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The Hostage Rescue Attempt In Iran, April 24-25, 1980

U.S. ARMY RANGERS AND SPECIAL FORCES LEAD THE WAY!

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Ranger History - Operation Eagle Claw/Desert One: The Iranian Crisis

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Ranger History - Operation Eagle Claw/Desert One: The Iranian Crisis

The frustrating pattern of activating then deactivating Ranger units after the current crisis had past came to a halt in 1973. Army Chief of Staff General Abrams called for the establishment of a permanent Ranger presence in the Army - the 1st Ranger Battalion was activated on February 8, 1974 at Fort Stewart, Georgia after originally forming at Fort Benning. The 2nd Ranger Battalion would be formed on October 1, 1974. The 1st Battalion would establish headquarters at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, while 2nd Battalion would settle at Fort Lewis, Washington.

The ill-fated attempt to rescue the American Embassy personnel held hostage in Teheran, Iran, code-named Desert One, was primarily a Special Forces Operation. It is not generally known that Rangers were also to take part. While 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta was to perform the actual rescue, Company C, 1st Battalion, 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger), was to provide security for the men and equipment. The Rangers knew the mission as "Operation Eagle Claw".

The rescue force assembled in Egypt on 21 April 1980. Three days later, a fleet of C-141s carried the 120 man force to Masirah Island, off the coast of Oman, where they transferred to three MC-130s accompanied by three fuel bearing EC-130s. They landed 200 miles southeast of Teheran at 2200 hours and waited for the arrival of eight RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters from the aircraft carrier Nimitz. A twelve man road watch team, composed primarily of Rangers, was along to secure the site while the helicopters refueled. the team would return to Egypt on one of the MC-130s.

Delta was to be flown to a hide site before dawn on 25 April by the RH-53Ds, which would remain at their own hide site until the assault on the compound where the hostages were held. The plan was to use the helicopters to ferry the hostages to waiting transport.

The task of C 1/75, was to secure a landing area for the transports. The Rangers were to fly from Egypt to Manazariyeh, Iran, and take the airfield there. They would land, if possible, or jump if resistance was offered.

Once the airfield, which was thirty-five miles south of Teheran, was secure, the Rangers would hold it while C-141s arrived to airlift the hostages and their rescuers back to Egypt. The Rangers would then "dry up," or remove all signs of their presence, render the field useless, and be airlifted out themselves.

Taking and securing a hostile airfield within enemy territory is one of the primary components of the Ranger mission. They were prepared to hold the field as long as necessary if there were not enough transports to take everyone out in one trip. During training, the Rangers worked out all probable scenarios on a mock-up of the type of airfield in Iran.

Desert One was aborted at the first stage when the mission suffered excessive mechanical problems and lost too many helicopters to continue the mission. After the abort order, one of the RH-53D choppers crashed into a C130, creating a huge fireball. Five Air Force crewmen and three Marines perished. A second mission was never attempted.

This account is located at: http://www.ranger.org/history/iran.htm

MAJOR RICHARD MEADOWS (Ret.)
A SPECIAL FORCES LEGEND

by David C. Martin
 
 
When Dick Meadows joined the Army at 15, lying about his age to escape the
poverty and cruelty of his Appalachian upbringing, he boasted with
adolescent bravado that he would be dead before he turned 19. During more
than 30 years with the Army, from Korea to Vietnam to Teheran, Meadows
seemed to court that death assiduously. His military record is one of
unstinted daring and bravery. During two tours in Indochina, he led more
than two dozen missions behind enemy lines, four into North Vietnam and the
rest in Laos, calling in air strikes on the Ho Chi Minh trail, capturing
North Vietnamese soldiers for interrogation, killing others at point-blank
range. And he never lost a man. "He made people feel they could do anything
and goddam do it," says Billy Joe Anthony, who followed Meadows into both
North Vietnam and Laos. "If he went out with us, he was coming back with
us." Meadows's extraordinary combat record earned him a rare battlefield
commission to captain and virtually every decoration a U.S. soldier can win,
except the Congressional Medal of Honor and, because he was never gravely
wounded, the Purple Heart. "If he hadn't done so many things that are
classified, he'd have been the most decorated soldier in the Army," says
retired Col. Elliott Sydnor, who joined Meadows on the abortive attempt to
rescue POW's at Son Tay, North Vietnam. Those who know Meadows were not
surprised to learn that he was point man in Teheran. "I can categorically
say Dick Meadows is the finest soldier I have ever served with," says Col.
James Morris, director of Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C. "I'd
follow him anywhere."
 
For days he loitered outside, the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, gazing at the
compound walls, the chained gates, the sleeping guards. Sometimes he drove
far into the desert, then returned to pound the pavements of Teheran on
foot. According to the Arya Sheraton Hotel registry, he was Richard H.
Keith, a ruggedly handsome Irish citizen working for a European auto
company. In fact, he was Richard J. Meadows, 47, a highly decorated, retired
Green Beret whose task was to case the embassy wall for penetration points,
to search for booby traps and to serve as point man for the climax of
Operation Rice Bowl--the dramatic but doomed attempt to rescue 53 American
hostages. Meadows, code name "Esquire," was one of at least seven American
operatives who slipped into Teheran before the rescue attempt ended in
flames at a remote rendezvous called Desert One--leaving the undercover
agents with their cover stories in tatters and their lives at stake. Meadows
has refused to talk about his secret mission to Teheran, but after hours of
interviews with other participants in the rescue effort--including Col.
Charles (Chargin' Charlie) Beckwith, the ground-force commander--NEWSWEEK
has pieced together the most detailed account yet disclosed of the
preparations to free the hostages in Teheran. Among the findings:
 
* The rescue team was ready to leave for Teheran without a clear picture of
just where the captive Americans were being held within the embassy
compound. It was only four hours before the commandos left Egypt for Iran
that they learned--by pure chance--where the hostages were held in the
chancellery building.
 
* Two days before the rescue attempt, U.S. operatives in Teheran began to
fear that one of their key hide-outs had been uncovered by Iranian
officials. A reference to the hide-out in documents later abandoned at
Desert One could well have tipped Iranian officials to the real identity of
Meadows and the other undercover agents.
 
* Despite President Jimmy Carter's desire that casualties be kept to a
minimum, the raiders themselves expected considerable bloodshed--with an
Iranian death toll mounting into the "hundreds" even if the operation went
smoothly according to plan.
 
* The most crucial step of the rescue effort--a helicopter landing inside
Teheran--was never adequately rehearsed, and to this day the commandos hold
a grudge against the Marine helicopter pilots. Beckwith later told friends
that he nearly drew his pistol on the commander of the pilots, whom he
denounced as "cowards."
 
The aborted rescue mission left eight men dead and raised a host of
controversial questions about the planning, preparation and execution
involved. An extensive Pentagon investigation was subsequently conducted,
but both Beckwith and point man Meadows believe that at least some aspects
of the mission should be scrutinized again. Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner,
CIA director at the time of the rescue effort, has already called for new
top-level inquiries with an eye to future crises.
 
Both Beckwith and Meadows were involved with the rescue effort from its
first day--Nov. 4, 1979--when the U.S. Embassy in Teheran was taken over by
Iranian militants. Beckwith was commander of a special Army anti-terrorist
unit called Delta that had just concluded a major field exercise in Georgia
and won official recognition as the U.S. Government's primary strike force
against terrorism. Meadows, although retired from an exceptional Army career
in 1977, had been hired as a special consultant to Delta, and hemand Beckwith
were celebrating their unit's new status by "bustin' a bottle" with old
buddies from the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. A few hours later
the bad news from Teheran arrived. Beckwith groggily ordered Delta back to
its base at Fort Bragg, N.C., by the fastest means available, which turned
out to be a convoy of rental cars.
 
'Somebody Ought to Burn': Meadows and another member of Beckwith's staff,
Capt. Lewis (Bucky) Burruss, were dispatched to Washington to draw up an
emergency rescue plan, to be used if the Iranians started killing their
hostages. The first rough draft called for a lean team of 40 men. Beckwith
pronounced the plan "ludicrous" and informed Gen. David Jones, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that its probability of success was "zero."
Replied Jones: "That is unacceptable." There were two overwhelming
obstacles. For one thing, all of Delta's training had assumed that foreign
governments would invite Beckwith's men in to deal with terrorist incidents;
in this case, they would have to fight or sneak their way in. The other
problem: there was no reliable intelligence on exactly where the hostages
were being held inside the 27-acre embassy compound. Beckwith calculated
that his men would spend three or four hours searching the fourteen
buildings, and that kind of delay could be fatal. The awful truth was that
the combined resources of the Pentagon and the CIA had virtually no chance
for an emergency rescue of the hostages. "If the United States of America
ever gets caught like that[again] with its pants down, I think somebody's
ass ought to burn," Beckwith says now.
 
There was no immediate hope of getting better information on the whereabouts
of the hostages. The seizure of the embassy had left the CIA without a
single agent in Iran. The only CIA officers there were held hostage, and
there were no alternative means of contacting the local agents they
controlled. "There was no goddam stay behind capability," says one of the
mission planners.
 
The first CIA agent arrived in Teheran in late December: a retired
intelligence officer known as "Bob," a rough-hewn man in his 60s who lived
in southern Europe and spoke a variety of languages--but not Farsi. Bob
worked "magic," according to one source. He would stay in the country for a
few weeks and then shuttle out to Athens or Rome for debriefing and new
instructions. His fluid movements in and out of Iran confirmed the CIA
analysis that it was a snap to pass through customs and immigration at
Teheran's Mehrabad Airport. "It was like a sieve," says one of the mission
planners.
 
Desert Two: Soon Bob was joined by another agent, a wealthy Iranian exile
who had offered his services to the CIA. While Bob gathered intelligence and
reactivated the dormant local network, the Iranian began to lay the
groundwork for Beckwith's rescue mission. He purchased five English Ford
trucks and two Mazda vans to drive Delta into Teheran from Desert Two, a
second staging area 50 miles southeast of the capital (map). He rented a
warehouse on the edge of the city where the trucks would be hidden. And he
bought construction material for a facade on the rear of each truck, to
conceal the soldiers.
 
Bob and the Iranian were doing everything asked of them--except pinpointing
the location of the hostages inside the embassy--but Beckwith was not
satisfied. "Charlie didn't like Bob, and the feeling was mutual," says one
source. As for the Iranian exile, he had no military experience and, because
of his nationality, there was always a latent suspicion that he might be
working for the other side. "I hung up on one big thing: I ain't going into
the embassy unless one of my guys goes in early," Beckwith says now. "I'm
not going to risk the lives of 97 people on some guy I don't even know."

Several members of Delta tried out for the job of advance man in Teheran;
the CIA rejected them all as unqualified. Then Meadows volunteered.
After trying in vain to teach him Portuguese as a cover, the agency rejected
Meadows, too. "An amateur with poor cover, poor backup and poor training,"
said one CIA officer. But Meadows would not take "no" for an answer; he said
he would go to Teheran on his own if he had to. Finally, CIA director
Stansfield Turner "reluctantly" endorsed Meadows, one source said, but not
before the agency hinting that Meadows could at least master a brogue.
Meanwhile, other American military men were slipping into Teheran. A pair of
German speaking Green Berets from West Beriin arrived to scout the Foreign
Ministry. Two other U.S. servicemen of Iranian extraction--one suffering
from terminal cancer--were sent in to act as drivers for Meadows. Both men
had relatives in Iran and knew the territory well. However, one accidentally
ran a roadblock with Meadows in his car, a close call requiring several
minutes of abject apologies to an outraged Iranian Army sergeant.
 
Volunteers: In addition, eight Iranian exiles were recruited in the United
States to fly in with Beckwith and drive the trucks that would carry Delta
from Desert Two to the occupied U.S. Embassy. One of the Iranian volunteers
was a wealthy man who arrived at CIA headquarters in a chauffeur-driven
Mercedes; he had to be taught to use the stick shift he would find on his
truck.
 
Meadows used his 30 years of military experience to make sure that an
assault plan hatched in Washington would actually work in the streets of
Teheran. He reconnoitered the Desert Two landing site, making sure that the
operations of a nearby railroad line would not compromise the mission. He
inspected the hillside in the mountains north of Garmsar, where the
helicopters would hunker down--hidden under camouflage netting and guarded
by soldiers armed with Redeye missiles--until summoned to the embassy to
pick up the hostages. He drove every mile of the route from Desert Two to
the embassy, checking the timing of the plan. He walked every foot of the
route through the streets of Teheran, searching for potential dangers that
satellite reconnaissance might have missed. He meticulously cased the
embassy, chatting with reporters and waving to the guards.
Meadows also visited the warehouse where the trucks were hidden and scouted
out a cool wadi near an abandoned salt mine at Garmsar where Beckwith's men
could spend the daylight hours in hiding. Three days before the rescue
attempt he sent a message to Washington, assuring the planners that all was
in order. Then, two days before the attempt, the Iranian exile who had
rented the warehouse got cold feet and left the country. Was it just a case
of nerves, or was Meadows being set up? Just 36 hours before the rescue
mission was to begin, some Iranian workmen dug a trench for a power line in
front of the warehouse, cutting it off from the street. Meadows managed to
con and bribe the workmen into filling in the trench. But why had it been
dug, really?
 
Take Cover: Despite such fears, there is no evidence the mission was ever
compromised, although there were some close calls. In the second week of
April, when a CIA plane flew secretly into Iran to sample the landing
conditions at Desert One, no fewer than six vehicles drove past on a nearby
road while the agents were taking soil samples and installing remote-control
beacons. In Egypt, where some 400 soldiers and airmen along with their
weapons and aircraft were based, all activities had to be carefully timed
around the passage overhead of a Soviet reconnaissance satellite. Each time
the satellite passed over, the soldiers would take cover in an aircraft
hangar.
 
If all had gone according to plan, Meadows would have met the assault troops
when they stepped off their helicopters at Desert Two just before dawn on
April 25. After the commandos and their helicopters were safely hidden,
Meadows would drive to the warehouse with the eight Iranian volunteers who
had flown in from Egypt with Beckwith. The next night, Meadows and the
Iranians would take the trucks to Desert Two, pick up the raiders and head
for the U.S. Embassy in a ragged single file, carefully skirting the
working-class neighborhoods of Teheran, the watchful hotbeds of Ayatollah
Khomeini's revolution. Fifteen minutes before the actual assault, Meadows
would take Beckwith on a "leader's recon" of the embassy wall, giving the
Delta commander his one and only firsthand look at the target. Beckwith
would bring a weapon for Meadows, who planned to go over the wall with the
rest of the commandos.
 
Each of Beckwith's men wore combat boots, Levi jeans, a flak vest, a GI
jacket dyed black and a Navy watch cap. On each jacket sleeve, an American
flag was hidden by a piece of tape that could be torn off once the attackers
were inside the compound. Men with blond hair had dyed it black. Counting
his weapons and gear, each soldier weighed about 270 pounds. Depending on
their mission, they were armed with German-made HK2l burp guns, M79 grenade
launchers or M60 machine guns. They brought yellow plastic thongs to tie up
any hostage who refused to be rescued. The raiders also carried gas masks,
but only in case the Iranians used gas. Contrary to some reports, Delta had
no plans to use an incapacitating gas against the embassy guards.
The biggest unanswered question was the exact location of the hostages
inside the embassy compound. The more buildings Beckwith's raiders would
have to search, the longer they would have to stay on the ground.
 
There were
no extra troops to throw into the search; the 97 men in the assault team
represented all of Delta's fully qualified members. The CIA had narrowed the
search to four buildings--the chancellery, the ambassador's home, another
official residence and an intelligence building known as "the mushroom," but
no one knew how many hostages were in which building or in which rooms.

Then, just four hours before the attackers left Egypt in the C-130s that
carried them to Desert One, Beckwith was awakened and told that the problem
had been solved--thanks to an all but unbelievable stroke of luck.
Sheer Luck: Three days before the rescue mission was to take place, the
Iranians had allowed the U.S. Embassy's Pakistani cook to leave the compound
and board a plane out of the country. Why the Iranians let him go is a
mystery; the cook had been inside the embassy since it was seized and, as an
employee of the United States, he reasonably could be expected to tell the
CIA everything he knew. The CIA did not know that the cook had been set
free. But on the plane, by sheer luck, he sat next to a deep-cover CIA
agent--and remarked that he had been cooking for the hostages. As soon as
the plane landed outside Iran, the CIA man whisked the cook away for
interrogation. He reported that "most if not all" of the hostages were being
held in the chancellery building and provided mission planners with very
precise information on the deployment of guards there: one on each floor,
with two others in an armory on each floor. The cook's report made it
possible for Beckwith to concentrate his attention and his firepower on the
chancellery.
 
Delta's tactics were simple and direct. A few small teams would set up M60
machine guns to cover the streets leading to the embassy. The rest of the
assault force would scale the wall on aluminum ladders and charge the
chancellery building, firing their weapons on automatic. Beckwith was not
worried about the militants who guarded the hostages. They had little or no
military training and carried only one magazine of ammunition each. "They
were a bunch of red-hot college students, and most of them didn't know the
muzzle end from the butt end of a rifle," says a mission planner. Beckwith
did not expect the guards to shoot their hostages. Intelligence reports said
that Persians have a tradition of sparing their prisoners, and Beckwith knew
from his own experience that the instinctive reaction of the guards would be
to fire at their attackers, not the hostages. Once Delta opened up, Beckwith
said recently, the guards "would have run like hell out the front door, and
when they did, they would have been hosed."
 
Sleeping Guards: The attackers also expected no trouble from the pasdaran,
the revolutionary militia who manned sandbagged positions outside the
embassy wall. Meadows had checked them out and found that half of them slept
on watch while the other half stood behind their sandbags with their heads
and shoulders exposed and their rifles leaning against the wall.
 
The raiders
expected Iranian casualties to be high. In addition to Beckwith's firepower
on the ground, American C-130 gunships would circle overhead, ready to pour
thousands of rounds of cannon fire into the streets below. The planners
thought hundreds of Iranian soldiers and civilians might die during the
rescue mission.
 
Before Delta left the United States, President Carter asked Beckwith whether
he expected any of the hostages to be killed in the cross fire. Beckwith
said his only fear was that once the shooting started, some of the hostages
would overpower their guards and take their weapons. If that happened,
Beckwith warned, he couldn't promise that his men would not gun down an
armed hostage by mistake.
 
Contrary to most reports published after the mission, Beckwith wanted to
land at least one big Sea Stallion helicopter inside the compound to pick up
all 50 hostages-alive or dead. A sweatband with luminescent tape would be
placed on each hostage so that Beckwith could be sure of an accurate count.
The hostages would be flown to Manzariyeh, about 50 miles south of Teheran,
where a deserted airstrip secured by another raiding party would be used to
launch them out of the country aboard transport planes. Meanwhile,
Beckwith's men would blow a hole in the embassy wall with.40 pounds of
explosives and race across Roosevelt Avenue to a soccer stadium, where they
would be picked up by other choppers. Beckwith had chosen the sports arena
because it could be defended easily by placing men around the rim of the
stadium. And if the Iranians attacked in human waves, they could be
massacred by the gunships circling overhead.
 
The whole plan came to grief, of course, at Desert One. With three of the
eight Sea Stallions out of action, Beckwith was forced to abort the mission.
Then one of the helicopters crashed into a tanker plane after refueling; the
resulting fireball killed eight Americans and badly burned four others. The
raiders and pilots fled back to Egypt aboard the C-130s, leaving Dick
Meadows and his fellow spies in deep trouble.
 
Sorry Display: To this day, the Delta commandos hold a grudge against the
Marine helicopter pilots. "If you're going to do these kinds of things, you
better have the right cuts of cloth in pilots," Beckwith says. "If you ask
me would I do it again with that crowd, the answer would be absolutely no."
According to other sources close to Delta, the pilots did not acquit
themselves well in training. They had no appreciation for secrecy; they
called their wives over open phone lines and left codes lying around. One
source called the final dress rehearsal in March 1980 "the sorriest display
of professionalism I've ever seen." According to this source, when the
helicopters rehearsed the nighttime landing at Desert Two, they set down as
much as a mile apart.
Whatever the case, the actual mission quickly went wrong. Flying into Iran
from the carrier U.S.S. Nimitz, one helicopter went down and another lost
its way in a dust storm and returned to the carrier. A third reached Desert
One but was found to have an irreparable malfunction. Already so late that
he could not reach Desert Two before first light, Beckwith was left with
five choppers and an operational plan that said he needed six. In addition,
some of the pilots were badly shaken by the ordeal of flying six hours
through swiriing dust. According to Beckwith, the pilot of the first
helicopter to arrive at Desert One told him that if they had any sense they
would abandon their choppers in the desert and fly home. The pilot of the
second chopper to arrive got out of his aircraft and staggered 200 yards out
into the desert. When Beckwith and his men caught up with him, he said, "You
have no idea what I've just been through." Chargin' Chariie later told
friends that he was so angry he nearly drew his pistol on the commander of
the helicopter pilots.
 
 
Beckwith now says he could have pulled off the rescue with only two
helicopters-one for the hostages and the other to shuttle Delta to the
nearby airstrip at Manzariyeh. Then why did he need six operational
helicopters at Desert One? Because his opinion of the pilots was so low that
he expected further accidents. "If we didn't have six," he told NEWSWEEK,
"we wouldn't have ended up with two... I believed we would lose two helos in
the [soccer] stadium" alone. The plan called for two choppers to land there
simultaneously, but the pilots had never rehearsed landing inside a stadium.

Beckwith had recommended a practice session at a stadium near Fort Carson,
Colo., but the idea had been vetoed for reasons of security. Instead, the
pilots practiced landing on a grid the size of the stadium, but according to
one source, they never got it right. This same source confirms Beckwith's
estimate that two choppers would have been enough at the embassy, although
he points out that a third was needed to pick up the three hostages at the
Foreign Ministry.
 
'Cowards': When Beckwith returned to the United States after the failure of
his mission, he sent what one source described as a "brutal" message to
General Jones complaining about the performance of the pilots. Then, in an
angry confrontation with Maj. Gen. James Vaught, over-all commander of the
rescue operation, he called the pilots "cowards."
 
NEWSWEEK was unable to speak with any of the pilots, but "coward" is
obviously the wrong word to use about men who flew long distances at low
altitude in the middle of the night through dangerous and unexpected dust
storms. It is a word Beckwith seems to have used indiscriminately, calling
his own men "cowards" for not going back into the flaming C-130 to retrieve
their rucksacks. Beckwith himself is not immune to criticism. A postmortem
directed by former Chief of Naval Operations James Holloway found that the
original plan envisioned a force of 80; several sources blame Beckwith for
allowing the roster to grow, placing ever greater demands on the
helicopters. "Beckwith escalated the size of the force out of all proportion
to what was needed," a critic says. Another source blames Beckwith for
having "lost his cool" in the desert--sitting on the ground with his head in
his hands crying, "I failed, I failed." Still, Holloway's postmortem
concluded that there was "not a shred of evidence of culpable neglect or
incompetence" on the part of anyone involved with the mission.
But there was one instance of serious neglect that could have cost the U.S.
agents in Teheran their lives. After the C-130 tanker plane went up in
flames, the pilots abandoned their helicopters, leaving behind their secret
maps, reconnaissance photographs, call signs and lists of radio frequencies.

No one blames the pilots for leaving that material behind; the heat from the
burning C-130 was intense, and ammunition was beginning to explode. But the
pictures and documents were highly classified, and on his way out of Iran,
Beckwith urged Vaught to call in a carrier air strike to destroy the
choppers that had been left behind. That proposal was rejected by Washington
in an effort to preserve the fiction that the rescue attempt was intended to
be a bloodless humanitarian mission.
 
The real negligence in all this was that the pilots' maps showed the
location of the warehouse Meadows was using on the outskirts of Teheran. The
pilots had no need to know the location, since their choppers would never go
to the warehouse. That one oversight would have given an efficient police
force all the information it needed to round up the CIA agents who had gone
into Teheran before the rescue mission.
 
With the mission in ruins, Meadows had to return to that warehouse to
collect an agent he had left on guard. Atmospheric conditions had
interrupted his satellite communications link with the mission command post
in Egypt, so Meadows was late in getting word that the rescue attempt had
been scrubbed. Dawn had already broken Friday by the time he made his way
back to the city, his clothes covered with desert grit. The next day things
looked worse; the Iranians had found the maps left at Desert One, and it was
only a matter of time before they would start asking questions about
strangers who had been hanging around the warehouse.
 
Meadows's "Richard
Keith" cover, never very good, was now in tatters. He had three choices: to
go overland to the Turkish border, to go to Abadan on the Persian Gulf and
call in a helicopter or to try to get out through Teheran's international
airport.
 
Safety: On Sunday night he went to the airport--"fully expecting to be
picked up," according to one source--and without incident boarded a
commercial flight to safety in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Eventually all
of the agents in Teheran made it to safety. One of the servicemen of Iranian
extraction did not get out for more than a week. He fled to Abadan, and
plans were being made to pick him up by helicopter when suddenly he appeared
in Frankfurt, West Germany, aboard a commercial flight.
 
Could the rescue mission have worked? After the hostages were finally
released and it became clear how accurate the CIA's fix on them had been in
the end, Beckwith's deputy, Bucky Burruss, wept openly. "Goddam, boss," he
said. "It would be a piece of cake." But the mission failed before reaching
that point, and many experts believe it was simply too complex,
insufficiently rehearsed and inadequately coordinated among a hodgepodge of
units from different services.
 
Teamwork and training are all-important for such "special operations," but
they take time and money. The Israelis understand this, as their success at
Entebbe makes clear. In the United States, special operations must compete
for funds with nuclear and conventional forces--which get more attention
from politicians and military planners. But as retired Col. Richard Dutton,
former boss of the Air Force special warfare school, likes to ask: "How many
special operations can you afford to lose?" For Jimmy Carter and the eight
Americans who died in the Iranian desert, one was too many.
 
Violence: Iran is a far piece from the hollow near the junction of Johnson
and Ugliest creeks in the Virginia hills where Meadows was born in 1932 in a
one-room, dirt-floor shack without plumbing or electricity. His father, a
moonshiner, was violence-prone: Meadows still remembers when he went for a
man with an ax handle. Meadows quit school after the ninth grade and had his
mother lie about his age so that he could join the Army. "I wanted a home,"
he says, "and I thought it was a pretty good profession to be a soldier. "
 
The scrawny country boy was a natural. After a stint on KP to fatten himself
up to the 130-pound minimum, Meadows earned his parachute wings and joined
the 82nd Airborne Division. In Korea he became the youngest master sergeant
in the war. But it was in Vietnam, as a member of the innocuously named
Studies and Observation Group (SOG), that Meadows discovered his true
specialty--operating behind enemy lines. On his very first mission into Laos
in 1965 his reconnaissance team uncovered a cache of 75-mm howitzers on
their way to the front from North Vietnam. Meadows brought the percussion
mechanisms back to Saigon and personally delivered to Gen. William
Westmoreland the first hard evidence of large-scale North Vietnamese
infiltration into the South.
 
Meadows pursued the enemy with such ferocious single-mindedness that he once
fired at a fleeing North Vietnamese soldier, then tossed his weapon aside
and swam across a river in pursuit. "I couldn't stop myself," he says.
Finding his quarry dead, the unarmed Meadows took the dead man's knife and
went in search of other hostages.
 
Fire Fight: On one occasion Meadows refused to let the Vietnamese and Nung
mercenaries on his eleven-man team go without him to rescue a downed Navy
pilot inside North Vietnam--even though U.S. soldiers were forbidden to go
north of the DMZ. "It's an American pilot," Meadows said. "An American
should go after him." The brass relented, and Meadows inserted his team by
helicopter in search of Lt. Deane Woods. Working his way toward a ridge
where Woods had last been spotted, Meadows ran into a patrol of four North
Vietnamese soldiers. At a distance of 10 yards, Meadows opened up with his
Swedish "K" rifle, killing all four, but the burst of fire gave his position
away, and Meadows called in a chopper to extract his team.
 
After half of his men had been winched aboard, the chopper took a direct hit
to its left engine and was ditched safely at sea, leaving Meadows and four
of his men surrounded by the North Vietnamese. Hiding in a grove of dry
bamboo, Meadows called in an A-1 Skyraider to buzz the area, making enough
noise to cover his movements through the dry brush until a second chopper
could come to his rescue. Sixteen years later Meadows finally met Woods, who
was eventually taken prisoner, and presented the pilot with a revolver he
had taken from the body of a North Vietnamese soldier during the rescue
attempt.
 
Meadows views that mission as his closest call, but it's hard to choose. He
returned from one fire fight with bullet holes in the pockets of his
fatigues and the binoculars in his rucksack smashed by an enemy round. One
night in Laos, Meadows reconnoitered a "hot" spur of the Ho Chi Minh trail
where he hoped to capture some prisoners the next morning. Standing on a low
cliff overhanging the trail, Meadows reached out and grabbed a tree growing
up from below. His weight bent the tree, allowing him to lean out farther
over the trail. At that moment four North Vietnamese soldiers rounded a bend
in the trail and marched directly beneath the human arch of Dick Meadows.
"If they'd looked up, they would have seen me," Meadows recalls. The next
morning Meadows went back to the cliff. When five North Vietnamese halted
directly below him, he stood up and intoned, "Good morning, gentlemen."
Three of the soldiers froze. A sergeant and a lieutenant went for their guns
and were shot down in a burst of automatic fire. Meadows hustled the others
off the trail toward the helicopter pickup zone. In all, he would bring back
thirteen prisoners from Laos, providing crucial intelligence on enemy troop
movements and plans that saved American lives.
 
'Letdown': Meadows's final mission in Vietnam came in 1970 as leader of an
assault team sent to rescue American POW's held at Son Tay, 23 miles outside
Hanoi. The raid plan, which Meadows helped formulate, is now considered a
classic and was a model for the Israeli assault on the airport at Entebbe.
The raid was executed flawlessly, but unknown to U.S. intelligence the
pilots had been moved four months earlier. Meadows was never bitter about
the fiasco, describing it only as "a total darn letdown." Perhaps it is best
that Meadows doesn't philosophize much beyond red, white and blue; so much
of what he has risked his life for--from America's entire Vietnam experience
to the aborted Iranian mission--has ended in failure.
 
Meadows was not ready to retire when his 30 years were up in 1977. Nothing
in his career had prepared him for a quiet small town life in the Florida
panhandle with his wife and teen-age children. Until 1980 he remained a
civilian adviser to the Army's Delta anti-terrorist team, which led him to
Teheran. Now 50 and on his own, Meadows is still searching for the action
that is his lifeblood. He signed on for a stint with Texas multimillionaire
H. Ross Perot but signed off when his principal mission turned out to be
protecting Perot's daughters. Recently, when a plane was hijacked in
Honduras, Meadows chartered his own Learjet to fly in and volunteer his
expertise. He wants to sell his services to countries like El Salvador where
he believes the United States is not doing enough to protect its interests.

"I can't close my eyes," he says, "and I feel that I'm skilled to do these
things... The other motive is just the excitement of it."
 
(Major Meadows died of Lukemia in 1995 and was awarded the President's Citizen's
Medal and the Special Operations Command Medal  postumously on 13 Oct 2000.)
 

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