Colonel Charlie Beckwith
Charlie Beckwith has never been a public man. Now, eight months after the calamitous hostage-rescue mission that failed, costing eight airmen's lives, its commander seems almost a figment of the military imagination—a soldier so reclusive even some of his Army colleagues seem uncertain whether he is still at Fort Bragg. One thing they do speculate about is how much Beckwith wanted to lead his 90-man assault team from the secret desert airstrip to the besieged U.S. embassy in Tehran even after three of his eight helicopters developed mechanical problems. The 51-year-old Green Beret officer angrily denied that rumor in a Washington press conference after the aborted mission. "Sure I wanted to get the job done," he conceded, "but in that circumstance it was a no-win situation." Indeed it was. Evacuating the staging area in pitch darkness, a chopper and a transport plane collided, exploding in a lethal fireball of fuel and ammunition. "It was a pure and simple accident I don't know why it happened," Beckwith said. "I sat there and cried."
His sorrow and dismay were shared by the nation. Despite the recriminations that followed, the courage of Beckwith and his raiders was paid glowing tribute even by those who thought the mission a travesty. Something of a legend within the Army's elite Special Forces, Beckwith earned the nickname "Charging Charlie" during the war in Vietnam. "He told me that the best defense was to attack twice a day," recalls retired Sergeant-Major William DeSoto. Once, he remembers, Beckwith organized a mission to rescue a small group of Special Forces pinned down by the enemy in the southern highlands. "He led it himself," says DeSoto, "standing straight up and firing a Russian-made AK-47 rifle, which he preferred over our M16 because it was lighter and more durable. He was a soldier's soldier, the finest commanding officer I ever had."
Retired Master Sergeant Charles Hiner, who served with Beckwith in Vietnam and Laos, dissents. He accuses Beckwith of sending out a reconnaissance patrol once under suicide conditions, resulting in four men out of six being killed. "The weather was too rough for the helicopters," Hiner recalls of that mission. "They couldn't get support in or us out, but Beckwith still wanted to go ahead. He wanted to make a name for himself, which he did." Beckwith was hardly hiding out at headquarters, however. He sustained a nearly fatal stomach wound when his own chopper drew enemy fire as it rushed to investigate.
The aura of mystery that surrounds Beckwith now is compounded by the Army's reluctance to disclose much about him beyond name, rank and serial number. His early biography seems quite unremarkable. Born in Atlanta, Beckwith was the youngest son of an oil trucker who died when the boy was 11. "He was just a typical kid," recalls his older brother Lamar, 59. "He was into hunting, fishing, football and the Boy Scouts. When he majored in physical education at the University of Georgia, I kind of thought he might go into coaching."
A fierce competitor at guard for coach Wally Butts' Georgia Bulldogs, Beckwith graduated in 1952, received his ROTC commission and married his coed sweetheart. During a varied Army career, he trained in 1961-62 with Britain's crack commando group, the Special Air Service. It was a watershed experience. (Ten days after the disastrous Iran raid, the SAS dramatically succeeded in rescuing 19 hostages held in the Iranian embassy in London.) After that stint, Beckwith began working to organize a U.S. equivalent—a hand-picked unit of Green Beret volunteers whose purpose has been hidden behind a succession of code names, including Charlie's Angels.
Currently a strong candidate for a general's star, Beckwith lives at Bragg with his wife, Katherine, 52, and their youngest daughter, Charlotte (called "Charlie"), 8. Daughter Connie, 24, is an Army second lieutenant stationed in Germany, while Peggy, 22, is in her first year at the University of Georgia Law School. There are no sons (the sole portrait in the entry hall of their home is of John Wayne), but to a woman, the family is fiercely proud of the colonel. Recalls Peggy: "He used to tell me that when he was growing up his football coach had told him, 'Charlie, you're so clumsy you're never going to make it.' And Daddy would say, 'But I'm going to make it.' I think he's been fighting all his life."