The Hostage Crisis: One Man's Memory
Thirty years ago yesterday, we were witnessing a presidential inauguration. On Jan. 20, 1981, Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter was turning the presidency over to newly elected Republican Ronald Reagan.
Many can recall that the campaign preceding the election was marked by a bitter controversy over the hostages being held in Iran. In the fall of 1979, dozens of Americans had been seized at the American embassy in Tehran after the fall of the shah. A few were released within days, but 52 others remained imprisoned for about 15 months and were there during the election campaign.
From the initial imprisonment to the final months of his administration, Carter tried several diplomatic means to secure their release. His administration had even attempted a daring military raid on the compound holding the hostages. This raid, code-named Desert One, failed terribly and cost the lives of several U.S. military members when a helicopter and a C-130 transport collided on the ground.
The nation suffered a severe loss of prestige with the failed and aborted raid. This was not our finest hour. The hostages remained in captivity.
By what many saw as more than a simple coincidence, the hostages were released on Inauguration Day, Jan. 21, 1981. Reagan's critics developed a story line which became known as the October Surprise. Had "candidate" Reagan made a deal with the Iranian government to hold onto the hostages until after the election - and to have them released within an hour after he had been sworn in as president of the United States? Clearly, it looked very suspicious.
I have another take on what actually happened.
During the fall of 1980 and early 1981, I was the commander of the 322nd Airlift Division, with my headquarters at Ramstein AB, Germany. In that capacity I had responsibility for all U.S. airlift in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
In October of 1980 - the time when Reagan was alleged to have struck a deal with the totalitarian government in Iran - there were two rather significant earthquakes in Algeria. At least 6,000 people were killed and another 200,000 were rendered homeless by the quakes.
America was not closely aligned with Algeria, either militarily or diplomatically during those days. But America has always responded to natural disasters, anywhere on the globe, to provide humanitarian relief to those who become victims of earthquakes, floods, typhoons, fires, etc. It did so in October 1980 by providing help to Algeria.
Our military transports provided the airlift of nearly 350 tons of critically needed supplies and medicines to Algeria. There were tents, cots, blankets, generators, food and medicine among the many items provided by our government.
The Algerians did not forget this humanitarian gesture on the part of the American people. Soon diplomatic negotiations were under way with those in power in Tehran. The Algerians became key to the release of America's hostages.
The sequence of events that led to the eventual release on Inauguration Day 1981 is interesting. We had an Algerian Airline plane fly to Tehran and, with the approval of the Iranian government, covertly board the 52 hostages who had been captive for 444 days, and fly next to Athens.
They arrived at Athens under the cover of darkness and parked on a remote military ramp to refuel their aircraft. Naturally, this was done with the approval of the Greek government. After the ground refueling, they resumed their flight and landed in Algiers.
In Algiers, I had positioned two C-9 (DC-9) aeromedical evacuation aircraft with medical personnel on board. They transferred the 52 hostages to the two C-9s and flew them to Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany. There they were met by Carter and others.
Reagan knew full well how hard Carter had worked to secure the release of these hostages. So he graciously asked Carter to represent our government at this significant event. From Frankfurt, the hostages were moved by bus to an Air Force hospital in Weisbaden, Germany, for evaluation before their return to America a few days later.
I believe it was a generous humanitarian act on the part of our government which assisted the Algerians in a time of critical need that precipitated another generous humanitarian act, that of the Algerian government acting as an intermediary in negotiations with Iran.
As Americans, we should all be proud of our military forces that play such a vital role helping others around the world in their time of need. I know how proud I was to direct the American -airlift effort that returned our hostages to freedom.
Bob Springer, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, lives in Pinehurst.
More like this story