DASHT-E-KAVIR, Iran – Hundreds of Iranian hard-liners held noon prayers and gave thanks Thursday in Iran's central desert where a U.S. helicopter crashed in 1980 during a failed U.S. mission to free 52 American hostages held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
During the rescue attempt, one U.S. chopper collided with a C-130 transport plane. Eight American servicemen on board were killed at the spot the U.S. has called "Desert One," after the location designated for landing during the mission.
Almost 2,000 students and members of the paramilitary Basij forces, were bused in Thursday to the crash site in the Dasht-e-Kavir desert where Iran later erected a "Mosque of Thanks," or Masjed-e-Shokr in Persian.
The tour, by the elite Revolutionary Guards, is an annual event to keep anti-U.S. sentiments high among Iranian youth. Apart from the mosque, there is nothing else today at the crash site, which is surrounded by miles and miles of barren desert. The nearest town of Tabas is some 110 kilometers (70 miles) away and at night, the mosque light is the only man-made illumination in the area.
Hundreds of those at the ceremony Thursday kneeled in the midday heat, remembering the day 28 years ago when U.S. helicopters on the hostage rescue mission were caught up in a vicious sand storm that led to the collision. Iranian clerical leaders have credited divine intervention for the incident.
"The sand storm was God's miracle that protected the revolutionary Iran at that time from a foreign attack it was not militarily capable of dealing with," said Abdolrahim Rahimi, a cultural official in Tabas, adding that the gathering thanked God for "nullifying the conspiracy of the U.S. against the newly established Islamic republic."
Addressing the worshippers, Sardar Alaei, a Revolutionary Guards commander, said Iran should build a city entitled "Death to America" at the crash site to showcase what he described as "America's failure in invading Iran."
]Mohammad Karim Abedi, another participant, said a museum should be built in Tabas to exhibit the wreckage of U.S. helicopters and planes from that fateful day. Abedi, a former Guards commander and hardliner elected to parliament in last month's elections in Iran, said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has promised to order the museum's construction this year.
Meanwhile, thousands of people in central Iranian towns of Yazd and Tabas, took to the streets Thursday, chanting "Death to America" to mark the rescue attempt anniversary, the state television reported.
The U.S. military operation, called Operation Eagle Claw, was designed as a complex two-night mission. The first stage of the mission involved establishing a small initial staging site in Iran's central desert.
Eight RH-53D helicopters, secretly flown in low altitude from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz stationed in the nearby Indian Ocean, were to meet up with several waiting C-130 transport and refueling airplanes at the Desert One landing site and refueling area.
Two U.S. helicopters did not make it to Desert One because of mechanical failure en route, and returned to the Nimitz. Six other choppers made it to Desert One, but one had a malfunctioning with the hydraulics system.
The rescue mission was aborted but the worst came later.
As the helicopters maneuvered into position for refueling on the ground, the whirling rotors of one sliced into a C-130 carrying fuel, setting off a fire that killed eight servicemen and injured several others. The force loaded onto the remaining aircraft and flew to safety.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter made a televised address on April 25, 1980, about the ill-fated secret rescue operation.
After extensive diplomatic mediation, the U.S. embassy hostages were eventually released on Jan. 20, 1981, shortly after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office. They had spent 444 days in captivity.