"Desert One": Inside the Failed 1980 Iran Hostage Rescue (2023)

Sunday morning

/ CBS News

"Desert One": Inside the Failed 1980 Iran Hostage Rescue

It is an indelible image of US military failure: the remains of the disastrous attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran 40 years ago.

“It's 40 years, yes, and it's something you never get over; you think about it a lot,” Jim Schaefer said. He suffered severe burns when the helicopter he was piloting collided with a troop transport in a place called Desert One, in the middle of Iran's Great Salt Desert.

"Desert One": Inside the Failed 1980 Iran Hostage Rescue (2)

"I don't have scars on my face," Schaefer said.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin asked: "How are your injuries today?"

"Most of all I suffer a lot because I dream about it almost every night. My neck hurts a lot and it's hard for me to turn around. Other than that, all the burns were cleaned up, they were cleaned up very easily."

"There are no scars on your face, but it looks like you still have a lot," Martin said.

"All my scars are on my head, and I think about it to this day."

Fifty-three Americans were being held hostage by the Iranians who had seized the US embassy in Tehran, and President Jimmy Carter ordered a mission to rescue them.

"Personally, I didn't think we had much of a chance," said Wade Ishimoto, a former Delta Force member, "but that was my personal opinion, which I didn't express. Because clearly, when the president of the United States says 'go,' go." .

The hostage rescue team was led by a charismatic army colonel, "Charging Charlie" Beckwith.

"You either loved it or you hated it, and sometimes you did both in the same day," Ishimoto said.

Beckwith and his 123-man force took off from an isolated airstrip in Egypt. Beckwith is deceased. Jerry Boykin was one of his squad leaders and Bucky Burruss was his deputy.

"Colonel Beckwith gave us a pep talk," Burruss recalled. "Jerry Boykin led us in prayer and then I led us singing 'God Bless America,' and off we went."

What happened on that high-stakes mission is brought to life in a new documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, "Desert One." Includes previously unheard conversations between President Carter and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David Jones.

Carter: "Do you have any information on the location of the helicopters?"
Jones: "They have passed the point of no return and are only 30 minutes from the landing point."

Eight helicopters had to fly nearly 700 miles to a desert airstrip, where they would rendezvous with Delta Force, flying C-130s. But a helicopter crashed due to impending blade failure.

The remaining seven had to feel their way through unexpected clouds of dust. At first, Jim Schaefer thought it was fog: "I licked my finger, took it out the little side window, put it back in, and it was full of dust," he said. "It was a bit nerve-wracking. We were at about 300 feet and couldn't see the ground at 300 feet."

Disoriented, another helicopter circled. The remaining six eventually made it to Desert One, where Delta Force was having its own problems. A busload of Iranians turned up on a dirt road that passed through the landing zone. As illustrated in the documentary, Delta Force stopped him with a grenade shot and detained the passengers.

Then Wade Ishimoto saw another pair of headlights approaching and ordered one of his men to stop it with an anti-tank weapon.

Ishimoto said, "And the next words out of my mouth are, 'Holy mackerel, a fuel truck!' We hit a 3,000 gallon fuel truck."

A mission that relied on Delta Force reaching the embassy undetected was lighting up the night sky.

Burruss said, "I remember looking at that burning thing and seeing this bus and these shadows, and Beckwith said, 'Welcome to World War III.'"

President Carter called the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Jones, to find out what was going on.

Carter: "Do you remember why we decided to land on the side of a road?"
Jones: "It's not a road, sir. It's a small road. It's the only place we've been able to find so far that we've been able to land on."

But that wasn't the worst part; a hydraulic pump in one of the remaining helicopters was on fire. The mission was now reduced to five helicopters, which was not enough to carry out the rescue.

"The plan said that we should leave Desert One with at least six viable helicopters," Ishimoto said.

With the mission cancelled, the rescue force had to leave Iran as quickly as possible. Schaefer began to move his helicopter away from a C-130. “Not realizing that the air traffic controller on the ground was collecting so much dust on his mask that he was backing away,” Schaefer said. "As I was backing up, he was approaching the C-130 and I didn't realize he was veering to the right."

Schaefer's rotor blades sliced ​​through the C-130: "Next thing I knew, we were on fire and on the ground."

Three Marines, including his crew chief, trailed behind. “He said, 'I need help.' And I remember reaching back and grabbing his arm, and I heard this horrible scream, and he let go of me."

Schaefer dove out the window to the ground, but part of Delta Force was trapped in the rear of the burning C-130. Somehow, they all got through a single door and escaped through the flames.

Burruss said, "It looked like something out of a movie. They looked like they came out of hell."

Eight Americans were killed: five in the C-130 and three in the back of Schaefer's helicopter. Their bodies were left behind.

Ishimoto said: "The fire was so intense that we knew it would take at least a few hours before it was extinguished. So the difficult decision was made to leave these bodies behind."

Martin asked Schaefer, "Do you blame yourself in any way?"

"Yes, I blame myself in many ways, especially for the accident and the loss of life," he replied. "There were eight lives killed. And I hate to say it, I hold myself personally responsible for this."

Burruss said, "There was so much involved in it, in the desert mess there, starting with the weather. I'd hate to see the guy blame himself for that. He did everything he could, as we all did."

As Ishimoto said: "We had to try. And we tried. And we failed."

It would be another eight months before Iran finally released the hostages. We will never know if Delta Force could have rescued them if they had made it to the embassy. All we know is that four secret agents had investigated the embassy, ​​and one of them radioed that it would be a piece of cake.

Burruss noted, "Those were his exact words: 'piece of cake'."

To see a trailer for "Desert One," click on the video player below:

For more information:

Story produced by Mary Walsh and John Goodwin. Editing: Steve Tyler.

  • jimmy carter

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