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Nov. 3, 1926 – Sept. 20, 2013

James Vaught, a retired Army lieutenant general who was a decorated combat veteran and was best known for leading an unsuccessful attempt to rescue 53 U.S. hostages held in Iran in 1980, died Sept. 20 in Conway, S.C. He was 86.

A son, James B. Vaught Jr., confirmed the death. The Horry County, S.C., coroner, Robert Edge, told the Associated Press that Gen. Vaught apparently drowned after falling into a pond from a pontoon boat. He also had signs of heart disease.

In November 1979, soon after Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Gen. Vaught began planning a military operation to rescue the hostages. The rescue attempt became a defining moment of the presidency of Jimmy Carter, as the fate of the hostages loomed over the public imagination throughout the 1980 presidential campaign.

Gen. Vaught, then serving as the Army’s director of operations and mobilization, was the chief planner of a complicated mission — Operation Eagle Claw. Personnel and equipment from the four major service branches were included in the effort, which required the coordination of Navy helicopters, Marine Corps pilots, Air Force transport planes and Army commandos. It was among the first engagements of an elite Army unit known as Delta Force.

The operation was set in motion April 24, 1980, when eight Navy helicopters took off from the USS Nimitz, a Navy aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Gen. Vaught directed the mission from a base in Egypt, with telephone links to Defense Secretary Harold Brown and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in the White House.

There were obstacles from the beginning, including a communications blackout among the helicopters and a severe dust storm in the Iranian desert that caused one helicopter to turn around and return to the Nimitz.

Two other helicopters encountered mechanical problems, leaving only five capable of flying to Tehran.

From the beginning, Gen. Vaught and other military planners had said that no fewer than six helicopters were required to carry out the mission.

Gen. Vaught and commanders on the ground recommended to Brown and Brzezinski that the operation be called off. Carter agreed and made the final decision.

Soon afterward, the rotor blades of a helicopter attempting to refuel at a staging area in Iran struck an Air Force transport plane.

Eight U.S. service members died in the fiery accident. The wreckage was left in the desert, along with secret information aboard the aircraft.

Military observers considered Operation Eagle Claw a colossal failure, and several congressional and military investigations were launched.

An early review by a military panel cited poor communications and faulted the Joint Chiefs of Staff for not subjecting Gen. Vaught’s plan to a critical analysis.

Years later, Gen. Vaught said he was hampered by turf battles among the military branches. When he asked to inspect the Navy helicopters before the mission, he said, permission was denied.

James Benjamin Vaught was born in Conway, where his family settled in 1683. He said he was a direct descendant of Francis Marion, a Revolutionary War general known as the “Swamp Fox” whose hit-and-run battlefield tactics made him an innovator in guerrilla warfare.

Vaught attended The Citadel, a military academy in Charleston, S.C., before entering the Army during World War II. He served in Germany as part of postwar occupation forces and commanded an infantry unit during the Korean War.

In the 1960s, he graduated from Georgia State University and received a master’s degree in business administration from George Washington University.

In 1967, he began his first tour of duty in Vietnam. In February 1968, he took command of a cavalry battalion that had a major role in capturing key positions in Hue and Khe Sanh.

He suffered serious injuries in a military vehicle accident in 1968 but, despite broken bones in his back, managed to rescue the vehicle’s driver. In 1971, he returned for a second tour in Vietnam.

His final command was in Korea, where he led combined U.S. and Korean forces before retiring as a three-star general in 1983 and moving to South Carolina.

— Washington Post