Sequim man tells of 444 days imprisoned in Iran

SEQUIM — In his home office, Charles Jones has various awards for valor, and a photograph of the Americans who spent 444 days imprisoned in Iran.

Jones, now 69, was one of them: 52 men and women taken hostage by Islamist militants and held, in two of Tehran’s most brutal prisons, from November 1979 until January 1981.

He was a communications officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when the militants took over the building, seized the staff and U.S. Marine guards.

This set in motion an international crisis that would last more than 14 months.

The United States had long been a backer of the recently overthrown Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, and had allowed him into this country.

In Pahlavi’s place, following the revolution of February 1979, was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the “supreme leader” who suspected the United States of plotting to reinstall the shah, and whose supporters dubbed America “the Great Satan.”

Jones was 39, a man who had left his native Detroit to join the Air Force and then the foreign diplomatic service. Before Iran, he already had been assigned to places riven with conflict: Cairo, Tel Aviv, the Congo, Vietnam in the early 1970s.

He left Saigon as it was falling to the North Vietnamese army — and went to his next assignment, Tehran, with eagerness.

This summer, as Jones has watched another crisis erupt in Iran, he is thinking back on his time in Tehran.

But please, Jones says, do not call him a hero.

Right place, wrong time

“I was at the right place at the wrong time,” he said, adding that when he arrived in Iran, he found the place and its people beautiful.

Politically, the country was still in turmoil following the revolution. The embassy, they believed, was a den of spies.

Early on the morning of Nov. 4, 1979, the militants descended. When the workers retreated to the embassy’s vault, they set a fire outside to try to smoke them out.

They threatened to kill a security officer if Jones and the others didn’t open the door; after they opened it, they were bound and blindfolded, and the ordeal began.

Throughout his time in captivity, Jones thought about his four daughters, who were then age 7 to 14. Carla, Kathy, Candice and Kari kept his mind focused on the day of release.

Sounds of torture

In his prison cell, he heard sounds that would burn into his memory: men and women screaming as they were tortured; beatings; merciless interrogations.

He remembers a woman who would say only one thing to her torturers: “Allahu akbar” ­– God is great — and even when beaten again and again, she refused to repeat after them that the Ayatollah Khomeini was her supreme leader.

The hostages were forbidden to speak to one another, Jones added, for months. Christmas came, then New Year’s, and on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1980, they were suddenly permitted to converse.

“We talked about everything under the sun,” Jones recalled.

Many times, though, hostages were held in solitary confinement and threatened with execution.

“They could look you in the eye and say, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ and in the next breath, bring something to you.”

Each time their captors changed something in the daily routine, a frisson of hope spread among the hostages: Whenever they were served a good meal, or just some Smuckers jam on bread, they thought it could mean imminent freedom.

On April 24, 1980, President Jimmy Carter launched a rescue attempt, Operation Eagle Claw. The hostages heard planes roaring above their prison cells. Eight Americans and one Iranian died in the failed mission.

Some hostages believed their release would come soon after Ronald Reagan was elected president in November 1980. Instead it happened the day Reagan was inaugurated: Jan. 20, 1981.

“They pulled us in, one by one, and interrogated us,” Jones remembered. “They wanted me to sign a statement saying we had been honorably treated.

“I said, ‘I’m not signing anything.'”

Bound for Europe

Finally he and the other hostages boarded a plane bound for Europe. As soon as they left Iranian airspace, the champagne came out — but Jones, who didn’t drink then and doesn’t now, had ginger ale.

They flew on to Germany, where they were surrounded by Americans — “a wonderful feeling,” Jones said — but they had dreamed so many times of that day that it didn’t feel real.

The tickertape parade in their honor in New York City, the largest since Charles Lindberg first flew across the Atlantic in 1927, was as dreamlike.

Then came interviews with Barbara Walters and many more media outlets, centerfolds in Life magazine and personal thanks from President Reagan — but Jones didn’t want to become a “professional hostage.”

“I had a lot of things I wanted to work through,” he said. His marriage was ending, and he needed time to rest before his next assignment; in August, he went to work in the U.S. Consulate in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In early 1983, he met Maria, to whom he’s now been married for nearly 20 years. Then came U.S. State Department assignments in Antigua, Senegal, Papua New Guinea, Grenada and Dublin, Ireland. He and Maria married in February 1990 in Gambia; Jones retired in 1995, and they moved to British Columbia, where Maria grew up.

After hearing about Sequim from a friend, the couple visited, and against expectations fell in love with a house in SunLand,.

Jones also is active in the Clallam County Democratic Party and went to the state convention in Spokane last year as a delegate for Barack Obama.

One morning this week, it hit Jones: Thirty years ago this month, he was getting ready to go to Tehran.

What happened there changed history, and it changed the man.

“I became more tolerant,” Jones said. When first thrust into captivity with 51 others, “I was considered a hard-ass.”

But when he saw how intractable his captors were, he learned to soften his stances for the good of the group.

Yet again, Jones emphasized, he’s no hero.

“I’m a survivor,” he said. “That is how I want people to think of me.”

________

Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at [email protected]

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