Conventional wisdom in aviation history points to the tragic debacle at Desert One in Iran during the hostage rescue mission as the watershed moment that culminated in the formation of the US Special Forces Command (SOCOM). While I do think that the story of the failed 1980 Iranian hostage rescue mission should be held near and dear to every military leader of this nation, there was actually someone else who sounded the warning bells three years before that fateful day in 1980. His name is legendary amongst US special forces personnel to this day, but I’d bet hardly any of us enthusiasts had ever heard of his name- Mike Grimm.
Long before he would make his mark on the history of US special forces, Mike Grimm was already a decorated hero of the Vietnam War when as a second lieutenant in 1968, assumed command of his platoon and managed to fight off through the night two entire companies of Vietcong before they could be extracted by helicopter from the battle zone. He stayed on with the US Army after the end of US participation in the war in 1973, eventually becoming a helicopter pilot and stationed in Hawaii in 1975. But serving in Hawaii was boring for Grimm, when the most serious decision they ever had to make was whether he would fly clockwise or counter-clockwise around Oahu. In 1976, the world was electrified with the stunning Israeli raid at Entebbe, Uganda, to rescue the passengers of a hijacked Air France flight. In less than one hour, Israeli commandos stormed the Entebbe Airport, killed nearly all the terrorists, rescued nearly all the hostages and only losing one commando. And they also manged to destroy most of the MiGs of the Ugandan Air Force in the process.
Mike Grimm realized that the United States lacked the capability to do what the Israelis managed to do- project power over 2,000 miles into hostile territory and effect a hostage rescue with minimal losses. Austerity was the key word in the post-Vietnam defense budget and even training exercises were canceled to save money. Once he had become the Divisional operations officer in 1977, he decided to use the Division’s entire budget for training on a single exercise. He called it an Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise (EDRE) and in the training scenario, his men and pilots would have to fly 200 miles to the island of Hawaii where a select group of soldiers playing terrorists were holding hostages. Grimm’s men would have rescue those hostages with minimal losses. The tactics he developed for the exercise would be the blueprint for all future missions to come, even to this day.
Men from the First and Fifth Infantry Battalions at Schoefield Barracks on Oahu were selected to be the “raiders.” Their helicopter element consisted of 10 Bell UH-1H Hueys and two Bell AH-1G Cobra gunships from A Company of the 25th Aviation Battalion. After an alert and planning period, the men and their helicopters flew from Schofield Barracks to Hickam AFB to be loaded aboard USAF Lockheed C-141A Starlifters to simulate strategic deployment. The men were flown to Hilo Airport which would function as the “intermediate staging base” for the exercise. On 14 November they arrived in Hilo where the helicopters were readied for flight and they flew onward to Bradshaw AAF in the Pohaku Training Area in the center of Hawaii. This would be their “forward operating base” for the mission exercise.
The “hostages” were being held in the fire station of Waimea-Kohala Airport just 30 miles north of their forward operating base. The raid would be carried out at dawn as no night vision equipment was available. At ten miles from the target, the “terrorists” heard the team coming and “executed” the hostages. When Grimm’s raiding force landed, they were wiped out to the last man.
The next day at Bradshaw AAF the After Action Review took place and everyone but Mike Grimm thought their Army careers were over when the Division commander, Lieutenant General Willard Scott arrived. He began the debriefing with the statement “This exercise was a really bad idea.” As he continued for several minutes on the inappropriateness of using helicopter-borne infantry on anti-terror operations. “Our Army will never enter into this area. This is NOT our role.”
At that moment, Mike Grimm stood up and interrupted his commander.
“Respectfully, sir, that is NOT correct.” Here he was, a newly minted major, holding a two-star general to task. “Not only do we need to create this capability, sir, but if we don’t, we are going to find ourselves at some point in our history embarrassed as a nation!”
Three years later, on the morning of 25 April 1980, in the Iranian desert, that embarrassment took place. The wrecks of five Marine RH-53D Sea Stallions and one USAF C-130 Hercules lay smoldering in the desert with the bodies of eight American servicemen. That year Mike Grimm was the commander of A Company of the 229th Aviation Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division where he was working with a handpicked group of men to transform the Hughes OH-6 “Loach” into what would become the MH-6/AH-6 “Little Bird” for night time special forces missions. On the night of 7 October 1981, Mike Grimm was flying one of the unit’s MH-6s at low level over the Cumberland River when he hit the side of a power line tower and was killed instantly. One week later, in memorial to Mike Grimm, the new 160th Aviation Battalion uncased its colors. It was the birth of the Army Special Force’s aviation element (Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or SOAR), the “Night Stalkers”.