Iran. Valentine’s Day, 1979.
Kenneth Kraus, a 22-year-old Marine on a security tour, was returning to the U.S. Embassy from breakfast. The shah, propped up by the Americans, had fled a month earlier. The long-exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was back.
“There was a sense in the air that something was coming down,” Kraus said.
At 10:28 a.m., it did.
“A bunch of fires and weapons started going off,” Kraus said. “At first, just rifles and pistols, and then you could hear automatic-weapons fire. And then sustained automatic-weapons fire.”
Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
The embassy was under attack by militants, but it’s not the siege the world remembers.
That one came nine months later, when 66 Americans were taken hostage at the embassy; 52 of them were held for 444 days. The episode has cast a pall on diplomatic relations with Iran ever since, including the nuclear agreement from which President Trump just withdrew.
Among the supporters of Trump’s controversial decision is Kraus.
“How can you trust these people?” he demanded.
Before the world witnessed Iran’s repressive government during the hostage crisis, Kraus experienced it firsthand.
That February day in 1979, in an attack that appears on few timelines of Iran-U. S. relations, Kraus was shot, taken captive and tortured, then sentenced to death by a kangaroo court.
“How the hell am I still here?” he wondered this week. “There’s no friggin’ way I should be alive.”
Well, he is, though not without scars — both physical and mental. Now 60 years old, Kraus is a retired police detective in Roswell, Ga. Though still a Marine to the core, Kraus can swear like a sailor, and he tells stories from his eight brutal days in captivity with equal parts sadness and gallows humor.
Like the time he was beaten for putting two hands in the rice bowl, which accompanied a protein portion that, as he put it, “looked like horsemeat boiled in axle grease.” Tired, hungry and desperate, Kraus didn’t realize that, in Iran, one hand was used for eating, the other for wiping one’s rear.
“When I tried to use both hands, I got the [expletive] knocked out of me,” he said. “And rightfully so. I wouldn’t want anyone sticking his hand in my food bowl that he’s used to clean his [expletive].”
Kraus grew up in Pennsylvania, not far from New Jersey. He joined the Marines in 1975 as an air traffic controller, then reenlisted and moved to embassy duty. His first assignment was in Cyprus, but when an opportunity came up in Iran, Kraus jumped at it.
“I’m a history buff and Iran is ancient Persia, so I figure, ‘Cool, I’m going to Tehran. Great,'” he said.
Kraus arrived in a suit and tie. He was quickly ordered to change into a flak jacket. Someone handed him a helmet.
“This [expletive] just got real,” he said.
In the weeks before the first attack, Kraus and the other Marines were briefed on increasing threats from guerrillas and other radicals. Meanwhile, he served as a bodyguard and manned entrances. But there were only about a dozen Marines working in security, and when the siege began, they were vastly outmanned and outgunned.
Kraus and others tried to hold their positions in the embassy restaurant. At one point, Kraus spotted one of the radicals outside a window, and he leveled a shotgun near his head.
“Don’t move,” he said. “I was prepared to blow his brains out.”
They tried to work things out. The conversation did not go well.
The radical wanted everyone to surrender — military and civilians.
“No way,” he told him. “That’s not going to happen. No way. I don’t know what this whole [expletive] battle is about, but we are not surrendering.”
The rebel’s reply: “Well, then everyone is gonna die.”
“Not before you do,” Kraus shot back.
Seeing that there was an impasse, Kraus made an offer: He and the other Marines would surrender and turn over their equipment if the noncombatants were released. It worked. After the civilians got out, Kraus and the others collected their equipment — pistols, shotguns, radios — but instead of handing them over, they destroyed them. Kraus hid ammunition in pistachio ice cream.
The radicals were not pleased.
“‘This is why we hate you Americans,'” Kraus remembers one saying. “‘You never keep your word.’”
So Kraus replied, “You know, I didn’t tell you what God dang condition it would be in, a——.”
For that comment, he earned a beating.
Things escalated, someone started shooting, and Kraus was hit by shotgun pellets in his face and chest. He woke up in a makeshift hospital, handcuffed to the bed. He was blindfolded, dragged outside and taken to a prison where he wound up in a dungeon-like room, where he was interrogated, beaten and tortured in ways too graphic to describe, except to say that what he endured was barbaric.
At one point, someone stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. It wasn’t loaded.
“You expect your brain is gonna be blown away,” Kraus said. “And then he laughs. You almost start to beg for the [expletive] bullet.”
After a week or so, Kraus was brought to an administrative area of the prison.
“I said, “Okay, what the [expletive] is up?'” he remembered. “And that’s when I had a 20-minute murder trial.”
Guilty, of course.
He was taken back to his cell. And when the guards came for him again, he thought they were taking him to his execution. Instead, he wound up in a room with the Red Cross. There was a window. “It was the first time I had seen light,” he said. And then an embassy official appeared in front of him.
“I thought it was a mirage,” Kraus said.
It was not a mirage. The U.S. government, behind the scenes, had been working for his release.
The embassy official looked at Kraus and said, “You’re alive.”
Kraus replied: “[Expletive], you’re alive.”
And then he began crying — in that moment, and as he told the story again almost 40 years later.
“He’s holding me like a son,” Kraus said. “And I’m just crying.”
Kraus got a hero’s welcome on his return to the United States. His family greeted him at the airport, his sisters and mother embracing him. He lifted his mother up, squeezing her even as all the hugging shot pain through his body.
“It was,” he said, “the best pain I could ever hope for in my life.”
For years, Kraus received letters in the mail, thanking him for his service. Christmas cards. Birthday cards.
“That’s what it was all about,” he said, tearing up. “Nothing can make you feel better than knowing you saved lives, that you did your job and you were appreciated.”
Kraus was awarded the Purple Heart and Navy Commendation Medal, which honors acts of heroism. But life wasn’t easy. There were the nightmares, the unexpected reminders, the divorces — all part of the book he hopes to publish about his life.
The letters and birthday cards don’t show up anymore.
“I still have them, though,” he said. “I’ve got a whole box of them.”
Read more Retropolis: