Lessons of Operation Eagle Claw Part 2

Vietnam- The Son Tay Raid

In 1970 the Son Tay Raid took place. The U.S. had been in Vietnam for almost fifteen years but with heavy combat troops for the past five years (Gargus 2010). American casualties in the war were up to almost 400 soldiers a week. The American people were beginning to tire of the war.

The U.S. course in Vietnam had been set towards disengagement and turning the war over to the South Vietnamese. President Nixon was determined to extract from Southeast Asia with dignity in a plan called, “Peace with honor.”

There was one issue that resonated with the American public. It was the future of the U.S. prisoners of war (POW) held in North Vietnam. Overhead imagery from a U.S. Air Force SR-71 “Blackbird” reconnaissance plane found the possible presence of U.S. POWs at the compound of Son Tay, North Vietnam. The camp was just 20 miles from Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam (Cawthrone 2011).

Several months of planning and training coordination through military channels followed the decision to do a rescue attempt of the American prisoners. The raid against the Son Tay camp was an excellent execution of a joint special operation.

Son Tay Raiders

The American raid on the night of November 20, 1970, surprised the North Vietnamese by the aggressive display of America’s concern for the U.S. prisoners held at Son Tay (Cawthrone 2011). No P.O.W.s were rescued. The enemy had moved the prisoners to other facilities. Later the raid would later serve as a model of a well-designed and aggressive joint special operation.

Son Tay Raiders

A helicopter loaded with commandos lands at Son Tay

The mission was deemed a failure by the media. Over time the positive aspects of the raid would come to validate the raid as a success. The level of planning for the mission became a trademark for future joint special operations. Lessons learned from this raid would form the foundation of Operation Eagle Claw.

Planning and Training for the Mission

Almost from the beginning Operation Eagle Claw was a joint operation. The planners decided to use the RH-53D Sea Stallion of the U.S. Navy. The helicopter would ferry the Delta Commandos and rescue the hostages. The Air Force would use AC-130 Spectre gunships to provide Close-Air-Support that the commandos might need during the exfiltration (Haney 2002).

Attached to the mission was a company of U.S. Army Rangers. Their mission would be to provide security for the men and equipment on a secret airfield in the middle of the Iranian desert. With all these elements combined this was the first joint mission of the U.S. military since Vietnam.

The plan called for Delta Force to rendezvous with supporting American forces in Egypt (Beckwith 1981). The Army Rangers was going to seize an airfield in the middle of the Iranian desert. The desert airfield was for the extraction after the hostages were rescued.

From Egypt, the team of commandos would fly to Oman and finally to the secret airfield the Rangers had captured. The plan called for on April 21, 1980 the Rangers to be transfer to Masirah Island off the coast of Oman (Couch 2012). From there the commandos and Rangers moved to three transport MC-130s accompanied by three fuel bearing EC-130s.

Eight Navy RH-53 Sea Stallions left the aircraft carrier Nimitz. They were to go to the airfield, refuel and the Navy helicopters were to fly the rescue team to a hidden cave outside Tehran. The final phase was for the rescued hostages to be taken to a stadium across the street from the embassy and to freedom (Haney 2002).

Map 1 of Operation Eagle Claw

Map of Operation Eagle Claw

At the secret airfield called “Desert One” things started to go wrong. Two of the Sea Stallions crashed into each other while landing aborting Desert One. One helicopter never left the Nimitz due to mechanical problems. At least six helicopters were to carry out the mission. One of the helicopters had engine trouble canceling the mission. As the forces were evacuating another helicopter drifted into a refueling tanker as it took off and exploded.

Wreakage of Desert One

Burnt Fueler Plane at Desert One

The failed mission was a brutal blow to America’s military reputation. Delta Force and the supporting team had risked everything to carry out this tough mission. The hard earned lessons of this mission were never forgotten. Many of the operational methods and safety measures employed by SOF in the future grew out of this tragedy (Beckwith 1981).

Many questions arose about the choice of pilots, about training and rehearsals. At a Senate hearing, Georgia’s Sam Nunn, chairman of the powerful Armed Service Committee, asked Colonel Beckwith what he learned from the aborted mission. He wanted to know how to prevent such failures in the future.

Beckwith answered in usual blunt style, “If coach Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama put his quarterback in Virginia, his backfield in North Carolina, his offensive line in Georgia and his defense in Texas and then got Delta Airlines to pick them up and fly them to Birmingham on game day, he wouldn’t have his winning teams.”

In conclusion he stated, “My recommendation is to put together an organization that would include Delta, the Rangers, the Navy SEALs, Air Force pilots, its own staff, its own support people, its own aircraft and helicopters. Make this organization a permanent military unit.  Allocate sufficient funds. And give it sufficient time to recruit, assess, and train its people,” (Beckwith 1981).

Since the debacle at Desert One, the Unites States’ Special Forces has expanded and reorganized. Due to the mistakes made in Operation Eagle Claw a new reorganization of SOF happened called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). It would be the higher headquarters used during the American led invasion of Grenada in October 1983.


Joint Special Operations Insignia


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