James Vaught: Soldier who led the abortive rescue of the Tehran hostages

Click to follow
The Independent Online

James Vaught was a lieutenant general in the US Army, best known for leading an unsuccessful attempt to rescue 53 American hostages held in Iran in 1980. In November 1979, soon after Iranian militants had seized the American embassy in Tehran, Vaught began planning a military operation to rescue the hostages. The rescue attempt became a defining moment of the presidency of Jimmy Carter and the fate of the hostages loomed over the public imagination throughout the 1980 presidential campaign.

Vaught, then the Army's director of operations and mobilisation, was the chief planner of Operation Eagle Claw, which required the co-ordination of Navy helicopters, Marine Corps pilots, Air Force transport planes and Army commandos. It was one of the first engagements of the elite Army unit, Delta Force. The operation began on 24 April 1980, when eight Navy helicopters took off from the USS Nimitz, anaircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Vaught directed from a base in Egypt, with telephone links to Defence Secretary Harold Brown and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Obstacles included a communications black-out among the helicopters and a dust storm in the Iranian desert that caused one helicopter toreturn to the Nimitz. Two other helicopters encountered mechanical problems, leaving five capable of flying to Tehran. Vaught recommended that the operation be called off, and Carter agreed. Soon afterwards, the rotor blades of a helicopter refuelling at a staging area in Iran struck a transport plane, killing eight servicemen. The wreckage was left in the desert, along with secret information aboard the aircraft.

Military observers considered Operation Eagle Claw a colossal failure, and investigations were launched. A review by a military panel cited poor communications and faulted the Joint Chiefs of Staff for not subjecting Vaught's plan to a critical analysis. Vaught later said he was hampered by turf battles among the military branches. The botched rescue effort was one of the lowest points of Carter's presidency and became an issue in the 1980 presidential election, which Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. One hostage was released because of illness in July 1980. The other 52 were freed on 20 January 1981, the day Reagan took office.

Vaught came to view the rescue effort as a "successful failure" as it exposed flaws in military planning and led to reforms. He worked as an adviser to military agencies and contractors on night-vision equipment and other ways of making special forces more effective. He also recommended the creation of the combined US Special Operations Command.

He was born in 1926 in Conway, where his family had settled in 1683. He said he was a direct descendant of Francis Marion, a Revolutionary War general known as the "Swamp Fox" whose hit-and-run tactics made him an innovator in guerrilla warfare. Vaught attended The Citadel military academy in Charleston before joining the Army in the Second World War. He served in Germany as part of the postwar occupation forces and commanded an infantry unit during the Korean War. In the 1960s he received a master's degree in business administration from George Washington University.

In 1967 he began his first tour of duty in Vietnam and in February 1968 he took command of a cavalry battalion that had a major role in capturing key positions in Hue and Khe Sanh. He received two Silver Stars in Vietnam and was injured in a military vehicle accident in 1968 but, despite broken bones in his back he rescued the driver. His final command was in Korea, where he led US and Korean forces before retiring as a three-star general in 1983.

At a ceremony honouring the returned hostages in 1981, Vaught said the rescue mission was "a very best effort by a group of brave, courageous Americans of which we can all be proud. No matter how hard one may try, just the slightest miscalculation or unfortunate circumstance can unconnect it all, and it will all go to hell in a handbasket and no one can stop it."

Vaught drowned after falling into a pond from a boat.

James Vaught, soldier: born Conway, South Carolina 3 November 1926; married firstly Aimee Beers (marriage dissolved; one daughter, two sons), secondly Winifred Johnson (died 1995), 1996 Florence Glasgow (two stepdaughters); died Conway 20 September 2013.