3:55 | Delta Force and the Rangers had arrived at Desert One but the helicopters were delayed by a dust storm. Only five of them were deemed flyable when they got there and the mission requirements were for six. The mission was scrubbed until the next day and mission planner Keith Nightingale describes the tragic circumstances of the departure from the Iranian desert.
Keywords : Keith Nightingale Operation Eagle Claw Iran Hostage Crisis Desert One Iranian helicopter (chopper) Charles Beckwith James Kyle Jim Siefert James Vaught Delta Force Jim Schaefer
Every male in his family back through history served so it was preordained that Keith Nightingale would serve in the military. He got a commission out of ROTC and went through jump school and Ranger school. He headed to the 82nd Airborne but went on his first tour of Vietnam as an advisor to the South Vietnamese army.
It was a bad tent city at Xuan Loc. MACV advisor Keith Nightingale was assigned to an ARVN ranger battalion where the tents were leaky but the commander turned out to be a gem. Nguyen Hiep became a mentor and a friend. The Rangers were also the best troops the South had to offer, despite being composed of the outcasts of the country.
The Vietnamese Rangers had their families living with them at the camp. The conditions were squalid so MACV advisor Keith Nightingale decided to do something about it. He went scrounging at Long Binh.
On January 30, 1968, the Vietnamese Ranger battalion was alerted when a nearby provincial capital came under attack. Half the men were sent there right away and the other half prepared to follow. Then, another message came in. Stop, don't leave the camp. The VC are coming. It was the beginning of the Tet Offensive and American advisor Keith Nightingale dug in with the Rangers as the enemy nearly overwhelmed them. Part 1 of 3.
After nearly being overrun on the first night of the Tet Offensive, the Vietnamese Rangers, along with American advisor Keith Nightingale, rejoined the other half of their battalion which was battling the VC nearby. They were aided by some splendid Australians and some cocky VNAF pilots. Part 2 of 3.
American advisor Keith Nightingale got a lesson in urban warfare when the Viet Cong infiltrated into Saigon during the Tet Offensive. The fighting was brutal as he accompanied his attached unit, house by house, block by block. Part 3 of 3.
After his first tour of Vietnam, Keith Nightingale was assigned as an ROTC Instructor at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. The anti-war movement was heating up and he and the cadets had to endure the hateful taunts of protestors. As a result of the widespread protests, the Army as a whole became more insular and isolated from society.
They tried to assign him as a MACV advisor again for his 2nd tour of Vietnam but Keith Nightingale wasn't having it. He knocked on doors and networked until he got the job he wanted as commander of a rifle company. When he got back in country, he found a scene of utter devastation at his unit's base camp in the A Shau Valley. (Caution: strong language.)
A new company commander in combat has to prove himself to his men very quickly. Keith Nightingale faced this task when he arrived for his 2nd Vietnam tour. They got to know him and he was accepted. They may have been peaceniks and part time dopers but they turned out to be fine soldiers.
His NCO's were real good and had multiple tours. The officers in Keith Nightingale's company were another story. One lieutenant was fine but the other two were useless.
Lam Son 719 was a huge operation meant to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail by pushing into Laos. The ground forces were all Vietnamese with air support from the Americans. Keith Nightingale's company was responsible for security at the closest landing zone to the border and it became a scene of chaos as the operation turned into a rout.
Midway through his second tour, Keith Nightingale was moved from the field to division HQ where he became the G-2 operations officer. This meant that he was responsible for managing intelligence from the sensor program and developing targets for B-52 strikes. This was his first exposure to intelligence work and he liked it.
The rebuild of the 75th Ranger Regiment was underway at Fort Benning. Keith Nightingale was the headquarters company commander among other odd jobs. They were developing a new training regimen that was to be the finest anywhere. One important task was the creation of a Ranger Creed.
The decimation of the Army was complete. The leadership had punted in Vietnam and there was no support among most of the public. Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams decided to rebuild the Army around a reborn Ranger Battalion, which would be built from the ground up as the finest light infantry in the world. Keith Nightingale found out about this and made sure he was in on it.
Keith Nightingale remembers that, during the buildup of the new Ranger Battalion, the team researched units from the past including British commandos and Vikings to extract any useful training techniques. Live fire exercises and road marches became very important. In December of 1974, the new Rangers were ready.
When the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized the American embassy, the joint chiefs began looking for the means to rescue the hostages. It was decided to build a team around Delta Force, the elite special ops unit led by Charles Beckwith. General James Vaught was selected as the overall commander of the operation and on his staff was Keith Nightingale, who was then immersed in the urgent planning process. Part 1 of 4.
Unfortunately, human intelligence had been allowed to wither in favor of satellite technology. This meant that the CIA was little help to the joint task force planning the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran. Every means to extract the hostages was examined and a combination of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters was chosen. Keith Nightingale describes the deliberations that went into this. Pt 2 of 4.
No one could get Charles Beckwith to admit that Delta Force didn't have enough personnel to secure all the locations that would be needed for the rescue of the hostages in Iran. Keith Nightingale had to present three times the briefing that proved this. Finally, the Rangers were brought in to enhance the operation and training began in earnest. Part 3 of 4.
It had been a long and tortuous process for Keith Nightingale and the rest of the joint task force but Operation Eagle Claw was ready. All the moving parts were primed and all that needed was for President Carter to give the word to go. Pt 4 of 4.
After the tragic events at Desert One, planning began for another rescue mission. Parallel with this was the decision to create a permanent and robust special operations structure. Keith Nightingale was right in the middle of this difficult effort which involved all the services.
Keith Nightingale recalls the sometimes uncomfortable fallout from the aborted Iran hostage rescue attempt. There were congressional briefings to give, an investigation to face and a special operations structure to build up. This wasn't made any more pleasant by the conflicting personalities involved.
After a long stint with Joint Task Force Eagle Claw, Keith Nightingale left to command a battalion in the 82nd Airborne. This unit was called to be part of Operation Urgent Fury, the liberation of Grenada from a Communist takeover. Part 1 of 3.
Clowns in action. That's how Keith Nightingale describes the confusion and snafus during the initial Grenada operation. Most objectives were quickly achieved but there were some difficult battles, including one with a Cuban unit. When the Rangers got to the medical school where American students were waiting, they found out about a second campus with more students. Part 2 of 3.
In the aftermath of the Grenada invasion, peacekeeping forces from all around the Caribbean were assembled to help keep order. Keith Nightingale's battalion was spread all around the island involved in various missions and the locals in all these enclaves helped their liberators celebrate Thanksgiving. Part 3 of 4.
Keith Nightingale was heading up post-invasion operations in Grenada when he got a packet of good intelligence on the leaders of the coup there. This aided him in locating and capturing Hudson Austin, who had been behind the Communist takeover. Part 4 of 4.
With so many joint operations with other countries, Keith Nightingale believes it is more important than ever to be cognizant of their culture and mindset. This was not done in Vietnam and it contributed to the failure of that venture. As he looks back on his career, he salutes some of the leaders who helped him along the way.
Operation Eagle Claw was a pivotal moment in Special Operations history. Unconventional warfare had been ignored after the Vietnam War and three veterans of that conflict, who were also deeply involved with the attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, reveal the inside story of the planning and tragic outcome. George Ferkes, Roland Guidry and Keith Nightingale each offer a unique perspective on the events.