Col. Charlie Alvin Beckwith has a soldier's toughness in his gravel voice and a brave record of 27 yeras in uniform, but on that night in the desert of Iran he cried.
He was not ashamed to say so. The rescue mission he and his 90 men had rehearsed for months was canceled.
As troopers were boarding to depart, the colonel's personal disappointment began to sink in.
"My God," Beckwith thought to himslef, "I'm going to fail."
A moment later, disappointment was replaced by disaster. An RH53 helicopter and a C130 transport plane collided and burst into flame, a funeral pyre for eight commandos and airmen with "Chargin' Charlie."
"I've got the finest soldiers in the world," the colonel said of his Blue Light unit. "I sat there and cried."
Beckwith walked into a Pentagon conference room yesterday with the briskness of a celebrated commander, and delivered an engrossing minute-by-minute briefing for reporters on what happened eight days ago at an isolated rendezvous point named Desert One. The 51-year-old veteran of Vietnam was dressed in a navy blue windbreaker and gray trousers. He has the presence of a tough-talking fullback.
While Beckwith gave the first authentic on-the-ground account of the failed mission, the real purpose of his appearance was to blow away many of the rumors and speculative stories that are the daily grist of Washington gossip.
In particular, Beckwith gave withering denials to the various press accounts of recent days that said the colonel wanted to go forward, despite the loss of three helicopters, or that he wants to resign from the Army to protest the decision by President Carter to abort the mission.
"That's pure bullshit, sir," he replied, when asked about those reports.
Why didn't they recover the bodies?
"I did three years in Vietnam, and I don't like to leave anybody," said Beckwith. "But for anyone to waste additional human life, which is the most precious thing on the face of the earth, to go and get a body out. I don't think that's very prudent and it's impossible."
The colonel stood before the reporters for a full hour, answering questions that interrupted his narrative, striding back and forth, slapping his leg occasionally with a wooden pointer. At one point, CBS correspondent Ike Pappas, sitting at the conference table, asked if Beckwith did not really want to go forward with the mission, even though he was short of helicopters.
Beckwith's eyes narrowed, and he leaned toward Pappas, almost standing over him.
"With all due respect, sir," Beckwith rasped, "you don't know where you're coming from."
By his account, the decision to abort the rescue mission did not involve any argument by anyone involved -- just plain talk, soldier to soldier.
The 90 commandos were waiting at the isolated landing base ready to head toward Tehran, but with only five functioning helicopters, one below the margin of safety.
There was a little discussion between Beckwith, commander of the troops, and an Air Force Colonel who was the ground commander at Desert One.
Beckwith told him: "My recommendation is to abort."
The Air Force colonel asked him to think a minute before answering his question: "Charlie, would you consider taking five and going ahead? Think about it before you answer me. You're the guy that's got to shoulder this."
Beckwith recalls: "I said, 'I know that. Give me a couple of seconds to think it over.' And I said to him: 'There's just no way.'"
If they had proceeded with only five helicopters, it would have been an irresponsible risk, according to Beckwith, who took many risks as a Green Beret commander in Vietnam.
"I've been there before. I'm not about to be party to a half-assed loading of a bunch of aircraft and going up and murdering a bunch of the finest soldiers in the world. I'm not that kind of man.
"I've been in the Army 27 years," Beckwith continued, in a voice bordering on anger. "I don't have to do that. I get paid to shoulder responsibility." o
Under the ground rules imposed by Thomas B. Ross, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs -- ground rules that included the banning of cameras -- Beckwith limited his public discussion to the first, ill-starred phase of the mission -- that night at Desert One.
Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who planned the rescue mission and sought to put down rumors about it, met with Beckwith earlier yesterday and, according to the colonel "asked me to be straightforward, totally honest with you. I really don't know how to be any other way. I have a great deal of pride in serving my country. So with that, I'll get on with it."
Beckwith recalls that he was aboard the first aircraft to land at the base 200 miles southeast of Tehran, near Tabas.
"We landed on a dirt strip . . . The weather was clear, temperature between 50 and 63. I looked up at the stars, and there was some haze. But it certainly wasn't haze that would block someone's vision.
"I had walked approximately 100 yards toward an unimproved road that was to my north . . . I looked up, and there was a Mercedes bus loaded with personnel, coming in our direction.
"We had made plans for this sort of situation. We immediately put into action one of the drills we had prepared for.
"We shot over the bus and under the bus. We stopped the bus. There were elderly people. There were very young children. In my judgment, because I didn't stop to count, 44 personnel in total.
"We escorted them off, left their belongings on the bus . . . They were searched and then we went back to the bus and searched their belongings because we were concerned there may be a weapon or some sort of a radio.
"I'm happy to report not a single Iranian was hurt. I had a doctor on the scene with me that I took in, and I asked my doctor to go up and observe the people. He did. There was no requirement of medical assistance. . . .
"I had some Americans that spoke Farsi with me . . . All we were trying to do was manage the people. . . .
"About that time I looked back up to the north, and there was a petrol truck," which two of the unit's guards, posted on that road running through the desert, stopped by shooting at it.
"The truck burned up. The driver jumped out and ran, got into the back of the pickup truck" following the fuel truck from 200 yards back. "We perceived that to be a smuggler episode, because normally vehicles that move in the desert at night are smugglers.
Beckwith said: "I was not excited. We were prepared to deal with it." (Pentagon sources said the Iranian passengers would have been flown out of the country until the rescue mission has been completed.)
Beckwith next heard that two choppers were down somewhere between the Nimitz aircraft carrier, where they were launched in the Gulf of Oman, and Desert One. "But from rehearsals I know that choppers have gone down . . . They can fix it and keep going. That didn't upset me . . .
"The helicopters were due into our location 1930 zulu time [midnight Iran time and 2:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time]. The helicopters didn't arrive at 1930. Sometimes they didn't arrive on time at rehearsals. I didn't get all upset over that. I said, 'let's give them some time.'
"And then 2000 arrived and I did begin to get a little nervous. They were 30 minutes late. I wondered where they were, I had to start thinking ahead of what we call drop-dead time."
The troopers had broken into "proper loads" by taking gear out of the six C130s. The gear was to go inside the eight helicopters, which, after being refueled at Desert One, were to fly another 200 miles that first night to a mountain hideway outside Tehran.
At 2015 the first helicopter came in, followed shortly by four others. "I made no effort to load these helicopeters at this time because, and this is very, very important, because in the development of this plan we felt very, very strong, including myself, that without the necessary wherewithal to continue to move forward there would have to be an abort . . .
"The rule here was that if we didn't have six helicopters that were flyable -- they had to be top dog, able to fly out of Desert One, before we'd go. . . .
"I'm already an hour late, and Beckwith gets paranoid because he likes the darkness, and I was beginning to sweat there. . . . I'm behind time. I want to get loaded as quick as I can, top off and get out. . . . Finally, at 2110 [1:40 a.m. in Iran and 4:40 p.m. in Washington] all six choppers are there. . . .
"I usually give a lot of people hell. My soldiers are on time and I expect all other people to be on time." Beckwith said he didn't appreciate the ordeal the helicopter pilots had endured on the way to Desert One as they ran into a severe sandstorm.
"I went up to the first chopper and started walking the line" to see if they were ready to take aboard the 90 troopers of Blue Light and their equipment. . . . When I came upon the third chopper in line, one of the pilots told me that one of the helicopters was not flyable . . . Therefore, we were down to five. . . .
"I went to get the Desert One site comander and said, 'I would like you to go over and see the skipper' [of the helicopters]. I want to go with you. Let's confirm this. I want to make sure.'
"So we did, and the site commander climbed into the chopper and confirmed the fact that there were only five flyable helicopters.
"He came out and told me that, and I said, 'Sir, my recommendation is that we abort.'
"The second thing I said was, 'Please tell me which aircraft you want to load on, the C130s.
"We talked there a few minutes, and said, "I'm going to call the task force commander [Army Maj. Gen. James B. Vaught] on the radio, which he did. . . .
"We had a whole new plan here. We had never practiced to abort; get on the C130s and abort," which required packing the 90 troops among the bladders of fuel.
"The only thing on my mind was, 'We've failed, and I've got to get my soldiers out of here . . .' We didn't stop and talk. Everybody was on the double, unloading the helicopters, dragging everything we could find, taking people up to start loading them on C130s.
"Some of the people couldn't load on the 130s because refueling was going on . . . My watch is ticking and I'm getting worried at getting caught in the desert in Iran at first light. And I don't like that. . . .
"There were people scattered all over the area." Beckwith boarded a C130 that he feared might take off too early, so he went to the pilot. "I grabbed his arm said, 'Please don't leave.' He said, 'Sir, I'm not going anywhere.'
"I sat there about two minutes. I looked out to my left and a 130 all of a sudden exploded. It was one hell of a fire. On that 130 there were 25 to 40 of my people and some Air Force crew men. . .
"The munitions went off. The heat from the aircraft forced the helicopter pilots out of their cockpits, foiling the original plan to fly the choppers away from Desert One after the abort decision was made.
"It was a pure and simple accident . . . Four people went in and brought out two of the crew."
Why were the eight bodies left in the C130?
Beckwith replied: "Well, you've never seen a C130 on fire. I don't think you're going to get in there and get anybody out. It's a damn shame, but you can't help that. . . ."
Beckwith said he made sure he left none of his men or their equipment at Desert One, then he climbed into a C130 and left Iran. He said he was not responsible for destroying secret gear on the helicopters left behind.
Did Beckwith think the rescue mission could have succeeded?
"I wouldn't have gone in," the colonel said, "if I didn't think it would have worked."