Looking Back: No ordinary day

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

Sunday, December 8, 1978, was no ordinary day in for the Office of Special Investigations special agents stationed in Isfahan, Iran. Throughout the previous year, tensions across the country had continued to rise between the ruling government led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the Islamic fundamentalist religious sect led by the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Growing civil unrest led to the Iranian government eventually instituting a ban on public gatherings in direct response to the escalating number of demonstrations that had been occurring in cities across the country. Despite the ban, the size and frequency of demonstrations continued to increase as did the instances and levels of violence between opposing factions. The conditions in Isfahan were no different as large public protests in that city had been occurring almost daily for several months.

Isfahan, a city in central Iran located a little more than 200 miles south of the capital city of Tehran, was Iran’s third largest metropolitan area in 1978 with a population of approximately 700,000 people. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the city served as the capital of the Persian Empire sitting at the crossroads of historical east-west and north-south trade and travel routes across Iran. Isfahan, then and now, is largely recognized as an important architectural and cultural center of the Islamic world. 

In 1978, Isfahan also served as the location of several U.S. military defense contractors to include Bell Helicopter and Grumman Aerospace Corporation.  As such, more than 12,000 American citizens called the city home. Since October 1, 1976, Isfahan was also home to Air Force Office of Special Investigations Detachment 7201. The two agents assigned to Detachment 7201, Special Agent Robert A. Hoffmann and Special Agent Warren L. Smith, were primarily responsible for supplying intelligence briefings and support to the American contractors and their dependents living there, while also serving in an advisory role for the general physical security of contractor and residential facilities.

Though it was a Sunday, Hoffmann and Smith, reported to work at Det. 7201’s office like any other day. The office was located on the fourth floor of a building managed by the Grumman Aerospace Corporation. On most workdays the building would have been filled with hundreds of Americans; however, this being a weekend day there were just six Grumman employees in the building along with the two special agents. At the time, Hoffmann was serving as commander of the detachment and Smith was preparing to assume command from Hoffmann when he was scheduled to depart Iran the following month. 

By mid-morning, the overall number of demonstrators that had gathered in Isfahan on that Sunday had grown to over 1000. At 1 o’clock in the afternoon, approximately 200 of those demonstrators turned their attention directly towards the office building occupied by Det. 7201 and Grumman. The building was normally guarded by two members of the Iranian National Police but they fled their post once the mob approached the building and the demonstrators began hurtling rocks and bricks at the ground floor windows.

“I looked out the window and saw a number of demonstrators walking down the street,” Hoffmann later recalled. “There was a building under construction right next door to ours and they began picking up bricks from the construction pile and throwing them at our building breaking out the plate glass on the ground floor. My partner went downstairs to check on the Americans there.”

Joined by a security guard from Grumman, Smith proceeded to the ground floor of the building and attempted to build a barricade using office furniture. Despite their best efforts, the demonstrators broke down the ad hoc barricade and entered the building. Once inside, Smith later reported that the demonstrators “began destroying everything in sight.” Smith then led a group of five Grumman employees towards the rear of the building in an attempt to escape the lobby area through a back door. When the group was sighted by the demonstrators, they began hurtling objects at the Americans. The group successfully managed to evade the mob and extricated the building and scaled a parking lot wall to escape the building complex. Utilizing his skills as an Iranian linguist, Smith secured refuge for the group in a nearby home sheltered from the mob by a family of Iranian nationals.

As Smith was leading his group away from the building, Hoffmann and the Grumman security guard purposely acted as decoys in the hopes of distracting the attention of the demonstrators, who by this time had brought in several barrels of kerosene from the construction site and set fire to them. Becoming the targets of flying debris launched by the mob and in an attempt to avoid the flames, Hoffmann and the security guard escaped the ground floor through the stairwell and ended up on the roof of the four-story building. The fire grew larger and smoke and flames began to climb the exterior of the building reaching the roof. Turning to the security guard, Hoffmann commented: “There is no future on this roof for you and me today. We’ve got to get out of here.” 

Three sides of the building offered nothing but a four-story drop to the ground. Fortunately, the fourth side was adjacent to another building which offered only a one-story drop. Hanging by their hands from the edge of the roof to shorten the distance, they let go falling 15 feet to the other building with Hoffmann injuring his left ankle in the drop. Limping across the rooftop, Hoffmann observed Smith on the ground signaling by waving his arms from the house below.  Hoffmann and the security guard found their way down to the yard behind the house and joined the other Americans hiding in the Iranian family’s residence.

Unfortunately, they were seen entering the residence by the demonstrators who quickly arrived at the house demanding that the owners send out the Americans. Unsure whether or not the demonstrators knew that Smith and his group of Grumman employees were also sheltering in the house, Hoffmann and the security guard volunteered to leave the residence and face the mob alone. Once outside again, the demonstrators demanded that the security guard turn over his radio. Having previously removed the battery, rendering it inoperable, the security guard handed over the radio which was immediately destroyed by the mob. 

The demonstrators then tried to frisk Hoffmann. Carrying a concealed sidearm, Hoffmann could not afford to allow the mob to discover the weapon lest he either be potentially shot with his own weapon or forced to use it against the irate mob before he was overrun.  Hoffmann took a chance and bolted back into the house. Luckily, Iranian military forces arrived on scene almost simultaneously and secured the area before the mob could pursue Hoffmann into the residence.  The Iranian troops escorted all of the Americans from the house back to the office building. The vehicles parked at the building somehow escaped the fire and all eight of the Americans then proceeded to the U.S. Consulate in Isfahan for safety.

The demonstrations in Isfahan and across Iran continued as the year ended. The Shah fled the country on Jan. 16, 1979, with the Ayatollah returning to Iran from exile two weeks later on Feb. 1st. The Iranian national government collapsed within 10 days. By Feb. 14th, due in large part to a large scale evacuation of American citizens from Iran that had already occurred including several thousand from Isfahan, Office of Special Investigations personnel across the country were ordered to make preparations for potential evacuation. Det. 7201 was inactivated on Feb. 20th. Hoffmann left Iran in January 1979, as originally scheduled. Smith departed Iran with the closure of Det. 7201.

Hoffmann and Smith were both awarded the Airman’s Medal for Heroism for “voluntarily risking their lives to defend American personnel and property” during their actions at Isfahan, Iran, on Dec. 8, 1978.   

Historian’s Note: Brig. Gen. Hoffmann later served as the Commander of the Office of Special Investigations from 1993 to 1996.