Night of Nights
Operation Eagle Claw 24-25 April 1980
By Colonel Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (Retired)
The carrier crew was never informed as to the real purpose of the helicopters or the sudden appearance of the primarily Marine crew. But they understood something important was happening in their presence and they were part of it.
As night descends on the ship and the artificial lights begin to take effect, they start gathering. First in individual movements, later in small groups, they begin appearing. They move to places on the hangar deck and stand against the bulkheads watching, hoping they won’t be spotted as being too obvious and being asked to leave. Some find places on the stairwells and ladders overlooking the hangar deck where they can see but not be seen. Their focus is on the eight helicopters which are being slowly wheeled from their anchor points to the elevator hoist.
The eyes follow each move of the aircraft and observe each move of the pilots and crew as they walk around their craft and climb aboard. The observers say nothing but watch intently as if they were for the first time ushered into a church service mid- ceremony.
They have come from all over the ship to watch from the galleys in mid meal so they wouldn’t not miss this from their bunks deep within the ship from the reactor spaces far below the waterline and from their relatively comfortable accommodations in Officer Country. Until a very short while ago, they had no conception of what these helicopters, these space users, would do. As if by some unseen messenger, the carrier crew has individually received notice as to what is happening, and each man wants to be a part of this moment. Sailors stand with hands over their mouths and anxious eyes. Little human sound is heard. Only the ceaseless vibrations of the ship itself and the whir and clank of machinery that is making things happen. Much is thought, but little is said. All sense something important is about to happen.
As the eight helicopters are aligned on the flight deck, the audience moves slowly to gain a vantage point. However, on topside, controls are much more stringent. Most still remain standing on the hangar deck and search for vantage point up the elevator frame to the deck opening. Only ingenious placement or those with a job can directly see the task at hand. Two sailors squat behind a fire extinguisher between two large horizontal antennas, hoping they will be obscured from critical view.
One by one, the helicopters launch into the darkening sky, turn perpendicular to the flow of the ship, and slide off into invisibility. The audience stands transfixed through the last launch. When the final dark shape recedes beyond vision, they move slowly to their normal places. No one is talking. Only thinking.