'Phoenix Rising' sheds new light on Operation Eagle Claw

Jack Murphy
September 24, 2020 - 10:24 am
Rehearsals of Op Eagle Claw

Photo by Chuck Cannon

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When "Iranian students" took over the American embassy in Tehran, Iran in 1979 the United States military sprang into action to complete a new type of mission: counter-terrorism.

"We knew it was 27 acres but we had three separate facilities within that," Col. Keith Nightingale explained, author of "Phoenix Rising" said. "Everywhere we looked there was a major issue. We didn't know where we would launch from, didn't know what we were going to launch, didn't know how we would recover, didn't know how we would cover the embassy, didn't really have a whole lot of good intelligence...we just had a huge amount of issues but not a lot of resolutions or answers."

Intelligence, or lack thereof, was their biggest issue in planning to rescue the American hostages in Iran. The CIA was of little help, as their human intelligence capability had been gutted during the Carter administration.

"We had three liaisons from the agency with us almost from day one and they always soft peddled what they were producing," Nightingale said. They would make assurances but never produced actionable intel. Without knowing exactly where the hostages were, they had to cover the entire 27-acre compound. When Delta Force went in, they would have their work cut out for them.

Nightingale's new book "Phoenix Rising" details many previously unpublished details about the attempted hostage rescue in Iran.

OPSEC, or operational security, was a huge issue during the Cold War. Mission rehearsals had to be hidden from Soviet spy satellites overhead. Soldiers were hidden in hangars during the day, messages were handwritten and passed on rather than spoken over radios, Nightingale explained in a recent remote conference with the Airborne and Special Operations Museum Foundation. 

Nightingale also needed to acquire night vision goggles for the Delta operators and helicopter pilots, which in 1980 was still an emerging technology. Eventually, he located 100 sets at a military depot in Sacramento and had to convince the old woman who worked there that their mission needed them as quickly as possible. 

"She boxed them up on her own and shipped them down to us at Yuma...we got every NVG that came off the assembly line," Nightingale said. Another specialized piece of equipment he had to acquire were Satellite Communications (SATCOM) radios made by Motorola, a system built by just six guys sitting at a bench in a factory.

Throughout planning and rehearsals, Nightingale and others charged with running the operation realized that joint interoperability was one of the most critical fulcrums in a Special Operations mission. Delta Force could not be a stand-alone unit, but rather had to work with various aviation units, Rangers, Special Forces, and many others. A mission of this size and scope could never take place in a vacuum. 

When the mission was finally launched, numerous factors led to helicopters not making it to the staging point, dubbed Desert One, or being broken down when they arrived. This caused Col. Charlie Beckwith who commanded Delta Force to abort the mission. Then, disaster struck when a helicopter crashed into a C-130 aircraft.

"There was this deathly silence on the line," Nightingale described once back in the Pentagon sitting next to Secretary of Defense Harold Brown. "There was this huge pall."

Secretary Brown cursed, stood, and walked out the door.

It was a turning point for American counter-terrorism. 

Nightingale's book about Desert One is titled "Phoenix Rising: From the Ashes of Desert One to the Rebirth of U.S. Special Operations" and is available now.

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Reach Jack Murphy: jack@connectingvets.com or @JackMurphyRGR.