How Lt. Col. Paul Needham survived after the Iranian storming of the US Embassy

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Needham was among those taken hostage during the Nov 4, 1979 takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran Iran. The Iranian government under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had forcefully taken over the country and forced his predecessor Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi to resign and seek exile, stormed the Embassy owing to stringent diplomatic relations with the United States.

Their reason for storming the US embassy was because the United States had allowed the former president Mohammed Reza Shah into America to seek cancer treatment, and they wanted him back in Iran to face criminal charges.

Ayatollah Ruhollah had established an Islamic state the moment he took over the reins of power in Iran, and he accused Mohammed Shah of disrespecting the founding Islamic principles of the Nation by `bedding with the West’. When the United Sates refused hand over Shah, the government of Iran took it as an insult and stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking everyone hostage.

Later on 13 hostages would be released but unfortunately Lt. Col. Paul Needham was not among them. When the Iranians stormed into the Embassy, he was not willing to surrender and therefore he and nine others locked themselves in the vault. They started shredding all the important documents while in the vault and it was only after an order from the US ambassador that they opened the vault and surrendered to the Iranians. Because of their actions, they were treated as spies because they were in the company of the CIA Station Chief.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Needham [Via]

From Nov 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981 Paul Needham would be a prisoner of war and he faced the most turbulent times of his life during this time. Because of the spy suspicions, he and the other nine were vigorously interrogated and the only reason they stayed alive is the hope for a better tomorrow. He is quoted saying, “to stay sane, they had to look for the silliest things to laugh at sometimes, even something as simple as a cockroach.”

Feb. 4, 1980 is a day that Paul will never forget in his life; they were spread out against a wall and lined up for a firing squad. In between fear, resentment and uncontrollable shaking, he was able to recite Psalms 23 in his mind and he felt a weird feeling of calmness and stopped shaking. The Iranians fired a whole round in the sky and it is only then that they realized that it was a tactic to play around with their minds.

They faced such mind games until they were released and according to Paul, sometimes you felt so depressed unsure of whether your country had abandoned you. All this time Paul and his fellow captives did not know about a secret mission meant to save them which was signed off on April 24, 1980 and was called Operation Eagle Claw. The operation failed and became a huge embarrassment to the administration of President Jimmy Carter. It was only after Ronald Reagan took office that Lt. Col. Paul Needham and his colleagues would be released.

January 20, 1981 Paul and the 52 other hostages were blind folded and taken to board bus, which took them a nearby airport from where they were airlifted to Algeria. Afterwards they were taken to Rhein-Main Air Base, in Germany. It was only then that they realized they had been released, and it was the happiest day for Lt. Col. Paul Needham. The feeling of freedom after more than 1 year of being held captive was ecstatic, and the moon had never looked brighter in his life than at that moment.

The story of Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Needham and his colleagues inspired a film titled `Argo`.

Joris Nieuwint

Joris Nieuwint is a battlefield guide for the Operation Market Garden area. His primary focus is on the Allied operations from September 17th, 1944 onwards. Having lived in the Market Garden area for 25 years, he has been studying the events for nearly as long. He has a deep understanding of the history and a passion for sharing the stories of the men who are no longer with us.