Special Forces Safeguard a President
Last week began the story about one of our neighbors, Doug Abernethy, who as a young man and a member of the first U.S. Special Forces, had the duty of guarding President Eisenhower on his “Flight of Peace” goodwill trip to the Mideast in December, 1959. President Eisenhower was resting in his Tehran third floor hotel room when all hell broke loose. A group of about fifty armed Iranian militants came charging up the hotel stairs with the intention to kill the U.S. President. On their way up, however, these militants found themselves pinned in the stairwell between a platoon of sixteen Special Forces warriors following them up from below and another platoon of sixteen warriors waiting for them above.
This scene required the use of close combat weapons of knives and small arms as the U.S. men below the militants could not risk firing ahead as they might hit their fellow soldiers above, so they went at the militants with only their knives. Meanwhile, Doug Abernethy with the upstairs platoon moved down the stairs firing their .45 mm automatics to intercept the militants storming up the stairs toward Eisenhower’s room. Doug recalls firing at least 36 rounds at a range as close as twenty feet. The battle was over in five minutes with many militants dead, several wounded, and a handful disarmed and made prisoners.
Fifteen minutes later the stairwell was completely cleared as soldiers from the Iranian military stationed just outside the hotel arrived within minutes. After the Iranians interrogated the U.S. soldiers and they were satisfied with the U.S. account, the Iranians quickly removed the wounded and captured militants in one truck and loaded the several dead in another. The two platoons of the Special Forces suffered no serious casualties as their training and their grit paid off. This was Doug’s first mortal combat experience and its memory still remains very fresh in his mind today.
Before departing the hotel for the important peace luncheon with the Shah and his people, President Eisenhower thanked the Special Forces men for their heroic actions. After the two Special Forces platoons covered the first three blocks of the President’s journey to the palace, they immediately deployed to the Tehran airport for a quick departure. Along the way they were pelted by rocks thrown by some angry Iranian citizens illustrating the true measure of how most Iranians regarded the U.S. at that time because of the U.S.’s role in putting the despised Shah into power a few years earlier.
This attempted assault on President Eisenhower was never revealed either by the U.S. or the Iranians – for some very good reasons. The already unpopular Americans did not want it known that they had brought along – without permission and notification – 32 armed soldiers with the Eisenhower party, and even more so – that these men had put some fifty Iranian citizens out of action, which if known, would have further inflamed the Iranian public. The Iranian leaders, already hated by the vast majority of its citizens, did not want it known that they had a role in cleaning up the mess. Interestingly, the smoldering hatred of the U.S. by the Iranian people at that time continues as fervent today as it was then, some fifty-five years ago.
Doug, with the two Special Forces platoons, returned to the base in Bahrain for seven days of rest and reflection before moving on to their next assignments. After the adrenalin and excitement of the stairwell battle had faded away, the men had to work through difficult emotions that surfaced following their bloody encounter. This processing is always a challenge for soldiers as killing another human being often takes a toll on their spirit and psyche. These emotions must be resolved so the men can do what it takes when another combat assignment falls on them.
P.S. Doug related that the Special Forces admired President Eisenhowever for his bravery throughout his “Flight of Peace” tour as the President was quite aware of the dangers awaiting him at every stop. Two months later President Eisenhower bestowed a Presidential Citation on the two Special Forces platoons who guarded him so well.
Next Week: More of Doug Abernethy’s adventures with his Special Forces platoon.