Hurlburt Field commemorates failed 1980 Iran hostage rescue mission
By JIM THOMPSON | The (Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.) Walton Sun | Published: April 24, 2019
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (Tribune News Service)— Thirty-nine years later, the memories still sting.
“Things happen, and you lose eight guys,” said “Taco” Sanchez laconically, under a gray Wednesday morning sky outside the Hurlburt Field Chapel.
On April 24, 1980, Sanchez was among the airmen involved in Operation Eagle Claw, the failed attempt to rescue 52 Americans held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran. On Wednesday, the 39th anniversary of the botched mission, Sanchez was among the people gathered at Hurlburt Field, whose 8th Special Operations Squadron lost five airmen on the mission. Three Marines also lost their lives in the operation.
Sanchez, then an Air Force staff sergeant serving as loadmaster aboard a C-130 aircraft, was the first person to set foot on Desert One, a staging area for the aborted rescue attempt.
A short time later, after one of six helicopters failed to make it to Desert One, the mission was called off by President Jimmy Carter. As troops and equipment were leaving Desert One, a helicopter — its pilot disoriented by blowing sand — struck a C-130. The five airmen and three Marines died in the ensuing explosion.
But, as was noted during Wednesday’s commemoration, Sanchez and others involved in Operation Eagle Claw can take some comfort in the fact that a subsequent review of the failed mission laid the groundwork for modern U.S. military special operations involving troops from various military services.
“We know that we’re the forefathers of what we have now,” Sanchez, one of about a dozen people involved in Operation Eagle Claw who attended the Wednesday commemoration, said after a memorial wreath was placed in front of the stained-glass window at the Hurlburt Field Chapel. The window includes five diamond-shaped pieces of glass to memorialize the lost 8th SOS airmen.
“A majority of us probably take how we are task-oriented for granted,” Col. James Mott, commander of the Hurlburt-based 1st Special Operations Group, said at Wednesday’s commemoration. But things weren’t always that way, he noted, explaining that special operations missions are conducted today as a direct result of lessons learned from Operation Eagle Claw.
And in the end, Mott noted, the Holloway Report — the review of Operation Eagle Claw led by retired Navy Adm. James Holloway — “recognized the effort, grit and determination” of troops involved in the mission.
“Thanks for having the guts to try,” Mott, who remembers the aborted mission from watching TV news as an 8-year-old, said as he turned to the Operation Eagle Claw veterans. “God bless you all.”
“The guts to try,” a catchphrase for the mission, comes from a note attached to two cases of beer dropped off by British airmen for the troops who came back from the operation. “To you all from us all,” the note read, “for having the guts to try.”
Among its findings, the Holloway Report noted that deficiencies in planning, along with problems with multiple military services working together, contributed to the failure of Operation Eagle Claw.
Planning for the mission, which began months before aircraft and troops headed for Desert One, was indeed a complex undertaking, according to one of the men involved in that aspect of Operation Eagle Claw who was on hand Wednesday.
“This had never happened in all of U.S. history,” said Doug Ulery, then a major stationed at Hurlburt Field as an aircraft navigator.
Summoned to his wing commander’s office on a Friday afternoon, Maj. Ulery was told to be at the Pentagon at 8 a.m. the next day — not in uniform, but in civilian clothes, to disguise his reasons for being there.
“Everything was top secret,” he said.
According to Ulery, various groups of planners, addressing issues from logistics to radio frequencies, worked separately during much of the planning for Operation Eagle Claw. Complicating matters, Ulery said, was dealing with other nations to get permission for various military activities. In some instances, he said, plans already made had to be scrapped completely to accommodate those changing circumstances.
During the actual mission, Ulery was stationed in Egypt, where he and others involved in Operation Eagle Claw followed developments by monitoring real-time radio communications.
“Complete, utter disbelief, disappointment, sadness,” Ulery said Wednesday when asked to describe how it felt to know the mission had failed. “I was so shocked, I didn’t know how to handle it. I went off to be by myself.”
Offering his own reflections on the mission, Sanchez said simply, “I was there … We never forget.”