This Month in AFMS History: The Iranian hostages arrive in Wiesbaden, 38 years ago

  • Published
  • By Kevin M. Hymel
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
On Jan. 20, 1981, two Air Force C-9 Nightingale aerovac aircraft touched down at Rhein-Main Air Base, West Germany, to cheering crowds. Inside were 52 Americans, just released after 444 days of captivity in Iran, an event commonly referred to as the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

They were free, but before returning home to the U.S., they stopped at the U.S. Air Force hospital at Wiesbaden for medical and psychological exams.

The hospital staff began preparing to treat the hostages long before the former hostages arrived, in fact long before they were freed. Iranian students first occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. That day, the State Department chief physician asked if the hospital could accommodate 66 hostages for medical evaluations. On Nov. 17, two small groups of hostages, totaling 13 people, were released, and flown to the Weisbaden hospital for care. Another hostage, who developed multiple sclerosis while in captivity, was released on July 11, 1980. This left 52 hostages, all of whom were freed Jan. 20, 1981. The Wiesbaden hospital was ready to receive and care for them.

Air Force Col. Frederick W. Plugge IV, the hospital commander, oversaw care for the released Americans. Knowing they had been living in an extremely controlled environment for more than a year, he scheduled nothing for their first day of freedom.

“These individuals had been confined for so long,” said Plugge. “One of the most important things for them was to be unconfined.”

The former hostages spent their first day roaming their quarters, mingling with colleagues, and enjoying the luxury of freedom. Many were too excited to sleep. Some told Plugge they did not want to sleep because they worried they might wake up and discover it was all a dream.

Plugge established a phone bank of 24 telephones for the former hostages to call anyone in the world for as long as they liked, 24 hours a day. A call center was also set up to receive incoming calls and take messages for the former hostages.

Physicians from multiple medical agencies examined the former hostages, conducting general physical exams, mental health examinations, and extensive system reviews, comparing each hostage’s pre- and post-captivity condition. Most of the former hostages had joint and orthopedic pain, a result of not getting enough exercise. Some had lost weight, a few to an alarming degree. They also received electrocardiograms, chest x-rays, and other diagnostic tests. All received dental checkups, with half needing restorative work.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who had just attended President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration the day before, visited the former hostages. He received enthusiastic applause, followed by one-on-one visits, picture taking, and answering the former hostages’ questions. He also walked over to the phone bank where he spoke to individuals and, in some cases, got on the phone.

After all the examinations and treatment, the former hostages departed Wiesbaden for the final flight home.

“It was an historical time not only for this organization, but for the nation,” Said Plugge.