Beckwith, Charlie A(lvin) 1929-1994

views updated

BECKWITH, Charlie A(lvin) 1929-1994

PERSONAL: Born 1929; died June 13, 1994, in Austin, TX; married; wife's name, Katherine; children: three daughters. Education: Graduated from University of Georgia.

CAREER: S.A.S. of Texas, Ltd., Dallas, founder and president, 1981-94; lecturer on military issues. Military service: U.S. Army, 1952-81, retired as a lieutenant colonel; served in Korea and Vietnam; member of Special Forces (Green Berets); battalion commander of 101st Airborne Division; founder and head of Delta Force (counter-terrorist unit), 1977-80.


(With Donald Knox) Delta Force: The U.S. Counter-Terrorist Unit and the Iran Hostage Rescue Mission, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA), 1983, published as Delta Force: The Army's Elite Counterterrorist Unit, Dell (New York, NY), 1985.

SIDELIGHTS: "The biggest failure of my life," is how Charlie A. Beckwith described the failed attempt of the U.S. Army's Special Forces to rescue fifty-two hostages held by terrorists at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1980. Bad weather and equipment failure led to the death of eight soldiers more than two hundred miles short of their target location in Operation Eagle Claw, as the mission to rescue the hostages was called. It was the low point in Beckwith's otherwise distinguished military career in which he served as a Green Beret during Vietnam and founded the U.S. Army's Delta Force counter-terrorist force.

Beckwith wrote about the hostage rescue disaster in Delta Force: The U.S. Counter-Terrorist Unit and the Iran Hostage Rescue Mission. In the book, Beckwith explains the careful planning involved in the mission, which was a joint effort involving several military branches. A mock-up of the U.S. embassy in Tehran was constructed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and was used by the troops to simulate all possible rescue scenarios. The mission's planned helicopter landing on Iranian soil was rehearsed in the Arizona desert. Delta Force was given six months and one hundred men to plan the mission following the takeover of the embassy by Muslim extremists in November of 1979. The force, which Beckwith helped create following his training with Britain's Special Air Service Regiment, had been in existence for less than two years, and this was its first significant mission. But a series of snafus, including the failure of two helicopters to arrive at the remote Iranian airstrip, the engine failure of another, and the absence of a clear chain of command, led Beckwith to abort the mission when he realized the errors would cost the lives of at least twenty servicemen. It was after Beckwith's abort order that one of the helicopters crashed into a transport plane, resulting in the deaths of eight servicemen. The fiasco dashed the Carter administration's hopes for a quick resolution to the hostage crisis and was a major factor in Carter's defeat to Ronald Reagan in that fall's presidential election.

Gladwin Hill of the Los Angeles Times Book Review wrote of Delta Force that though "the story is now fairly familiar … Beckwith, as the key participant, gives it important new perspective." Hill also comments that though the failure of the mission may seem custom-made for blaming others, Beckwith "tactfully and deftly lets facts speak for themselves in a moment-by-moment narrative more exciting than derring-do fiction." Richard Harwood of the Washington PostBook World explained that although the Special Forces were created for missions like the hostage rescue, by 1979 it "was essentially an isolated little unit playing games in the woods, a lost handful in the vast American military bureaucracy," that was forced to rely heavily on other forces for basic maneuvers such as getting from point A to point B. Harwood noted that the book fails to answer the question of whether or not the plan to rescue the hostages was reasonable or foolish to begin with, but stated that Delta Force is a "crisp and unpretentious account of the life and times of Col. Charlie Beckwith."

Beckwith grew up in Georgia and played football with the Georgia Bulldogs at the University of Georgia in the early 1950s. He was good enough to be drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1952, but he turned down the offer in order to accept a commissioned position in the Army through the R.O.T.C. He saw action in Korea and in the early days of Vietnam, where he was tapped to lead the Delta Project, a secret contingent of Indochinese mercenaries supported by the C.I.A. The force rescued Green Berets held by the Viet Cong at the town of Plei Me. Later, Beckwith was seriously wounded while directing a rescue mission at Bong Son and then promoted to lieutenant colonel. He returned to Vietnam as the battalion commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Following Vietnam, Beckwith observed Britain's Special Air Service Regiment and lobbied the U.S. Army to initiate a similar program, which became Delta Force. After his retirement in 1981, following the hostage rescue mission, Beckwith formed a corporate security company in Texas that focused on sabotage and anti-terrorist measures.



Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 13, 1983, Gladwin Hill, "Primed and Poised but Too Little, Too Late," pp. 2, 12.

Newsweek, February 23, 1981, "Beckwith: A Call for True Grit," p. 12.

New York Review of Books, December 22, 1983, Murray Kempton, "The Good Soldier," p. 26.

New York Times, April 27, 1980, Charles Mohr, "Tough Chief of Rescue Troops"; July 29, 1981, Albin Krebs, "Green Beret Retiring," p. C24; November 3, 1983, William Safire, "Learning from Mistakes," p. A31.

People, August 31, 1981, Lelia Albrecht, "Iran Raid Commander Charlie Beckwith Quits the Army, but not the Fight," p. 25.

Publishers Weekly, September 23, 1983, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Delta Force: The U.S. Counter-Terrorist Unit and the Iran Hostage Rescue Mission, p. 65.

Wall Street Journal, November 9, 1983, Richard Grenier, review of Delta Force, p. 26.

Washington Post Book World, November 6, 1983, Richard Harwood, "Eagle Claw: Debacle in the Desert," p. 3.



New York Times, June 14, 1994, "Col. Charlie Beckwith, 65, Dies; Led Failed Rescue Effort in Iran," p. D20.

U.S. News & World Report, June 27, 1994, Joseph L. Galloway, "Charlie Beckwith Was Not the Average Bear," p. 20.*

About this article

Beckwith, Charlie A(lvin) 1929-1994

Updated About content Print Article