- Posted March 26, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Salute to troops
BMC Gerhard Klann, Story of Iran in 1979, published in The Blast - so has been declassified.
On November 4, 1979, more than 3,000 Iranian militant students attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking 66 American hostages. The United States tried negotiations, but was not having any success. As a result, we attempted a military operation, Desert ONE. This operation was a failure, one reason being that we had no human intelligence in Iran.
In May or June of 1980, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Gerhard Klann, a SEAL at Seal Team TWO, was approached by his Commanding Officer, who mentioned the possibility of an operation, but gave no specifics. A few days later, his Commanding Officer set up a meeting at the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters in Little Creek, with Gerhard, the Commanding Officer and three civilians, who turned out to be members of the CIA. The meeting was informal, with the three civilians asking Gerhard questions about his background and military experience. One of the men asked Gerhard if he spoke German, and then they spoke in German. It was not until Gerhard mentioned that he had taken the Case Officer Course at the U.S. Army Intelligence School in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, that they really became interested in him.
Gerhard was then scheduled for an interview in Maryland, along with three other SEALs and Special Forces. Three members of the CIA questioned Gerhard on the details of his personal background, mental state, military experience, education, family ties and German heritage. They went through a number of role playing scenarios, to observe his reactions. Then Klaus, the German speaking member of the CIA, decided to see how Gerhard would handle a stressful situation with the STASI, the East German Secret Police. Gerhard was to be an Austrian businessman going into East Germany, and being questioned as to his reason for going into East Germany. They went through the formalities, and the conversation became heated. All of a sudden, the agent pulled a 9mm pistol, put the muzzle between Gerhard’s eyes, and cocked the pistol. While Gerhard knew they were role playing, there was a pistol 2 inches from his head, and Gerhard did not know if it was loaded. At this point, he decided to take control of the situation. He swatted the pistol out of the agent’s hand, called him a number of derogatory names and berated him for his treatment of an important businessman with connections. While the other interviews lasted 30-40 minutes, Gerhard’s interview lasted more than two hours. Much centered on infil and extraction of a supposed location that would draw much worldwide attention, if the operation was blown or compromised.
His interview must have gone well, as he had a third and fourth interview at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. After clearing security, he was taken to a conference room and told to wait. Within a few minutes, an Army Major came in and introduced himself as a case officer. Case officers are given the dubious duty of running a spy or spies in a network anywhere in the world. Gerhard, himself, has been trained as a case officer, and was familiar with all facets of the inside world of espionage. Given the world situation and the Major’s comment, Gerhard was pretty sure he would be going to Iran. The Major discussed the operation; basically, conduct a reconnaissance into Teheran, to check the American Embassy and surrounding areas, posing as an Austrian businessman. The case officer finished the details and said he would give Gerhard some time to think it over. When Gerhard told him not to bother, that he would do it, the Major looked really surprised. Apparently, the Major hadn’t dealt with SEALs before. Later, Gerhard learned that the Major thought he had little chance of success.
The Major made a call, and then took Gerhard to the head of Mid-Eastern Affairs. He and Gerhard discussed the operation and Gerhard learned more details of the operation. The CIA had no one in Iran. All of their assets had been captured or blown, and with no friendly eyes and ears on the ground, all forms of communication with the captured Americans had come to a dramatic halt. The shock and horror of what had happened was being broadcast worldwide on TV and radio, sending a wave of disbelief throughout America and the free world. The calls for action came from all corners of the globe, and especially America, where citizens were likely thinking, “America has clearly been violated and the perpetrators must be held accountable for their despicable act upon our country!” A grand plan was made to rescue the hostages and every rank-seeking officer wanted a piece of the action. During the planning stage of “Desert One,” Gerhard was in Stuttgart, at Army HQ, and had overheard a Colonel asking a Major if he wanted him to bring him home some sand. He put two and two together and knew the objective was Teheran. The rest is history, his is not! After the total disaster of Desert One and loss of life and aircraft, the Pentagon was in a quagmire. The “Big Heads” decided to get someone in country to truly assess the situation so that another attempt could be mounted. Time was of the essence and Gerhard’s time had arrived. Gerhard’s job was to go in and gather cold, hard, reliable intelligence, and the only way to get it was to put a reliable source on the ground. They did have a paid informant, a businessman, named Max, who would be driving to Teheran on business (importer/exporter) in the near future, and this was to be Gerhard’s ticket into Iran. Gerhard was to meet Max and make a determination as to whether he could trust Max. If he trusted Max, they would meet in Venice and drive to Teheran via Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Turkey. (Two of the three countries were still in Communist hands.) The arduous trip alone would take four days. ..
This was nothing like Gerhard had seen in his Navy career, including his three tours to Vietnam. He was to be a spy, with the cover story of being an Austrian businessman. He was to go into Iran, where angry students had taken over the U.S. Embassy, and where 52 hostages, who we had failed once in trying to recover, remained. Iran was clearly an unfriendly and extremely hostile environment for a U.S. citizen, much less someone in the military who was spying. Their favorite form of execution after severe and excruciating torture was by public decapitation. The total weight of the operation lay squarely on Gerhard’s shoulders alone. A huge burden for one man to carry. Failure meant not only his life, but a brutal, further humiliation for the United States in the eyes of the free world.
The wheels had been set in motion. There was much to be done before he left. He needed a cover story, a passport, other documents and transportation. He also needed to read a mountain of intelligence reports. In addition, he needed a legend, the personal history of the man he was to be. His alias was Karl-Heinz Dieter, an Austrian businessman, residing in Germany, where he had a worker’s visa. In three days, his transformation had to be complete, with no flaws in memory, character or mannerisms. Gerhard had to memorize all the details of Dieter’s life: his family, all aspects of his job, and his history. When in Teheran, if he was questioned, there could be no slip-ups, and he could not just wing it. If he were caught in a lie, his future would not be pleasant and would certainly lead to his capture and ultimately, his death. His cover was shallow. He hoped it would not be checked, and if it were, a miracle would be the only way out.
There was one last meeting at Langley before he left. Gerhard was taken to a large room at CIA Headquarters, where there was a complete sand table mock-up of the American Embassy and the surrounding area. As Gerhard looked at the sand table mock-up, the gravity of the mission sank in. He was given a final review of the latest intelligence reports, which had not been updated since the take-over of the Embassy, and then assigned his formal tasking—to find out if any U.S. hostages were still being held at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate, and to get any other “target of opportunity intelligence,” such as location of Iranian military or paramilitary forces, police, possible landing zones and a general knowledge of the area around the Embassy.
Gerhard flew to Frankfurt, Germany, and checked into a prearranged hotel. Later that day, he heard a knock on the door. He opened the door and there stood Max. He was a 6-foot-tall, rather slim man, nondescript, and in very plain clothes that wouldn’t draw attention and would be perfect for the mission ahead. His pale eyes and ash pallor fit perfectly as to the person Gerhard needed to, at least, get this operation off the ground. He and Max made some small talk, and then discussed the operation. He was only filled in on his aspects of the operation, and that’s the way it stayed. Tight security was of the utmost importance. They talked about how they would drive in Max’s old VW bus from Venice to Teheran. HQ decided that the men would meet in Venice. Gerhard was to fly, but they would not travel together, in case of an unforeseen accident. In that event, at least one would be left to carry on. Gerhard decided that he trusted Max, as much as he could in such a short time, realizing that he was placing his life in Max’s hands. They agreed to meet in Venice, where they would start their trip, and Max left. Gerhard had work to do. This was where his training at Intelligence School would help. When Gerhard left for Venice, he could have nothing that was made in the United States. He went out on the economy and bought used clothes, shaving gear, etc. Then, he had to make everything look used: from bags, shoes, tooth brush, razors, soap, shirts and so on. Two days later, Karl-Heinz Dieter boarded a plane for Venice and embarked on the journey of a lifetime, knowing it could be his last.
Gerhard arrived in Venice and checked into the Hotel Paganelli, on the Grand Canal. A few days later, Max met him, and they started their trip to Teheran. They left Venice and encountered their first of many check points, and it proved almost to sink the operation before it got off the ground. Gerhard had to fill out several forms and on one of them he spelled Frankfurt wrong and didn’t realize it until he was handing it back to the customs agent. Luckily, the agent didn’t know how to spell it either and paid no attention to the mistake. Gerhard said, “After my heart skipped a few beats, I retrieved my passport and visa and moved on.” They went through Trieste, then through the rest of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and finally crossed the International Bridge across the Bosporus Straight into Turkey. It was a long drive, with much time to think and wonder about what he was getting into. When they arrived in Istanbul, they decided to spend the night there and get some much needed rest and some decent food. Fast food restaurants would not be invented in the Eastern Bloc until many years later.
The next morning found them on the road again to Ankara, the Turkish capital. Here, Max said to Gerhard that this would be his last chance to turn back with no questions asked and nothing said. Gerhard declined, having already made the decision and having the SEAL mentality of never quitting. “Although the odds of survival were very slim after ‘Desert One,’ with Iranian security at an all-time high, the thought of getting caught was bad enough, but far worse was having to face my Teammates and tell them that the odds were too tough to finish the designated task that I accepted,” Gerhard says about his decision to keep going.
Before they left, they stopped at a local store and purchased approximately two dozen cartons of cigarettes. As they drove out of Ankara, Max explained that cigarettes were an international currency, and they would need them to pay to get through various areas. Gerhard said that he did not understand. Wasn’t Turkey part of NATO? Max said, wait a while and you will see. It wasn’t long before a group of scruffy, mean and heavily armed men stopped them. Seeing the guns, Gerhard was starting to wonder if he would even make it to Iran. After negotiations between Max and the “Banditos,” they drove on. Max explained that this was their territory, and they were merely taking a toll. After two more tolls, Gerhard was beginning to understand how it worked, and although a non-smoker, he was finding a new appreciation for cigarettes. They continued on until they reached the border of Iran.
They crossed into Iran and went through their first check-point, a Border Crossing station. They were searched by the Border Guards who weren’t especially friendly, but it went fairly well. They then drove for a while and arrived in Tabriz, one of the larger cities in Iran. Just as they arrived in the city, they were stopped at another check-point. This time the check-point was manned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who had a bad reputation. True to rumors, the guys were very unfriendly and roughed them up quite a bit, shoving AK-47 barrels in their faces and banging them around. They searched the van, checked their passports and questioned them as to why they were in Tabriz. They were less friendly than the first check-point, but they bought Max and Gerhard’s story and let them go.
A severe dust storm was brewing and made driving hazardous and visibility impossible. Their speed was a crawl. It was around 10:00 PM. Gerhard wanted to spend the night there, and Max wanted to go on. In the process of driving around the city, they hit another check-point, again manned by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Now these guards brought new meaning to unfriendly. They had Max and Gerhard stand spread-eagle against the van, while they searched them, as well as the van, for more than 30 minutes. Max finally gave them five cartons of cigarettes to get through the check-point. After this last experience, both Max and Gerhard agreed, it was time to get out of Tabriz. The sooner the better. The blowing sand made it seem like walls that were closing in from all sides.
They drove through the night and arrived in Teheran the next morning. Gerhard checked into the Hotel Catherine, which was six or seven blocks from the American Embassy, and Max stayed at another location unknown to Gerhard for security reasons. The plan was to meet in the Catherine’s lobby the next morning.
Teheran was like nothing Gerhard had ever seen. The traffic was crazy. Whoever had the biggest car, most guts, and loudest horn (in that order) had the right of way, if there was such a thing in Tehran. One way streets weren’t one way, and people pretty much did what they wanted to do, somehow avoiding accidents, some of the time. It was utter chaos. Gerhard spent seven days in Teheran, and you could write a story in itself about those seven days, but there are a few incidents that stood out.
The first order of business was to change money. Max took Gerhard to a black market exchanger, and Gerhard exchanged 1600 German Marks (about 800 U.S. dollars) to Iranian Dinars. Gerhard wasn’t too excited about using the black Market, but Max said to do it the proper way would require paperwork, something they wanted to avoid. Gerhard wondered if Max was setting him up, but it was pretty clear that Gerhard’s life was in Max’s hands. Basically, Max owned him at this point. Gerhard sure hoped that Max had good relations with the CIA.
Gerhard wanted to get closer to a number of areas that Max was comfortable with. Max said that he had the answer. He contacted a friend who met them shortly. Max introduced Gerhard to Mustafa the Tajik, who would be his driver for the next few days. They negotiated the price of 400 DM per day, and now Mustafa drove Gerhard around Teheran. Over the next five days, they drove to the key areas, 4-5 times at different times during the day and evening, so that Gerhard would get a feel for both vehicle and pedestrian congestion. The areas of concern were the American Embassy, the Meherabad Airport, and the surrounding areas, especially open areas, like the sports stadium a short distance from the Embassy, where a helicopter could land. This was to be one of the main exfiltration points for the hostages. One of his biggest concerns was security, both antiaircraft guns/missiles and police and army units and civilians with guns, which seemed to be everywhere. Everybody had weapons of some sort. The bottom line was that there was a great deal of security, especially antiaircraft. There was way too much security to run a successful POW recovery operation in downtown Teheran. Each time they drove around each of the areas, Gerhard made a point of memorizing all the important points, like number of guns or missiles, the roads, the police, army, ect. Since he could not take any pictures or write anything down, it all had to be memorized. Earlier, he and members of the CIA had agreed that he could have nothing on him. A camera, notes or a weapon, would give away his mission if he were to be searched. This had been a good idea, as he had already been thoroughly searched many times.
In between their recons, Gerhard took walks around his hotel. Most of the time the walks were uneventful, and it was surprising how few people paid attention to him, even though he was the only blond 6’2” man around. On one of his walks, he saw a beggar, walking on his knuckles on a concrete sidewalk. His clothes were tattered and he was one of the most pathetic humans that Gerhard had ever seen. Gerhard thought about all the money that he had, and threw him a few Dinar. Bad mistake. All of a sudden, the beggar yelled something and then his friends were yelling. They all wanted a piece of the rich foreigner’s money. Gerhard ran and ducked down a side street. Fortunately, they did not follow. Gerhard’s act of kindness could have cost him his life. The rule of survival here was keep a low profile, just like in BUDS. Don’t stand out. That would be one mistake that Gerhard was not about to make again.
Mustafa and Gerhard made one last recon, and then he dropped Gerhard of at his hotel. Prior to turning Gerhard over to Mustafa, Max and Gerhard had agreed that Max would call and ask if he wanted to have lunch to talk about business. If Gerhard accepted, then Max would pick him up and take him to the airport the next day. If he declined, there would be a face to face meeting to resolve any issues. Gerhard said that he would like to have lunch, and his departure was set in motion. Gerhard had dinner and went to bed. It was one of the longest nights of his life. He knew that the three most dangerous parts of an operation were insertion, extraction and the operation itself. Well, the insertion and the operation had gone well, but now he had to deal with the extraction. The only problem was that once he got to the airport, he would be by himself. No Max or Mustafa to help.
The next morning, Gerhard finished packing, paid his bill and got his passport back from the hotel owner. Max picked him up in the old VW Bus and they went to the airport. When they were by the Teheran National Monument, an Iranian car sideswiped Max’s VW. Instead of stopping, Max floored it. Gerhard said, “Why don’t you stop?” Max said absolutely not. He said these guys do this all the time to foreigners to get money. If we stop, the police will get involved, and that will get messy. Max raced as fast as the old VW could go, hitting corners and dogging other cars, for what seemed like a life-time. They finally lost the car. Shortly after, they proceeded through the two check-points to the airport. Then Max stopped, shook Gerhard’s hand, said goodbye and drove off. They had agreed, it would be safer for both if Max did not go inside.
Gerhard was on his own. No Max or Mustafa. He walked inside the Meherabad Airport and started what would be the longest six hours of his life. During these six hours, Gerhard’s flight was canceled twice, with no explanations. He and his luggage were thoroughly checked three times. He was the only Caucasian in the airport, with the remainder of personnel from all parts of the Middle East and Arab countries.
Gerhard finally boarded his flight and flew non-stop to Athens. When he arrived in Athens, he took a taxi to the Presidential Hotel. He checked into the hotel and waited for his case officer. The case officer never showed up. Apparently, the case officer had not checked flights and did not know if Gerhard’s original flight had been canceled or worse, if he’d not made it on the flight at all. The next day, Gerhard went to the restaurant in the hotel for the back-up meeting. This time his case officer was there. They talked and the case officer told him that he was scheduled to leave for Geneva in a few hours. Gerhard ended up leaving the next morning, having asked for an extra day to unwind and get his wits together before he went before the CIA handlers for the exhaustive debriefing that he knew lay ahead.
Geneva was a few hours away. Once there, Gerhard was met at the airport by his major case officer. Gerhard checked into a hotel and he exchanged his alias documents for his own real documents. The next morning he drove to Zurich and departed for Frankfurt. He spent the night in Frankfurt, and the next morning he flew back to Dulles. Gerhard spent four days at the CIA Headquarters being debriefed. The most important fact that he brought back was that the security around the U.S. Embassy, the sports stadium and the airport made any rescue attempt next to impossible. Gerhard’s trip, no doubt, saved the 52 American hostages who owe their lives to this brave man who risked his life against insurmountable odds.
Gerhard finally received the Legion of Merit with a “V” for combat valor on November 11, 2011, for this operation. It only took 32 years, several promises of a Medal of Honor, and a lot of sweat and tears. I’m very proud to be his wife.