On November 4, 1979, a mob of Iranians, mostly radical university students and supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, surged over the wall around the United States compound in Tehran and occupied the American Embassy. They took most of those in the compound hostage, illegally holding them for 14 long, dark months, as the world's superpower looked on, desperate and helpless.
But six Americans escaped capture that day. The Agricultural Attaché, Lee Schatz, casually strolled through the crowd and took refuge with the Swedish Embassy. Five others were also able to make their way out of the compound unnoticed: Robert Anders, the head of the consular section, and two Consular Attachés, Joe Stafford and Mark Lijek, with their wives. Picking their way cautiously through the streets, they reached the temporary security of Anders' apartment.
The Canadian Ambassador in Iran, Ken Taylor, first heard of the Embassy takeover from his Swedish colleague, whose building overlooked the compound. He promptly informed Ottawa. Four days later, his Chief Immigration Officer, John Sheardown, was astonished to receive a phone call from Bob Anders. Anders explained the situation and asked if he and his group could be given shelter within the next few days; Sheardown promised to consult the Ambassador.
Taylor didn't hesitate. The Americans would be given shelter – the question was where. Because the Canadian Chancery was right downtown, it was far too dangerous. It would be better to split up the Americans. Taylor decided Sheardown should take three of hostages to his house, while he would house the others at the official residence. They would be described to staff as tourists visiting from Canada. Taylor immediately began drafting a cable for Ottawa.
The Americans were particularly fortunate that Ken Taylor was Canadian Ambassador. He had been head of Canada's Trade Commissioner Service when he was sent to Tehran in 1977 because Iran, under the Shah, was a trading partner of growing importance. Happily, he proved to be more than a salesman. In January 1979, when the Shah's regime was obviously collapsing, he arranged the evacuation of 850 Canadians from Iran, a tremendous feat of organization. Ken Taylor was the right man, in the right job, at the right time.
Taylor's telegram set off a frenzy of consultation in the Department of External Affairs. The Director-General of the Bureau for African and Middle Eastern Affairs, Michael Shenstone, immediately concurred that Canada had no choice but to shelter the fugitives. Under-Secretary Allan Gotlieb agreed. Given the danger the Americans were in, he noted, there was "in all conscience ... no alternative but to concur" despite the risk to Canadians and Canadian property.
The Minister, Flora MacDonald, could not be immediately reached as she was involved in a television interview. However, when finally informed of the situation, she agreed that Taylor must be permitted to act, but cautioned that formal approval from Prime Minister Joe Clark was required. Pulling Clark from Question Period in the House of Commons, she briefed him on the situation and obtained his immediate go-ahead. Soon after, a telegram was sent to Tehran – Taylor could act to save the Americans. He was told that knowledge of the situation would be on a strict "need-to-know" basis.
The next day, the five Americans were collected and driven to Sheardown's house, where Anders and the Lijeks remained; Taylor took the Staffords to the residence. Thus began a lengthy period of anxiety for the Americans and their hosts. Meanwhile, Taylor would have to carry on with the work of a diplomat.
Canada's Ambassador was particularly concerned that the traditional doctrine of the immunity of embassies and diplomatic personnel had been breached by the Iranians. He attempted to rouse the diplomatic corps into making a concerted protest, but met with little success. Nonetheless, Canada registered its disapproval with the Iranian mission in Ottawa and in Tehran.
Taylor also set out to be as useful as he could to the United States. He met with Bruce Laingen, the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires, who was in "protective custody" at the Iranian foreign ministry, which he had been visiting at the time of the attack. Taylor readily acted as a channel of communications between Laingen and Washington. The Ambassador's reports to Ottawa were shared with the U.S. government, which sometimes asked Ottawa for information on specific subjects. Taylor even scouted out potential landing spots for helicopters in Tehran in case a rescue was attempted. Finally, the Embassy transmitted messages for two undercover CIA agents.
On November 21, as the crisis deepened, Taylor was surprised to receive a call from the Swedish Ambassador asking him to shelter Lee Schatz, the sixth American escapee, who had been staying with a Swedish diplomat. The Ambassador felt that Schatz could more easily pass as a Canadian and would be safer in Canadian hands. Taylor agreed, and Schatz was added to the complement of Americans at the Sheardown house. On November 27, U.S. Thanksgiving was celebrated there, with the hostages expressing the hope that they would not be celebrating Christmas there too.
During the course of the following few weeks, the tension mounted among the small group in Tehran. Some fretted that the Iranians might realize that not all U.S. Embassy personnel were accounted for, leading to the discovery of the hostages. Others worried that the United States might mount a rescue attempt. A successful operation to rescue the hostages might leave the Canadians' guests behind, while an unsuccessful one would only make the situation worse.
Even more alarming, the story began to leak. It was accidentally spread through the Department of External Affairs when one of Taylor's reports, which had been classified Secret rather than Top Secret, was included in a summary distributed to senior departmental officers. While the reference to Taylor's "guests" was an oblique one, the leak was dangerous. In mid-November, Taylor ordered his military head of security, Sergeant Claude Gauthier, to begin shredding Embassy documents. At least three times, the overworked shredder blew out the electrical fuses before the job was finished late in the month.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, Prime Minister Clark's Conservative government was under increasing pressure from the Liberal opposition to do more to help the Americans. They were kept under relentless attack by Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau and his foreign affairs critic, Allan MacEachen. Eventually, Clark decided to take Trudeau into his confidence and did so on November 26. Though Clark hoped that this would soften Liberal questioning, he was disappointed. The partisan opposition attack continued. This so angered MacDonald that she nearly gave the game away in the House; Clark was more circumspect. Nonetheless, in their angry responses to Liberal probing, both provided clues, which the press gallery fortunately did not follow up.
By December, nerves in Ottawa, Washington, and especially Tehran, were frayed and ragged. As the Embassy's First Secretary (Commercial), John Kneale, later wrote in his book, Foreign Service (North York, Ont., 1993), "we were all in a slough of depression .... exhausted and frustrated with no idea how long this paralyzing situation might last." The Americans worried about the danger they posed to their Canadian hosts, and about what would happen if one of them became so ill that hospital treatment was required. Sheardown's wife, Zena, who rarely left the house, was increasingly worried about discovery.
The inevitable finally occurred in mid-December. The Washington correspondent of the Quebec paper La Presse, Jean Pelletier, had been worrying away at the situation for some time. He was first alerted by the fact that U.S. officials were referring to different numbers of hostages. He found it hard to believe that the Americans did not know exactly how many people they had in Tehran and he concluded that some had escaped. Told by the Minister at Canada's Washington Embassy, Gilles Mathieu, that Canada was "the most useful American ally in the crisis," Pelletier logically assumed that the American escapees were harboured by Canadians. He approached the Embassy for confirmation of his guesswork, thus revealing to Canadian authorities that the secret was out. Pelletier has provided a full account of the unfolding of events and of his own role in The Canadian Caper (Toronto, 1981), co-authored by Claude Adams.
There was consternation at the Embassy. Ambassador Peter Towe quickly phoned Pelletier, warning him of the danger to the Americans should the story be broken and urging him to hold off on publication. Pelletier, who well knew the implications of publishing, had already decided that he would not break the story until the Americans were safely out of Iran. He managed to convince his editor, who wanted to publish immediately, to agree. Towe also warned Ottawa of Pelletier's knowledge, cautioning that less ethical journalists might not reach the same conclusion. The Department in turn informed Taylor and the Minister on December 10. MacDonald, who was at a NATO meeting in Brussels when she heard the news, met hastily with U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. She told him that the secret was known and that the time had come to get the hostages out. Vance pleaded for time. He explained that the large number of hostages held in the U.S. Embassy were the President's priority and promised to see what could be done when he returned to Washington.
Taylor was also galvanized by the news. He arranged for the rental of a safe house, where the Americans could hide if the story broke. He counted on having two to three hours to make his arrangements before the Iranians appeared at the Embassy.
To the chagrin of the American hostages, Christmas was indeed celebrated at the Sheardown residence. Schatz suggested they start planning for Easter; no one laughed. Fortunately, it did not come to that. On December 30, MacDonald met again with Vance at the United Nations. With the New York Times now also aware of the situation, though it too agreed to delay publication, it was clear that the secret could not be kept much longer. Vance and MacDonald decided that Canada and the U.S. would together forge a plan to get the Americans out.
Early in the New Year, two Americans – Antonio Mendez, head of the Authentication Branch of the CIA's Office of Technical Services, and a documents specialist – arrived in Ottawa. They were soon closeted with MacDonald and her aides at the Minister's apartment. Clark's government had already issued Canadian passports for the six hostages, who would be passed off as Canadian film-makers, connected with a dummy film company that Mendez had set up in Hollywood to explore a possible production in Iran. On Taylor's advice, it was decided that the only way out of Iran was through the airport on a regularly scheduled flight. In bureaucratic jargon, the operation was referred to as the "exfiltration" of the American hostages.
Meanwhile, the process of slowly closing down the Canadian Embassy started. Staff members gradually began to depart, the last classified documents were shredded, and unclassified material moved to the New Zealand Embassy, which had agreed to look after Canadian interests. Important information on security procedures at the airport was provided by couriers and departing members of the Embassy staff, including Kneale, who carefully observed and memorized "every detail of the process" as he passed through the airport on January 9. Forged Iranian exit and entry visas and passport stamps were prepared in the United States and sent by Canadian courier to Tehran. Luckily, at the last minute, the political officer, Roger Lucy, who had a knowledge of Farsi, noticed an erroneous date in the entry visas.
On January 19, 1980, Taylor's wife, Pat, was horrified to receive a call at the residence asking to speak to one of the Staffords. It was immediately clear that further delay would only increase the danger and two days later, MacDonald ordered the exfiltration to begin. Before he could move, however, Taylor was informed that the Americans wanted their own "escort officer" on hand, creating another delay. On January 25, Mendez and another CIA officer arrived in Tehran, posing as yet more members of the fictitious film company. One of their tasks was to correct the mistaken date on the entry visas.
Six seats were booked on a Swissair flight leaving at 7:35 in the morning on of January 27, a Sunday. As a backup, seats were also booked on subsequent KLM, Air France, and British Airways flights. The six passed through airport security and immigration checks with no difficulty. The Swissair flight was an hour late in leaving but otherwise there were no hitches. After two and a half months of "house arrest," the six American hostages were free and safe.
The rest of the Embassy staff left later that day. As a final precaution, Sgt. Gauthier smashed the cypher equipment, earning himself the nickname "Sledge" in the process. The last message from Ottawa ended "See you later, exfiltrator." A sign was posted on the Chancery and a notice was issued informing Canadians still in Iran of the Embassy's closure and advising them to consider leaving. Four days later, the New Zealand Embassy was occupied and responsibility for Canadian interests transferred to the Danes, who placed their staff (along with locally engaged employees of the Canadian Embassy) in the Chancery and residence. The Iranian Embassy in Ottawa remained open.
Concerned about the safety of the remaining American hostages, Cyrus Vance requested the "strictest confidentiality" about the houseguests and their escape. This proved impossible. Pelletier and La Presse, now that the immediate danger was over, broke the story on January 29. The daring rescue touched a nerve in the U.S., where Americans were desperate for good news. It brought an outpouring of gratitude across the United States and made a celebrity of Taylor, who made personal appearances across North America, reaping honours and awards from grateful Americans. Exploiting his celebrity, the government appointed him Canada's next Consul-General in New York. And why not? He had already received the keys to the city!
Washington awarded Taylor the Congressional Gold Medal and Canada made him an Officer of the Order of Canada. Sheardown, Lucy, Taylor's secretary, Laverna Dollimore, and the Embassy's communicator, Mary Catherine O'Flaherty, were made Members of the Order of Canada. Sgt. Gauthier and two fellow military policemen received the Order of Military Merit. Foreign service spouses were outraged that Pat Taylor and Zena Sheardown were not similarly honoured, and protested strongly. They too became members of the Order of Canada.