Flashback Friday: Hostage with Minnesota ties returned from Iran 38 years ago

January 18, 2019 10:13 AM

Joseph Hall can still remember the moment when, after 444 days in captivity, he and his fellow Americans who had been held hostage in Iran finally knew they were en route to freedom.

"We were on the plane and we cleared Iranian airspace into Turkey," he said, recalling the events of Jan. 21, 1981.

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"The pilot came on the intercom and said we could open the shades. We looked out the window and saw the U.S. Air Force was escorting us. It still gives me goosebumps just talking about it - remembering what that feeling was like."

Hall, who first enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968, was an Army Chief Warrant Officer and operations coordinator for the U.S. defense attache at the U.S. embassy in Tehran when it was taken over by students supporting anti-American cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Nov. 4, 1979.

Khomeini's militant Islamic government had taken over from the deposed Shah earlier that year.

The immediate trigger for the students' action was the American decision to allow the exiled Shah to enter the U.S. for cancer treatment.

A total of 66 hostages were taken, but 13 were released after a short period of time while another was released some time later. That left a total of 52 hostages - including Hall - who remained captive while economic sanctions, diplomatic efforts and even a military rescue attempt failed to gain their release.

"They broke us into groups of two to four people and took us all over Tehran," Hall said. "After the rescue attempt, they took us all over the country.

"We never knew where we were. We never knew where we'd been. We'd be handcuffed and blindfolded and taken for long drives in the backseat of a van.

"They would tell us we'd been forgotten at home and no one cared about us. But we knew that wasn't true."

Indeed, the Hostage Crisis drew constant media coverage in the U.S. - even spawning a late-night update program on ABC that eventually became known as "Nightline."

It loomed large over the 1980 presidential election between incumbent Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan.

All while family members of the hostages waited and worried.

That included Hall's family - some of whom lived in Minnesota. Though he never personally resided in the state, his parents and younger sister moved to Minnesota in 1973 and were residing in, and around, the Little Falls area.

A native Minnesotan, L. Bruce Laingen, served as the chargé d'affaires at the embassy and was the most senior official among the hostages. He had grown up in southern Minnesota and graduated from St. Olaf.

"My home of record was Oregon," said Hall, who now lives in Georgia. "But my family had moved away from there. When I finally came back (from Iran in 1981), it seemed like everybody wanted to claim a hostage. Oregon claimed me. Minnesota claimed me. My ex-wife was from Ohio. So Ohio claimed me too.

"But it was amazing to see that outpouring of support. And it was really overwhelming to be part of it."

Hall had only been working at the embassy for a few months at the time he was taken hostage. Tehran was the third embassy to which he'd been assigned after Indonesia and Greece. He wasn't originally supposed to be there at all.

However, he was asked to replace his predecessor, who had to leave for hardship reasons.

It was an assignment he accepted, even having had first-hand experience with the dangers it entailed when he'd been in the country in February 1979 as part of a mission to evacuate Americans in the wake of the Shah's fall.

"I remember coming back and telling my ex-wife that was one place I never wanted to return to," he said. "It was a scary situation.

"I was supposed to go to New Zealand when it was my turn to rotate. But we were in Washington, and they asked me to go to Iran. They noted it was a dangerous place. But I was professional military and you didn't say no when asked."

Thus he embarked on a path that would lead to month after month of frightening captivity. Though by December 1980, he said he was moved out of a prison into what had been the Shah's guesthouse. Signs began to mount that his release might be coming.

Still, he said there was no advance knowledge until the actual day the hostages were set free - the same day Reagan took the oath of office and became president.

"They burst in our door and told us we were going home," he remembered. "I was in total disbelief until the plane cleared Iranian airspace. They had handcuffed and blindfolded us and drove us to the airport. We ran the gauntlet to get to the plane. It was an Algerian plane and the Algerians wouldn't let the Iranians on it. But the shades remained drawn even after we took off and we were in the air."

They were on their way home to a nation grateful they had returned safely. 

"That was the most amazing thing to see," he said. "We had no knowledge of what had been going on in the States while we were over there. So to see the whole country rejoicing like that was really an incredible feeling."

Hall readjusted to freedom and moved on with his life. But he said he has never forgotten the long ordeal that finally ended 38 years ago.

"Never a day goes by that I don't think about it," he said. "It's always there. It's not something I dwell on anymore. But it's always there in the back of my mind.

"It impacted my life in such a big way."

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Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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