Last American seized at U.S. embassy in Iran recalls the day

Fort Worth Star-TelegramNovember 2, 2009 

ARLINGTON, Texas — Rick Kupke was busy encrypting classified messages inside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when the Marine Corps guard yelled over the radio, "They're coming over the wall!"

Hundreds of Iranian student protesters were scaling the 7-foot wall around the embassy and making their way into the building through the tear gas being sprayed.

It was Nov. 4, 1979, and the administrative officer told Kupke to send a telegram to the State Department saying, "Demonstrators . . . are taking the embassy over."

Kupke, then a 33-year-old communications officer and electronics specialist, sent the telegram, closed a vault door to keep workers in the second-floor office safe and began shredding sensitive government documents — including those about unpopular Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who fled to the U.S. that year.

"The State Department asked me if I destroyed all the cables going back and forth about the shah. They said, 'You have to confirm to us that you personally destroyed that.' I said, 'Yes.' Then they gave us the order to destroy all of our equipment."

After Kupke smashed Teletype machines, he began the first of three trips to the roof to keep rifles and shotguns out of the hands of Iranians. After his third trip, he became the 66th — and final — American taken hostage that day.

He spent 444 days in captivity in what he and others call one of the United States' first confrontations with terrorism. The hostage takers wanted the shah returned to Iran; the hostages were the bargaining chip.

For more than 14 months, the hostages were often blindfolded, bound and left on concrete floors or tied to furniture. They couldn’t talk to one another for weeks at a time and were guarded by men with guns who sat inches from them. They were beaten, terrorized, locked up in solitary confinement and subjected to mock executions.

"I told myself if we were released, it would all be over and life would be good," said Kupke, who lives in Arlington with his wife, Linda.

On Wednesday, 30 years after being taken hostage, Kupke plans to call a few of the former hostages.

"I’ll wish them a happy Nov. 4," he said. "It’s happy because we all lived through it."

Wrong place and time

Kupke had volunteered to go to Tehran, standing in for his then-roommate, who had a wife and children and didn’t want to go.

He may have regretted that as he went back and forth to the roof to hide the rifles and shotguns. On his third trip, he looked down the stairwell and saw that demonstrators had made it past the vault door.

"I told myself, 'If I don’t hear any shooting, I will go down,’ " Kupke said, adding that he didn’t want someone to mistake him for a sniper.

Finally, he climbed down the steps, raised his hands and said, "Americano."

One man smashed his fist into Kupke’s face, breaking his glasses and cutting the bridge of his nose. He was surrounded by dozens of attackers, who took turns hitting and kicking him. It ended when one man slammed a wooden handle on the back of Kupke’s neck, knocking him unconscious.

He woke to find a large man sitting on his chest, placing the blade of a sharp knife under Kupke’s left eye. The man threatened to cut out one eyeball, then the other, if Kupke didn’t give him the combination to the embassy safe.

Kupke couldn’t remember the code. He was led to the safe, and another Iranian man demanded the combination.

When he couldn’t give it to him, the Iranian played Russian roulette with Kupke — three times spinning the chamber of the revolver, holding the gun to Kupke’s head and pulling the trigger.

Each time, there was no bullet.

Waiting for release

At first, the hostages thought they would be released around midnight, which is what happened in a Feb. 14, 1979, hostage situation.

Then came three days of being tied to a chair and blindfolded, hearing chants outside that meant "death to America." Kupke tried to block out noise by re-creating a Nebraska-Oklahoma football game in his mind. "Those first few days, we were waiting on something to happen to trigger our release," he said.

Finally, most of the African-American officers and women were released, leaving behind 52 hostages. Kupke got his first shower and a shirt to change into.

"I thought freedom was just around the corner," he said.

Instead, he was moved 19 times during the next year, from the ambassador’s residence to private houses, a mud hut, a maximum-security prison and eventually a room with a picture window.

Kupke has long said the hostage crisis set a bad precedent for the United States’ handling of terrorism.

"The summer of ’79, Osama bin Laden graduates . . . and goes to Afghanistan to form his base," he said. "What do you figure bin Laden is doing when the U.S. can’t resolve the Iran hostage crisis? We let it go on and on and on until 1981.

"What insights do you think we gave him about pulling off terrorist activities? Do you think we taught him something like Terrorism 101?"

Mock execution

One of the worst moments was a night in February 1980 when the hostages were sleeping on the embassy’s basement floor.

The door was thrown open and men in fatigues and ski masks, carrying machine guns, burst into the room screaming, "Savak!" — the word for the shah’s secret police.

They blindfolded the hostages and marched them into the hallway, many of them barefoot in 30-degree or so temperatures.

Once there, they were told to remove all clothes except their underwear and put their hands on the wall behind them.

"The next thing I knew, someone was yelling, 'Ready, aim, fire!’ in Farsi," Kupke said. "Then we hear click, click, click."

No bullets.

"They laughed at us, told us to put our clothes on and took us back to the room."

Failed rescue mission

By the summer of 1980, hostages in the same house were leaving messages for one another by hiding notes in the toilet paper in the communal bathroom.

One day Kupke found a note that said: "Rescue attempt failed. April 25. Eight Americans died."

The U.S. military tried to rescue the hostages through Operation Eagle Claw, a complex mission that included minesweeper helicopters and an MC-130E Combat Talon I aircraft. The plan was aborted after an unexpected sandstorm whipped up, a fuel-smuggling truck caught on fire and a refueling accident led to the crashes of two aircraft.

Eight American servicemen and one Iranian died during the aborted mission.

Robert Chapman of Mansfield was one of the Navy crew members on Helicopter Sea Squadron 6, which was involved in mission support, moving people, cargo and supplies back and forth.

"We did not really know what we were witnessing at the time until after the mission failed and we assisted in post-operations support," said Chapman, 53, who is retired. "We did know something special was occurring, but we never put things together until the mission failed."

The last move

By September 1980, war had broken out between Iraq and Iran; in November, Ronald Reagan was elected president.

Eventually, Kupke and fellow hostages were taken to their last stop — a room in the mountains with a picture window and private bathroom — to get ready for their release.

By then, the shah had died and U.S. officials had agreed to release $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets — an action that bothers some hostages to this day.

In 1981, minutes after Reagan was sworn in as president, the hostages were released and taken to Germany, where they met Jimmy Carter and other officials and were evaluated by doctors and psychiatrists before being taken home.

Freedom at last

Kupke went to a reception at the White House, received gifts, spent time with his parents in Rensselaer, Ind., and bought his dream car — a silver XKE V-12 Jaguar.

He was one of the first hostages to go back overseas with the State Department, this time to Thailand.

He retired years ago and now studies tai chi, gives lectures and passes time as a silversmith in Arlington with his wife.

At their home, photos from after his release and from his visit to the White House sit on tables near the medal for valor he received from the State Department.

Kupke said he’ll call a handful of the 42 living hostages Wednesday. But Nov. 4 is not the day many of the hostages choose to remember.

The day they’d rather remember is Jan. 20, when they were released, former charge d’affaires L. Bruce Laingen of Bethesda, Md., has said.

"That’s a good day," he said. "Nov. 4 is the day the roof fell in."

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Reminders Many years, Rick Kupke receives a reminder from someone of the days he was held hostage. It’s a silver bracelet made in honor of the hostages, similar to those worn in honor of soldiers during the Vietnam War who were POWs or MIA.

Each bracelet is inscribed with "Rick L. Kupke, State Department, Tehran, 11-4-79."

"It’s nice that people wore them and didn’t throw it away," he said. "I think many people run across it, maybe when cleaning out a drawer or box, and find my address to send it to me.

"It’s an honor to get one, especially now, 30 years after it happened."

He has received 15 to 20 bracelets, including two last year.

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