I am writing a book on the hostage crisis and the October Surprise [The Complete and ExtraOrdinary History of the October Surprise], the supposed deal between Khomeini’s inner circle and the Reagan Republicans to delay the release of the hostages until after the American presidential elections. My book, and this submission, is a fictional non-fiction.
With the Christmas season in full swing and the day rapidly approaching, I thought it might be a good idea to recollect on a Christmas past. The date was December 25, 1979. The location was Tehran, the American embassy, a building on the grounds known as the Mushroom Inn. This was day 52 of the global shift known as the hostage crisis.
“Hello, my name is Joseph Subic Jr. I am a Sergeant in the Marine Corp. I would like to begin my statement with the personal. I traveled this country before the embassy takeover. I saw different towns, different villages. I saw a way of life. And do you know what I found? I started to see more and more people – people without homes, people without food, people without education. I asked myself what had the Shah done?”
Hostage Joe Subic sat at a long table in the basement of a warehouse. Embassy personnel referred to the warehouse as the Mushroom Inn. The warehouse was windowless and perpetually damp, ideal conditions for growing fungi.
There were papers spread all over the long table, suggesting documentation, evidence. There were two cameras in the room. There were floodlights behind the cameras. There was a single microphone on the table. Subic unhooked the hand-held portion. He held it close to his mouth.
He continued, “My thinking started to turn around. My eyes and mind were starting to awake to the truth. But the question of what had the Shah done was only the first half. The second half was more difficult for an American – why did we support the Shah? Why did we support all of his… bloodletting?”
Two floors above Joe Subic in the Mushroom Inn, a small group of hostages filed into a decorated room. There were streamers on the walls. There was a piano in one corner. There was a table in the middle of the room, filled with treats. Brownies, nuts, fruits, a roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, candied yams. There was a Christmas tree in another corner. On one wall hung a painting of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, standing alone beside the brilliantly lit White House Christmas tree. The tree was double the height of the man.
On the other walls there were the typical Iranian taunts, written in magic marker: “Allaahu Akbar” (God is great) and “Marg bar Shah” (death to the Shah) and “Marg bar Carter” and “Extradite the Shah” and “Khomeini or Death.” There was also a camera present, filming the proceedings.
A quarter century after these events, one of the Iranian captors, Massoumeh Ebtekar, remembered the scene, “We gave the hostages a beautiful Christmas. As a religious nation of Muslims, we recognized the plurality of religious belief. We were not barbarians, despite the way we were portrayed.”
Two floors below the Christmas festivities, Joe Subic continued with his statement, “My thinking has led me to another question. Why is the Shah given protection and sanctuary in the United States of America? He is an accused criminal. He has admitted his abuses of power on Iranian television, prior to his fleeing the country. He should be extradited. He should stand trial. The Imam Khomeini has promised a fair and open international trial with all nations and churches invited to see that justice is done. Shouldn’t this trial come to pass?”
Two floors above, the small group of hostages tried to look comfortable. Hostage Moorhead “Mike” Kennedy remembered, “We sat on a sofa. Reverend William Sloane Coffin was there to lead the service and there was a lot of good food and we were supposed to be celebrating. But none of the hostages sat next to each other. The Iranian militants sat in between us, to be sure that we didn’t talk to one another. I think that pretty much tells you all you need to know about the general vibe.”
Mike Kennedy was the only person in the room dressed for the occasion. He wore a jacket and tie. “Both,” he admitted, “were badly in need of a dry cleaning.”
Reverend William Sloane Coffin, as Kennedy mentioned, gave the sermon. There were clear reasons why the Iranians chose Coffin. Massoumeh Ebtekar explained, “He was a kindred spirit. He was partial to our cause. He had a militant history against imperialism.”
Certainly Bill Coffin’s résumé fit with the Iranians’ worldview. Prior to discovering God, Coffin had served in both the army and the CIA. In the mid-1960s he had his epiphany. In addition to his life with God, he became a protestor, criticizing United States policy in both Vietnam and Chile, where a CIA-led coup toppled the government of Salvador Allende. According to Ebtekar, he was an example of the “good that can come from rejecting America’s interventionist institutions.”
“What a way to celebrate Christmas,” Reverend Coffin began his sermon. “But doesn’t this make Christmas all the more important? Doesn’t this reduce the enormity of what Christmas now represents – yes, peace and rejuvenation but also consumerism and religious superiority – doesn’t this reduce Christmas down to its essential? Isn’t this day, under these very difficult circumstances, a true time for you to examine your lives?”
Coffin, according to Mike Kennedy, then noted “with his eyes the magic marker writings on the walls. He looked momentarily deflated, as if he’d just suddenly realized where he was and what was going on. But he persevered.”
“The path of bitterness is all around us,” Reverend Coffin continued. “Will you settle for it? Will you let your bitterness guide you? Will it become your destiny? Or will this confinement give you an opportunity to delve further, like a river that runs deeper when its banks narrow?”
The hostages’ reaction to the sermon varied. Mike Kennedy called the sermon, “One of the best I have ever heard.” He then conceded, “I suppose it had to do with our immediate surroundings. The sermon might not have been as powerful if we were in a cathedral in New York.”
John Graves, sitting on the opposite end of the couch from Kennedy, expressed disgust. “The whole thing was a farce as far as I was concerned. It was pure propaganda. I remember Bill Coffin, in attempting to give us some comfort, wasn’t very comforting, because his whole attitude seemed to be more sympathetic to the terrorists than to any of the hostages.”
Two floors below, Joe Subic continued with his statement, “I confess, I am CIA. I confess, I have contributed to the demoralization and subjugation of the Iranian people. I confess, there are CIA spies amongst us. Billy Gallegos is a CIA spy. Steve Kirtley is a CIA spy. Jimmy Lopez is a CIA spy. Greg Persinger is a CIA spy.” All of the men listed by Subic, all marines and hostages, had refused to participate in the statement. The only marine Subic left off his list, Kevin Hermening, sat to Subic’s right.
“I felt totally disgusted,” Hermening told me, “and really angry. None of those guys were CIA. Subic wasn’t CIA. Not only was he lying but I could see that the guy had flipped out. He couldn’t stop talking. It was like eating potato chips. When do you stop? Sergeant Subic couldn’t stop.”
Two floors above, Reverend Coffin read from the nativity scene in Luke: “‘And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”
Two floors below, Joe Subic stated, “I am CIA. The CIA’s mission here in Iran was not a secret. We were sent here to assassinate the Imam Khomeini.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Kevin Hermening told me. “The whole thing was just… unbelievable. I was sitting right there, and, you know, I couldn’t believe it. It was just so bizarre. And he kept saying, ‘Imam Khomeini, Imam Khomeini,’ as if that nut was his lord and master.”
“Do you have any explanation now for Subic’s statement?” I asked Kevin Hermening.
He took a moment to collect his thoughts. I interviewed Hermening during a baseball game. His hometown team, the Milwaukee Brewers, was visiting the Arizona Diamondbacks. Hermening watched his favorite pitcher, Ben Sheets, fool a batter with a wicked change-up. His answer to my question provided a change-up of sorts.
“It was like he was brain-washed,” Hermening said. “There are forces at work when you’re a hostage, forces that you can’t imagine. It’s like your world goes black and your captors begin to imagine colors for you.”
Joe Subic offered his only public response to The Radford Observer (Virginia) on the one-year anniversary of the hostages’ release. His explanation: “The militants spliced used film footage of me taken on various occasions during my captivity and one of them faked my voice in the film where I supposedly admitted to the militants as being a CIA agent.” In other words, he claimed that he didn’t actually participate in the film.
His explanation generated little support. His commanding officer over twenty-five years ago, Earl Hailston, seemed resigned to a marine who had psychologically caved in. “In retrospect,” Hailston told me, “we have to wonder: were the signs there back in basic training? Was this a young man who wasn’t equipped to represent the United States of America?”
(A note on Earl Hailston: I corresponded with the Lieutenant General while he served as the commander of U.S. Marine forces in the Pacific. He retired soon after our correspondence. His retirement was not voluntary. Hailston called a series of local Okinawa officials “nuts” and “wimps.”)
Former Marine Benjamin Bilious, who not only went through basic training with Subic but eventually gained a doctoral degree in psychology, remembered a “young, pudgy, extremely eager to please, socially stunted guy. He wanted to be liked. You know the type: they want your friendship so much that you end up shunning them. Subic was shunned, no doubt, and he took that to the extreme. He ended up becoming a busy body, getting into everyone’s business. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he talked. Nothing was a secret with him. He was just a chatter bug. The marines teach ‘rapid fire response’ with a weapon. Subic learned ‘rapid fire response’ with his mouth.”
The stresses of captivity apparently exacerbated the “rapid fire response” of Joe Subic. During the embassy takeover of November 4, for instance, the Iranians lined up the hostages and asked for personal information. Name, job title, time in country. One hostage, Don Sharer, answered with belligerence. He gave his name as “Mickey Mouse.”
Joe Subic stepped out of line. “This is Commander Don Sharer,” he corrected. “He’s an F-14 expert. He works for the United States Navy and he was in Vietnam.”
Subic didn’t stop there. He walked the line, giving away invaluable information on others. “This is Colonel Chuck Scott,” Subic continued. “He’s been in Iran many times before and he speaks fluent Persian. He was an attaché here in the sixties.”
At first, the Iranians were shocked. Massoumeh Ebtekar remembered the initial reaction, “An American willing to divulge information? In our planning stages, we certainly never anticipated such a thing.” Iranian shock gave way to prudence. Joe Subic became an informer. The Iranians called him ‘Brother Subic.’ Subic called them “doost.”
“In retrospect,” Lieutenant General Earl Hailston admitted, “he should have been court-martialed. He was the only serviceman not to receive the Defense Meritorious Service Medal following the hostage crisis. Was that enough of a punishment? I don’t know.”
“Is Joe Subic still active in the soldiering business,” I asked Lieutenant General Hailston.
“No,” he responded. “He retired after returning from Iran. If I’m correct, he became a peace officer in Florida.” Hailston pronounced the name of the country in the ignorant American way: I-ran.
During his statement of Christmas day 1979, Joe Subic stood up and stepped around the table. He wore a long coat, a series of sweaters underneath. He looked bundled. In one hand he held the microphone. In the other hand he held up a Christmas card. “This is a special card,” he announced. “It’s from all of the hostages.” And then Subic read the contents of the card: “‘A Christmas wish especially for you, Imam Khomeini. Merry Christmas. May Christmas bring you lasting joy and lovely memories. Merry Christmas, the American Hostages, 25 December 1979. Tehran, Iran.’”
Strangely, Subic smiled for the camera.
Two floors above, Reverend Coffin continued to read from the nativity scene in Luke: “‘On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. When the time of their purification to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice in the keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons.’”
At this point in the sermon, the door opened and an Iranian led another hostage into the room. Reverend Coffin nodded a welcome to Joe Subic. Then he continued, “‘Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’”
Joe Subic found a spot on the couch. Hostage Mike Kennedy remembered, “Subic sat next to me. The Iranians couldn’t tolerate that. The militants had to sit in between us. So they stopped the sermon until another guard could be found. He wedged in between us.”
After receiving permission, Reverend Coffin continued with Luke, “‘The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thought of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’”
Reverend Coffin slowly looked around the room. “I know that some of you, here in this place, might be able to commiserate,” he said. “Amen.”
The hostages’ reaction to the completed sermon varied. Mike Kennedy was lost in thought. “Transfixed,” he told me. Another hostage present, Ann Swift, looked at the painting of Roosevelt beside the Christmas tree, then at the Christmas tree in the corner of the room, then at the threats on the walls, particularly “Khomeini or Death.” “I don’t know if I’d ever associated Christmas with morbidity before,” she explained her reaction. “Certainly the Easter has its morbid side. But at that moment, under those circumstances, Christmas seemed pretty bleak.”
Another female hostage, Kathryn Koob, experienced a religious awakening. “I was so moved by Coffin’s sermon,” she remembered, “that I dug my nails into my fists” rather than “break down in front of the camera.”
Another hostage present, Joe Hall, missed his “wife so desperately it was ridiculous. I knew it had to be just as bad for her as it was for me, if not worse. I was really depressed.” Joe and Cheri Hall would divorce in the early 1980s. He blamed “the end of a good marriage” on 444 days of captivity.
John Graves continued to express disgust, “My God, this is Christmas. This – the Iranians, the sermon, the taunts on the walls: “Marg bar Shah,” “Khomeini or Death” – this just couldn’t be. I was so revolted.”
Paul Needham didn’t want any part of the celebration either. He explained, “Since it was obvious that this guy [Reverend Coffin] had been invited in by the Iranians and couldn’t do anything to help us get released, the only thing I cared to find out about was how Nebraska’s football team was doing. The last football score I’d heard was that Nebraska had beaten Missouri 21-20 on the third of November.” Nebraska finished with a record of 10-2 in 1979. Alabama went undefeated to become college football’s champion.
Barry Rosen was the only Jew in the room. “The service was long and boring,” he recalled, “and all I really wanted to do was eat. Like any good Jew, right?”
After laughing, Rosen continued, “There were plates with all kinds of foods just sitting right in front of us and the Reverend kept going on and on. I was like, ‘Please Lord, let me have an apple. I’ll convert if you just give me one bite.’”
Rosen got his wish. After finishing his sermon, Reverend Coffin spread his arms wide. “Please, now help yourselves to this wonderful feast,” he said. Coffin’s characterization of the feast was an understatement. For the hostages, living on bread and water and canned foods such as beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, the fresh food was a veritable bonanza.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten so much,” Barry Rosen recalled. “I ate and ate and ate. It was like I couldn’t get enough.” In the midst of his feasting, Rosen looked at the others. “I didn’t feel bad,” he said, “because we were all gorging. Except for Joe. Joe didn’t eat anything.”
I wrote to Joe Subic through the Dade County Sheriff’s department. I thought this many years later he might want to set the record straight. He never responded to any of my inquiries. I’ve subsequently learned, however, that the reason Subic refused the Christmas day feast was simple. Joe Subic had a ready stash of junk food available to him. He had access to bags of potato chips and jars of peanut butter and containers of mixed nuts. This was a part of the deal he made with his Iranian doost. All the food he could eat. All the warm clothes he could wear. All in exchange for information and subservience.