Eagle Claw team had been practicing individually, and together, for five months. The aircrews averaged about 1,000 flying hours in that time. In comparison, a typical C-130 crew dog would take three years to log 1,000 hours.

It’s showtime
“We were chomping at the bit,” Brenci said. “We just wanted to go and do it.”

After a long training mission in Arizona and a flight to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., to pick up parts, Col. J.V.O. Weaver (a captain then) and his crew, returned to Hurlburt Field to an unusual sight.

“We rolled in and noticed the maintenance guys were on the line painting all the birds flat black,” Weaver said. “They painted everything. Tail numbers, markings. Everything.”

The plan was moving forward. Less than a day later, six C-130s quietly departed Florida bound for Wadi Kena, Egypt. The president hadn’t pulled the trigger yet, but the hammer was cocked on the operation.

The Army and Air Force troops were in Egypt awaiting orders. The Marines and sailors, the helicopter contingent, were aboard the USS Nimitz afloat in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Iran.

“I remember we ate C-rats (the predecessor to MREs) for days and then one morning a truck rolls up, and we’re served a hot breakfast,” Rowe said. “Light bulbs went on in everyone’s minds.”

The hot breakfast was a precursor to a briefing and pep talk from Army Maj. Gen. James Vaught, the Joint Task Force commander for Eagle Claw. The mission was a go.

“Everyone was pumped up,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Taco Sanchez (then a staff sergeant). “Arms were in the air. We were ready!”

Next stop, Masirah. A tiny island off the coast of Oman. To say this air patch was desolate would be kind. It was a couple of tents and a blacktop strip. It was the final staging area — the last stop before launching.

Just before sunset on April 24, Brenci’s MC-130 took off toward Desert One. The die was cast. Brenci’s crew would be the first to touch down in Iran. They carried the Air Force combat control team and Army Col. Charlie Beckwith’s commandos. Beckwith would lead the rescue mission into the embassy. Also on board Brenci’s plane was Col. James Kyle, the on-scene commander at Desert One and one of the lead planners for the operation. The other Hercs left Masirah after dark, and the helicopters launched off the Nimitz.

It was a four-hour flight. Plenty of time to contemplate what they were attempting.

“We just tried to stay busy,” Sanchez said. “We were in enemy territory now. The pucker factor was pretty high.”

The first challenge would be to find the make-shift landing strip. Only 21 days earlier, Maj. John Carney, a combat controller, had flown a covert mission into Iran with the CIA to set up an infrared landing zone at Desert One. Carney was perched over Brenci’s shoulder as the C-130 neared the landing site. The lights he had buried in the desert would be turned on via remote control from the C-130’s flight deck. The question was, would they work?

Brenci was a couple miles out when in slow succession a “diamond-and-one” pattern appeared through his night-vision goggles. The bird touched down in the powdery silt, and the troops went to work.

Gremlins arrive
The choppers, eight total, left the Nimitz and were supposed to fly formation, low level, to the meet area. Because of the demands of the mission, at least six helicopters were needed at Desert One for the mission to go forward. Two hours into the flight the first helicopter aborted.

Further inland, the Marine helo pilots met their own private hell. Weather for the mission was supposed to be clear. It wasn’t. Flying at 500 feet, the helicopters got caught in what is known in the Dasht-e-Kavir, Iran’s Great Salt Desert, as a “haboob” — a blinding dust storm. The situation was bad. After battling the storm for what seemed like days, one of the helicopters turned back.

At Desert One, all the C-130s had landed and were taxied into place. They were waiting for the choppers. An hour late, the first helicopter arrived.

“We weren’t on the ground that long, but my God, it felt like an eternity waiting for the helos,” Beyers recalled. The first two helicopters to roll in pulled up to Beyer’s aircraft to be refueled. When the sixth chopper showed, everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

The Army troops boarded the helicopters. The fuels guys did their magic. Everything was good. Then word spread. One of the helicopters had a hydraulic failure. Game over.

Beckwith needed six helicopters. Kyle, the on-scene commander, aborted the mission.

“It was crushing,” Rowe said. “We had come all that way, spent all that time practicing, and now we had to turn back.”

The decision made, now the crews had to evacuate the Iranian dust patch. Time was a factor. The C-130s were running low on fuel. Sunrise was fast approaching, and the team didn’t want to be caught on the ground by Iranian troops. Members had already detained a civilian bus with 40-plus passengers and were forced to blow up a fuel truck, which wouldn’t stop for a roadblock.

They had worn out their welcome. Dejected and disappointed, they just wanted to button up and go home.

Beyers’ aircraft, flown by Capt. Hal Lewis, was critically low on fuel. But, before it could depart, the helicopter behind the aircraft had to be moved.

“We had just taken the head count,” recalled Beyers. They had 44 Army troops on board. Beyers was on the flight deck behind Lewis’ seat. “We got permission to taxi and then everything just lit up.”

A fireball engulfed the C-130. According to witnesses, the helicopter lifted off, kicked up a blinding dust cloud, and then banked toward the Herc. Its rotor blades sliced through the Herc’s main stabilizer. The chopper rolled over the top of the aircraft, gushing fuel and fire as it tumbled.

Burning wreck
Fire engulfed the plane. Training kicked in. The flight deck crew began shut-down procedures. The fire was outside the plane. Beyers headed down the steps toward the crew door. That’s when someone opened the escape hatch on top of the aircraft in the cockpit, Beyers said. Boom. Black out.

Tech. Sgt. Ken Bancroft, one of three loadmasters on the airplane, knew he had troops to get off the plane. He went to the left troop door. Fire. Right troop door. Jammed shut.

“I don’t know how I got that door off,” Bancroft said.

He did. One after another, this hulk of a man tossed the Army troops off the burning plane like a crazed baggage handler unloading a jumbo jet.

Beyers had been knocked out. The flight deck door had hit him on the head as he went down the steps. When he came to, he was on fire. Conscious again, he crawled toward the rear of the plane.

“I made it halfway,” Beyers said. “I quit. I knew I was dead.” Somehow he moved himself closer to the door. Then he saw two figures appear through the flames. Two Army troopers had come back for him. He was alive, but in bad shape.

Beyers always had the bad habit of rolling up his flight suit sleeves. He finally paid the price. His arms, from the elbows down, were terribly burned. His hands were charred. Hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, gone. Worse were the internal injuries. His lungs, mouth and throat were burned. Yet, he clung to life.

The desert scene was one of organized chaos. Failure had turned to tragedy.

“I knew they were dead,” Bancroft said of his crew mates in the front of the plane. “I looked up there, and it was just a wall of fire. There was nothing I could do.”

The last plane left Desert One a half hour after the accident. Beyers was on that airplane.

“The accident was a calamity heaped on despair. It was devastating,” wrote Kyle in his book called “The Guts to Try.”

“The C-130 crews and combat controllers had not failed in any part of the operation and had a right to be proud of what they accomplished,” Kyle said. “They inserted the rescue team into Iran on schedule, set up the refueling zone, and gassed up the helicopters when they finally arrived. Then, when things went sour, they saved the day with an emergency evacuation by some incredibly skillful flying. They had gotten the forces out of Iran to fight another day — a fact they can always look back on with pride.”

Pride and sorrow are the two mixed emotions most participants share.

“We were the ultimate embarrassment,” Sanchez said. “Militarily we did some astounding things, but ultimately we failed America. I’m proud of what we accomplished. I was 27 years old, and when I think about that mission it still sends shivers down my spine.”

The aftermath of the rescue operation was a barrage of investigations, congressional hearings and, believe it or not, more planning and training for a follow-on rescue mission.

Members of the 8th SOS were involved in those plans. In fact, some of the same crew members who participated in Eagle Claw came back and started preparing for the follow-up mission.

Healing the wounds
At the same time, the squadron needed to bury its dead, and start healing the wounds from Desert One. Beyers survived the tragedy. After spending a year in the hospital, and enduring 11 surgeries, he was medically separated from the Air Force.

The bodies of the eight men were eventually returned to the United States, and a memorial service was held at Arlington National Cemetery.

Memories of that ceremony are still vivid for many of the rescue team. Weaver, who was an escort officer, still recalls when President Carter visited the families prior to the service. After talking with a Marine family, the president made his way to the family Weaver was escorting.

“He came up to the family, then he looked down at those two little boys, and he just got down on his knees and wrapped his arms around them,” Weaver said. “Tears were streaming down his cheeks. Here’s the president of the United States, on his knees, crying, holding these boys. That burned right in there,” he said pointing to his chest.

A memorial was placed at Arlington National Cemetery honoring the eight men killed. Subsequently, other tributes have been made remembering the men who died at Desert One. Hurlburt has dedicated streets in their honor. New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force Base Airman Leadership School is named for Tech. Sgt. Joel Mayo, the C-130 flight engineer killed at Desert One.

Mayo and Sanchez were good friends. “I talked to him that night,” Sanchez said, flashing back to a time long ago. “It’s important people understand. Joel had no idea he was going to give his life that night. But, if you told him he was going to die, he still would’ve gone.”

Sanchez’s words capture the essence of every man on the mission. They were a brave, courageous group of men, attempting the impossible, for a noble and worthy cause. They came up short and have lived 21 years with the demons, or gremlins, that sabotaged their mission of mercy.

“They tried, and that was important,” said Col. Thomas Schaefer, the U.S. Embassy defense attaché and one of the hostages. “It’s tragic eight men died, but it’s important America had the courage to attempt the rescue.”

In his living room, Beyers gazes at the photos on his wall. Pointing to the picture of his crew, he says, “How I survived and they didn’t, I don’t know. I was lucky.”

Even having lived so long with the horrible outcome of that mission, Beyers never doubts his choice to take part.

“We do things other people can’t do,” he said. “We would rather get killed than fail. It was an accident. But, I have no doubt, had the Army guys gotten in there, we would’ve succeeded.”

It comes down to that. Desert One is a story of what could’ve been.

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