Almost one year after Jimmy Carter became president of the United States a revolution erupted in Iran that would bring about major social, political, and economic change. It would also compel Western nationals living there to leave the country in a rather urgent manner.
In the wake of the Iranian Revolution (January 1978 - February 1979), many American citizens and foreign nationals were able to flee the country by air. Thousands of people were evacuated by military and commercial planes.
Air transportation however, was not a feasible option for everyone who was trying to get out of Iran during that chaotic time. One reason, for instance, was due to limited seating on available flights.
Although Americans and other citizens of Western countries owned cars, driving them from Iran to another country was not a very good option. A key reason for this was due to safety concerns. Iran was no longer a hospitable place for Westerners.
Travel by sea proved to be a safe and attainable alternative means of leaving the country. The month after Iran's pro-American monarch fled the country, hundreds of American and foreign citizens left Iran by sea from the port cities of Bandar Abbas and Char Bahar.
After their initial embarkation, most evacuees were transferred to U.S. Navy ships operating beyond the territorial waters of Iran and transported to the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain where an American naval installation known as the Administrative Support Unit Bahrain was located. These days that installation is called the Naval Support Activity Bahrain. Other evacuees stayed aboard their initial transport vessels and received a U.S. Navy escort to Bahrain.
One of the U.S. Navy ships that took part in the evacuation, USS La Salle (AGF-3), happened to be moored in Bahrain about three months earlier. That's when I walked up her long accommodation ladder with my seabag and orders and reported for duty as a junior enlisted member (seaman apprentice/E-2) of the supply department.
When I first saw the ship, I was struck at once by its relatively large size and white paint job. I would soon learn that white was a much better color than gray due to climatic conditions in the area where the ship was forward deployed. During that deployment, Bahrain was her homeport and she served as the flagship of the Commander, Middle East Force.
Reveille came a lot earlier than usual aboard LaSalle on the morning of February 21, 1979. The early wake up call, passed over the 1MC (public address system), was in response to the seaborne evacuation of U.S. and foreign national civilians from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where they boarded two British survey ships.
At the time of the evacuation, I was unaware of the names of those British ships. It would be more than forty years before I learned their names and pennant numbers (used to identify Royal Navy ships, a pennant number begins with a letter designating a ship type followed by a number that identifies a specific ship).
In order to verify their names and pennant numbers, I contacted the Survey Ships Association in Martham, England by email. In a June 16, 2022 response, Royal Navy veteran George Jones confirmed that HMS Hydra (A144) and HMS Hearld (H138) had picked up Western nationals at the Port of Bandar Abbas. George also mentioned that he had served aboard both of those ships during his Navy career.
Despite the early hour, there was a definite buzz of activity throughout La Salle. With a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose the crew prepared to welcome a large group of Westerners who had just left Iran in a hasty fashion. I was assigned along with other supply department personnel to issue towels and toiletry items to evacuees upon their arrival.
The items we issued included soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and combs. These items were given to evacuees at a folding table we set up in the well deck, a large space in the stern that could be flooded to allow landing craft to enter the ship.
A huge metal gate at La Salle's stern that could be swung down usually covered the well deck entrance. On this occasion the stern gate was in its lowered position. This morning the well deck would serve as the reception area for a sizable number of evacuees who had fled unfriendly conditions in Iran.
La Salle's nickname was "The Great White Ghost of the Arabian Coast" and as those evacuees approached the ship, she might well have appeared to some of them as a large ghostlike figure from a distance. And like a phantom, La Salle helped spirit away a good deal of Western civilians from an uncertain fate.
Based on figures in the article U.S. Navy Ships Assist in Iranian Evacuation on page 2 of the April 1979 issue of All Hands, the total number of evacuees transferred to La Salle from Hydra and Herald came to about 260. American citizens made up about half of this number.
Evacuees were greeted in a very courteous and cordial manner when they arrived aboard La Salle. Preparations made prior to their arrival helped make the reception process go smoothly.
With all her passengers safely aboard, La Salle headed to Bahrain, where evacuees disembarked when the ship arrived in port about two days later.
The same day American citizens and foreign nationals left Bandar Abbas aboard Hydra and Hearld, another group of evacuees left Char Bahar. These civilians boarded commercial ships that took them to a rendezvous in international waters with U.S. Navy ships awaiting their arrival.
The Navy ships that took part in this phase of the evacuation were USS Decatur (DDG-31), USS Kinkaid (DD-965), and USS Talbot (FFG-4). Decatur and Kinkaid were based in San Diego, California and Talbot was homeported in Newport, Rhode Island.
One of the sailors serving aboard Decatur, Stephen Clutter, would later write a very good account of the evacuation, which appeared in The Sextant on February 22, 2019. His story, Remembering the U.S. Navy's Iranian Evacuation of 1979, indicates that the total number of evacuees who fled Iran from the port city of Char Bahar was 180. Of this number, 70 were American citizens.
Some of these evacuees were transferred to Decatur and Kinkaid. Others did not leave the ships they boarded in Char Bahar and were given a Navy escort to Bahrain. All three Navy ships took part in escort duty.
As noted by Stephen Clutter, Decatur, Kinkaid, Talbot, and the commercial ships they escorted arrived safely in Bahrain three days later, where evacuees disembarked.
Two other U.S. Navy ships also played a role in the seaborne evacuation of Iran. They were mentioned by Commander Brent Baker in the May 1980 issue of Proceedings. In his article Naval and Maritime Events 1979, Commander Brent revealed that USS Blandy (DD-943) and USS Hoel (DDG-13) were two of the six ships involved in the evacuation. Blandy was homeported in Norfolk, Virginia and Hoel was based in San Diego, California.
Altogether some 440 American citizens and foreign nationals made it safely out of Iran by sea from the port cities of Bandar Abbas and Char Bahar and into the annals of the Cold War era.