BANGOR, Maine — “Argo,” a movie about a small group of U.S. Diplomats who escaped capture during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, has brought back memories for Brewer native Franklin D. Bothwick, who also was forced to flee during the Iranian uprising.
Bothwick, now 78, went to Iran in January 1977, after retiring from the U.S. Air Force the year before and joining with Bell Helicopter, which was hired by the Shah of Iran to build nearly 300 helicopters for the Iranian Armed Forces.
He was in Kermanshah, Iran when the rebellion began months before 52 Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. As the hostages were taken, six others managed to slip out a side door and take refuge at the home of a Canadian ambassador — the storyline “Argo” is based upon.
“Things started happening a little bit, people started rioting and whatnot,” said Bothwick, who now splits his time between Bangor and Florida. Then, in “1978, on New Year’s Eve, we were up on the rooftop celebrating New Year’s — Happy New Year’s — and then all of a sudden tracer bullets were going over our heads. As you looked over in the distance, half of Kermanshah was burning.”
Shortly afterward, the western Iranian city was surrounded by tanks, but they never fired a shot while he was in the area, he said.
The Shah fled to Egypt in mid-January 1979, and shortly afterward locals were calling for the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been sent into exile by the Shah 14 years before.
“At that time, Bell Helicopter and the State Department issued statements saying there wasn’t anything wrong,” but by February 1979, women and children were being evacuated, he said.
“In March, old Frankie decided it was time to depart,” Bothwick said.
He got onto a bus for the ride into Tehran where he and others from the company were booked into a hotel about half way down the main boulevard through the city.
“We were checked in real quick like and then they said, ‘Everybody upstairs. Up, up.’ The grates came down in front of the hotel. We weren’t allowed in the lobby or the first floor,” Bothwick said. “That night and the next day thousands and thousands of people marched down the main boulevard. This went on for three days.”
Finally, it was time to go. A KLM Royal Dutch Airlines 474 was waiting at Tehran Airport to get the foreigners out of the county.
“We were leaving [the hotel] by twos in taxis or automobiles with windows covered so nobody could see you,” Bothwick said.
Once aboard the airplane, “The pilot started the engines and everything and was getting ready to taxi off. He came over the interphone and said, ‘We are not allowed to leave at this time.’ He couldn’t explain why,” he said. “All of a sudden, we saw the red brigade, which is Khomeini’s police force, come in with AK-47s and board the plane.
“I’m saying to myself, ‘I’m in deep kimchi.’ I’ve got my American passport, my American military ID and so forth,” Bothwick recalled.
After an hour and a half of worry, the gunmen left and the plane was cleared for takeoff.
Shortly after taking flight, the pilot announced, “We have just passed the point of no return. We’re in Turkish airspace,” he said.
The plane landed in Amsterdam.
“We were the last plane to land due to a blizzard going on,” Bothwick said. “I got snowed in at Amsterdam for three days. I was happy as stink on a new pile of manure just to be out of there with just the clothes on my back and a little AWOL bag.”
After going to see “Argo,” Paul Tardiff, who grew up in South Brewer with Bothwick and later worked at Bell Helicopters with him in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s, couldn’t get his friend’s story out of his head. He called the Bangor Daily News because he thought it was important that people in the area know that there is a local connection to the Iran Hostage Crisis.
“The ending of the movie is exactly how he came out of Iran,” he said.
The 52 American hostages were held for 444 days, from Nov. 4, 1979, to Jan. 20, 1981.