The men of Det A were highly trained professionals, ready to carry out what would most likely be a suicide mission in the opening hours of World War Three. With targeting packets completed, covers established, and extraction plans committed to memory, they were prepared to conduct their sabotage missions. Methods of sabotage included surreptitiously introducing blocks of C3 plastic explosive, disguised as lumps of coal, into the bins on the train engines on the Ringbahn rail. Those trains circled around Berlin which was a part of the S-Bahn. Once shoveled into the engine, the locomotive would be blown sky-high. Det A members also had metal shavings that could be thrown into the turbines at power plants, which would burn them out and shut off the electricity. Other targets would be brought down with careful placement of explosive charges. While their mission did not include assassination, it was understood that Soviet and East German armed guards surrounding the targeted infrastructure would have to be eliminated.
However, Det A was not always so highly motivated. The unit also faced some dark times due to conventional Army officers who did not understand the Special Forces mission of unconventional warfare. A colonel in the Berlin Brigade ordered Det A to train his men on basic infantry skills. “One day we were undercover, the next day we were in uniform,” Fontana said. This probably compromised the entire unit as the Soviets had Andrews Barracks under surveillance. The Army even put a sign in front of Andrews Barracks letting people know that it is the home of “Detachment A (Airborne).”
Now the Det A team members were walking around the base in uniform with fresh haircuts. The reindeer games continued until the Det A’s sergeant major, Jeff Raker, went and talked to his counterpart in the conventional Army. He built rapport and explained that by having Det A train infantry privates, they were undermining their own NCOs who were the ones responsible for training their soldiers.
As the Cold War progressed, Det A’s mission evolved, shifting gears to face a new threat that the Western world was unprepared for. In the early 1970s, there had been a rash of aircraft hijackings, many perpetrated by the Palestinian nationalists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP). The slowly escalating threat turned into a crucible for German authorities in 1972 when Palestinian terrorists, belonging to a group calling themselves Black September, took Israeli athletes hostage during the Summer Olympics in Munich. The German police attempted to bait the terrorists into an ambush, where they could be taken out by sniper fire without hurting the hostages. But the crisis ended in a massacre, with both terrorists and hostages slain.
The specter of international terrorism had reared its ugly head. The German federal police, wholly unprepared to deal with the threat, was tasked to create a counterterrorism unit called GSG-9, commanded by Colonel Ulrich Wegener. The Americans took a while longer to catch up. Yet a few years later, Detachment A was tasked with a new mission under OPLAN 0300: Counterterrorism. In addition to their stay-behind mission, the Det A members now had to be prepared to carry out counterterrorism operations. The main concern for the unit was the hijacking of American Pan Am flights into and out of Berlin, but Det A was also charged with protecting and capturing any other hijacked American aircraft in Europe. The Baader-Meinhof Gang also posed a threat in Det A’s area of operations, and one team from the unit was assigned the task of countering the communist, terrorist organization, especially after they kidnapped the mayor of Berlin.
Det A began cross-training with GSG-9 in case they had to conduct joint operations. They developed a friendly relationship that allowed them to share tactics, techniques, and procedures. Six members were sent to Quantico to attend the FBI’s air crimes course. The Special Forces soldiers also received additional weapons for their new mission, such as scoped Model 70 Winchesters to use as sniper rifles and Walther MPK submachine guns. A C-147 airplane was placed on standby to ferry the Det A members within striking distance of targets they may have been called upon to assault.
Since the main concern was a Pan Am aircraft being hijacked, the airliner allowed the Det A teams to practice taking down their aircraft. At various times they also trained to assault buses, trains, and buildings. Det A “practiced techniques on entry into the airplane from any angle you can imagine,” Charest said. “We practiced on that plane day and night.” The unit’s newfound counterterrorism capability would be put to the test years later — not in Europe, but in Iran during Operation Eagle Claw.
At 10:30 a.m. on November 4th, 1979, nearly 3,000 armed “university students” stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking more than 90 American hostages at the behest of Ayatollah Khomeini. The students demanded that Iran’s deposed Shah be returned to Iran from the United States to face trial. Some hostages were released, leaving 66 remaining. Six Americans, who had escaped to the Swedish and Canadian embassies, were evacuated under Canadian passports in a well-orchestrated CIA operation.
While most of the hostages were held on the embassy grounds, three were kept at the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) building located 16 blocks away from the embassy. These three were the acting ambassador and two embassy staff who had been there on official business when the embassy was taken over.
The U.S. Army’s counterterrorism unit, Delta Force, had just recently been validated following a training mission at Camp Mackall. The unit’s commander, Colonel Charlie Beckwith, immediately went into mission planning in case a political solution could not be found and President Carter authorized a hostage rescue. With two Delta Squadrons, Beckwith simply did not have enough operators to cover the 27-acre embassy compound while simultaneously assaulting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Beckwith “did not want another ground force brought into play. He resisted the need for a long time, but eventually had to accept the reality of two rescue locations.”
The commander of Det A, Lieutenant Colonel Stan Olchovic, was tasked with assembling an eight-man assault element that could infiltrate into Iran with Delta Force and rescue the hostages held in the MFA. Their portion of the mission would be dubbed “Storm Cloud.” They then developed a tactical plan and initiated mission rehearsals. A two-man element from Det A was identified to infiltrate Iran undercover and get eyes on the MFA building, gathering critical intelligence for the assault.
The two recon men would then exfiltrate out of Iran and join up with five teammates from their unit at the Delta Force staging ground, making for an eight-man assault element. The initial recce mission was a success. One of the Det A members even had himself photographed alongside Iranian soldiers with the MFA building prominently displayed in the background. Colonel Ulrich Wegener of GSG-9 was prepared to send a German TV crew into Tehran and offered to take some Delta operators with them so they could recce the embassy grounds, but the idea died in the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, two Green Berets from 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group stationed at Bad Tölz, Germany were selected for another secret mission. Sergeant First Class Mike Mulieri, who had previously served in Det A, was asked a simple question after being called into the office of his commander, Colonel Seymour: “Are you prepared to die for your country?” Colonel Seymour asked him.
Mulieri answered that he was, despite his wife due to give birth to their first son in a month. Sergeant First Class Don Ringley was called into the office and asked the same question. Ringley, who served with Special Forces in Vietnam, figured he’d already volunteered to lay down his life for his country a number of times. He said, “I’d be glad to go anywhere for you. Not a problem.”
“Good. You’re hired,” Colonel Seymour replied.
Mulieri and Ringley were immediately put on alert, not allowed to go home, and told to draw ammunition and explosives from the war stock as things began to happen very rapidly. They were also told to link up with the Air Force. “We were out of there so quickly that our heads were spinning,” Mulieri said. The two Green Berets received their mission brief and were flown to Wadi Kena, an old Soviet airbase in Egypt. General Vaught, the overall operation commander for Eagle Claw, had begun setting up the airbase as an initial staging ground for the hostage rescue mission, which included an elaborate ruse to trick the KGB into thinking it was just a training exercise.
What the two Green Berets didn’t know until that day was that Major Carney was about to lead a reconnaissance operation deep into Iran in order to take soil samples from what would be a forward staging area for the Delta mission, in order to test whether or not the ground could support the landing of C-130 military transport planes. Mulieri and Ringley would be standing by in case Major Carney and the CIA pilot flying a small Twin Otter aircraft got stranded in the desert and needed to be recovered.
“Our mission was to drop the Fulton recovery system onto Desert One in case the CCT controller, Major Carney, could not get out,” Mulieri described. With D-day for the Delta mission set for April 24th, 1980, Major John Carney was to fly in on the first of the month. “If Carney could not get out on that aircraft, then we were going to drop in the Fulton recovery system,” Mulieri said, “Then, on the second pass, we were going to jump in to help Carney and the pilot get into the Fulton recovery system.” It was an odd request, as the Fulton recovery system is designed for a person to self-extract, getting into a special flight suit with a harness, which is then attached to an inflatable balloon. A passing aircraft then catches the cable running to the balloon, snatching up the person tethered to the end, who is then reeled into the rear ramp of the plane.
“Then what do we do afterward?” Mulieri asked. “We had to come up with our own escape and evasion plan.” Ringley looked at Mulieri and said, “We’re not coming back.” With Iran and Iraq at war, heading west was out of the question. Their best bet was to go north toward Pakistan, which was a nominal ally of the United States in its support of the Mujahideen who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.
They were told that an Air Force officer would meet them in Wadi Kena with a more formal escape plan. Yet, when he showed up he simply handed them a standard escape and evasion map along with some Austrian gold coins to barter with before getting on the plane and taking off. As a Special Forces intelligence sergeant, Mulieri was expecting a list of assets on the ground in Iran who could offer them shelter and smuggle them to safety.
The Green Berets wore sterile flight suits when they flew into Masirah, Oman — the final staging ground for Delta prior to infiltrating into Iran. Perhaps because of political sensitivities regarding Oman allowing the United States to stage in the country, the Omani Minister of Defense, who was an aviation buff, came to take a look at the Combat Talon (tail #555) airplane. Ringley and Mulieri sat inside, saying nothing, as their mission was supposed to be discreet.
Thankfully, they were never called on to recover Major Carney as his mission was a complete success, having taken place on the night of March 31st. However, Mulieri and Ringley were present on the aircraft a few days before Carney’s recce mission when the pilots flew into Iranian airspace, just 200-500 feet off the desert floor, and circled around Desert One before returning to Oman. “That was the hairiest part of the mission,” Mulieri said. “We were going into Iranian airspace to test out the air defenses in preparation for the soil sample mission. It was really a bumpy ride.” During the mission, it was discovered that most of the Iranian air defenses had been turned off. The story did have a happy ending for Mulieri, who made it back to Germany in time to be there for the birth of his son.
With the air reconnaissance and soil sample missions complete, Delta Force wrapped up its mission rehearsals in the United States. It was then flown to Wadi Kena and then to Masirah on April 20th in conjunction with the eight-man team from Detachment A that would take down the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. Before departing for Desert One, Major Lewis “Bucky” Burruss, Delta’s B-Squadron commander, led the men as they sang “God Bless America” just before boarding their aircraft.
Delta Force and Det A landed at Desert One, located in the Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert of central Iran, on the night of April 24th with the last of six aircraft setting down at midnight. Now they had to wait for their helicopters to arrive from the USS Nimitz on station in the Gulf of Oman to take them on the next leg of their journey en route to the U.S. embassy and the Iranian MFA. Rangers tasked to pull security at Desert One came from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. They rode dirt bikes to help them get around the large staging area. One soon shot a tanker truck driving down a nearby road with a LAW rocket launcher.
The helicopters were delayed several hours because of a sandstorm and a few of them were seriously damaged during the flight. Due to time delays and mechanical malfunctions, Colonel Beckwith made the difficult decision to scrub the mission. Around 2:40 a.m. the men were preparing to abort and pull out of Desert One when Major Schaefer’s helicopter crashed into one of the EC-130 airplanes. “A blue fireball ballooned into the night,” the ground force commander wrote.
One of the Det A sergeants was pulling security on the outer perimeter with Delta’s intelligence officer, Captain Wade Ishimoto, approximately a mile away from where the airplanes were parked, when he witnessed the explosion off in the distance. Jumping on the back of a dirt bike with a Ranger driving, the Det A member linked up with one of his teammates from Berlin back at the crash site. He then told the Ranger to take the dirt bike back to get Ishimoto, but for some reason that didn’t happen. Using IV bags that the Det A men took with them on the mission for medical emergencies, they began treating members of the aircrew who had been critically injured.
Looking up, the Green Beret suddenly realized that one of the C-130s was turning around and about to take off without any passengers onboard. He jumped out in front of the nose of the aircraft, holding his Walther MPK submachine gun, and waving to get the pilot’s attention. “I was ready to shoot those motherfuckers,” he said, not relishing the idea of being left behind. The plane ended up having 70 or 80 soldiers on board when it finally took off.
After the failure of Operation Eagle Claw and Storm Cloud, the task force went right into planning a follow-up mission to rescue the hostages. It was widely believed that President Ronald Reagan would authorize the mission as soon as he was inaugurated and President Carter stepped down. The second attempt would be called Operation Snow Bird.
Editor’s note: This article was written by Jack Murphy and published in 2017.
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