Pacific Air Commandos honor those 'with the guts to try'

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Aaron Cram
  • 353rd Special Operations Group
Members of the 353rd Special Operations Group gathered for a combat dining out here April 25 to celebrate and remember the service members that conducted Operation Eagle Claw 29 years ago.

Operation Eagle Claw was an aborted rescue mission into Iran to recover more than 50 American hostages captured after a group of Islamist students took over the American embassy in Tehran Nov. 4, 1979. The mission resulted in the crash of two aircraft and the deaths of eight American service members at a remote site deep in Iranian territory known as Desert One.

"This combat dining out is a way to honor all of the service members that participated in Operation Eagle Claw," said Col. David Mullins, the 353rd SOG commander. "We pay respect to the eight fallen comrades and commemorate the efforts and the tactics devised for this mission because without them many of today's missions would not be possible. These brave men laid the ground work for the world of special operations as we know it today. It's a privilege for us to serve in the community they helped create."

Airmen and family members from the group dressed up in their battle gear for the combat portion of the evening. During a "cease fire," people listened to retired Col. Thomas Beres, one of Eagle Claw's crew members and former 353rd SOG commander, share his experiences and lessons learned from the mission.

Col. Beres stated at the time the embassy was captured, special operations was still considered unconventional warfare. There were limited crews in special operations squadrons and some of the tactics the mission would call for didn't exist. The months leading up to Operation Eagle Claw saw crews rush to develop new tactics like refueling helicopters in remote locations and fly using night vision goggles in near blackout conditions. Crews were chosen based on their flexibility not experience, he said.

After months of training and planning, a complex two-night mission was designed that had three MC-130Es, three EC-130s and eight RH-53s landing deep in Iranian territory at a dusty landing strip -- Desert One. The EC-130s would refuel the RH-53s, so the helicopters could transport rescue forces further into Iran. The MC-130s would infiltrate Army forces closer to Tehran to capture and secure an airfield that would be used to exfiltrate the rescue crews and hostages once the RH-53s delivered them to the captured airfield. The mission did not go according to plan.

On April 24, 1980, three MC-130Es and three EC-130s landed at Desert One after taking off from an air base in Oman. Eight RH-53s departed the USS Nimitz. Two of the helicopters experienced maintenance issues and never made it to the landing site. Of the six that made it to Desert One, only five were still mission capable due to a hydraulic system failure. The mission required at least six RH-53s to continue.

With fuel running low on the C-130s, the call to abort the mission was made. Before the aircraft could take off, one of the RH-53s needed to be moved. As the helicopter moved, it kicked up dust. The pilot of the RH-53 became disoriented and turned into one of the C-130s. Fire engulfed the wreck. In all five Air Force and three Marines were killed; several were injured.

"I saw a flash of light out of the corner of my eye," Beres said. "It took a moment to realize what happened."

The surviving personnel and C-130s departed Desert One for the air base at Oman. Upon their return, the C-130 crews 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."

Over the last 29 years, Col. Beres said he has heard many versions of the events that took place at Desert One. He stated he does his best to share his story and lessons learned when he gets the chance. During the combat dining out, the retired navigator shared five main points with the people in attendance. They are:

-- "Special operations is a frame of mind. Special operations forces say we can do it if this happens or this happens, not why they can't do the mission. It's a can-do attitude that makes these impossible missions possible.

-- "You can never 'what if' it enough. We would ask questions and be told not to worry about it because it wasn't in the plan. As we all know, not everything goes according to plan. When planning a mission, I suggest you 'what if' that mission to death."

-- "Let the people doing the task decide how it gets done. The best way to get a task done right is to let the people performing the task determine the best course of action to carry out their duties."

-- "People are more important than equipment. Make sure you have the right caliber people in the right place. If you don't, no piece of equipment can save the mission."

-- "Rank does have its privileges, but don't take it on a mission. Rank should be used to expedite the mission, not limit what a person can do. No matter what rank you are, a mission task is not beneath you."

Col. Beres closed his speech noting the strides special operations forces have made since crews began pushing the envelope when they started training for what would become Operation Eagle Claw.

"I look back at some of things we did preparing for the mission and think they were pretty dangerous," he said. "We were doing things that were unheard of or thought to be impossible. Today, you do these tasks and other extraordinary things thought to be impossible and make them look routine that amazes people like me. We respect you for it. We're kind of in awe and know the best is yet to come."