From the Spring 2001 UNO Alum
By Anthony Flott, EditorFrom the Spring 2001 UNO Alum
Air Force Capt. Paul Needham had just drifted to another night of fitful sleep when Iranian militants burst into his room, yelling for him to wake up and prodding him with the end of an automatic rifle. • Was it morning? Night? There was no telling; Needham’s dank cell in the basement of a U.S. embassy warehouse had no windows and only the meals, sometimes worm-infested, indicated time of day. • It was 2 a.m. • Needham was blindfolded and marched from his cell into another room where 20 other Americans had been herded. • “Go! Move!” yelled the captors. • The 21 Americans were lined with their backs against a clammy stone wall. Their blindfolds were removed. Facing them stood a dozen men in white masks, weapons drawn and aimed their way. • “Cue Up!” yelled an Iranian known to the hostages as their chief of security. • Click-Click. The executioners filled their chambers with bullets. • He barked out another order. • Click. The safety catches were released. • Needham began shaking uncontrollably. He started to recite Psalm 23. • “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In verdant pastures He gives me repose . . .” • A sense of calm came over him. He stopped shaking. • The executioners were ready. • “FIRE-CO!!!” screamed the chief Iranian. • Silence. • Click-Click. The executioners ejected their rounds, bullets falling harmlessly to the floor. • The masked men began to laugh. • They pushed the hostages back to their cells, strip-searched them for contraband and left with a warning: • “If you’re not careful, the men in the white masks will be back.”
RememberingFor Bellevue native and UNO graduate Paul Needham, that’s how Day 92 went at the hands of his Iranian captors. “It was the hardest day for me to get through,” he would say soon after being freed nearly one year later. “They made a believer out of me.”
Needham would spend a total of 444 days as one of 52 Americans held hostage in Iran, pawns in an international showdown between one country that gave refuge to a ruthless despot and another country intent on bringing him home to account for past atrocities.
Incredibly, he was not the only UNO graduate to play a part in that drama of nearly two decades ago. Also held hostage was Leland J. Holland, at the time a colonel with the U.S. Army serving as senior military member at the U.S. Embassy in Teheran. Holland, a boostrapper who graduated from then-Omaha University in 1962, actually had been taken hostage twice, first in a Valentine’s Day attack that lasted only four hours. A highly decorated officer who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, Leland died in 1990 at his home in Warrenton, Va.
Also intertwined was 1974 UNO grad Charles R. Williamson, a special forces pilot on the ill-fated attempt to rescue the hostages in April 1980. Of the eight men who died in the desert then, five were close friends of Williamson. Needham also was a friend. Both were Bellevue natives who grew up less than two blocks from each other. They played sandlot football together, attended Bellevue Mission Junior High School and Bellevue High School together, and went to classes at UNO together. Needham’s first night home in Bellevue was spent with Williamson.
The longtime friends had much to discuss.
The 444 days of terror Needham and his fellow captives experienced dragged on as if in a time-warp slowdown. Since then, they’ve passed at a rapid clip. The day George W. Bush Jr. took the presidential oath of office marked 20 years since Needham and the 51 others were freed to go home Jan. 20, 1981.
Twenty years. Can it be? “It seems 30 or 40 years ago,” Needham says. “I’ve done so many things since . . .” Needham, who today is a logistics professor at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., had planned to attend Bush’s inauguration parade but stayed home instead to avoid inclement weather. There was no reflective commemoration of the anniversary. Needham spent the day watching the inauguration on TV and fiddling with a couple of leaky sinks.
He had more immediate sorrows to contend with anyway. His mother, Mary, who on her son’s release 20 years ago also celebrated her birthday, died in mid-January this year. Less than two weeks later Needham’s sister, Martha, also died. Martha also was a UNO graduate, having earned a degree in 1980. Brother Jeff Needham graduated from UNO in 1984 while a fourth Needham child, Phil, attended the university but did not graduate.
Despite his personal crises Needham made time for a series of interviews in January recounting his 444 days and life since. He’s talked sparingly with the media over the years. When he does address the topic it’s usually with students amazingly ignorant about those dark days in American history. His firsthand accounts often are peppered with humorous asides. “Humor is easier,” he says. “The intent is to draw a laugh now and then. Otherwise you might start feeling sorry for yourself. Other people have been in worse situations.” Past injustice does not consume Needham; he has moved on with his life.
Still, there are moments. . .
“I can close my eyes and have immediate flashbacks in living color of that time,” he says. “I can close my eyes and start counting back to Nov. 4, 1979, and almost every day I can tell you something about, even though some were very, very boring days. Those times seem like they were ages ago. There are things that just pop up and I remember immediately. But I don’t dwell on it.”
The cover of Newsweek two decades ago declared Jan. 20, 1981, “A Day to Remember.”
Paul Needham will never forget.
CaptiveNeedham was an Air Force baby, the namesake of Chief Master Sgt. Paul Needham Sr. His father spent 30 years in the military, including combat in Korea and Vietnam. He was assigned off and on to Offutt Air Force Base from 1963 until retiring there in 1977.
Needham followed his father’s footsteps, enlisting in the Air Force in 1969. He spent time in Puerto Rico, returned to Offutt and earned a degree from UNO. It was a time of unrest and student protest for many college campuses, but not at UNO. The university through its Bootstrapper program had a strong military contingent, many of whom attended class in combat boots. “There was a notable lack of demonstrations on campus,” Needham says wryly. He completed 48 hours in one year on his way to a business degree. “It was a rather intensive period of time, but I got a good education,” he says. “It was a good school.”
From 1972-79 Needham was assigned to various bases, his last stop in that stretch being Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio. Along the way he earned a master’s degree in logistics from the Air Force Institute.
It was while stationed at Wright-Patterson that Needham, then 28, drew the worst assignment of his career, in October 1979.
Almost a year prior to that, in January, U.S.-Iranian relations disintegrated upon the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Phalavi from the Peacock Throne by the “Imam,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his secret Revolutionary Council dominated by Islamic clergymen. On Valentine’s Day that year, armed guerrillas briefly overtook the U.S. Embassy in Teheran but ceded control less than a day later. Embassy staff was reduced from more than 1,000 to almost nothing. Steel doors were installed and bars put in windows.
But by May, strained relations were on the mend. Iran had resumed U.S. oil shipments; the United States had resumed the sale of badly needed spare military parts.
That’s where Needham came in, though by default. Looking for someone to aid in the delivery of military equipment to Iran, the Air Force offered the assignment to two of his superiors. Both declined. The "offer" was presented to Needham. “I didn’t have any good excuses that day,” he says with a laugh. “I wasn’t quick on my feet. I was not a volunteer, I want to make that clear. But sometimes you do what you don’t want to do anyway.”
He arrived in Iran in late October, scheduled to be home by Christmas.
Then things went sour. The deposed Shah, who had been living in Mexico, was admitted to a New York hospital Oct. 22 to have his gall bladder removed and to begin chemotherapy for lymphatic cancer. President Jimmy Carter said the one-time U.S. ally was admitted for humanitarian reasons and would leave after treatment; Iranians saw it as a ploy to grant the Shah permanent citizenship and wanted him extradited to face “revolutionary justice.”
Teheran was in an uproar. By Nov. 4 a band of 500 or so “Muslim Students of the Imam Khomeini Line” marched through the city chanting “Death to America” and “Death to the Shah and Carter.” They gathered outside the embassy, a 27-acre compound surrounded by brick walls up to 12 feet high. Needham and others at the embassy had been alerted to possible acts against Americans and were told to “blend in” as best they could. Demonstrations were to be expected; an embassy takeover was not.
Needham proceeded as normal that morning, having breakfast then heading to his office to work. The crowd outside grew louder. At about 8:30 a.m. Needham looked out his window and saw demonstrators coming over the embassy walls. “The Iranian national police are standing aside and allowing this,” Needham recalls. “Nobody is trying to prevent it or stop it. A few minutes later it’s announced that they’re inside the building, that these demonstrators had captured a few Americans who were in several of the outlying buildings, and someone had broken into the main chancery.”
The 14 Marines guarding the building were ordered not to fire. They held off the militants as long as they could, using tear gas to confine them to the basement of the building where Needham was. By noon, though, the militants had broken free and had rounded up more than 50 Americans. That group did not include Needham, who was among 10 other Americans who had locked themselves into the communication vault and were destroying classified materials. They remained there for three hours. Only when they had destroyed all papers did they surrender.
Canvas bags were shoved over the heads of Needham and the others. Their hands were tied behind their backs and they were forced to the ground. Needham thought back to pictures in news magazines earlier that summer which showed Iranians being similarly bagged and executed with a bullet to the base of their skulls. He passed out. “The body has great defense mechanisms,” he says. “When I woke up from that little trip, I was still there.”
The captors stood Needham up and led him to a couch. The canvas bag was removed and he found himself staring down the barrel of a .38 caliber pistol. An intense interrogation began. “Fortunately, I was able to play the dumb routine for awhile. It actually wasn’t too hard at the moment,” he says in one of his humorous asides. Needham was then taken to a room with other hostages. They were given a spoonful of rice, blindfolded, handcuffed and taken to separate rooms. All told there were 66 Americans. Needham was with four other hostages. Two armed guards watched each man, guns aimed. Exhausted, Needham fell asleep. He kept his contact lenses in, though. “I knew we would be res- cued and I wanted to see which way to run. President Carter had made a statement that he would not negotiate with terrorists, and I knew we had several hostage rescue teams that had been toyed with and created actually. I honestly thought we would be rescued. It became apparent to me that wouldn’t occur very rapidly.”
Thus began Day 1.
MonotonyIndeed, no rescue was coming. Though U.S. military forces were within range of Teheran, such rescuers would have had to fight their way through a teeming, well-armed city. Without an element of surprise, such an attempt probably would have led to the hostages’ deaths.
Anyway, it appeared diplomatic efforts would lead to a peaceful outcome. Less than two weeks after the siege 13 hostages—eight black men and five women—were freed, leaving 53 Americans in Teheran.
But that would be it; no Americans would be sent home until the Shah was sent home.
By mid-December Needham had been moved to the basement of a warehouse where cubicles separated the hostages. Then began the start of a daily monotony that would mark the majority of his days as hostage. For how long, no one knew. “Instead of counting backward from 444,” he says, “you marked down Day 1 and started counting up to infinity.”
The routine remained relatively constant: Up at 6 a.m.; released to use the toilet and clean; back for breakfast, usually tea and bread; exercises—pushups, sit-ups, jogging in place; read a book; lunch, often rice, sometimes with stew; more exercises; work the mind solving calculus problems, remembering how to hot-wire a car or recalling maps of Teheran, just in case you escaped; supper between 7 and 9; wake up the next day and begin it all again.
Sometimes he had a roommate, Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Moeller, a Loup City, Neb., native. They spent a total of almost nine months together, though both frequently were kept in solitary confinement.
The days dragged. Needham filled his time reading whatever he could get his hands on. Or he’d grab a couple of cockroaches and have races. “I’d kill the loser,” he says matter-of-factly. “I guess I watched too many ‘Stalag 17’ movies.” He frequently called on God, praying and reading the Bible. He feared death, or that he’d never again see his two sons, Paul John and Neal, who lived with his ex-wife in Florida.
But the humdrum was the lesser of two evils. “It’s probably best you didn’t have so much excitement.” Needham says, recalling the mock firing squad and a similar incident about a month after that.
Mental tortures were frequent. The hostages could hear the militants torturing other Iranians in nearby rooms. Guns to the head were common—one captor played Russian Roulette with Elizabeth Montagne, a secretary among the 13 hostages released in November. Marine Sgt. Johnny McKeel Jr. was told his mother had died; he didn’t discover the truth until he called home after his release and she answered the phone. A hostage might be shown a letter from home long enough to see the familiar return address, then have to watch as the letter was burned. Needham recalls physical mistreatments including “getting slapped around a few times” or being tied in a chair, blindfolded and having a captor “come around and kick you in the ribs now and then.” He dropped from 160 pounds to 130.
Heading HomeAnd so life went on for the hostages day after day, interspersed with moments of hope and fear. There was the failed rescue mission in the desert outside Teheran in April during which eight Americans died. The Ayatollah threatened to kill the hostages should another "silly maneuver" be attempted. Carter had “lost his mind,” he said. Needham didn’t learn of the attempt until the following November. On Day 250 in late July, hostage Richard Queen was released because of what his captives thought was a brain tumor (it later turned out to be multiple sclerosis). About the same time, on July 27, the Shah died in an Egyptian military hospital. The militants’ ransom demand had become moot, and signs pointed to a possible release. But Iraq invaded Iran later that summer, and release talks were put on hold. Ronald Reagan was elected in November. President Carter continued to work for the hostages’ release.
By early January 1981 the Iranians were proposing that should Iranian assets in U.S. banks be unfrozen, the hostages would be freed.
The end came quickly and with little forewarning to the 52 Americans.
On the evening of Jan. 19, Needham and the other hostages were blindfolded and handcuffed then led across the compound to a building where doctors from Algeria examined them. He and Moeller were returned to their rooms and told to pack. They waited. Nothing happened. Evening came and the two Nebraskans began to unpack. Ten minutes later militants came to their room, once more blindfolding them. But with no handcuffs. Needham knew something different was up.
The 52 were loaded onto a white Mercedes bus with curtained windows and raced to Mehrabad Airport. They arrived at a remote corner far from the main terminal. Needham was not convinced they were being released. He recalled German’s executing their prisoners after a forced march during the Battle of the Bulge. “I thought they might get ready to do that to us. I thought we might no longer be of value.” Their blindfolds were taken off and they were led off the bus. Militants grabbed them roughly by the arm, whirling them around so an Iranian TV crew could film each of them full-face. Then they were shoved through a long gauntlet of militants cursing at them, kicking them and spitting on them. “Death to America!” they shouted. “Allah is great!”
The hostages boarded a red and white Boeing 727 from Air Algerie. The plane left at 11:25 a.m. U.S. time, 35 minutes before Reagan took the oath of office as the 40th president. Once into Turkish air space an Algerian ambassador broke out a toast. “All of a sudden this wonderful, this great cheer went up. ‘Hooray! We’re out of there!’ There was a lot of backslapping, elation, joy. We knew we had a couple more steps to finish before we were in Germany, before we were going home, but we were free. We knew that.”
Back home, Needham’s family watched on TV as the hostages deboarded in Algiers. Needham was the 15th hostage to leave the plane. The film showed him eight times—he looked thin; his hair was long. The family broke out champagne and wall-to-wall smiles.
From Algiers two American Medevac planes flew the hostages to Rhein-Main Air Base at Frankfurt. The flight was surreal, says Needham. “I got to go up into the cockpit . . . and I was standing behind the pilot and copilot. There was a full moon and we were flying over the Alps. It was a gorgeous night, something out of the picture books. Just to stand there was wonderful. I can’t believe I’m here after 14 and-a-half months in captivity to see this.” The plan landed and was greeted by thousands of servicemen, their wives and their children, most of them waving American flags and chanting “USA! USA! USA!” “Emotionally, that was my period of welling up with some tears of joy,” Needham says.
The newly freed Americans boarded buses for the U.S. military hospital at Weisbaden. They were debriefed and tested. President Carter met with them for a terse 50 minutes. They feasted at a banquet with 250 pounds of lobster and 1,000 bottles of champagne. Then they headed home on “Freedom One,” a military VC-137 bound for Stewart Airport in upstate New York. The plane descended through clear blue skies and onto American soil. They met their families in West Point. They told their stories. Some of them joined a ticker tape parade in New York City.
Needham skipped the New York parade for one in Bellevue Feb. 1. The city lined the streets with 444 yellow ribbons, released 14,000 yellow balloons into the winter sky and declared it “Paul Michael Needham Day.”
Many experts predicted trouble for the hostages upon their return saying they could suffer from various psychological disturbances and psychosomatic disorders. Anger. Guilt. Anxiety. Irritability. Short fuses. Memory lapses. Eating disorders. Flashbacks. Nightmares. A year after their ordeal ended Newsweek reported that at least a dozen of them had needed psychiatric care and two were said to have been institutionalized for extended periods.
Needham says he experienced no significant trauma. “It was easy to be free. I had a lot of experience with that,” he says.
Soon after his release he spoke at a press conference at Offutt saying that, “I’ve spent this past week trying to forget those 444 days and trying to get back into some kind of normal life. Trying to get back and enjoying being a free American again.”
That’s just what he did. Needham remained with the military, eventually retiring as a Lt. Col. He earned a doctorate from the University of Maryland and joined the Independent College of the Armed Forces at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., where he teaches logistics, preparing students to participate “in the resolution of strategic military and logistic issues and to unify action across service, agency and national lines in peace or war.”
Divorced with two boys prior to being taken hostage, the 50-year-old Needham today is remarried and has another son and a daughter, both teenagers now. They live in the rolling hills of Virginia. His father-in-law has a spread nearby, and Needham frequently rides a couple of his horses there. He takes his kids to soccer and basketball games. If there's spare time he puts up fencing on his property. Or work son his sinks.
“Life has been wonderful,” says Needham.
And no longer does he count the days.
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