In November 1979, soon after Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Gen. Vaught began planning a military operation to rescue the hostages. The rescue attempt became a defining moment of the presidency of Jimmy Carter, as the fate of the hostages loomed over the public imagination throughout the 1980 presidential campaign.
Gen. Vaught, then serving as the Army’s director of operations and mobilization, was the chief planner of a complicated mission dubbed Operation Eagle Claw. Personnel and equipment from the four major service branches were included in the effort, which required the coordination of Navy helicopters, Marine Corps pilots, Air Force transport planes and Army commandos. It was among the first engagements of an elite Army unit known as Delta Force.
The operation was set in motion April 24, 1980, when eight Navy helicopters took off from the USS Nimitz, a Navy aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Gen. Vaught directed the mission from a base in Egypt, with telephone links to Defense Secretary Harold Brown and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in the White House.
There were obstacles from the beginning, including a communications blackout among the helicopters and a severe dust storm in the Iranian desert that caused one helicopter to turn around and return to the Nimitz.
Two other helicopters encountered mechanical problems, leaving only five capable of flying to Tehran. From the beginning, Gen. Vaught and other military planners had said that no fewer than six helicopters were required to carry out the mission.
Gen. Vaught and commanders on the ground recommended to Brown and Brzezinski that the operation be called off. Carter agreed and made the final decision.
Soon afterward, the rotor blades of a helicopter attempting to refuel at a staging area in Iran struck an Air Force transport plane. Eight U.S. service members died in the fiery accident. The wreckage was left in the desert, along with secret information aboard the aircraft.
Military observers considered Operation Eagle Claw a colossal failure, and several congressional and military investigations were launched. An early review by a military panel cited poor communications and faulted the Joint Chiefs of Staff for not subjecting Gen. Vaught’s plan to a critical analysis.
Years later, Gen. Vaught said he was hampered by turf battles among the military branches. When he asked to inspect the Navy helicopters before the mission, he said, permission was denied.
“I was told it was the Navy’s job, and it was perfectly capable of preparing and repairing them,” he told the Tampa Tribune in 2005. “I had no authority except over the Army guys.”
The botched rescue effort was one of the lowest points of Carter’s presidency and became an issue in the 1980 presidential election, which Carter lost to Ronald Reagan.
One hostage was released because of illness in July 1980. The remaining 52 hostages were freed Jan. 20, 1981, the day Reagan took office.
Over time, Gen. Vaught came to view the hostage-rescue effort as a “successful failure” because it exposed flaws in military planning and led to a variety of reforms. He worked as an adviser to military agencies and contractors on the development of night-vision equipment and other ways of making the special forces more effective.
He also recommended the creation of a joint special-forces unit that would cover all branches of the military. The combined U.S. Special Operations Command was launched in 1987.
James Benjamin Vaught was born Nov. 3, 1926, in Conway, where his family settled in 1683. He said he was a direct descendant of Francis Marion, a Revolutionary War general known as the “Swamp Fox” whose hit-and-run battlefield tactics made him an innovator in guerrilla warfare.
Gen. Vaught attended The Citadel, a military academy in Charleston, S.C., before entering the Army during World War II. He served in Germany as part of postwar occupation forces and commanded an infantry unit during the Korean War.
In the 1960s, he graduated from Georgia State University and received a master’s degree in business administration from George Washington University.
In 1967, he began his first tour of duty in Vietnam. In February 1968, hetook command of a cavalry battalion that had a major role in capturing key positions in Hue and Khe Sanh.
“The manner in which he took over the battalion was remarkable,” said Charles Baker, a retired Army colonel who served with Gen. Vaught in Vietnam. “He just went out and went [fox]hole to [fox]hole, meeting the soldiers. He cleaned his own rifle and dug his own hole.”
Gen. Vaught received two Silver Stars in Vietnam. He suffered serious injuries in a military vehicle accident in 1968 but, despite broken bones in his back, managed to rescue the vehicle’s driver. In 1971, he returned for a second tour in Vietnam.
His final command was in Korea, where he led combined U.S. and Korean forces before retiring as a three-star general in 1983 and moving to South Carolina. His other decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, Soldier’s Medal, Bronze Star Medal and Air Medal.
Gen. Vaught’s first marriage, to Aimee Beers, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Winifred Johnson, died in 1995.
Survivors include his wife of 17 years, Florence Robinson Glasgow Vaught of Myrtle Beach, S.C.; three children from his first marriage, Cathryn A. Vaught of Fayetteville, Ga., James B. Vaught Jr. of Chesapeake, Va., and Stephen P. Vaught of Columbia, S.C.; two stepdaughters, Marian Davis of Mount Pleasant, S.C., and Lee Glasgow Watson of Fort Mill, S.C.; a brother; a sister; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
At a ceremony honoring returned hostages in 1981, Gen. Vaught said the rescue mission was “a very best effort by a group of brave, courageous Americans of which we can all be proud.”
“No matter how hard one may try,” he added, “just the slightest miscalculation or unfortunate circumstance can unconnect it all, and it will all go to hell in a handbasket and no one can stop it.”