The Herald Banner, Greenville, TX

March 20, 2013

Escaping Tehran

Caddo Mills resident relives harrowing journey out of a country in turmoilw

By Joseph Hamrick
Herald-Banner Staff

GREENVILLE — Iran in 1979 was one of the most turbulent times the country, and the United States, had ever seen.

The film “Argo”, which recently won an Oscar for Best Picture, details some of the events that occurred during that time.

Caddo Mills resident Ron Westmoreland’s story is just as thrilling as the suspense-filled movie.

Ron worked for Rockwell International as a manager for “Project Pearl.” Their goal was to provide complete communication systems for the Iranian Navy. The project began in 1975, and was near completion when the Iranians overran the US Embassy in 1979 and took American hostages.

If it were not for a daring escape led by Ron, he and his fellow workers would have been among the hostages.

Looking outside of his hotel room in Tehran on a January 1979 evening, Ron said he saw something that is still fresh in his mind today.

“One night I heard what sounded like a tank coming down the hotel street,” he said. “I went to my window and there was a tank raising its cannon at a building not far from the hotel where people were chanting. I thought to myself ‘they’re not going to fire on those people.’ Just about that time they blew the top off the building and deafened me for at least a few hours. It only got worse as the days progressed.”

Earlier that week

Ron stepped off his flight in Tehran on Jan. 12, 1979, assured by the Iranian military that the riots were well under control. He had visited Iran twice before to oversee the project, and said before the revolution, Tehran looked much like Dallas, with a population of almost 10 million.

“Most [Iranians] were friendly and many spoke English,” he said. “I never felt threatened when I ventured around Tehran, many times by myself.”

He knew something was wrong when he had to stop at many checkpoints he had never had to stop at before.

“When we got there on Jan. 12, man it was a mess,” he said. “We stopped at various road blocks manned by both Iranian military and armed militants. Neither were friendly toward a car full of Americans. They’d stick their automatic rifles in our faces.”

By the time his crew arrived at the hotel, there was a mandatory electricity curfew from dusk until dawn enacted by the military.

“Most of the time there was no electricity, and if you’ve never seen a large city without lights you would not believe how spooky it is,” he said. “To make it even more so, it seemed the total population would go to their roofs and begin a chant that would last most of the night.”

Things escalate

Ron worked there peacefully for two days, but on the third, the shooting started.

“There was a big blue mosque we could see from the hotel,” he said. “Citizens came out of the mosque and the military would just mow them down. The newspaper said they were using rubber bullets, but there sure was a lot of blood for rubber bullets.”

That night the tank blew the top off of a building close to his hotel.

“That’s when I decided the best thing to do was to get our men out,” he said. “As soon as the curfew was over, we took off.”

Ron drove his men to a high frequency transmitter site near their location, passing dozens of dead bodies in the streets and avoiding angry crowds.

Finally reaching the site, he and his men turned up the transmitter and broadcast their message through all frequencies, hoping someone would respond.

“I found out we got picked up all over the world, including Australia and Dallas,” he said, adding that at that time they had no way of knowing if their message was received.

The escape

The crew split up and all attempted to find various ways to get out of the country.

Wesmoreland decided to try the airport.

The next day he and his driver had an uneventful drive to the Tehran Mehrabad Airport. But when he got there, it was complete chaos, he said.

“There were people of all nationalities, including Iranians, and all wanted out of Iran,” he said. “I had a return ticket on Lufftansia Airline, but that didn’t mean a whole lot. I finally found an Iranian red coat that spoke English and probably gave him close to $4,000 to get on the airplane.”

The airplane sat on the runway for more than 10 hours before it took off, with members of the Republic Guard and secret police boarding and forcibly removing some of the passengers, according to Ron.

Ron said the pilot finally got fed up and told the crew to shut the doors. The pilot didn’t wait for crews to move the loading platforms but used the wings of the plane to move them out of the way.

As they were taking off, Ron said flames could be seen flaring out of the control tower. The passengers and crew were dead silent

“You could hear a pin drop,” he said. “Fifteen minutes later the pilot came on the airway and said we’re out of Iranian airspace and we all cheered.”

Ron said some of his co-workers found safe passage by smuggling themselves out by land and sea.

Negotiations

Ron was called on by Rockwell International to ask the United States to allow the company to renegotiate with the Iranian Navy.

After a few unsuccessful attempts in the early ‘80s to renegotiate with the Iranian Navy, Ron was able, with the help of former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, to get aprroval to go to the Iranian Navy inside the Iranian Oil Ministry Office in London, England.  

The project was settled in international court.

Working with the CIA

Ron’s final run-in with the Iranian Navy happened here in America.

“Not long after we returned home I was contacted by an Iranian Navy officer who said he had resigned from the navy and was in business for himself and wanted to buy spare parts,” he said. “I told him by law I could not in any way sell parts to him or anyone else from Iran. He told me he had his own company in Britain and gave me a phone number to contact him.”

Ron told him that he would be in contact, but after he hung up with him, he called the CIA and told them what happened.

Ron called the Iranian back and set up a meeting at a local restaurant in Richardson. The CIA had surveillance equipment set up and CIA personnel as waiters and told Ron what to say and what to do.

When he got to the restaurant, he found that the Iranian’s brother, who was applying for a U.S. citizenship, had joined them.

“He [the brother] seemed like a very nice fellow and you could tell he was very nervous and wanted no part of it,” he said. “He never entered into any of the conversation and just wanted to leave.”

The Iranian laid out the scheme for the parts he wanted and Ron did what he was told to do by the CIA to get him to open up about what he was planning. After hearing the Iranian out, Ron told him he would call him back and shook his hand and started to leave.

As soon as the Iranians left the restaurant, they were stopped and taken into custody by the CIA.

“I told the CIA guy I’d been working with that the brother wasn’t involved, he was just being a good brother,” he said. “He told me that it was in the CIA’s hands now and it was up to them. I never heard what happened to him. That ended the whole Iranian project for me.”