By JT McInnis
The movie, ARGO, was just released and many of my closest friends knew how excited I was to see it as I once lived in Tehran during these tumultuous times. It’s the story of the rescue of 6 American Consular Officers who fled their posts and went into hiding after Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979. What many of them did not know was that as a young 18 year old soldier I was a part of this story. As this operation is no longer classified, I can now share my part in it.
This event happened over 30 years ago so to refresh my memory I needed to dig through boxes of old papers until I found a very special letter of appreciation given to me from Admiral Packard of the European Command Center for my service during the Embassy takeover in Iran. This is the story how as a young GI I found myself entrenched in a story of suspense and intrigue that was much larger than I could ever imagine.
Letter of Appreciation for my assistance helping US State Department track Consular Officers in hiding during the Embassy take-over 11/4/1979
In early summer of 1976 my father, a member of the US Diplomatic community in Iran, moved my entire family to Tehran. When we arrived we settled in the north district, not far from Shahanshah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s palace. Over the next years we enjoyed all the wonderful mysteries and adventures that come with living in one of the cradles of civilization. From exploring one of the oldest and largest bazaars in the world, to trips to Isfahan, to Boy Scout camping in the Alborz Mountains, or swimming in the Caspian Sea; we were doing things that others could only dream of. Unlike my family’s previous postings in South America and Europe where we attended schools taught in the local language, we were now getting an education in our parent tongue at Tehran American School.
Youth Retreat camping on the Caspian Sea 1977
The first two years were as idyllic as they could be for a teenage youth. At that time the American expatriate presence in Tehran was the largest in the world. We had two American High Schools and one international High School. Aside from going to school Saturday through Wednesday (the Iranian weekend is Thursday and Friday) it was as normal an American experience as possible given that we were half way around the world in one of the most exotic places on the map. With 4,500 students within the Tehran American School system we were able to field three varsity football and basketball teams. We had our own “Little America” though we were observant of some of the more strict rules of Islamic lifestyle in modest dress and polite communication on the streets. In the privacy of our homes, our school, and our community centers, we were able to enjoy a pretty normal teenage life. We had school dances, festivals, proms and homecomings, and rocked to the modern music of the time with some of our own home grown high school musicians playing in expat rock bands.
Tehran American School Soccer Team - our opposing teams were often Iranian Soccer Clubs 1978
Having been raised in South America and Europe, soccer was my sport of choice, if not my countrymen’s. I often found myself playing soccer with the Iranian kids on the dirt fields around my home. I picked up the Farsi language quickly, and after a while, I found myself eating dinner at my Iranian friend’s home more than mine, and participating in their cultural and religious festivals. One of my favorite memories was the time I helped make huge caldrons of Ash, a soup given to the poor on Ashurah, the 10th day of Moharam.
Making Cauldrons of Ash (a traditional soup) given to poor on the religious holiday of Ashurah 1977
Because of my fluent Farsi, I was recruited by the PAN AM station chief to work a summer job at the Mehrabad Airport as a PAN AM ticket and gate agent. This position was then extended to part-time through my senior year where I went from classes in the morning to work at PAN AM in the afternoon and evenings.
Like many Tehran American School students, my life in Iran was a very enjoyable experience. We didn’t have all the creature comforts of our peers in the USA, but we had adventures that none of our stateside cousins could match. Our school community was tight and our classmates were family. All of this was ripped away by the revolution.
A former TAS alumni quoted a passage from a book on our Tehran American School webpage to explain this feeling of loss, "You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place,” I told him, “like you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you'll never be this way ever again." The revolution changed everything and it changed us too. How could it not?
In June of 1978, my mother and siblings rotated back to the USA to my father’s next assignment. Dad followed them in September of 1978. It took some hard convincing, but I was able to convince my parents to allow me to stay in Tehran so I could take advantage of the mid-year high school graduation program. Besides graduating with some of my friends, I could keep working for PAN AM and save money for college. So, at the age of 17, I was living alone and half a world away from my family. I lived in the basement of a friend’s house, took care of myself, went to class and work and counted the days until graduation.
When my parents left me behind in Iran, they had no idea that the country would unravel so quickly. There were always troubled hot spots in Iran, but they were far to the south of the city and widely scattered. Tehran was relatively peaceful. The earliest evidence of the unrest to come was when one night in early September. While standing on the flat roof of our home and watching the evening unfold in the city below as we often did, a couple of Iranians took pot shots at my father and me. We chalked this up largely to hooliganism. Despite this isolated incident, my father still thought it would be safe for me to stay behind in Tehran, living with my friends.
There was no sense on the part of anyone that the country would unravel; no urgency to leave. In fact, up through October 1978, my life continued pretty much as normal with after school sports, dances, scouting and various youth other activities. In hindsight, my father thought that the revolution was unusual in that it surprised much of the world as it did not have a lot of customary causes of a traditional revolution and it occurred so fast.
In October 1978, the beautiful home and friendly people I knew began to change. Where I once walked the streets with relative ease and engaged in friendly conversations, Iranians now began to avoid me. Fear and anger began to spread. Mass hysteria and the pack mentality of the mobs began as the mullahs stirred up hatred from the minarets and mosques of Iran. Toward the end of 1978 the mobs reached Tehran. Our house in north Tehran was pipe bombed days after my family left for the USA. Toward the end of my time in Tehran armed men shot up the neighborhood where I was living time and time again forcing us to move our sleeping quarters to the rear of the house for safety.
Martial Law was decreed that fall and we began to live life under military rule and mandatory curfews. Often the last flight out of Tehran would push me right up to the edge of curfew. I would often find myself running security roadblocks in taxis to beat the curfew and get home from my part time job at Pan Am before the streets were locked down. One time I didn’t make it and an unhappy taxi driver and I spent some time at the local gendarmerie station until our stories checked out and we were given a pass to drive the rest of the way home. After that I stayed the night at the airport and ran home in the morning, bathed and then dashed off to classes, often writing my own tardy notes as I was now on my own.
Life under Martial Law, Iranian Military Security Roadblocks, November 1978
There are flashes of memory that will always be with me. I remember a scared military conscript shoving a M16 in my stomach when I surprised him (he was sleeping on his post at the gas station where I purchased kerosene for the heater at my room). I remember the tanks on the streets and roving military and revolutionary patrols. The smell of burning tires to offset the effects of tear gas and the fires in the streets that lit up the city like Christmas tree lights. I remember the moment the power went out and when Martial Law went into effect. I don’t know that I was scared. It was all so surreal, like watching a bad dream in slow motion. But I was definitely unsettled.
In October, the family I was staying with was evacuated back to the US by their company. From then on I played musical chairs staying wherever I could until PAN AM evacuated all non-essential personnel from Iran right before Christmas 1978. The first part of December I dropped from my family’s radar completely as I jumped from home to home as families and friends were hurriedly evacuated out of the country by their employers. My family back in the States had no idea where I was until I arrived in New York shortly before Christmas.
The last Newsletter published by the Tehran American School December 6, 1978. Despite the hopeful sentiment expressed by the student editorial staff “see you next year” the school never opened its doors again
On December 6th I was told that the school was closing and the decision had been made to advance our graduation date to December 8th. I completed my education at Tehran American School that day, and with a great sadness, I walked away from one of the greatest times and adventures of my life.
I went back to the place where I was currently living, packed my bags, and had a friend from the Embassy help me secure a ride to the airport. That night the main streets were filled with violent clashes between the Shah’s army and revolutionaries who popped up ad hoc at almost every major intersection. The driver asked me to hide under some carpets in the back of his van as he maneuvered through the back streets of the heart of the war-torn city.
Security Updates were published more than once daily as revolutionary violence unfolded
The airport was controlled chaos. Overnight, it was laid siege by thousands of Americans, Foreign Nationals, and desperate Iranians all seeking to flee the country. Over the course of the next several days, I helped evacuate many of my schoolmates and their families. I can still see the overwhelming look of shock, fear and extreme uncertainty in their eyes. We were all caught in the whirlwind of revolution and those winds would scatter us far and wide.
PAN AM, as a US flagship carrier, gave first priority to evacuating Americans and Foreign Nationals. Many Iranians were desperate to leave their own country, no doubt for fear of deadly reprisals in the streets to all who once were loyal, or suspected to be loyal, to the Shah. I saw the overwhelming desperation in their faces when they were told they could only fly space available if no other Americans or Foreign Nationals were available to be evacuated. I saw Iranian fathers throw their children over the heads of the crowds in a bid to get closer to the front of the line for those limited seats out of the country. I heard the cries of the Iranian mothers when they were told that they could not leave the country. I remember children crying as their fathers tearfully bid goodbye to them having made the decision to stay behind. I was 17 and witnessing this surreal moment of human suffering.
My last view of Iran as PAN AM Flight 102 left Iranian air space.
When I returned to the USA I was not ready to accept the normal life of my fellow 17 and 18 year old peers. A job at McDonald's was not to be my future while I waited to get into college, and so I joined the Army in January of 1979. After basic training and advanced communications courses I was assigned to the 2d Support Command, Stuttgart, Germany. Proving how small the world was, I ran into a friend of my parents in church one Sunday who knew me in Iran. He was a USAF Staff Sergeant assigned to the European Command Center.
When the Embassy was seized, Admiral Packard of the European Command Center was having a fit with Washington because they couldn't provide a Farsi linguist for several weeks. My friend, the Staff Sergeant, told him that he knew me from Iran and that I spoke fluent Farsi. According to my friend, the Admiral was "and so what?" This SSgt told him, "Sir, you don't understand; he joined the army, speaks Farsi, and is here in Stuttgart.” That Saturday afternoon my very shaken 1st Lieutenant called me down to the Battalion HQ and told me that he didn’t what I’d done, but I was to have my a## packed and ready to go in 20 minutes. The Admiral was sending a staff car to pick me up.
I spent November 4th, 1979 through November 11th at the European Command Headquarters sitting on the floor manning two telephones and tracking the movements of a group led by Robert Anders, the head of the consular section, and five others who had just fled the overrun US Embassy in Tehran. I fielded calls from Iranians, friends and former employees of the U.S. Government, and American companies still in Iran. As the calls came in, they would be directed to me. Using my knowledge of the streets and bus systems of Tehran, I plotted the group’s day to day, and house to house movements on a large map until they finally reached the relative safety of the home of a Canadian diplomat on November 10th, 1979.
Unlike the movie, the Anders group were actually hidden in a couple of houses; not just the Canadian Ambassador's residence, and it took them 7 days of moving house to house to get there. On November 11th I was relieved of my special duties as the Defense Language Institute trained Farsi linguist arrived on site. For the remaining 4 weeks that I worked at the European Command, I was used to plot information on the Tehran map and was attached to assist my SSGT friend in the EUCOM Communications Unit. By Christmas of 1979 I was returned to my original unit of duty assignment once again, my life and memories in a jumbled upheaval as the saga of the country and people I had come to know and love continued to play out in the news and political fields of the day.
Thirty-three years later, my heart still reaches back to those days and memories. As Iran continues to stay in the headlines, my memories are kept alive. It’s easy for many to condemn what they do not know or understand. But for those of us that lived there and became friends with the people, their music, their food, their customs and their country, we know that there are many good people in Iran, and we hope for the day when peace and sanity will prevail and the doors to their homes will once more open to us. On that day the world will know what we knew then, an ancient and proud civilization steeped in poetry and hospitality...and not the Iran of fear and oppression that exists today.
Argo - Official Trailer 1
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