Back in the 1990s, Ross Perot was known as an independent man who got things done, with or without the government’s help. And nothing portrayed this more clearly than Operation Hotfoot (Help Our Two Friends Out of Tehran.) If you try to look this up on Wikipedia, you might be led to Project Hotfoot, also known as Operation Hotfoot, which is an unrelated training missing in the late 1950s supporting the Kingdom of Laos. That is not the same as Perot’s rescue operation. Here’s what you need to know about Ross Perot’s Operation Hotfoot in Iran. Sadly, the American icon Ross Perot died after a battle with cancer.
Operation Hotfoot Occurred Years Before Ross Perot Ran for President
In June 1980, The Washington Post shared a detailed story looking into just what happened in Operation Hotfoot. This was years before Ross Perot would decide to run for President of the United States, but the story certainly gained national focus again when he did.
The rescue happened about 11 months before Iranians stormed and American embassy and took a number of American hostages. Ross Perot’s operation was intended to rescue two of his Electronic Data Systems (EDS) employees: William Gaylord and Paul Chiapparone, 39. They were engineers from Dallas who were arrested on December 28, 1978 and eventually charged with bribing Iranians for a $20 million EDS contract.
But this was all part of an ongoing dispute between Ross Perot and Iran regarding EDS’ contract. In December 1978, Perot had stopped EDS operations in Iran because Iran hadn’t paid $5 million that it owed. Things were unstable in Iran anyway at the time, The Washington Post noted. Perot said that within 12 hours of his decision to withdraw his employees, Iran started taking hostages.
The Washington Post noted that the Iranian government said it would free the two employees if EDS renegotiated its contract, lending credence to Perot’s statements about what was going on behind the scenes.
Chiapparone spoke about what happened in 1988, The Morning Call reported. He said all the employees were released but him and Gaylord, who weren’t given their passports. He was installing computer systems and he thinks that maybe they wanted him to keep installing computers, but he’s not sure. Their ransom was set for $12.7 million and the money had to be paid through Iranian banks. A New York Times article said this ransom was for money the government felt that EDS owed them.
Chiapparone said that EDS was willing to pay their ransom, but the banks were unstable and couldn’t transfer the money.
Meanwhile, State Department sources told The New York Times in 1972 that Perot’s employees were part of the Shah’s investigation into corruption involving his ministers and Americans.
Perot later wrote that the American government wasn’t willing to help him. “The government wouldn’t do anything for us. Ask me if I tried to get our government to do anything and I will defy you to name one person in a prominent position that we didn’t make a personal appeal to. Just anybody you want to name. Some tried to help, but nobody was effective. A lot of them didn’t care. The State Department wasn’t really interested.”
Task & Purpose noted that because the employees were held on suspicion of breaking Iranian law, “no matter how flimsy,” it wasn’t surprising that the State Department was reticent about helping.
Perot said he talked to his mother, who was dying of cancer, about the situation and she said he should rescue them.
Col. Simons Helped Provoke an Attack on the Prison, & the Two Employees Escaped By Trekking Across Miles to Get to Safety
Perot took matters into his own hands. He paid Col. Arthur Simons, who had led a raid on a north Vietnamese camp, to help, The Washington Post shared. The raid team was made of EDS employees who had military experience.
“One of the criteria was that these guys had to have been in live combat where they saw the man hit that they shot. Col. Simons said it’s totally different if you’re a pilot or something. He said on the ground it’s different,” Ross Perot wrote later.
They decided that attacking the Ghasr Prison where the employees were held was too risky and heavily guarded, so they would instead provoke a mob to attack Ghasr and hope the two could escape in all the confusion. The Washington Post noted that at the time, Iranian revolutionaries were willing to do this because the prison was a symbol of the deposed Shah.
Perot wrote that he went to the Tehran jail and talked to the employees in person. He wrote: ” I figured that if it had been me in jail, and I’d seen that the top guy can come in here, talk to me, and leave, then things might not be so far gone as they appear to be. It would settle me down. One of the things we had to do was get these guys in the frame of mind where, when we had the jailbreak, they would function and get out and know what to do.”
He told The Washington Post that he came in looking like a regular guy with two bags of groceries, although he signed with his real name so he wouldn’t break any laws. Because he knew Ramsey Clark, who was there negotiating for someone else’s release, he was able to get private time with his two employees.
During the attack on February 11, 1979, Perot’s two employees were able to escape and met up with some of Perot and Simons’ men at a Hyatt Hotel 10 miles away, after crossing Turkey for two days.
Chiapparone and Gaylord were in jail for 46 days before the rescue happened, Chiapparone told a group during a speech. When the storming happened, he said that it was easy to hide and flee among 11,000 prisoners. They walked and hitchhiked 10 miles to Tehran and were met with a five-member rescue team who escorted them 500 miles to the Turkish border, The Morning Call reported. Chiapparone said that during their two-day trek, they were stopped by revolutionary guards and they used a forged letter saying they were just American businessmen leaving the country. After Tehran, the journey to the Turkish border was still very dangerous and they were arrested in nearly every village.
Simons, the commando leader, described it more as an uneventful outing, The Chicago Tribune reported. He said: “We just got in a line of cars like everybody else. We didn’t have any real trouble at any of the towns or villages. We told everyone we were just a group of American men going home to visit our wives and children.”
So it’s interesting to see that a man with much military experience viewed the trek as uneventful, but the people with little experience who were being rescued viewed it as dangerous with numerous arrests.
The story was made into a book and a TV portrayal called On Wings of Eagles. The book and TV series weren’t entirely accurate about what happened. Screenwriter Sam Rolfe told the Chicago Tribune, “When you get into the derring-do elements, that was me. They didn`t do that. I said, ‘Look, I’ve got five hours to fill here.'” So although some of the more dramatic elements of the movie might not be accurate, much of the story was authentic. Perot did put together a team to help his employees escape, he did visit them in prison, and they did escape during a revolt.
Perot was later able to sue Iran for $20 million and get a full payment on the contract owed to his company, Chicago Tribune noted.
Perot told the Post about the rescue: “We were betting the company name, its assets, everything we’d accumulated, to get those two guys out. Thank God it worked.”
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