Flanked by myriad raffle prizes and an American flag, Kevin Hermening shared his experience during the Iran hostage crisis as he took the podium at the Jefferson County Republican Party’s fundraiser Friday evening at Jansen’s Banquet Hall in Fort Atkinson.
As the youngest American — then a 20-year-old U.S. Marine Corps sergeant — among 52 hostages held for 444 days between 1979 and 1981 at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, he told a somber, but moving story about hope and freedom.
Hermening is a financial advisor and school board president in Mosinee, and member of the executive committee of the Republican Party of Marathon County. He spoke to attendees who included Kevin Nicholson, volunteer president and CEO of No Better Friend, a Waukesha-based nonprofit working to bring new voices into the conservative movement, and state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who represents 11th Senate District.
Hermening listed with force and reverence the names of eight men: Major Richard L. Bakke, Major Harold L. Lewis Jr., Capt. Lyn D. McIntosh, Capt. Charles T. McMillan, Tech. Sgt. Joel C. Mayo, Staff Sgt. Dewey Johnson, Sgt. John D. Harvey and Cpl. George Holmes Jr.
Each name exploded into the dining room like a gun volley. These were the heroes, he said, of Operation Eagle Claw, a 118-man rescue mission that was aborted, ending tragically on April 24,1980, with the deaths of the eight soldiers named.
While Hermening’s story of capture began in 1979, events leading to his capture began circa 1953.
Tensions surrounding the Iran Hostage Crisis, according to historical accounts, began over control of Iran’s oil. British and American concerns maintained some control in the area, but in 1951, a newly-elected prime minister, Muhammad Mossadegh, announced plans to nationalize the country’s oil industry. American and British intelligence agencies devised a plan to install a leader more receptive to former policies. In 1953, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, a pro-Western dictator, who would become known to the world as the “Shah of Iran,” took control of the country, returning 80 percent of Iran’s oil reserves to American and British control. Many Iranians resented what was perceived as American intervention.
Discontent with the shah’s government facilitated a rise in power of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a cleric who began a revolutionary Islamist movement in the country. In July of 1979, revolutionists forced the disbanding of the shah’s government and the dictator fled the country.
On the other side of the world, Kevin Hermening, a native of Oak Creek, joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school with ambitions to see the world. He was posted in Japan for 14 months, where, one night while watching a movie on base, information about a Marine Security Guard program caught his attention.
“I saw a full-length poster of a bunch of Marines in dress blues uniform standing on the Great Wall of China, standing in front of the Taj Mahal, and underneath the Eiffel Tower, and it was an invitation to come to a meeting the following night to learn about this program … where you could serve in a diplomatic post, dine with ambassadors, travel the country and learn about all the mysterious things that go on … and as a young 20-year-old, 19-year-old at the time, I thought: ‘that’s amazing!’” Hermening told his Fort Atkinson audience.
After ending his tour in Japan, Hermening said, he returned home to the states and began training in the program. His bclass of 179 Marines was the first open to women, he said. Training involved instruction with the Marines, State Department, FBI and with weapons. By the end of the program, 121 had completed their training.
After training, Hermening said, he received orders to go to the U.S. Embassy in Germany.
“I had thoughts and dreams of enjoying Octoberfest and driving at 120 miles an hour on the Autobahn, and skiing the Alps on weekends,” Hermening recalled.
But the assignment was not to be. His sergeant major told him there was a mixup, and he instead would be assigned to Iran. At the time, Hermening didn’t even know where the country was.
Some research on a microfiche in the base library availed him of a few bits of knowledge, he said.
“I looked for articles about Iran in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and I learned about this guy called The Shah of Iran who had recently been deposed, and was in exile, in Panama. And then I learned about this big, bearded guy with this big turban on his head, and it was the Ayatollah Khomeini, and I learned that there had been a revolution,” he said.
With youthful vigor, hhe imagined a new adventure, saying to himself, “Certainly, it’s got to be somewhat exciting to go into the midst of a revolution.”
His plane arrived in country in the middle of the night. A two-mile drive from the airport to the embassy took three hours, Hermening said.
“We got stopped by the Mujahedin; our van was searched. This was not just a regular Marine van by the way; this van weighed about 40,000 pounds. It couldn’t go very fast,” he said, adding that the vehicle was lined with steel and had obvious scars from bullets.
His tour was meant to last six months, he said.
Hermening said he spent the next three months at the embassy learning the culture and to speak Farsi.
Then, he said, the protests began. Embassy personnel were working 95-hours weeks and were on constant standby and recall. He described rocket-propelled grenade attacks on the embassy. Personnel stayed inside its walls.
He described the embassy as a 29-acre compound with some 2,000 Americans working inside.
It was large and populated, he said, “because just one year earlier when the shah was still in power, and the relationship between the United States and the Shah was so positive and had lasted for 26 years, Iran was our best ally in the Middle East.
“The reason the protests and demonstrations began about two weeks before we were captured is the Shah of Iran was admitted into the United States for medical treatment,” he added. “He flew in from Panama. The Iranians and the ayatollah, they believed that it was actually a plan to have a coup and replace the ayatollah with the shah, but in fact, the shah was dying of cancer.”
He died eight months after the hostages were taken, Hermening said.
As the protests heated up, area clerics would bus protesters into Tehran and provide food, stages and access to media coverage.
On Nov. 4, 1979, he said, a daily demonstration outside the embassy turned hostile as Iranians stormed the walls. They captured 12 Marines in their apartments near the back gate, but Hermening wasn’t among them, he said, because he had gone to the embassy early that morning to make plans for the Marine Corps birthday ball, which was to be celebrated Nov. 10.
Holding up a photo of several blindfolded hostages shared with him by a journalist only two years ago, Hermening said he was the guy facing the wall.
While the Iranians took over the embassy, he and nine others had retreated to a communications vault where they had locked themselves in and were destroying sensitive material. A closed-circuit camera made them aware that a group of 40 Iranians had captured a member of embassy personnel and were threatening to kill him. A decision was made to open the door. Hermening said he was the second to the last in his group to be taken hostage.
In the days and weeks that followed, the hostages were subjected to such tactics as Russian roulette, and spending hours and weeks often blindfolded and handcuffed, Hermening said.
One hostage was beaten with rubber hoses so severely around his face that three teeth were “busted off right at the gum line,” he recalled, adding that no dental treatment was made available until they were rescued.
Two spent 425 days in solitary confinement, he said.
“It was tough for me spending 43 days in solitary confinement after a failed escape attempt,” Hermening said.
After a few months, he said, things began to relax.
Eventually, as captives, they were able to play cards, as well as write and receive letters, although they were highly edited, he said.
Among things that sustained him, he said, was his friendship with fellow captive Bill Keough, a high school administrator who had been sent to Tehran to pick up records from a then-shuttered Tehran-American high school. He came to collect them on the day of the attack and was among the first non-Marines captured, Hermening said. He died of ALS two years after they were rescued, he said.
Operation Eagle Claw
In April of 1980, Hermening was being awakened in the middle of the night, blindfolded and handcuffed and loaded into a van with a fellow hostage. They were driven to an isolated village in northeastern Iran near the Soviet/Afghanistan border. Other hostages were dispersed to various locations, he said, and at the time, none knew why that was happening.
On April 25, 1980, the American military was embarking upon Operation Eagle Claw. Some 200 miles south of Tehran, a location designated “Desert One” was a staging area and fueling point from which troops aboard five helicopters and four C130 transport planes would execute their mission to retrieve the hostages.
Fuel at the location was an essential component so the helicopters could refuel as they traveled between Tehran and Desert One, and the USS Nimitz, which previously had been dispatched to the Indian Ocean.
Hermening said two of the helicopters needed for the mission never reached Desert One, mechanical failure and a sandstorm having prevented their arrival. One of the helicopters that did arrive in the desert was found to be inoperable, he said, and therefore, a decision was made from the ground to call off the mission.
As the helicopters engaged in a retreat process, a pilot became disoriented after his ability to see the ground was obscured by a sandstorm and “rotor wash,” Hermening said. His rotor blade tipped, slashing through the fuel tank of one of the C130s sitting on the desert floor.
The ensuing explosion was visible for 20 miles.
The bodies of the eight men whom he had earlier named were left behind and found the next day by the Iranian military, Hermening said. The dead were taken to Tehran and dismembered.
The remains eventually were shipped back to the U.S., he said, and three of the soldiers were buried in a common grave. A memorial to the fallen of Eagle Claw has been built at Arlington National Cemetery.
Since his return
The hostages were released into the custody of U.S. personnel after President Ronald Reagan completed his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1981.
In the years since his release, Hermening said, he has been in contact with some of his fellow captives and their families. Many are no longer living, however.
About half of the American hostages have passed, and two took their own lives. Of the hostage group, about half were military, half worked with the State Department, one was a businessman and Keough was a high school administrator, he said.
In 1981, Hermening said, he traveled across Wisconsin, speaking to students at some 432 public high schools, telling them “a variation of this story that I’m (sharing) with you tonight.”
He is grateful for the activity, he said, calling it “cathartic.”
Hermening also has met servicemen and their families who were involved with the rescue attempt. Many bore a sense of failure that the mission did not succeed, and his message to them: the attempt gave the hostages hope. In that, it greatly succeeded.
After gaining their freedom, the hostages were flown to Stewart Air National Guard Base, near West Point, where they shared several days of private time with family.
Upon his arrival to the airbase, Hermening said, he knelt down and kissed the tarmac.
“I’ll never forget coming back to freedom,” he said.