DAVID ZINMAN With us since June 10, 2001
It was a military disaster that rewrote the rulebook
By DAVID ZINMAN
As this bunch of scribblers known as TheColumnists.com celebrates a milestone this week, I cant help thinking about another anniversary that came and went this year without bringing joy to anyone.
Twenty-five years ago, a man I came to know when I retired and started spending winters in South Carolina stood on the brink of military greatness. He is James Vaught, a crusty Army general who launched a long-forgotten raid to rescue 52 Americans held hostage in Iran.
If Vaught could have pulled it off, his name would almost certainly have gone down in military history. Some say he could have changed the outcome of the 1980 presidential election that saw Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter.
But problems plagued the maneuver--code name Operation Eagle Claw. A desert storm beset the rescuers, then mechanical failures, finally an explosion that killed eight. In the end, the operation failed. The irony was that every hostage would end up being released--even without military intervention--after 444 days of captivity.
Vaught was praised for his leadership. Still, when he talked about the raid recently, he had second thoughts and at least one regret that he said he would take to the grave.
It all started in 1979. The U.S. was confronting the anti-American fervor of Islamic fundamentalism for the first time. Three thousand student demonstrators stormed the U.S. Embassy in Teheran. They captured most of the Americans inside.
After months of fruitless talks, Carter decided to mount a top secret operation to rescue the hostages who were held in an embassy compound. Vaught was put in charge.
The plan was a daring one. It called for eight helicopters to take off at night from the carrier Nimitz off the southeast coast of Iran.
They would fly about 1,000 miles to a remote desert site-called Desert One. That would become a staging area. Transport planes carrying fuel would rendezvous with them.
The helicopters would refuel and fly on to a designated area outside Teheran. There, undercover agents would have trucks waiting. The rescuers would drive to the compound, overpower the guards, free the hostages, and return them to the waiting helicopters.
As soon as Carter and the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the rescue plan, Vaught started training a corps of elite warriors.
But problems surfaced almost from the outset. Vaught thought the helicopters on the carrier Nimitz were not being flown often enough to insure they would be fully functional. He asked to inspect them. That was the Navys job, the Joint Chiefs said.
As it turned out, the choppers were being repaired with many cannibalized parts. Vaught said his hands were tied, even though he was in charge of the operation, because he had no authority except over the Army guys.
Nevertheless, Eagle Claw went off on schedule. On the night of April 24, 1980, eight helicopters took off--each with two-man pilot teams. Just before they left, the squadron commander (without consulting Vaught) ordered everyone to jettison his radio. He felt the radios werent needed and their weight only served to burden the copters, already made sluggish by heavy fuel loads.
Then, came the first unexpected blow. Before reaching the staging area, an immense dust storm boiled up. It was like flying in a bowl of milk, one pilot said. Another got so disoriented, he turned around and flew back to the carrier hundreds of miles away. It would become perhaps the most critical decision of the mission.
They were within 80 miles (less than an hour) from Desert One, Vaught said. If they had radios, the squadron commander would have told him to keep going There was no excuse for that helicopter turning around. None.
Vaught said he later realized he should have held to his belief--opposed by the Marines--that there should be three-man crews. My experience in war is that if you have two-man crews and lose one pilot (through fatigue or lack of resolve), the other pilot is often devastated. But with three, if you lose one you can put in a team of two.
If Vaught could re-live the operation that is one thing he would have changed. I would have insisted we have three pilots That one plane that turned around could have been the difference. Ill take that regret to my grave.
The worst was yet to come. Rotor blade trouble forced down another copter. Then, after landing at the staging area, crews found that failed hydraulic boosters crippled a third. That left only five operable choppers. Six were the minimum needed for the mission to continue.
Vaught asked Col. Charles Beckwith, the ground commander, if he could go on with five. Beckwiths answer was negative. He later said: How can the boss ask me that (to go ahead with five copters)? There isnt any way. Id have to leave behind 20 men.
Calamities were still not over. Preparing to go back, one of the withdrawing helicopters collided with a parked transport plane. Both burst into flames, killing eight servicemen.
A few hours later, President Carter went on national TV. He made no excuses and accepted full personal responsibility for the aborted operation.
The public did not forgive him. Political observers felt the missions failure did more to undercut Carters presidency than any other single event. In the election, Reagan spoiled Carters bid for a second term, getting 44 million votes to 35 million for Carter.
Iran released the hostages on the first day of Reagans presidency. In return, U.S. negotiators gave the Iranians $8 billion worth of their assets that had been frozen.
Congressional hearings uncovered serious shortcomings in planning. Among other things, critics said the task force had too few helicopters. It should have had as many as 12, they said, to insure six would be ready to fly after reaching Desert One.
They added that the pilots had little experience in long-range overland flights. The operation provided too many bail-outs and not enough backup systems.
But the mission led to reforms. A key one forced the military to change the way command decisions should be made in a joint mission. No longer would a task force leader lack authority to issue all orders in a multi-service operation.
As for Vaught, he emerged with his reputation intact and retired as a three-star general. Now 78, he is moving with his wife, Florence, from their sprawling house overlooking the Waccamaw River outside Conway to a smaller condo nearby.
Sitting in his living room watching the river flow by, he sometimes reflects philosophically on the ill-fated mission.
I felt disappointed to say the least, Vaught said. But not totally surprised. When you give it your best shot and it doesnt go, it doesnt go. Thats the nature of military operations.
©2005 by David Zinman. The Zinman caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The illustration is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted on Dec. 5, 2005.
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