Retired APS chief: POW in Iranian Revolution

  • Published
  • By MSgt. Timm Huffman
  • 439th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Guests at CMSgt. Henry Lojkuc's (pronounced "Lo-check") recent retirement ceremony would never guess the unassuming and deferential aerial porter was ever a player in world affairs. But for one month in 1979, he was a prisoner of war in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution.

It's Valentine's Day, 1979, and he's a Marine Corps corporal, newly arrived at his first embassy duty assignment. A mob of angry Iranians has formed in the streets and automatic weapons fire is pelting the walls of the compound.

Enlisting while still in high school, the chief 's life dream was to join the military. He proceeded through boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., went to advanced infantry school and then volunteered for reconnaissance school in order to earn his jump wings. After graduating from Airborne School, he was assigned to help patrol the Mediterranean Sea, which is when he volunteered for embassy duty. After meeting all of the requirements and graduating from school, he was assigned to embassy duty in Bucharest, Romania. A lastminute vacancy at the embassy in Tehran shook things up, though.

"There was a board in the detachment with all our names on it and the location code for who was going where," Chief Lojkuc explained. "I came in one morning and BCH was changed to THR and I knew something was up."

The position in Tehran required someone with a background in reconnaissance. At the time, then-Cpl. Lojkuc didn't think anything of the change, and hopped on the plane to Iran. After stops at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and then in London, his flight overnighted in Pakistan while they waited for daylight and the permission needed to land at the airport in Iran.  

"They parked tanks and stuff on the runway at night to keep planes from landing," he said.

As his transport left the airport for the embassy, the chief said he could tell it was going to be rough because of the many road blocks and tires on fire they encountered on the way. The Marines he met at the embassy described recent times when they were allowed leave to go into the city and surrounding countryside. Unfortunately for Cpl. Lojkuc, the political situation in the country required all embassy workers to be restricted to the compound.

As things in Tehran heated up, the environment inside the complex became tense. The Iranian army left their posts defending the perimeter, due to political issues, and defense of the embassy and its 500 civilians was left to Cpl. Lojkuc and 18 other Marines. They were put on 24-hour alert and rotated on and off duty.
At 9:30 a.m. on February 14, a mob formed in the street outside of the embassy. Sniper and automatic weapons fire began entering the compound and rioters began scaling the walls.

With instructions from the ambassador not to fire back unless directly attacked, the Marines hunkered down where they could with their civilian wards. Cpl. Lojkuc found himself near the rear of the complex in a restaurant-type building with two other Marines and about 30 embassy employees.

As they defended their position, the call came from the ambassador for the Marines to surrender if possible. After hiding their weapons, shotguns and .38s, in the freezer, Corporal Lojkuc and his fellow Marines surrendered.

"We were taken out behind a berm and stripped down to our tshirts, trousers and boots and made to kneel with our hands in the air," he remembered. "We thought they were going to execute us."

The Fedayeen Kalq guerrillas, who were behind the takeover and desperate for automatic weapons, were demanding they tell them where they hid their weapons. To buy time, Sgt. Kenneth Kraus volunteered to show where they had stashed the weapons. When they realized there were no automatic rifles, one of the guerrillas struck Sgt. Kraus with a rifle and then discharged a shotgun round into his head, nearly killing him.

"We saw them carrying Sgt. Kraus out with blood coming from his head," Chief Lojkuc said.

It wasn't until later, when Sgt. Kraus was released from the Iranian prison a month later that the chief learned what had happened.

After Sgt. Kraus was shot, the Marines were corralled into the ambassador's complex. It was during this time that Cpl. Lojkuc managed a singularly distinctive act of patriotism. He managed to slip away from his captors and enter the main embassy building. Because of the large amount of tear gas, he had to hold his breath while he went in and got a gas mask. After donning his protective mask, he went to where the U.S. and Marine flags were stored and he hid them on his person. He slipped quietly back into captivity.

He said he couldn't bear the thought of the colors under his watch being desecrated the way he had seen happen recently in the streets outside the embassy.

For the next month, Cpl. Lojkuc, his fellow Marines and the 500 other embassy residents were held as prisoners of war and were essentially on house arrest. Negotiations were made for non-essential American personnel to leave the country. To decrease tensions, the Marine embassy guard was also changed and on March 21, 1979, Cpl. Lojkuc boarded his flight to freedom.

That November, members of the U.S. embassy in Iran would be taken into captivity for 444 days.

After his ordeal, Cpl. Lojkuc returned to embassy duty, this time in Vienna, Austria, where he met his wife. He left the Marines in 1982, after spending a year as an instructor in the reserve component, to focus on his civilian career in law enforcement.

In the mid-90s, after a friend suggested he check out the Air Force, the Marine started talking to a Westover recruiter. Attracted by the one-weekend-a-month, 15-days-in-the-summer deal, he signed up as a staff sergeant with the 58th Aerial Port Squadron in 1997.

Over the years he progressed from ramp operations and eventually become the 58th APS operations chief.

SMSgt. Craig Savoie, who started at Westover alongside Chief Lojkuc after they both had long breaks in service (SMSgt. Savoie is prior Navy). He said CMSgt. Lojkuc's retirement marks the loss of someone who always brings 100 percent dedication to the table. "He brought a gung-ho, can-do attitude with him from his Marine days," said SMSgt. Savoie, a close friend of CMSgt. Lojkuc.

"Nothing was too big to go over, go around or blow up to get it out of the way."