The clues could not be ignored: cars overturned and burned, chanting students, troops with bayonets drawn on every corner. In late summer of 1978, the government of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was unraveling.
Caught up in the crisis, dozens of employees of Charlotte-based J.A. Jones Construction, along with their families, lived and worked at a remote job site in the Iranian desert. Their mission: building a massive helicopter factory for the Shah’s military.
Shut off from the rest of a country on the brink of revolution, they didn’t know they were in danger. In Charlotte, their bosses at J.A. Jones did – and that they had to get their people out fast.
Nearly 35 years later, the Ben Affleck thriller “Argo” – a clear favorite for best picture in Sunday’s Academy Awards – has revived the drama of Americans trapped inside revolutionary Iran. The movie brings a little-known piece of Charlotte history to center stage for those who lived and survived it.
The evacuation of 102 Carolinians from Iran on Jan. 3, 1979, may not have unfolded with the same drama as the “Argo” rescue of six Americans from Tehran. There was no CIA-led Hollywood ruse to extract the Jones employees, their families and 170 others.
But “Operation Save Haven” included code names, clandestine phone calls from Iran to Charlotte, emergency escape plans and ultimately a daring and secret flight out of Iran – as passengers watched nervously for signs of fighter jets that might shoot them down.
“You had the Shah’s government getting ready to be overthrown,” said Jim Walker, J.A. Jones’ project manager in Iran, who now lives in Asheville. “You had the cars burning and troops and students in the streets. So it was a scary thing to put 270 people on a DC-10 and fly them out of Iran – with so much uncertainty.”
‘A whole new world’
The Bell Helicopter International project broke ground in June 1977. J.A. Jones was to be paid $286 million to construct a 30-building compound with a helicopter factory and training school.
Many employees brought their families to the desert job site, 16 miles from the ancient city of Isfahan and about 250 miles from Tehran. It was nothing but scrub brush and grasses, rocky and dry – at an altitude of 5,400 feet.
Walker brought wife, Carolyn, and their 4-year-old son, Vincent.
George Marett, the project’s managing director, arrived with his wife, Betty, and their dog, Suzy.
Bobby and Barbara Bunn of Charlotte were married Dec. 10, 1977, and left three weeks later for Iran, where Bobby was the business manager.
“I was 25 and a newlywed and suddenly in Iran – it was a whole new world,” said Barbara, who worked in the office as data control supervisor. “But the Iranians were wonderful people, some of the most accommodating people we’ve ever met.”
Life revolved largely around the helicopter project. Supervisors and engineers worked 10-hour days, six days a week. Each day, 2,400 Iranians were bused in: carpenters, plumbers, electricians, masons, laborers.
Every chance they could, the Americans would sightsee, driving into the desert, where they found huge caves to explore.
They’d also visit Isfahan to see the palaces, mosques and vast shopping bazaar.
Little known to the Americans, trouble began soon after they arrived.
On the day Bobby and Barbara Bunn left Charlotte, New Year’s Eve 1977, President Jimmy Carter was in Tehran toasting the Shah, calling the U.S.-backed monarchy “an island of stability” in the Middle East.
That set off months of daily protests against the Shah’s brutal regime.
In August 1978, the Shah declared martial law to quell the protests. After that, the Americans from J.A. Jones noticed shop owners in Isfahan taking down photos of the Shah. They replaced them with pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who’d been in exile 14 years.
“We couldn’t be out past 8 p.m.,” Bobby Bunn said. “I’m not sure we realized the gravity of it all. We all felt safe inside the camp. But we knew the situation was deteriorating.”
Escape plan triggered
As winter approached, Johnie Jones in Charlotte had decided to get his people out.
In Iran, George Marett and Bobby Bunn came up with quick-escape plans, including holing up in desert caves, which they stocked with food and fuel.
Another plan was to bus everyone to the Persian Gulf and get on boats. But it was getting colder and mountain roads were snow-covered.
Jones assigned the evacuation job to Danny Sullivan, a longtime purchasing director in the Charlotte office. After flying to Iran, Sullivan and a representative from Burns International, the global security firm, decided the best way out was by air.
By November 1978, fuel was short, and the Shah’s government defaulted on payments for the project. Bell told J.A. Jones to slow down construction.
Sullivan met with two airlines and finally World Airways of Oakland, Calif., agreed to make the rescue.
It would supply a DC-10 and crew. The cost: $210,260.49.
The plane would fly into Khatami Air Base, code-named “Pigeon Tower,” about 20 miles from the job site.
The J.A. Jones people would get on first, then Bell Helicopter employees, and after that other companies that worked in the region, along with a few missionaries and teachers – until the 273 seats were filled.
Evenings, Marett and Bunn would slip out “under the cover of darkness” and drive to nearby Shahin Shahr to call Charlotte for updates.
On high alert
On Dec. 23, 1978, American Paul Grimm, a Texaco executive in Iran, was murdered.
“We all were called to a meeting at the consulate (in Isfahan),” Jim Walker said. “…We were put on high alert.”
Marett knew it was time to go. He called Charlotte and gave the code.
Sullivan and Johnie Jones triggered the rescue. The chartered DC-10 jetliner (code-named Speedbird) would arrive at Khatami Air Base on Jan. 3, 1979. Passengers could only bring what they could wear or put in small duffle bags.
Everything else, they’d put in containers that would be shipped to Charlotte.
Bobby Bunn, the business manager, was instructed to bring a briefcase with $100,000 in Iranian rials for bribes to make sure everyone got on board.
“We had 270 people we were trying to get out safely,” Bunn said. “We didn’t want anyone to block us.”
As New Year’s weekend approached, World Airways made a last stipulation: They wanted $20,000 in cash in case the pilots needed to make their own payoffs.
Johnie Jones called officials at Belk and Ivey’s department stores in Charlotte, who cleared their cash registers.
Leaving Chunky behind
They had days to pack.
Bobby and Barbara Bunn had bought a small Persian rug. Bobby wasn’t about to leave it, so on departure day, he wrapped and tied it around Barbara to wear onto the plane.
George Marett told wife Betty she’d have to leave behind Suzy, the pet dog.
“We’d had Suzy for a long time, and Betty said, ‘There’s no way I’m leaving without Suzy,’ ” Marett said. “Others wanted to take their pets, too. I just decided I’d hide behind the pilot and let him deal with the women. I knew he’d lose.”
But the Walkers had to go without Chunky, son Vincent’s dog. He was too big to take.
“It was hard on Vince,” Carolyn Walker said. “We had to convince him Chunky would be OK. We left him with one of the Iranian families.”
Bus convoy to Khatami
Early Jan. 3, a convoy of buses lined up to take the passengers to Khatami, leaving a job about 25 percent complete.
“It was solemn,” Jim Walker said. “We were construction people – we didn’t like to leave jobs undone.”
The trip to the base took an hour. Little was said as they waited for the plane.
The DC-10 arrived att 11 a.m., but another wait began as an Iranian official insisted on eating lunch before he checked documents and boarded passengers.
A couple of J.A. Jones employees had married Iranian women. Bobby Bunn had to buy their way on board. Finally, every seat was filled. Then another wait: The plane had clearance to land but not depart. The pilot decided to go anyway and started down the runway about 2 p.m.
The passengers were “pin quiet,” Jim Walker said. “We didn’t know if we were going to get shot down or a fighter jet would show up and escort us back.”
After flying an hour, the pilot came on the public address system:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to announce we have cleared Iranian airspace.”
Cheers and hugs broke out. The bar was opened. “It was time to party,” Walker said.
‘What have we been in’
The Europeans were dropped off in Frankfurt, Germany, and Speedbird flew on to Atlanta.
The Walkers lugged their duffle bags to a nearby hotel room and turned on the TV.
“All the news was about Iran,” Jim Walker said. “For the first time, we saw all the riots going on and the terrible conflict. … I thought: ‘Oh my gosh, what have we been in?’ ”
Thirteen days later, the Shah fled Iran for exile in Egypt. On Feb. 1, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to rule Iran – and nine months later, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was stormed and 52 Americans taken hostage.