The U.S. Navy suffered a black eye when two of its coastal riverine boats strayed into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf on Jan. 12, 2016, and were captured by Iranian military forces. Iran’s government sent out humiliating video of the 10 sailors kneeling on the deck of a boat, hands behind their heads.
A flurry of diplomacy secured the sailors’ freedom. They were returned, unharmed, after 15 hours in Iranian custody.
What’s largely unknown is that the Offutt-based crew of an RC-135 Rivet Joint flight called Python 72 monitored the sailors and their captors while orbiting for hours in the area, passing along key intelligence to their rescuers that ensured the sailors were freed safely and promptly.
For their efforts, Python 72’s 19-member air crew and five ground-based mission planners recently received the Air Force Association’s O’Malley Award as “Reconnaissance Crew of the Year” for 2016. It was the fifth time in the past six years that a 55th Wing crew from Offutt Air Force Base brought home the award.
“This crew demonstrated superior airmanship and tenacity while conducting sustained combat support operations in support of coalition forces,” former 55th Wing commander Col. George “Marty” Reynolds wrote in his nomination letter.
Through a Wing spokesman, the crew declined an interview, as did their squadron commander. The information for this story is taken from Reynolds’ unclassified nomination letter, and from a Navy investigation into the incident.
“It was just another day at the office,” said a senior member of the squadron.
Well, not quite.
Operating out of Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, the crew was coming off a rest day when news broke that the Navy boats had been seized. The riverine boats normally operate close to shore and were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain, a trip of nearly 300 miles.
The crews had failed to file a route plan and, through navigational errors, cruised within 3 miles of Iran’s Farsi Island, in the middle of the gulf. One of the boats broke down, and the other stopped to help. They were intercepted by several small Iranian naval vessels, whose crew members drew weapons and forced their way aboard. The Americans were bound and blindfolded with torn-up Iranian flags, taken to the island and interrogated overnight.
The Python 72 crew was scheduled to support operations in Afghanistan on Jan. 13. But the chief of the mission planning team heard that the boats had been seized and thought the Rivet Joint crew — with its ability to intercept radio and other electronic signals, and carrying linguists who could translate them — could help. They got the U.S. Central Command’s permission to jump in on the rescue effort.
The planning team quickly fashioned new mission plans, including flight tracks, briefings and aerial refueling.
The crew flew an unfamiliar orbit over the Persian Gulf near Farsi Island. They homed in on signals from the Iranians who were holding the sailors. They provided instant updates to the State Department and to the military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Center. The information helped then-Secretary of State John Kerry negotiate the release of the sailors.
Once that was arranged, the Python 72 crew monitored the turnover. The Iranians kept shifting the location of the sailors’ release, blaming bad weather. The frequent changes made members of the Recovery Center team suspicious, but the Rivet Joint crew was able to confirm that worsening weather really was the culprit.
“This crucial bit of intelligence was key for decision makers and allowed for the recovery mission to continue,” Reynolds wrote in his letter.
Even after the sailors were turned over to U.S. forces, Python 72 stayed in the area to continue what Reynolds described as “unprecedented” collection of intelligence about Iran’s tactics, techniques and procedures that could be useful in future encounters with the country’s military forces.
In September, several of the crew members traveled to Arlington, Virginia, to pick up their award.
Most, though, couldn’t make it because they were deployed on other missions.
The award winners included eight officers and 16 enlisted airmen.
The Python 72 crew is “just another example of what our Airmen are doing around the world on a daily basis,” Col. Michael Manion, current 55th Wing commander, wrote in a statement. The crew members’ “professionalism and dedication to the mission is what earned them this award.”