For Marine Corps Sgt. Rodney “Rocky” Sickmann, the first sign of trouble was the voice on his walkie-talkie saying “Recall, recall.”
It was Nov. 4, 1979, and Sickmann had just gotten off guard duty at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, but for some reason, he was being called back.
“As I look at the front gate, there were individuals climbing over the wall,” Sickmann said. “There was no security. If there was security, they were walking away, and you knew you were had.”
Over the next 444 days, Sickmann was one of 52 Americans held in the Iran Hostage Crisis. He spoke about his ordeal at a luncheon Monday hosted by the Marietta Business Association at Roswell Street Baptist Church.
At first, the 22-year-old would spend his time thinking about good memories from his childhood in Krakow, Missouri, from sledding down hills to winning tennis matches and his mom’s pancakes.
“I’m sitting there and remembering my mother making pancakes on this old black skillet, and I can remember thinking of those pancakes being poured on the skillet and the bubbling, and she would flip them over and put them on the plate, put butter, pour the maple syrup on top, and in the corner of that room, I would eat those pancakes,” he said. “That’s how far deep you would live your past.”
At first, the hostages were held in the embassy, but their captives would later split them up and move them to separate locations around the country in small groups, blindfolded and handcuffed.
Only after he was freed did the captives learn that moving the hostages around was in response to a failed rescue attempt, in which eight U.S. servicemen lost their lives.
Sickmann did not show emotion when he spoke of the poor treatment he received at the hands of his captors or the brutal and humiliating interrogations, but he fought back tears when he spoke of the men who died trying to rescue him.
“They lost everything,” he said. “Why? Because of what the American flag represents. Freedom. They were willing to give the ultimate sacrifice, to lose their life, to come over and regain some guy from Krakow, Missouri. … They’d never be able to play pitch and catch, put their kids to bed at night, walk their kids down the aisle, as I have been, so every ... morning, I wake up and I earn each day for those eight individuals.”
At first, the captives were told they would be freed once the Shah of Iran had been returned. They were not allowed to read newspapers except for, at times, out-of-date sports pages. In one edition, they read that a tennis tournament had been delayed due to the Shah’s death.
“Things were not getting better, they were getting worse,” he said. “You couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. We banged on the door, we said, “Hey, the Shah is dead.’ … They said, ‘We don’t believe he’s dead. ... We didn’t get to see the body.’”
After that, morale sank. Sickmann said captives would disobey orders and remove their blindfolds while walking through the hall to the restroom.
“You got to the point where you did not care anymore,” he said. “And they would come with their rifles drawn because they didn’t want you to see the people in the hallway. You’d put the rifle in your mouth and say, ‘Shoot us. Put us out of our frickin’ misery.’ You just got to the point where you didn’t want to live anymore. The Shah’s dead, and now what’s going to happen?”
When the captives were finally released, they were driven to a runway and loaded onto an airplane, but Sickmann said nobody really believed they were to be freed. Just after lifting off from the tarmac, the plane landed again and started idling, he said.
“With how they humiliated us, how they screwed with our heads for 444 days, you’re just sitting there thinking, ‘This is just one last thing,’” he said.
In reality, the Iranians had the Algerian pilot wait 20 minutes until President Jimmy Carter was out of office and President Ronald Reagan was sworn in, just to deny Carter the victory, according to Sickmann.
Even after takeoff, Sickmann said the hostages all believed there was a bomb on the plane or it would soon be struck by a missile.
“It wasn’t until we got into Turkish airspace and the pilot came on and said we were free that we knew, after 444 days, we were free. We were jumping over the chairs,” he said.
Sickmann went on to marry his girlfriend, who waited for him through the crisis. He retired from a career as director of military and industrial affairs for Budweiser, and still represents the company for Folds of Honor, a group that helps families of killed and disabled troops.
The Iran Hostage Crisis was the focal point of the 2012 Best Picture-winning film “Argo,” in which Sickmann’s son Spencer plays a bit role and Sickmann gave advice to the actors.
“When I went to the red carpet premiere, I can tell you that my knee, my left leg was twitching, and my girlfriend, now my wife …. She goes ‘Rocky, are you alright?’ and I say ‘I’m fine, it’s just the sounds.’ The sounds that had started that movie, if you close your eyes, sound just like Nov. 4, 1979. I’ll never forget it.”
Deb Krier, a business professional and radio show host, echoed others in the crowd in praising Sickmann’s story.
“He was a great speaker, very inspirational, and especially moving right around Memorial Day,” she said. “This is something that we need to hear about.”
Jim Fuhs, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and president of Fuhsion Marketing, said he was most touched by the story of the men who tried to rescue the hostages.
“Rocky really hit on how we can’t forget about those eight service members who sacrificed their lives to try to make those guys free,” he said. “I thought it was very poignant and fitting that he talked about that today.”