444 Days

Biblio-file: Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
Writer: 
November 30, 2009
Released: Military personnel join former Iranian hostages at Wiesbaden Air Base as they prepare to head home.

Released: Military personnel join former Iranian hostages at Wiesbaden Air Base as they prepare to head home. Credit: Johnson Babela

Thirty years ago, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking more than sixty staff members hostage. The students initially had planned to hold only a short protest but were swept up in a larger political movement, and ended up holding fifty-two of their hostages for 444 days.

Immediately following the crisis, numerous books were published on the topic: memoirs written by the hostages as well as more journalistic takes. One of the most thorough was 444 Days, an oral-history project completed by Tim Wells '77. Over three years, Wells interviewed thirty-six of the hostages about their life stories and experiences in captivity. He compiled the stories in a single volume, interspersing bits of their personal tales in chronological order to create a vibrant narrative account. (Wells' work was featured in the May-June 1986 issue of Duke Magazine.)

Wells donated the tapes and transcripts from his interview sessions and other materials, such as copies of hostages' diaries, to Duke's special-collections library, where journalist Mark Bowden found them nearly two decades later.

Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo, was working on his own book on the crisis. Early on, he read Wells' work and was impressed by the depth of even the shortest published passages. He came to the library wondering what else might have been cut in the editing process.

"It was like discovering hidden treasure," Bowden says. "There were all these long, involved interviews done with the hostages just a year or so after their release. Here I am tracking them down, twenty years on. And here was the original stuff. Just an ocean of it."

For his book, Guests of the Ayatollah, Bowden spent five years reading contemporary accounts like Wells', sifting through old news articles, and interviewing former hostages. He also located and interviewed Iranian hostage takers, as well as several military officers involved in a failed rescue attempt, who spoke on record about the event for the first time. He found Wells' work especially helpful in piecing together the stories of those hostages who had since died. Bowden donated his own materials to special collections to be kept with Wells' for future scholars.

Duke Magazine