Operation Eagle Claw 40 Years Anniversary
On November 4, 1979, militant Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 63 Americans hostage. On April 16, 1980 after numerous failed negotiations, President Jimmy Carter approved a plan to rescue the hostages using elements of all four branches of the military — Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
* Pvt Keith Morrow and the men of “Hard Rock” Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, along with Delta operators and several other personnel and aircraft deployed to Wadi Kena Egypt, an old abandoned Soviet air field, that became the staging base for the Iranian hostage rescue operation, code name “Operation Eagle Claw”, that was to kicked off on the evening of April 24.
Morrow, who retired in 1999 as a sergeant first class and is currently Fort Polk’s air operations officer, recalls that day.
US Navy, April 27, 2020 - FORT POLK, LA by Keith Morrow - After almost 20 hours of flying in a cramped airplane with a bunch of Rangers and all their gear along with three inflight refueling ops and a couple box meals, the big C-141 aircraft finally touched down. But this time it was different: Wen the ramp doors opened up, the first thing that hit you was the massive dry heat, like opening a big oven door.
While getting ready to offload the plane a man walked up the ramp and yelled, “Rangers Welcome to Egypt.” That’s when we knew this wasn’t going to be another training rehearsal; it was show time.
After almost five months of constant training and rehearsals, working out every possible scenario, the many hours of riding in C-130 aircraft doing low level flights, sitting on mattresses snap linked into the floor, hugging jeep and fuel bladders, conducting multiple night/air landings with our gun jeeps and bikes or doing low level paradrop operations on runways, cross training with Delta Force operators, conducting building clearing along with multiple live fire scenarios, the day had come: The mission was approved and we were ready.
Up until 1980, basic Rangering had not changed significantly in more than 225 years. Rangers were at home in the wild, able to move long distances on land, air or water. They operated with stealth and cunning, and executed reconnaissance, raids and ambushes much like our forefathers. Back then we still wore and used Vietnam era camo uniforms and equipment, and the patrol cap and black beret was our trademark headgear. We carried M16A1, Car15, M21 or M14 rifles; our night vision devices were ANPVS 5 and ANPVS 2 starlight scopes.
But Eagle Claw changed all that. I was a brand new 18-year-old Soldier to the Army fresh out of basic, Airborne school and the Ranger Indoctrination Program, not fully understanding what I was getting into. Little did I know I was walking into history by being assigned to “Hard Rock Charlie” Company, 1st Bn, 75th Ranger Reg.
Nov. 4, 1979, had set the wheels for Eagle Claw in motion, and it will always be burned into my memory: That’s the day I signed in at the Charlie company orderly room, my first duty assignment in the Army, and the day the Iranian students took our Americans hostage. The start of JTF 1-79 began.
My first company commander, Capt. David L. Grange, was a second-generation Ranger. His father fought in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He jumped into Normandy on D-Day. He commanded the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and retired as a lieutenant general. The senior Grange designed and established the Best Ranger Competition that’s conducted every spring.
Captain Grange served with Lima Company Rangers who were assigned to the 101st Airborne Division during Vietnam. He brought combat focused skills honed on the battlefield to everything he did. Some of our physical training would look similar to what is conducted today, but back then it was deemed nonstandard and frowned upon. We didn’t care that we were training for combat, so pulling jeeps, running in combat gear, carrying ammo cases or water cans during long terrain runs became the norm for us. I quickly learned to train as you fight.
To some our training events would seem odd because it had never been done before, but there was always a reason behind them. My favorite example was after returning from a mission, the commander called our platoon over to a C-130. He told the loadmaster to take the brakes off the plane and level the back ramp, then told us to push it. We starting with four men then added one at a time until finally we could make it start rolling. He told us we now knew it took 10 of us if we ever needed to push it out of the way.
It does seem odd to see what it takes to push a big C-130, but on a desert runway, at night in the middle of enemy territory, we might just have to do that without using a large element.
“Hard Rock Charlie”
When “Hard Rock Charlie” received the warning order for Eagle Claw, Grange brought the company into the day room. He wanted to know who drove off road vehicles, who owned motorcycles, who were the best snipers and machine gunners and who had mechanical experience or grew up on a farm and could keep equipment running using “bubble gum and bailing wire.” He was leveraging strengths we didn’t know we had and modifying our task organization for missions we had never seen.
We were issued Vietnam era M-151 Jeeps that were heavily modified for night operations and a capability to carry more than they were built for. Some carried six or seven Rangers, and all were armed to the teeth with at least two M60 machine guns, a 90-mm recoilless rifle, medic and sniper, along with several hundred rounds of ammo; we had to be able to sustain a fight for any length of time. We also modified dirt bikes that were bought at local stores with infrared lights and weapon racks to be used for recon and support.
I crossed trained on various weapons systems: M60 machine gun, MP 5 and Swedish K silenced sub machine guns, silenced .22 caliber or M1911 .45 caliber pistols, the M14 rifle and even the old grease gun. We needed weapons that were small, light and capable of doing the jump because there isn’t much room on a Jeep.
Another hurdle we had to cross was creating ways to conduct rapid off- and on- loading of various aircraft under the cover of darkness using our night vision. This trial period was rough; we tried many different ways — some with bad results — but you could say we learned quickly that slow was fast and the C-130 loadmasters like that better.
We finally ended up with a method that held true for many years to follow; I used it again four years later while I was assigned to the newly activated 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. We also had to design various teams for a multitude of supporting missions from blocking teams, jump clearing teams, pathfinder ops, search and rescue, building clearing teams and a medical first aid team. Then we cross-trained each team so any one team could replace the other if needed.
Each team also trained on engaging troop concentrations, cutting electricity and phone lines, hot-wiring vehicles, operating heavy machinery along with integrating Air Force combat controllers, search and rescue techniques as well as survival, escape and evasion training.
We also needed to develop time warnings, equipment checks, communications checks and accountability procedures like using clipboards covered with luminous tape and grease pencils. All of this training was new and had never been conducted at this large of a scale before, so the learning curve was very short and quick. We also found that the Army didn’t have various items to help us, like personnel radios, IR paper (got that from the CIA), glint tape and storage racks, so we either bought them from local stores or designed and built what we needed.
We did a lot of modifications, not only to the vehicles and equipment, but to our uniforms and I can see some still used today with our Soldiers.
The mission for the Rangers of Charlie Company during Operation Eagle claw was twofold: The first was providing security at the refueling site code name “Desert One” with local security during the refueling operation, having the C-130 aircraft top off the RH-53 helicopters with fuel bladders inside. The helos would depart to a hide site until dark then go into Teheran with the rescue teams.
Desert One location was along an old compacted road on the desert floor. The Ranger security team got busy that night; shortly after securing the location a small bus with a few people drove up — it was a group of desert nomads. Once the group was secured, they noticed a truck speeding toward them at a high rate of speed. Not knowing the intentions of the truck — and it not slowing down — the security leader yelled out, “we have to stop him,” and a Ranger did by firing an anti-tank round into it, causing it to blow up (it happened to be a fuel truck used by thieves).
Me and the remaining Rangers in Wadi Kena were loaded, prepped and ready to go. We spent most of the day prepping gear, loading ammo and readying the vehicles for loading on planes. Once our final inspections were finished we went back to our cots to rest and wait for time to start.
Our mission was to secure the Manazaiyeh airfield just 35 miles from Teheran, Iran, the location for the transports to meet and cross load the Delta teams with American hostages onto awaiting C-141 aircraft and bring them to Wada Kena.
We were ready to take down the airfield and any cost. Our jump teams were ready to parachute in and ensure it was clear to land. Once on the ground we would secure the airfield and defend it from any possible threat until the helos arrived with our Americans. Once the transfer was complete we would clean up the location and extract out and back to Egypt.
During this operation, I was on a Jeep team along with four bikes and a handful of Rangers ready to either jump or air land as a ground force. The first part of our mission was to stand by for possible search and rescue in the event another team had an issue prior to the actual assault onto the runway, then we would follow up with the rest of the Rangers and aircraft.
As we all know, the operation didn’t get past the refueling site (Desert One) due to mechanical issues on a few helos so the mission was aborted, but during the extraction, one of the helos hit a parked C-130 while lifting off, unable to see from all the dust that drifted over. This event actual left five Air Force crewmen and three Marines dead.
Some would call this operation a complete failure, but was it really? Our challenges were new and difficult at all levels across the military, but our failure in Iran made us better. We established commands, units, relationships, mission sets and joint tactics, techniques and procedures that survive to this day. The lessons learned fixed a multitude of shortcomings and brought Joint Special Operations Forces into the 21st century.
Many of the Rangers from Charlie Company went on to work in various Special Operations fields, helping building up units like the TF-160 night stalker aviation unit or with the Special Operations Delta Force.
Eagle Claw lessons
Ultimately the lessons of Eagle Claw led to the establishment of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a functional combatant command with service-like responsibilities to man, train and equip Special Operations Forces from every service. Forty years after Eagle Claw, SOF owns the air, land and sea in the areas where they operate.
Not many people know about this operation and it was kept quiet for years. Even when we returned a couple days later, we were sworn to secrecy; friends would pick at us, asking questions but we couldn’t answer. We were upset and somewhat hurt with the feeling we had left our Americans (hostages) there, but we kept our heads up and continued to lean forward because there was a second mission in the works.
At times I get a flashback at some of the things we did as part of the train up and when I tell a story about our techniques or some of the training we did in a conversation, most can’t believe we did that with what we had. Well, we did and yes, it’s true.
Being a plank holder in history to now a much larger organization is a somewhat somber feeling. I’m very proud to have been a part of this event and to have worked with the fine men of “Hard Rock” Charlie, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. But I know as for me and my fellow Company Rangers, it’s still a heartache to this day knowing we trained so hard to get so close but still couldn’t get our Americans home.
But at least we had the guts to try.
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Sikorsky RH-53D in US Navy
Operation Eagle Claw