Four hundred and forty-four days—the number and the countdown were inscribed on the national consciousness by Walter Cronkite when Iranian students seized the American embassy in 1979 and held its employees captive.
The 52 men and women hostages were blindfolded and marched through the streets. Some were beaten, others threatened with death by firing squad. All were threatened with trials and Iranian mob justice.
But for at least one of the Americans who survived the ordeal in Tehran, 444 days of captivity turned out to be not a lost year but a time of awakening, and a triumph of faith over frustration.
In fact, Thomas E. Schaefer ’53, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, regards his former captors not with bitterness or hatred but with pragmatism and forgiveness.
And he believes the lessons he learned will become more and more valuable as Americans awaken to this unpleasant fact: Terrorism is war on a worldwide scale, it will be with us for a long time and it will test our resolve as much as any foe we have ever fought.
“Terrorism is a war and it’s our war,” Schaefer says. “It’s going to go on and on. It’s one of two worldwide wars now. The other is the war on drugs. We can control it, but we can never bring it to an end.”
Tom Schaefer welcomed his assignment to Tehran. Towards the end of 1976, as he was about to begin his second winter in Minot, North Dakota, he was restless.
“I was the deputy commander of operations at Minot Air Force Base,” he says. “I thought to myself, there’s got to be something better for a full colonel in the Air Force to do than spend another winter in Minot, North Dakota.”
Schaefer and his wife, Anita, interviewed for an assignment in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Schaefer was named military attaché but the position fell through when Ethiopia expelled all Americans.
“Then the military said to me, ‘How would you like to go to Iran?’ I said, ‘Gee whiz, give me an airplane.’ After all, Iran was considered then to be the garden spot of the Middle East.”
For 10 months, Schaefer studied Farsi, the Iranian national language. In June 1978, he arrived in Tehran.
“For two weeks, it really was a garden spot. Then everything went downhill. We saw more and more revolutionary and terrorist acts. Aircraft were sabotaged, buildings were bombed and left to burn because there was no security, no fire companies. Innocent people were killed to make it look like the government had done it. Part of it was true—the Iranian secret police, SAVAK, were pretty nasty. They did kill and torture people.”
In November 1978, revolutionaries began burning downtown Tehran. In January 1979, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi fled Iran and in February, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to take power. On Feb. 14, revolutionaries occupied the American embassy for one day.
In October, Tom accompanied Anita to West Germany, where she caught a flight to the U.S. for a one-month vacation.
“I remember watching my wife walk out to that Pan Am flight and wondering if I would ever see her again,” Schaefer says. “On the other hand, I had ambivalent feelings. I thought I was doing fairly well at my job, which was to reestablish contacts with the Iranian military.”
On Nov. 4, 1979, when student militants stormed the American embassy and took more than 60 hostages, Schaefer’s duties changed abruptly. Now, as the embassy’s senior military officer, he was responsible for the mental and physical welfare of the fellow American prisoners.
“I tried to instill cheerfulness in the other people. The main objective, which they teach you in terrorism training classes, is to get through 24 hours at a time. Make it the most productive 24-hour period of your life.”
“The Iranians tried to break us down. They did succeed with some of the hostages. Some broke down and read anti-American statements. But I hold no grudge against those who did. They weren’t as well-trained and experienced as I was. They hadn’t been taken hostage before as I had. They hadn’t trekked for 10 days in northern Nevada like I had, with nothing but snowshoes and a minimum of food. I had been living for 50 years and with every experience you become a little more mature.”
The darkest days were the early ones. The hostages were paraded through the streets of Tehran to the approving howls of a frenzied mob. Later, their captors threatened to put them on trial and toss them to the mob.
“That was the scariest part,” Schaefer says. “For a while, I was prepared to die. I thought to myself, ‘What are you going to do? Plead? No. Embarrass your country? No.’ I thought and thought. Finally, I decided I would say what Nathan Hale had said during the Revolutionary War before he was hanged by the British: ‘I, too, regret that I have but one life to give for my country.;”
The Iranians quickly imposed the humiliating rhythms of captivity. The hostages spent the first few weeks blindfolded and tied to chairs. After their bonds were removed, they had to ask permission to leave their rooms. They were not allowed to open doors for themselves, and they were accompanied by guards each time they went to the bathroom. Inside the bathroom, their movements were watched faithfully by a camera.
Schaefer took refuge in four faiths: faith in himself, faith in God, faith in his country and faith in his family. Gradually he realized he had several advantages over his captors. Most were 20 to 25 years old—less than half his age. During interrogations, they would let him take the highest chair, enabling him to look down upon, rather than up to, his captors.
And the revolutionaries’ attempts at brainwashing, while fervent, proved futile.
“There was one guard who would come in and propagandize against the U.S. about how we’d mistreated the Indians and the blacks, and I said to him, ‘Show me one other Caucasian nation that has treated the blacks better.’ So he said, ‘Well, you dropped the atom bomb.’ And I said, ‘Listen, did you ever hear of Pearl Harbor? Don’t waste my time.’”
Schaefer grew bolder. He learned to enjoy mooning for the bathroom camera. He played tricks on his captors, taking advantage of his knowledge—and the Iranians’ ignorance—of ham radios to pretend once that he was having a conversation with President Hafez Assad of Syria.
His feisty sense of humor and tart tongue earned him 150 days in solitary confinement—more than any other hostage—and two weeks in “cold storage,” in a room cooled to 45 degrees, where he was interrogated for eight to 10 hours a day.
In solitary confinement, Schaefer discovered he had powers of discipline and imagination that he never knew he had possessed. He learned a lesson he would use to inspire thousands of people after his release from captivity—that every obstacle and traumatic experience can be turned into opportunity.
“In a sense, 444 days of captivity presented me with the opportunity of a lifetime,” he says. “You need a great challenge to find your true inner strength. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians says you can do anything through Jesus Christ. I firmly believe that.”
Schaefer fashioned his belt into a yardstick and measured the distance around his room. Every morning and afternoon he walked around and around—200, 300, 500 times—until he had walked three miles. He also did push-ups, eventually working up to 1,000 a day, done in 10 stints of 100.
A set of German-language instruction books provided his next opportunity. Schaefer studied them for six months until he had mastered all three levels and the teacher’s manual. The Iranians did not let him read English newspapers or magazines, but they did allow him the German magazine Der Spiegel, through which he learned of the U.S. military’s aborted attempt to rescue the hostages.
“My days were full,” Schaefer says. “Four hours of exercise, two hours of German. I even programmed 30 to 40 minutes of relaxation time, thinking time, each day.”
The walking and the push-ups freed Schaefer’s mind to wander. He sang songs—Lehigh songs, fraternity songs, Glee Club songs, high school and church songs. He set up statistics problems, figuring out the probability of receiving a full house of aces and kings in the first hand of poker. He relived the tiniest details of a trip he and his family had taken to Yosemite National Park, when they had had to roll rocks at a black bear that was blocking their trail. And he played hundreds of imaginary tennis games.
“I played against all my son, against Jimmy Connors, all in my head,” he says. “I never lost once. You really improve your game that way. You go into a trance. One POW at the Hanoi Hilton learned to play golf like that.
“Captivity, like any crisis, teaches you to reshape your priorities,” Schaefer says. “You find out material things really have no value. It’s really life itself that is so enriching. Every moment is precious.”
Since his release from captivity in January 1981, Schaefer has, by his own estimate, spoken to more than 300,000 people about the value of positive thinking, discipline and perseverance. His audiences have ranged from high school students to bankers to car dealers to church groups to businessmen attending seminars in management training.
Typical of the numerous accolades he has received is a letter from C.G. Scofield, managing director of Industrial Fasteners Institute of Cleveland, where Schaefer spoke in 1986.
“As a professional meeting planner,” wrote Scofield, “I have never witnessed such positive reaction to a guest speaker presentation. You had 150 ladies and gentlemen in the palm of your hands for an hour and a half.
“You know, when I really gave serious afterthought to your address, I realized that you said nothing new. Rather, you reminded me that it’s quite O.K. to excel at something, even under adverse circumstances. You reminded me that it’s O.K. to be tough and frightened at the same time. You reminded me that it’s O.K. to be sensitive and maybe even choke up once in a while. You reminded me that be proud to be an American. You reminded me that, even under the very worst of circumstances, we are never alone—faith, family, friends, country cannot be denied even in solitary confinement.”
Today, Schaefer has slowed down his speaking schedule. From 150 engagements in 1987, he dropped to 20 in 1988 and even fewer this year. He prefers to spend his time with Anita in their new home in Sun City, with his grandchildren, whom he and Anita took on a month-long camping trip around the Pacific Northwest last summer, and in the swimming pool. Schaefer captained Lehigh’s swim team as a student, and he has lost little of his trim shape in the four decades since.
Schaefer says he has forgiven the Iranians who held him hostage.
“Forgive, but never forget,” he says. “One of the great problems with the Middle Eastern nations is that they can’t forgive. They cling to the Old Testament, which says ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
“Some people say I’m a softie, but I don’t see it that way. Obviously there are a few Iranians I’d like to get alone with in a back alley somewhere without weapons. But in order to find a common ground for peace we have to be willing to forgive. We in the free world have learned that. Look at Germany and Japan, our enemies in World War II. We handled that the right way—but we didn’t forget.”