"We're going to attract as little attention as possible," the Army sergeant warned the group of 83 Rangers standing before him in the pre-dawn darkness of April 22, 1980.
The Rangers knew they were at last leaving their base in Savannah, Ga., to execute their part in the complex effort to rescue American hostages in Tehran, an operation they had been practicing in America's back country for months under tightest secrecy.
With creaking rucksacks the loudest sound, the Rangers marched wordlessly and briskly from their barracks at Hunter Army Airfield to the strip where a C141 jet transport was waiting to fly them to the other side of the world.
The windows of the C141 were covered with paper and tape to keep the Rangers from knowing where they were going. But the troopers saw and heard enough to figure out that their first stop was New Jersey's McGuire Air Force Base; their second Ramstein, West Germany, and their last a stretch of desert in Egypt near Luxor.
Another group of troopers was going across the world with the same kind of stealth. They were part of the Blue Light elite group headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C., and now formed as a Delta team of about 90 under the command of Col. Charles A. (Chargin' Charlie) Beckwith.
Sources with firsthand knowledge about this secret odyssey said that about all the soldiers could see of Egypt when they arrived was a runway ringed by cement shelters for Egyptian warplanes. The shelters had roofs of natural stone to make them hard for combat aircraft pilots to see. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had agreed to let his friend, President Carter, use the remote base called Qena, north of the Aswan High Dam, as the launching pad for the most daring and difficult American rescue ever attempted.
The spearhead of this rescue force was to be the Delta team of Green Berets and other stealth warfare specialists from Fort Bragg. Many Delta troopers and the Rangers from Savannah found themselves sleeping side-by-side on cots spread across the floor of the No. 13 shelter at the base. They came to call it Bunker 13.
The Rangers from Georgia could tell they were with Beckwith's outfit without asking. Delta troopers wore their hair long in case they had to blend in with civilian populations. They dressed in civilian clothes for the same reason. The Delta men did not look as fearsome as their reputation as they sweated out the "move out" order in Bunker 13. Dressed in shorts for the desert heat, they read paperbacks or slept on the cots most of the day. Waiting. War is waiting. Hurry up and wait.
Although they were forbidden to stray far from their bunker, soldiers poked around Qena enough to spot some of the war machines flown 10,000 miles to help make Operation Rice Bowl (one code name for the hostage rescue operation) a success.
Of special interest to the troopers were the C130 transports rigged up as Specter gunships. One was to ride shotgun over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran while the hostages were being rescued by the Delta team. The other gunship was to watch Tehran's international airport and blast any Iranian warplane that tried to take off during the operation.
The Specters had an innocent beginning. An Air Force Reserve officer had noticed a light plane flying counterclockwise over a native village while lowering a bucket of mail to the ground on a long rope from the left side of the cockpit. The pail remained almost still as the plane circled.
The officer reasoned that a military plane circling the same way would enable gunners to lay down accurate fire on the ground. In this instance, the military bureaucracy took a novel idea and ran with it. The circling gunship was developed, tested and used with terrifying effectiveness in Vietnam. The C130 gunships at Qena had both machine guns and cannon.
Other C130s at the Egyptian base were to carry troops and fuel. They were rigged for midair refueling to extend range. Six C130s were to carry Beckwith and his troopers from Egypt to Iran the long way: south out of Egypt over the Red Sea; northeast along Saudi Arabia's coast, turning over the Gulf of Oman to land at the Omani island base of Masira on the Persian Gulf, directly across from Iran.
The Sultan of Oman would insist he knew nothing about use of his territory by the Americans.
The day before launch, tensions mounted in Bunker 13. Reading and sleeping gave way to cleaning rifles; sharpening knives; checking gear lashed to jeeps, including motorcyles; watching comings and goings of high-ranking officers, including Army Maj. Gen. James Vaught, task force commander.
The teams were read their operation orders; the men were given plastic maps showing where they were going; officers gave the "E and E" lectures: how to escape and evade the enemy if things went wrong.
If stranded anywhere near Tehran, the officers told the men, head north for Turkey under the cover of darkness. Don't try to reach American ships plying the Persian Gulf. That's too long a hike. Hide during the day.
Approach elderly men at twilight, not women, if you need help. Trade bullets for favors, but hold onto one weapon. Use it as a bribe if necessary to get across the Turkish border.
American spy satellites would be looking down on Iran during the mission, the soldiers were told. To help them spot you, make a big American letter with brush or stones that would show up in satellite photographs.
Arrange the letter one way to show the photo-interpreters which direction you are traveling; another way if you are holed up. We will try to send in a C130 to pick you up. Here is the space it needs to land and take off.
Briefings over, the Delta troopers made a discreet, even polite, departure from Bunker 13 in daylight. They even folded their cots. Several Rangers smiled as they noticed the guns and ammunition bulging out the civilian suits, overcoats and jeans of the long-haired Delta troopers.
"Good luck," a Ranger whispered to one of Beckwith's men as they shared their secret for a moment in the heat of Bunker 13. The Delta trooper winked back and bequeathed this new buddy a paperback novel.
The Delta team left for their night rendezvous with eight helicopters from the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, landing on the Iranian desert near Tabas. The Rangers still in Bunker 13 waited impatiently for their call to action. One of the Rangers' jobs was to fly to an Iranian air field at Manzariyeh, 62 miles southwest of Tehran, and ready it to receive hostages, Delta troopers and prisoners.
Ranger jeeps in the transport planes would have engines running before landing. They would race out the plane's rear cargo door carrying four Rangers armed with machine guns and antitank weapons. The jeeps would block roads leading to the airfield. Other Rangers would rush the buildings at Manzariyeh, killing or capturing any guards.
Other troopers would arrange infrared lights and set up communications to guide the helicopters into the captured field. Two C141 hospital planes were to be standing by at Manzariyeh to carry out any wounded or dead. Each had a surgeon aboard to operate while airborne.
The biggest known Iranian military threat at Manzariyeh were 12 Iranian Army tanks, British-built Chieftains, 15 miles away. There was also a chance Iranian F4 fighter-bombers might swing into action. The antitank missile team was to take care of the Chieftains; Rangers armed with heat-seeking Redeye antiaircraft missiles the F4s.
Two motorcycles were going along in case communications broke down and they had to link officers and teams of four to 12 Rangers hitting objectives at Manzariyeh.
But, the rescue mission was aborted on Beckwith's recommendation at Desert One because only five of the eight helicopters were available for the next leg of the mission to the mountain hideout. The plan called for having at least six choppers.
When the Rangers waiting at Bunker 13 to take off for Iran got the word that the mission had been called off, they could not believe it. The tenseness of anticipation turned to anger. The mood was sullen as they were flown back to Savannah with orders to act as though nothing unusual had happened.
The White House and Pentagon thought perhaps a second raid was possible. New plans were drafted, including sending elements of the 82nd Airborne Division directly into Tehran airport and jumping off to the embassy from there while commandos moved at night from the opposite direction.
But the troopers who had gone on the raid realized their moment had passed into history and there was nothing anybody could do about it.