November 8, 2019
Isolated in his cell in Iran, then-Marine Sgt. Rodney V. “Rocky” Sickmann never knew that eight service members had died trying to rescue him. But now, their sacrifice is always with him, and he will honor them in his keynote address at a Veterans Day event in St. Louis on Saturday.
“I will never forget those eight individuals who lost their lives in that attempted rescue operation,” Sickmann said in an interview Wednesday, 40 years after Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran and 52 Americans were taken hostage. They’d remain in captivity for 444 days.
“It goes back to all the people that served,” he said. “I want to make sure people know that. It’s something people tend to forget, the sacrifices by the veterans.”
He said he’ll also be “enjoying just another day of being free.”
In an earlier statement put out by the museum, Sickmann said he was “humbled and honored” to be part of Saturday’s event.
“Veterans are — and have always been — a family of strong and loyal comrades who represent the ideals which built our country,” Sickmann said. “These men and women fearlessly choose to wear the uniform which serves and protects us all.”
“As historians, we often tend to focus on major conflicts and their lasting impact,” said Mark Sundlov, director of the museum. “However, the powerful stories of service that take place in between major conflicts, like the Iran Hostage Crisis, are just as important to the larger narrative and providing a holistic look at the military experience.”
Sickmann said his story of service in the hostage crisis began with a trip to the motor pool on Nov. 4, 1979, as Iranian “students” came over the wall chanting “Death to America.”
The embassy was already on alert after the administration of President Jimmy Carter admitted Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, into the U.S. for medical treatment.
Sickmann said he raced back to the heavy metal gate at the entrance to the embassy, which was held open for him by Marine Cpl. Billy Gallegos. Together, they slammed the gate shut and held out until ordered to surrender.
For most of the 444 days in captivity, Sickmann said he was held in a cell with Gallegos and civilian Jerry Plotkin. In that time, they were allowed out into the sunlight only seven times, for 15 minutes each time, Sickmann said.
But there was a sudden change on April 25, 1980, when the hostages were dispersed to other locations. He would not learn why until he came home.
On that date, Operation Eagle Claw, an aborted rescue attempt, ended in the Iranian desert with the collision of a helicopter and a transport aircraft, killing eight service members. The Iranians moved the hostages out of fear that another rescue attempt was coming.
Three Marines were killed: Sgt. John D. Harvey, 21, of Roanoke, Virginia; Cpl. George N. Holmes Jr., 22, of Pine Bluff, Arkansas; and Staff Sgt. Dewey L. Johnson, 32, of Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Five members of the Air Force were also killed: Capt. Richard L. Bakke, 34, of Long Beach, California; Capt. Harold L. Lewis, 35, of Mansfield, Connecticut; Tech. Sgt. Joel C. Mayo, 34, of Bonifay, Florida; Capt. Lynn D. McIntosh, 33, of Valdosta, Georgia; and Capt. Charles T. McMillan II, 28, of Corryton, Tennessee.
Release finally came on Jan. 20, 1981, but not without one final humiliation, Sickmann said. The hostages were hustled blindfolded into an aircraft. The plane began to taxi and revved its engines for takeoff, and then the engines went into idle. The pilot said the Iranians were refusing to turn on the runway lights.
The wait stretched to about 20 minutes. Sickmann said he learned later that the Iranians stalled because “Carter was still in office. They waited 20 minutes until he was out of office,” and President Ronald Reagan had taken the oath.
“They did that just to stab him [Carter] in the back because he worked diligently for 444 days to get us free,” he said.
Still, in his estimation, “the Iranian people are wonderful people,” Sickmann said, “and it’s just so sad the thugs are in control.”
Sickmann, who worked in sales after leaving the Marines, now devotes his time to the Folds of Honor nonprofit, which provides scholarships to the children and spouses of service members killed or disabled in the line of duty.