Col. Charlie Alvin Beckwith is one man assured of fame as a result of last week's unsuccesful attempt to rescue the American hostages in Tehran. Beckwith, 51, was the commander who had to survey his damaged helicopters on a remote piece of Iranian desert and call off the operation.
Before this dramatic event, Beckwith had virtually no public name or stature. But within the special fraternity of hell-bent-for-leather professional soldiers, he has been famous for many years.
"Staff officers above Charlie recoil when they hear his name," one longtime friend and Army colleague recalled yesterday. "They figure, 'Here goes that wildman again!" The fame Beckwith built in the Army came from his reputation as a man who would accept no obstacle to the completion of a serious mission.
Friends and relatives interviewed yesterday all agreed that it must have been the greatest frustration and disappointment of his life to have to call off the hostage rescue mission last Thursday. Some friends express disbelief that he could have done it.
Beckwith's life and military career sound more like a 1940s Hollywood movie than real life. Reared by his mother and a brother after his father died, he became a football star at Atlanta's Brown High. A student leader and star athlete at the University of Georgia he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1952, but post-poned pro football to take an ROTC commission in the Army. He stopped on the way to marry his college sweetheart, Katharine.
Once in the Army, Beckwith abandoned the idea of professional football -- "he was playing on a bigger team as far as he was concerned," one friend recalled. Beckwith used to tell friends that "being in the Army is like being on the farm on Sunday."
His career has been colorful but far from conventional. Beckwith has always preferred jobs he liked to jobs that won promotions, Lt. Gen. Henry Emerson (Ret.), who knew Beckwith in Vietnam, described that quality this way:
"A lot of guys went to Vietnam, just to get their ticket punched, but I only knew 10 or 12 who were 'certified' -- who were really going after it, who went to the wall. Charlie was one of them. He was always willing to take risks. He was the opposite of a ticket-puncher."
He was almost the opposite of alive, too. He once took a Viet Cong machine-gun bullet in the stomach, and may have survived only because he had the presence of mind to tell medics what was happening to his insides right after he was shot.
In Vietnam Beckwith had two careers, one with the Special Forces, or Green Berets, another as a commander in the 101st Airborne Divison. He liked the Special Forces best, and willingly devoted his years since Vietnam to them and to related special warfare projects, though he had to know that the Army saw these as diversions from a traditional, ticket-punching career that would lead to general's stars.
Back in the United States, Beckwith was given the command of the 3rd Ranger Battalion at the Army Infantry School, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. According to associates there, he set new standards of endurance for volunteers in that elite corps -- standards he always met himself.
Once, after surveying what his soldiers were eating for their one meal a day. Beckwith worried aloud that they were being fed too much. They might get "sluggish," he said.
On another occasion, when recruits had successfuly completed one of the jungle warfare training programs he had devised, Beckwith worried that the course was too easy. He designed tougher ones.
In recent years Beckwith has been stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Much of his work has been secret, involving long periods away from home which he never explained to friends or realtives. A full account of Beckwith's career in recent years would amount to a revelation of a secret doings in the world of anti-terrorism about which little is known.
A senior government official hinted at Beckwith's secret life yesterday by observing that he is "known and greatly respected by people in the anti-terrorist business in many other countries."
He became the preeminent military figure in this field in early 1978, when President Carter named him commander of a new, elite anti-terrorist unit code-named "Project Blue Light." News of this appointment was published in the papers, a fact that infuriated Beckwith.
"We called to tell him it was in the paper," Beckwith's sister-in-law, Vervian Beckwith of Atlanta, recalled yesterday. "He was very upset. He didn't want to be identified with it at all for security reasons."
Beckwith still refuses to acknowledge his role privately or publicly, according to friends and associates.
Last November Beckwith's wife moved suddenly from Ft. Bragg to Germany, and he dropped out of sight. In December, one of his three daughters went to visit him in Egypt, though it isn't known what he was doing there.
According to one colleague, Beckwith was determined to make his special unit "as good as the Germans' or the Israelis' or anybody's". The colonel personally picked every member of the team, according to one official source, and the entire unit was said to be extraordinarily devoted to their commander.
Was he a commander in the mold of George Patton? "No," replied one senior official who has worked with the anti-terrorist unit. "Patton terrified his men.They love Charlie. Charlie is warm and reassuring."
According to an old friend and Army colleague, Beckwith has always enjoyed this affection from men under his command. "He tends to shepherd and be gentle with his troops," this man said, "but he's murder on his key subordinate officers. He's chewed up a lot of officers -- he's fired a lot because they didn't measure up to Charlie's exacting standards."
Unorthodox behavior has kept Beckwith from winning his star as a general, according to many associates. "I guess the term singleness of purpose fits Charlie as well as anyone I know," one colleague and friend said. "I guess he forgets niceties . . . It takes a lot of fancy footwork to work with the bureaucracy these days, and Charlie doesn't have that footwork."
Friends long ago nicknamed him "chargin' Charlie." A former Green Beret officer who knew Beckwith said he found it hard to believe that the colonel could have called off the hostage rescue.
Charlie would have erred on the side of risk rather than caution. He would go ahead just so as not to have been precieved as a quitter. So when President Carter says his decision is based on the recommendation of the on-site coommander, I find that hard to believe. There must be some other sensitive factors that can't be discussed. Charlie would have gone ahead with fewer helicopters and if he didn't have enough for both his troops and the hostages, I could see him putting the hostages on the choppers, staying behind with the troops and fighting his way out of Tehran."
Relatives say they know and believe Beckwith's military reputation, but that they see a very different side of him. If people "could see him with his three girls," Beckwith's sister-in-law said yesterday, "they could see the gentleness and the compassion." But, she added, there is no middle ground. You're with him or against him because he's so strong.
Strength means something physical to Beckwith, too. He has kept himself in extraordinary condition, according to friends, including envious colleagues who are about his age but think they feel much older than the 215-pound Beckwith.
The mission to Tehran was the first time Beckwith's unit -- sometimes called "charlie's Angels" at Ft. Bagg -- had actually put their exhaustive training to use. According to government sources, the United States had no more highly trained military contingent.
Beckwith's older brother, Lamar, an Atlanta businessman, observed yesterday that "we could be celebrating a great rescue." But then he added, "I can think of worse things that could have happened. The breakdowns could have occurred inside Tehran," instead of in the desert.