- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
On Nov. 4, 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized by militants and 66 Americans were taken hostage. The United States had few options available. Initially, conventional airborne units were alerted for a rescue, but stood down just as quickly when the complexity of the target was understood.
Joint Task Force 1-79 was then created under General James B. Vaught and the planning for a complex rescue mission begun. Code-named Operation Rice Bowl, its mission was simple:
“Conduct operations to rescue U.S. personnel held hostage in the American Embassy Compound, Tehran, Iran.”
But that statement belied the difficulties. For one, the CIA could not provide the tactical information needed for the mission execution.
The Department of Defense (DoD) realized it needed to reach inward to find the capability. A new counterterrorism unit, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment — Delta, had just been established, but Delta didn’t have the capability to clandestinely infiltrate a denied area.
Only one unit did.
Special Forces Berlin, known as Detachment “A,” was a clandestine unit stationed in West Berlin since 1956. Its mission was to conduct unconventional warfare against the Warsaw Pact when and if World War III started. As CINCEUR General Bernard Rogers once put it: “Your mission is to buy me time.”
It was the most unusual unit in the U.S. Army during the Cold War and boasted soldiers trained as skilled special operators, as well as in the esoteric intelligence tradecraft needed to survive as an underground organization. Reminiscent of the OSS, the 100 men of the unit routinely conducted operations under foreign cover; they spoke the language and knew the culture.
In the early 1970s, the unit was tasked with counterterrorism (CT), making it the first U.S. military CT unit — before SFOD-D or SEALs.
With that diversified specialization, Detachment “A” was tasked with the advanced reconnaissance of Tehran, the locations where the hostages were held and the ways and means of getting into and out of the city. The unit Sergeant Major, Jeff Raker, chose “Scotty” and the “Mad German” to infiltrate Tehran as foreign businessmen. They would receive the rescue force at a remote helicopter landing zone and transport them to the targets. Once the mission was complete, they would exfiltrate with the force.
When Delta’s commander, Colonel Charlie Beckwith, said he could only handle the assault of the U.S. Embassy compound, Commander Colonel Stan Olchovik volunteered Detachment “A” for the second target of the foreign ministry where three other Americans were held.
Detachment “A” unit trained furiously for that task while its two “businessmen” made several successful visits into Tehran. On their final visit, they linked up with retired Major Richard Meadows, who would lead the main assault force to their target.
Known as “Esquire,” the team was in place at Desert Two when the mission took place.
On the night of April 24, 1980, Operation Eagle Claw ended ignominiously when several helicopters failed and the mission was scrubbed. Worse, a DOD Public Relations officer endangered “Esquire” when he decided to give a full mission briefing to the news media, compromising the team’s existence, if not their identities.
Back in Tehran, “Mad German” calmly made a plan and the team safely escaped Iran days later. Their operations were the most successful part of the mission.
While Eagle Claw was a low in U.S. military history, it resulted in changes that have made U.S. Special Operations the formidable force they are today.
Special Forces Berlin never directly confronted the Soviet Union, but Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland later stated, “No force of its size contributed more to peace, stability, and freedom.” Its operations helped ensure the Cold War did not go “Hot.”
Its mission continued until just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was inactivated in 1990.
Today, the lessons learned by Special Forces Berlin serve to guide the renewal of the Unconventional Warfare mission by U.S. Army Special Forces. In this era of Russian “Little Green Men,” it’s about time.
Adapted from Special Forces Berlin: Unconventional Clandestine Operations of the U.S. Army’s Elite, 1956-1990 (Casemate Publishers), by permission of the author, James Stejskal © 2017.