America remembers Desert One heroes

25 Apr 2005 |

America today honored eight American servicemen who died trying to rescue American hostages in Iran 25 years ago.

A ceremony here, on the 25th anniversary of their deaths, brought together the families of those killed, their comrades and those service members who carry on the special operations mission.

In November 1979, Iranian terrorists took 53 Americans in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran hostage. It was the most egregious violation of the principles of diplomacy in the history of statecraft, L. Bruce Laingen, the highest-ranking American taken hostage, said at today's ceremony.

On April 25, 1980, the rescue attempt, dubbed "Operation Eagle Claw," came to a flaming end on the floor of the desert near Tehran. Eight Americans -- five airmen and three Marines -- were killed when the rotor of a helicopter sliced into the fuselage of a C-130 transport aircraft.

The eight killed in the failed rescue attempt were: Air Force Maj. Richard L. Bakke, Marine Sgt. John D. Harvey, Marine Cpl. George N. Holmes Jr., Marine Staff Sgt. Dewey L. Johnson, Air Force Maj. Harold L. Lewis, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joel C. Mayo, Air Force Maj. Lyn D. McIntosh and Air Force Capt. Charles T. McMillan II.

Today's ceremony, sponsored by the White House Commission on Remembrance, also brought together 10 of the hostages. The hostages were finally released by the Iranians after 444 days in captivity.

There was sadness at the ceremony, but there was also admiration for the courage the men showed and the knowledge that out of the fires of Desert One -- as the site in Iran was known -- came the impetus for a new, stronger, more integrated military and special operations force.

Air Force Lt. Gen Norton Schwartz, director of the Joint Staff, called the failure of the Iran hostage rescue mission a seminal event in recent American military history. He said the mission was "so important that the nation's self-image, it's standing and reputation in the world community, and the fate of a presidency hung in the balance."

When the mission failed, media reports were full of recriminations, and nations around the world called the United States a toothless lion. "Yet at the same time, the memory of Desert One propelled a generation, of which I am a part, to assure that America would never again repeat that searing, transforming experience of the 25th of April 1980," Schwartz said.

"Never again would we be so unprepared, so ill-equipped, so entirely dependent on the skills, resourcefulness of our people, who, despite shortcomings in force cohesion, equipment and external support, lifted off into the darkness with only one mission imperative: bring Americans home," he said.

Schwartz said the often-maligned heroes of that mission lifted off from the deck of the USS Nimitz with the "conviction that completing the mission served interests far larger than themselves, at a moment in time when the nation's reputation and American lives truly hung in the balance."

The general said that all Americans share the grief of the families who lost loved ones that day. But they died trying, Schwartz said. They kept the promise. "Because on that murky night, when they faced America's adversary and their own fears, your men did not submit," Schwartz told the families. "They did not retire. They didn't then, and we, their successors -- in large measure in their honor -- do not and will not now."

Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin was one of the would-be rescuers that day. He said that accident "was the greatest disappointment of my professional career because we didn't bring home 53 Americans."

Now principle deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and warfighter support in the Pentagon, Boykin also called the mission one of the proudest moments of his career. He said all the men in the rescue effort knew the risks. "None of us wanted to die; none of us expected to die, but we knew the risk," Boykin said. "We knew that we were up against an entire nation with a force of barely 100 people."

Thomas O'Connell, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity combat, said the sacrifices of those eight men were not in vain. Special operations forces have been in the forefront of the fight against terrorism today.

"If you need inspiration in these tough days, give thanks for those who risked and gave all on this mission, but also give thanks for those who survived and made great strides for our national security," O'Connell said.

Headquarters Marine Corps