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Life in Captivity

Initially the hostages were held together in the Embassy’s Residence, although divided into separate rooms. However, after those first few weeks, Daugherty and Ahern were kept in solitary confinement for the rest of their captivity. They were subjected to beatings—a rubber hose the favored instrument—coercive interrogation, and threats of public trial and execution. Both officers were determined to maintain their cover as State Department Foreign Service Officers, but the Iranians soon discovered their true affiliation (not everyone in a staff of 50, nearly all of them aware of station identities, could be expected to resist their captors’ pressure to identify the resident spies).

Daugherty recalls the moment the Iranians told him they knew who he really worked for. “To my mind, I was outwitting the interrogators, and I was smugly satisfied. Returning to the subject of my general duties (yet again!) after an interlude for tea, Hossein [the interrogator] asked if I still denied I was CIA. When I responded yes, Hossein handed me a sheet of paper, and my heart seemed to stop dead in mid-beat. In that moment, I thought my life was over.”

The paper was a classified cable the Iranians had found during their search of the Embassy which gave Daugherty’s true name and details of his CIA affiliation and duties. Daugherty had no good options left. “With my stunned brain generating no other brilliant ideas, I looked up at the gloating Iranians and said, “OK, so what?” The interrogators went silent, stunned. Unfortunately, the shock didn’t last long. Both Ahern and Daugherty went through numerous rounds of intense questioning over the next several months.

For Daugherty, the interrogation sessions offered him the opportunity to learn more about the students and why they took the Embassy. “I often found the hours and hours of non-hostile discussions and conversations with the Iranians to be interesting, occasionally useful, and not infrequently a source of true amazement.” Says Daugherty. “And it killed time.”

Ahern and Daugherty developed daily schedules of exercise to help pass the long hours of solitary confinement. “My routine,” says Daugherty, “was to wake sometime after daylight, and then await the usual breakfast of Iranian bread or Afghan barbari bread with butter and jam or feta cheese, and tea. I would then prop my pallet against the wall and take my morning walk, beginning at one corner of the room and striding the eight to 10 paces to the opposite corner, then turning around and heading back. This would continue until I became tired or my feet grew sore. I would then read until lunch, after which I would repeat the morning agenda until dinner. After dinner, I would again walk and read until I was sufficiently tired to sleep.”

Ahern describes a similar routine that he would do for nine out of ten days. “On the tenth day, you rested,” says Ahern. “Why not a week, I don’t know. It just seemed to work out that way.”

Ahern, Daugherty and the other hostages were also able to fill their time by reading. Luckily, just before the Embassy takeover, the entire Tehran-American School library had been delivered to the Embassy warehouse for safekeeping, providing the hostages access to a large selection of novels and nonfiction books. The Iranians supplied their captives with the books, probably to keep them busy so they wouldn’t cause trouble. Daugherty says he read over 500 books during the confinement. “I read most of Dickens's works, and lots of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. I delighted in the adventures of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. I devoured histories of Russia, Britain, World War I, early 20th-century America, and all of Barbara Tuchman's works up to that time. Some of the most enjoyable books I stumbled across were ones that I would never have even looked at in a normal life,” he recalls.

Ahern spoke decent (and some indecent) French, so he read all the French literature available and then came across a few basic German grammar books. “The first time I saw them, I just put them aside.” He says. “The second time I thought, ‘Man, you’ve got a German wife, and the family’s always been after you to learn German, you may never see any of these people again, but, if you do, you might as well have used this time to a halfway good effect.’”

Ahern says his secret to surviving as a hostage was to spend as little time as possible wondering how things would turn out. Thinking about it too much, he believed, could change you. “That was what I had to remind myself of. I didn’t want to come out of there having wasted my time and having allowed myself to deteriorate to the point where I wasn’t even me anymore.”

It would be over a year of intense negotiations, a failed US military rescue mission, and the election of a new President before the hostages would learn their fate.

Read Part 1: Storming of the Embassy: November 4, 1979

Read Part 3: The Release: January 20, 1981

Posted: Nov 05, 2014 10:23 AM
Last Updated: Nov 06, 2014 07:30 AM