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Hurlburt Field Honors The 35th Anniversary Of Operation Eagle Claw

Danielle Freeman

Operation Eagle Claw is known as the “most successful failed mission in history.” It was a joint-services mission to rescue Americans held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1980. Hurlburt Field recently held a recent ceremony honoring those who died during the operation, and the valuable lessons learned as a result of what happened.

On November 4th 1979, a group of Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran taking 66 citizens hostage.  Thirteen were eventually released.  After five months of failed negotiations to secure the release of the remaining 53 hostages, officials in the Carter Administration turned to the Air Commandos from Hurlburt Field, “So, the crews were ready. They had to go with very little indication when the bugle sounded, they had to go.”

Lt. General Brad Heithold is Commander of Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt. He says the team was asked to design a covert rescue plan because they didn’t know if the hostages were in danger of being killed, “So, Joint Task Force 1-79 began planning and preparing right here. It was going to be covert. No detection what so ever by anyone. Two periods of darkness, that’s all you get. Completely blacked out, no lights, not a bit of light leaking from the aircraft. Easy day right? Easy day.”

Flying MC-130s and EC-130s the Air Commandos would transport an army assault force to a remote desert landing site 200 miles SE of Teheran, code name Desert One.

They had never before attempted this stealth tactic, known today as self-contained approaches, and very little went according to plan. In addition to the unpredictable and unforgiving environment, there was a communications break down as well as numerous mechanical issues. But, General Heithold says their sense of duty kept them going, “ In the same spirit as you answer our nation’s call today, these men answered it then. Despite being woefully underfunded, undermanned, the word “NO” was not, as it never has been, in the Air Commando vernacular.  Not then, not now. “

However, Operation Eagle Claw ended in tragedy.

Eight service members, including five Air Commandos from Hurlburt Fields’s Special Operations Command lost their lives in a fiery ground accident involving a Sea Stallion helicopter and a C-130.

General Heithold led the base’s 35th anniversary ceremony honoring those men who died. The service included the laying of a wreath in front of the Hurlburt Field Chapel Memorial Window, the playing of taps and a flyover by the 8th and the 15th Special Operations Squadrons.

The AFSOC Commander says such occasions provide an opportunity to celebrate the spirit of their Air Commando heritage and the birth of today’s modern special operations, “ Our Air Commandos were the best. They were well seasoned in experiences as they’ve ever been coming out of Vietnam. But, our fore structure and our wallet had been gutted. There-in lied the problem. Our nation’s large scale open war conflicts had all but ceased, but we would soon face one of the most challenging covert military operations that the United States had ever under taken. I would say probably even until today ever undertaken.”

Because the mission was a failure, it’s good to come back every five years at least and meet with the people that took part and realize that there was more good came out of the mission than the actual failure.”

Retired Air Force Colonel Roland Guidry was one of the pilots in the lead aircraft on the mission.  He says the lives lost were not in vain, “We had the failure and we had the accident, two events were synergistic and shocked the world into saying hey the United States needs to get better prepared for wars against militant Islam which proved prophetic.”

And, because of the Desert One disaster, Colonel Guidry says Special Operations became a priority, “One of the most important things about Eagle Claw is that we were faced with a national emergency and it gave us carte blanche to go out to the Eglin Reservation and develop tactics that would never have been developed in normal peace time operations.”

Colonel Guidry believes the mission has great historical value, first showing that the United States won’t back down from terrorists and that it will try to bring its people home, “We embarked upon the most difficult audacious rescue mission ever attempted and almost pulled it off. Although history has called the mission a failure, we that took part and everybody at Hurlburt realizes that Hurlburt, now is where it is, and it would have gotten there eventually but Desert one got it there much quicker.”

Reaping the benefits of the many lessons learned from the tragedy are the specialized units of today, according to Colonel Sean Farrell, Commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt, ”This is our heritage; we’ve always got to tie ourselves to our heritage and what came before us. And, what General Heithold said that we’re merely standing on the shoulders of giants at AFSOC now. The great things we do are because of the great things men before us did.”

For more information about Operation Eagle Claw and today’s Air Force Special Operations Command visit the Hurlburt Field website and Face book page. Danielle Freeman WUWF News



Lest We Forget

Fallen Air Commandos

Major Harold Lewis, Jr.

Major Lyn McIntosh

Captain Charles McMillan II

Major Richard Bakke

Technical Sergeant Joel Mayo


Fallen United States Marine Corps

Corporal George Holmes

Sergeant John Harvey

Staff Sergeant Dewey Johnson