Editor's note: This story is based on Dr. Carlton Savory's presentation at the National Infantry Museum in October and the Ledger-Enquirer's interview with him in January, plus subsequent research, mostly from the Holloway Commission report, the official investigation of Operation Eagle Claw authorized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dr. Carlton Savory, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hughston Clinic in Columbus, was the chief medical officer on the 1980 top-secret U.S. military mission known as Operation Eagle Claw. Although it failed to rescue the American hostages in Iran, the Ranger Hall of Fame member contends the deaths of the eight servicemen weren't in vain because the lessons learned improved the structure and doctrine for Special Forces operations.
"There probably isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about something that happened during this period of time in my life," he said.
Savory went from patriotic pride to devastating disaster during the mission.
"In about a 24-hour period," he said, "I probably had the highest high and the lowest low of my life."
Thirty-five years later, with most of the mission's details declassified, the retired colonel explains why.
Change of direction
Savory, 69, grew up in Tucson, Ariz. He dreamed of being a pilot until he found out in high school that he is color blind.
Savory wanted to be the first in his family to go to college, but with his father working in a grocery store, he didn't want his pursuit to be a financial burden. So he applied to the service academies and, after graduating high school in 1963, attended the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
While serving as an Infantry commander during the Vietnam War, a classmate told him about the U.S. Army's medical program. It was a way for him to stay in the military and be a doctor at the same time. He earned his medical degree at the University of Arizona.
In March 1979, the Vietnam War officially had been over for four years, but the U.S. still was feeling the fallout from the nation's most unpopular military conflict, exacerbated by inflated prices at home and a deflated image abroad.
"The Army, the military, was at a very low ebb," Savory said. "Morale in the United States was at a low point."
After finishing his orthopedic residency at Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco, he was assigned to Fort Ord, Calif., but his orders were switched to Fort Bragg, N.C., without explanation.
"Was I pissed," he said.
Then came another surprise. Savory was one of about a dozen doctors Surgeon General Julius Richmond asked to develop the medical unit for a top-secret project -- with an undetermined target at that point.
"I'm not sure they chose me to be the leader, but they chose me to be on the team and put me in a position where I almost had to be the leader," said Savory, then a 35-year-old lieutenant colonel. "We sat around the group, and you watch a group evolve, and there's somebody that takes charge, and it happened to be me."
A month later, Savory reunited with legendary Col. Charles Beckwith, who in 1977 founded the U.S. Army's counterterrorism unit known as Delta Force. Beckwith was Savory's Florida camp commander during Ranger School at Fort Benning in 1967.
"So we didn't have such a great relationship," Savory said with a laugh. But he had great respect for Beckwith.
"He's one of the most unforgettable characters I've ever met," he said.
Beckwith gave Savory the following directives:
Support Delta's mission and training completely.
Blank slate/blank check.
Stay out of the f---ing way.
Don't f--- up.
Do it Savory!
"Those were my marching orders," he said.
To start his team, Savory was given two Special Forces medics and one Medical Service Corps officer. He also bought two lime-green tackle boxes. "That was the beginning of Delta Med," he said. " I had no guidance. There was no history."
Geography was a challenge because the personnel chosen for his unit were all over the country. And it was an extra duty for the participants because they couldn't tell anyone what they were doing on the side.
"I took a lot of heat indirectly for being gone and people wondering where the hell you were, other guys having to cover for you at the hospital," Savory said. "I had two really good partners that didn't know the specifics but knew I was doing something important."
Savory's priorities were to determine composition, select personnel, acquire equipment, begin establishing doctrine, train, exercise and deploy.
"And we had to develop an attitude," he said.
The training first had to be mastered in controlled environments, Savory said, before venturing into uncontrolled territory.
"Not all commanders understand that," he said. "Beckwith wasn't the easiest guy to buy into a lot of this. All he wanted was for us to be out of sight, out of mind and just 'be there if we need you.' So I had to educate the unit command. I had to establish credibility."
Savory also had to train his staff on cutting-edge techniques, such as starting an IV at night on a helicopter with night-vision devices.
"We did things that had never been done before," he said, "and it was a good thing we did."
Delta Force in the spring and summer of 1979 prepared for numerous purposes and scenarios -- counterterrorism, antiterrorism, hostage rescue, personal protection and war -- but Savory's unit still didn't have a target. He was the only member of the medical team privy to the top-secret planning, and he was responsible for all the medical plan's contingencies.
"It was very rare that anybody asked me anything," he said, "other than, 'Are we OK?' And I would give them the thumbs-up."
On Oct. 22, 1979, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the overthrown shah of Iran, was allowed entry into the United States for cancer treatment. From Nov. 1-3, Delta Force conducted an exercise around Hunter Army Airfield at Fort Stewart in Savannah. FBI agents acted as the terrorists. For three days, they held soldiers acting as hostages on a hijacked 747 jumbo jet.
"We flew back and forth for 19 hours to pretend we were going someplace," Savory said, then deadpanned, "Everything went well. Somebody got shot with a blank in the face, and we looked pretty good taking care of that."
The next morning, Nov. 4, 1979, Savory woke up and heard the news along with the rest of the world: Iranian militants, then described as students, attacked the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 90 people hostage, including 66 Americans.
Delta Force had its target.
"The next thing we know," Savory said, "we're planning to go on a mission."
The following events led to that mission going into action:
Nov. 7, 1979, while the U.S. government refused the militants' demand of extraditing the shah back to Iran, the Iranian Revolution's ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, refused to meet with President Jimmy Carter's hostage negotiators.
Nov. 11, Carter suspended U.S. oil imports from Iran.
Nov. 14, Carter ordered U.S. banks to freeze Iranian assets.
Nov. 19-20, following the order from Khomeni two days earlier, the Iranian militants released 13 hostages who were either black or female, leaving 53 Americans captive in the U.S. embassy. Khomeni said they were freed because Islam respects women and the U.S. oppresses blacks.
Dec. 15, the shah left the U.S. for Panama. Three months later, he went to Egypt, where he died in July.
April 7, 1980, Carter announced more sanctions and cut diplomatic ties with Iran.
Meanwhile, although Savory now had a defined mission for which to train, code-named Operation Eagle Claw, he was caught up in the news coverage like the rest of the country.
"It went from Americans held hostage to America held hostage," he said.
The operation commanders considered several plans. One of the discarded ideas, Savory said, "was to take the 82nd Airborne into the airport, secure it, take a column of tanks down to the embassy and take it back. If they were alive, they were alive. If they were dead, they were dead. But that was the main thing. Well, that wasn't going to happen."
Regardless, this was certain: No backup or air cover would be provided; no rescue for the rescuers. Without the air refueling capabilities that are standard now, the distances the mission would have to travel were a challenge in a region with few allies.
"It's a long way from anybody that likes us," Savory said. " We didn't trust anybody in the area."
Savory emphasized he never was a member of Delta Force. "I just happened to be there," he said.
But he was allowed to pose questions, helped by his previous connection to Beckwith. He asked why the mission couldn't be launched from Israel. The answer involved the geopolitical trouble attacking a Muslim country from a Jewish country would cause.
Another consideration was balancing secrecy with communication.
"It turns out," Savory said, "being so strict with operational security may have compromised the mission in the end."
Operation Eagle Claw took five months of planning and involved personnel from all U.S. military service branches, plus the Central Intelligence Agency. Several units worked with Delta Force, including the 1st Special Operations Wing, Rangers, Marine aviators, Naval aviators, refuelers, Stinger operators and medical staff, Savory said.
According to an Air Force Historical Support Division fact sheet, the operation called for three MC-130s to fly, under the cover of darkness, a 118-man assault force approximately 1,000 miles from Masirah Island off the coast of Oman in the Persian Gulf to a remote spot 200 miles southeast of Tehran, code-named Desert One. Three EC-130s served as fuel transports. Eight RH-53D helicopters from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Arabian Sea were supposed to pick up the assault team at Desert One and refuel there. They would fly to a site code-named Desert Two, within 65 miles of Tehran, and hide until the next night, when the assault team would be driven to the embassy in vehicles obtained by agents. After storming the embassy, the assault team and freed hostages would gather at a location inside the compound or in a nearby soccer stadium. The helicopters would transport them to Manzariyeh, 35 miles to the south, which would be secured by Rangers. C-141s would fly the assault team and hostages out of Iran while Rangers destroyed the remaining equipment.
"It's a complicated plan with a lot of risk involved," Savory said. But it was a chance to "boost the military again" after the shame and controversy of the Vietnam War, he added.
"This was black and white, good and evil," he said. "There was no gray area here. This was wrong. Somebody had our hostages, and we're going to get them."
'I don't think this is Nebraska'
The mission started with a bit of humor in Egypt, at a Russian-built air force base called Wadi Qena. Savory told his medical team members when Delta Force started deploying from the U.S. on April 19 that they were going on another exercise. One of the anesthesiologists asked where. "Nebraska," Savory answered.
When they arrived in Egypt, the anesthesiologist didn't hear the announcement. A while later, he told Savory, "I don't think this is Nebraska."
On the morning of April 24, 1980, Beckwith assembled his Delta Force team members in the Egyptian hangar. They wore jeans, black turtlenecks, black shoes and watches with special tape to mark them from the air. Tape also hid the American flag on their field jackets, which they wouldn't uncover until the assault. They left their dog tags and IDs and brought their submachine guns and patriotism.
Maj. Jerry Boykin, now a retired lieutenant general and former Delta Force commander, led the team members in prayer. After they sang "God Bless America," the bomb-resistant doors opened, and they walked into the bright sunlight.
"It never ceases to choke me up when I think about that," he said. "That was the proudest moment of my life, when I got on that plane."
Savory boarded one of the MC-130s and sat on the tailgate for the 6-hour flight to Masirah Island. The team flew that night to Desert One, where Air Force combat controllers, led by Maj. John Carney, covertly had prepared a landing zone. The lead aircraft triggered the infrared lights.
When the MC-130's tailgate went down, Savory had been so uncomfortable on the flight, he thought, "I don't care what's on the other end. I'm getting off this thing."
Then, in contrast to the inspiring morning rays Savory savored in Egypt, he saw three disturbing sets of headlights that night in Iran - and he thought, "It's a trap. We've been betrayed."
Omens of trouble
The headlights didn't signify a trap, but they did portend trouble:
The first set was from a civilian bus. It happened to be on the highway bisecting the landing zone. Fearing their cover would be blown, the assault team's advance party members detained the 45 passengers.
According to Mark Bowden's book, "Guests of the Ayatollah," Savory was put in charge of guarding the bus passengers for a while but forgot to put the magazine in his weapon.
Now, Savory sets the record straight.
"I had a loaded MP-SK 9 mm submachine gun," he said. "I did have charge of the passengers for some time. The anecdote is a result of being kidded by the operator."
The second set was from a civilian tanker truck. It also came down the highway but failed to heed the order to stop. Again fearing their cover would be blown, the Americans fired a light antitank weapon, which exploded the tanker and lit the night sky. Savory joked to Beckwith, "Well, the helicopters won't have any trouble finding us."
The third set was from a civilian pickup truck. It was following the tanker and helped the tanker's driver escape. The American commanders decided the security breach wasn't serious enough to abort the mission, according to the account by military historian Charles Tustin Kamps, a professor at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.
"So far, no big deal," Savory said. "Everyone is walking around like this is an exercise."
In retrospect, he said, the U.S. military planes should have waited until the Iranian civilian vehicles had cleared the area. "We landed within 3 or 4 seconds of when we were supposed to land," he said. "But everything was radio silenced. Everybody was trying to go with the mission."
Then the mishaps went from bad to worse.
On the evening of April 24, 1980, eight helicopters took off from the USS Nimitz for the 690-mile flight to Desert One. But two of them didn't make it.
One helicopter aborted due to cockpit indications of impending rotor blade failure. The other helicopter aborted when several critical instruments failed after flying through two sandstorms.
The helicopters flew at low altitude to avoid radar detection, so they didn't rise above the sandstorms, which put the mission behind schedule. The six remaining helicopters arrived at Desert One 50-85 minutes later than planned.
A third helicopter also experienced a problem en route. After it reached Desert One, the crew and unit commander determined the partial hydraulic failure due to a fluid leak couldn't be repaired. No replacement part was available, and time was running out to complete the mission before daylight.
That left the operation with five functioning helicopters, one less than the commanders had agreed they needed for success. So they decided to abort and received permission from the leaders in Washington, including President Carter.
Savory was positioned with the command group at Desert One and heard some of the deliberations.
"Part of it was the sandstorm, but there's been a lot of soul searching over the years," he said. "Did (the helicopter crew members) lose their nerve? To have come that far and just say, 'Hey, we can't fly the helicopter because there's a light on,' but, anyway, Beckwith took them at their word."
Asked how he felt about the decision to abort, Savory said, "I was sick, but not as sick as I was when the aircraft blew up."
As the assault team started the evacuation, a helicopter trying to reposition to allow another one to refuel collided with a refueling MC-130. Flames immediately engulfed both aircraft.
Savory thought, "Everybody's dead. My God, we've lost a squadron."
Eight crew members were killed and five were injured. Approximately 55 assault team members were in the plane when it caught fire, Savory said.
"What's amazing about it is that the squadron in the bay of the C-130 got out alive," he said.
Also amazing, Savory said, there weren't more casualties, especially considering the ammunition in the aircraft caused more explosions. In fact, his medical crew had to operate on only one man, Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph "J.J." Beyers, who was severely burned.
"It was like the biggest fireworks display you've ever seen," Savory said. "I don't know if any of them were Stinger missiles, but a lot of ammunition -- small arms, hand grenades, flashbangs. There was a lot going on. I made an attempt to go toward it, but you couldn't get within probably 100 yards of it. The heat was so intense."
Savory stressed this point: "The mission was aborted before the accident. A lot of people think it was aborted because of the accident. The accident happened because it was aborted."
With one of the MC-130s destroyed, Savory was among the mission members who had to fly back to Masirah atop a fuel bladder. During the 6-hour flight, he was "just completely deflated, defeated."
The medical team operated on Beyers' hands. He was flown with the other casualties to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Although his hands were disfigured, Beyers survived.
"No one was really critical," Savory said.
As the team members flew back to Egypt, the reality sunk in that their months of preparation blew up in the Iranian desert before they had a chance to free the hostages in Tehran.
"Those of us that were on the Delta end really felt like we never got out of the locker room," Savory said, "and I think that's true."
Savory is grateful his wife at the time supported his mission, despite having to keep it a secret from her.
"It was difficult, but she was a military officer, so she trusted me, and I think that had a lot to do with it," he said. "When she woke up that morning, she told me later on, I think it was 5:30 in the morning when Carter went on television, and she knew immediately I must have been involved. The concern was that they said there were eight people killed. We were able to get word back pretty quickly through the unit that everybody was OK."
While the Delta unit flew directly from Egypt to a CIA facility in northern Virginia for a debriefing, Savory was supposed to travel with the medical team to return to Fort Bragg. But during a refueling stop at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, an official boarded the plane and asked, "Is Col. Savory here? Come with me."
Savory was escorted onto a private plane, where he joined Air Force Lt. Gen. Philip Gast and CIA Director Stansfield Turner for the flight to meet with Delta Force at the CIA facility. Gast and Stansfield picked Savory's brain about Operation Eagle Claw as they showed him satellite photos of Desert One.
At the CIA facility, Savory met Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser. President Carter then came out and thanked the rescue team.
Savory's memory of the ceremony and meeting all that top brass is full of only disappointment.
"All you wanted to do was to start training and go back," he said. "We started the next day with a different plan."
But the intelligence reports by then showed that the hostages were divided into separate locations, so the rescue team never got another chance.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized an investigation, led by retired Adm. James Holloway III. On July 11, 1980, the Iranian militants released a hostage due to illness, leaving 52 Americans remaining in captivity at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. On Aug. 23, 1980, the Holloway Commission's report concluded that the operation was high-risk and pushed personnel and equipment to their limits but it was feasible and consistent with national objectives. The focus on operational secrecy, however, sabotaged the execution, the report declared.
"Operational security was so intense that it may have compromised the overall situation because of the lack of communication options available, particularly when the task force had not been developed and exercised to the point where the participants were familiar with one another, their capabilities, etc.," Savory said. "Hypothetically, if radio silence had been broken by the helicopters, and had they moved above the sandstorm, it might have allowed them to proceed without losing a helicopter to mechanical failure."
The commission's conclusions also included:
Planning was adequate, except for the number of backup helicopters and the provisions for weather contingencies.
Choosing a landing site near a road represented a higher risk than indicated by the assessment.
Although the commission criticized parts of the mission, the six senior military officers in the review group wrote in the report, "We encountered not a shred of evidence of culpable neglect or incompetence."
Asked for his own assessment, Savory said, "I felt like, No. 1, the mission would have been successful if we had been able to get there. No. 2, I thought that the medical aspects of it, we did everything we were supposed to do, and I think it would have worked quite well. As far as the medical team, it got exercised, and everything was fine. Granted, we didn't have any gunshot wounds, but I feel like we were very well prepared."
The Holloway Commission made two recommendations:
Establish a Counter Terrorism Joint Task Force as a field agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with permanently assigned staff and certain assigned forces.
Establish a Special Operations Advisory Panel comprising high-ranking active and retired officers who have backgrounds in special operations or defense policy.
The Joint Chiefs accepted both recommendations and the Department of Defense implemented them in the fall of 1980.
"Nowadays, this would be a completely different mission," Savory said, "with all of the capabilities they have now, particularly with people exercising together."
He compared it to a team that plays together all season being able to beat an all-star team.
"Not that everybody wasn't capable," he said, "but they didn't know each other."
And those lime-green tackle boxes? They evolved into the Joint Medical Augmentation Unit, based at Fort Bragg.
"More importantly," Savory said, "the concept that we developed to support Delta, the Forward Surgical Team, is part of Army doctrine."
He gave an example of why that matters.
"At that time, the Air Force did not transport unstable patients, and they do now," he said. "I think some of that comes out of things we did then. We trained to be able to operate on these aircraft, to be able to manage unstable patients in the air, because we felt like we might have to."
They didn't need to, he said, "but we developed a capability to do that."
The Forward Surgical Team is a group of medical personnel that trains together and can operate at the battle front. Savory briefed the commanding generals on the concept after Operation Eagle Claw.
"I wrote what they used to call a staff study on how I thought it should be implemented, and it went to the surgeon general," he said. "It was classified at a very high level, but it metastasized out."
And he became a member of that Forward Surgical Team -- which he helped forge through the fire at Desert One -- when the Army recalled him for Desert Storm, the 1991 invasion of Iraq to liberate Kuwait.
"It was a kind of direct descendant from what I started with Delta," Savory said.
'Proud of our efforts'
President Carter's administration continued to negotiate with Iran. Diplomacy prevailed with an agreement on Jan. 19, 1981, to unfreeze Iranian assets in exchange for the American hostages' freedom, but Carter's presidency ended without the victorious moment. The remaining 52 hostages were released the next day - after 444 days in captivity -- while Ronald Reagan was sworn in as U.S. president.
Savory doesn't remember where he was then or what he was doing, but he was "glad and hopeful about their release."
Decades later, the mission still stirs emotion. Savory was among the service members who reunited three years ago as the last of the operation's C-130s was retired.
"They did a parachute jump from it," he said, "and we had our picture taken -- 14 guys with tears coming down."
During the Ledger-Enquirer's interview with Savory at the Hughston Foundation in January, he displayed some of the gear he brought on that ill-fated mission. Seeing and touching the equipment, he said with a smile, "There's a whole bunch of emotions. One is that I was young once."
Then his face tightened, and he continued, "I think the most important thing is that every time that I think about the mission and I think about touching this stuff, I think about the men that I was fortunate enough to know and still keep in contact with that did the mission, that were willing to put it all on the line.
"That's kind of an emotional response. But I think that's true. I think about the casualties. When I really start to think and reflect, I think about the things I could have done better or differently."
Asked to be specific, Savory said, "I kind of got sidetracked with an operational thing at Desert One. My mission was basically to take care of the injured, and I did that, but I also got sidetracked in trying to make sure we didn't leave somebody."
His name is retired U.S. Army Capt. Wade Ishimoto. He was Delta's intelligence officer during the rescue mission, and he led the roadblock security team.
Savory found the Motorola portable radio Ishimoto dropped as he exited the MC-130. So when the operation was aborted and the mission members scrambled to reload the aircraft, Savory was concerned Ishimoto was incommunicado and hadn't heard the order to evacuate because he was about 1 mile down the road.
While an aircraft left with the casualties, Savory convinced Maj. Jesse Johnson to drive with him in a jeep to look for Ishimoto.
"Ishimoto and another guy, his name escapes me, had figured out that we were leaving," Savory said, "and they were hauling ass on a motorcycle, trying to get back to the aircraft. They ended up dumping the motorcycle when they saw us, and we whipped the jeep around and got them."
"He says I saved his life," Savory added. "Since he's Oriental, they have a custom that now I'm responsible for him for the rest of his life. He kids me about that all the time. I think he overexaggerates it."
Asked what he would do when the 35th anniversary of Operation Eagle Claw arrived, Savory said, "I will contact some of my old friends from the mission. I will feel old but proud of our efforts."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.
Hometown: Tucson, Ariz.
Job: Orthopedic surgeon at the Hughston Clinic in Columbus
Education: Graduate of the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.; medical degree from the University of Arizona; orthopedic residency at Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco, Calif.; fellowship in adult reconstructive surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; certified by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Military: In 20 years of service in U.S. Army, was infantry commander during Vietnam War, chief medical officer for the 1980 mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran, then recalled to duty during Operation Desert Storm; returned to Vietnam to help with POW negotiations; retired as a colonel and was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame in 2009.
Other positions: Chairman of the board at Jack Hughston Memorial Hospital; member of the board of trustees for the National Infantry Museum.
Family: Wife, Carol.