1980 Operation Eagel Claw Commander, Lieutenant General James Vaught, Dies at 86.

Lieutenant General James Vaught was the commander of the 1980 mission to free more than 50 Americans who were held by the Iranians. The General was found dead in a pond near his home in Conway, South Carolina. Coroner Robert Edge stated to the Associated Press that there was signs of cardiac disease when the autopsy was performed. Vaught was 86 years old.

General Vaught fought in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and was a proud member of the Army’s commando-style Ranger school. Vaught was appointed to lead an intricate and complicated operation set to free the hostages that were held by Islamic militants who ambushed the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, the nytimes reports.

Nearly 90 commandos and marines were brought to the rendezvous point during the night in an Iranian desert. Naval helicopters were to carry Delta Force troops to a location closer to Tehran, and then the men would be secretly transported by truck to the Iranian capital. They were to rescue the hostages from the Embassy and bring them outside of Iran via the helicopters.

Lieutenant General James Vaught circa 1983.
Lieutenant General James Vaught circa 1983.

The mission was dubbed Operation Eagle Claw and was in the planning stages for months. The mission had been approved by President Carter.

Unfortunately fate did not work in the company’s favor. Due to mechanical and communication mishaps, and a sand storm rendering three of the eight helicopters immobile, the commandos weren’t able to carry out the plan because President Carter called the mission off. As the helicopters were preparing to return to base, one of the choppers crashed into a parked Air Force plane which caused an explosion that killed eight service men.

In a report issued by the Pentagon commission, the numerous problems that the company encountered while trying to execute the mission. One of the complications was listed as a failure to properly communicate between the branches of service. General Vaught was not to blame, nor were the lower ranking commanders. President Carter took responsibility for the failed mission.

444 days after the hostages were taken, they were finally rescued when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.

Col. James Vaught presenting awards after Lam Son 719 to Vietnamese Paratroopers.
Col. James Vaught presenting awards after Lam Son 719 to Vietnamese Paratroopers.

In 2005. General Vaught had an interview with Newsday. During this interview, he mentioned that he wanted to inspect the Naval helicopters while they were being readied for the mission. His request was denied by the Join Chiefs.

“I was told it was the Navy’s job, and it was perfectly capable of preparing and repairing them,” he said. “I had no authority except over the Army guys.”

Before retiring from the military in 1983, Vaught held a post as a senior administrator in the Pentagon. After the failed rescue mission, he was promoted to Lieutenant General. He then served as the commander for American and Korean troops stationed in South Korea. Upon announcing General Vaught’s promotion, General Meyer praised Vaught by stating, “[He] a very confident, very capable general who has been a superb troop leader.”

On the 25th anniversary of the cancelled rescue mission, General Vaught told the Washington Post that he had been devastated and felt that he had “let the country down and left the hostages there.”

He is survived by his wife, Florence; his daughter, Cathryn Vaught; his sons James Jr. and Stephen; a brother, John; a sister, Vina Floyd; his stepdaughters Marian Davis and Lee Glasgow Watson; four grandchildren, three stepgrandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Lieutenant General James. B. Vaught
Lieutenant General James. B. Vaught

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE