By Stephen Clutter, Public Affairs Deputy Director, Commander, Navy Installations Command
Forty years ago this week, as American citizens and other foreign nationals were scrambling to flee Iran following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, four U.S. Navy ships were off the coast in international waters preparing for an evacuation operation.
I was on one of those ships, the San Diego-based guided missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 31). We had been to sea for more than two months, transitioning from a WestPac tour into the Indian Ocean and eventually into the Persian Gulf as the tumultuous events in Iran were unfolding.
As a 19-year-old electronics technician, I had access to the radio room and teletype machines, and I was able read open source news reports of the unfolding dilemma for Americans in Iran.
A few weeks prior, on Jan. 16, besieged by more than a year of growing opposition, the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, fled with his family to Egypt, ostensibly for medical treatment. He would never go back.
On Feb. 1, opposition leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from France after 14 years in exile. Crowds of celebrating Iranians, estimated at roughly 2 million strong, took to the streets to welcome him.
Following 10 days of street battles with Khomeini’s supporters, Iran’s military declared itself neutral, which allowed the revolutionaries to seize government buildings, television and radio stations and eventually the entire country. On that day, Feb. 11, Iran’s 2,500-year-old monarchy and longstanding U.S. partner in the region collapsed and the Islamic Republic was born.
Ten days later, on Wednesday, Feb. 21, the Decatur and three other ships conducted the evacuation from Iran of 440 civilians including 200 U.S. citizens.
According to a 1979 article in All Hands magazine, “approximately 260 persons including about 130 U.S. citizens embarked at Bandar Abbas, Iran, in a British survey ship and were later transferred to USS La Salle (AGF 3) in international waters.” The La Salle was then the flagship of the U.S. Middle East Task Force.
At the Iranian port of Chabahar, another 180 people including 70 U.S. citizens were evacuated by privately-owned coastal boats. A number of them were transferred to my ship, the Decatur, and also the USS Kinkaid (DD 965). We headed for Bahrain, escorting a civilian tug also carrying evacuees, along with USS Talbot (FFG 4).
The evacuees on the Decatur and Kinkaid were mostly construction workers for what was then Brown & Root, which had been building an Iranian navy base as the Shah’s regime melted down.
For the first day, we traveled slowly to protect the tug, but eventually the Talbot relieved us of escort duties and we, along with the Kinkaid, we were able to pick up speed on our passage to Bahrain. During the transit, many of us crew members had time to talk to the evacuees, who seemed to be decompressing from their ordeal as they told stories about what they had gone through.
They were in desperate straits, they said, as anti-American sentiment boiled throughout the country. Many of their friends and co-workers had managed to get out on several Pan Am flights, which eventually ceased operations as the situation in Tehran deteriorated. They told us how hopeful they were when they saw the Pan Am jets as they landed at the Tehran airport, but their hearts sank as they were not among the lucky ones to get manifested on those evacuation flights.
During the transit to Bahrain, many of the evacuees gathered on the fantail in the afternoon sun, taking in the fresh sea air as we traveled north up the Persian Gulf. A buddy of mine and I traded USS Decatur t-shirts for “Brown & Root Chabahar” t-shirts.
I wrote in my journal that they had been waiting to leave Iran for more than a week:
“One of the Americans told me that they were taken by surprise when we showed up yesterday, but they were eager to get out of there. They said they were so happy to see an American flag. They cheered when we arrived. They were very grateful. Those guys went through a lot before we got to them.”
By Friday, Feb. 23, we were within 20 miles of Bahrain and the atmosphere on Decatur lightened as we began to pick up the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on the ship’s radio. The next day, Feb. 24, we dropped anchor in Bahrain and the evacuees disembarked onto two small private ships, waving hands and caps as they pulled away. We sounded the ship’s whistle to bid them farewell as they headed for shore.
Shortly after they departed, we tied up at the pier at what was then Administrative Support Unit (ASU) Bahrain, now Naval Support Activity Bahrain.
After 72 days at sea, we were finally granted liberty.
Being at sea for so long can seem monotonous at times, but there are events that can turn the trajectory of morale of a crew to pull off something extraordinary.
I wrote in my journal that day: “I think everyone onboard feels a sense of accomplishment.”
In the aftermath of the Iranian evacuation operation of 1979, the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf became an area of increasing interest to the U.S. Navy.
In the forty years since then, many other ships and crews have had their opportunity to feel that sense of accomplishment in protecting American interests and allies and maintaining freedom of the seas in an important region of the globe.
Note: All U.S. Navy ships involved in the evacuation remained in international waters off Iran during the transfer of evacuees from the two Iranian cities. The crew of the four ships were awarded both the Navy Expeditionary Medal and the Humanitarian Service Medal.