Three decades ago, U.S. aircrew had become targets for Syrian anti-aircraft fire when Lt Robert O Goodman was shot down near Syria. Goodman’s plane was shot down over Lebanon on December 4, 1983. His partner, Lt. Mark Lange, was killed. Goodman was captured by Syrian troops who took him to Damascus, where he was held captive until the Rev. Jesse Jackson helped secure his release on January 3, 1984.
At the time Goodman’s plane was shot down, Lebanon was experiencing a sectarian war. Many Lebanese factions were fighting one another, and also scores of Syrians and Israelis. U.S. forces were part of a large multinational force that had arrived to help broker peace, BBC reported. Along the way, the U.S. became targets for Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
On December 4, 1983, 27-year-old Goodman and pilot Lange took off in an A6-E Intruder from the aircraft carrier, USS John F Kennedy, off the Lebanese coast. Their mission was to drop 1,000lb bombs on Syrian tanks and anti-aircraft in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border, according to BBC.
Their plane was soon shot down over Lebanon. Goodman and Lange were able to eject and parachute to the ground as the plane that had caught fire fell. Goodman later found himself being tied up and thrown in the back of a truck. He didn’t know at the time who his captors were or where he was being taken. It was only after he was taken to a cell in Damascus and then brought up for interrogation that he realized who his captors were.
He got to know they were Syrian troops after seeing a portrait of the Syrian president, Hafez Al-Assad, on the wall. He also learned that Lange had died of his injuries. The Syrians questioned him about his bombing mission, what his target had been and what his plane was carrying. But Goodman was careful not to give them any details.
“They weren’t aggressive, they didn’t threaten me, they were just persistent,” Goodman recalled in 2014, according to BBC. “It was stressful because I was trying to make stuff up, and also remember what I was making up in case they asked me about it again.”
Goodman said that even though he was beaten once, his captors treated him well for the most part, and even let him have a Christmas Day ham dinner with two beers. When he was captured, he was held in an 8-foot-by-8-foot, concrete basement room in the Damascus compound before he was later taken upstairs to a bedroom and held there. Interrogations about his mission went on there, he recalled.
Goodman feared that nobody from the outside world knew what had happened to him, but after about four days in captivity, a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited him and told him that his family and others were putting in efforts to get him back home.
His capture had at the time made headlines around the globe. In the U.S., Jackson, who was then running for the Democratic nomination for president, received a call from Goodman’s mother pleading with him to help. Jackson decided to take it upon himself to meet with Syrian president Assad.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan warned Jackson that if he made “‘a mistake the burden will be up on you. You could get [Goodman] hurt,’” Jackson later recalled.
Jackson would nevertheless travel to Syria with a delegation of religious leaders including the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan.
“We were willing to go on our own on the wings of faith and take the risk because I knew how to negotiate,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s delegation met several top Syrian officials before securing a face-to-face meeting with President Assad himself on January 2, 1984.
“He [Assad] was serious, as we were, not strident, but still resolved to keep him (Goodman),” Jackson recalled.
“Assad’s argument was that Lt Goodman was not a tourist, he was a soldier and he shouldn’t have been there,” Jackson later told the BBC. “My argument was that it was a mistake and that he wasn’t on a bombing mission in Syria, and that letting him go would be a sign of good will.”
The next day, January 3, Goodman was released after a month in captivity.
“I think part of what made it happen was that we tried. We had the will to take the risk,” Jackson said in 2014 while reflecting on the discussions that led to Goodman’s freedom.
“We represent a broad base of American people and because we were representing the best interest of our country and our soldier I think that also impressed Mr. Assad. I met him before and I leaned heavily upon him not to let us go back home empty handed.”
It was a “joyous moment” when Goodman sat in the back of the U.S. military plane taking him home, Jackson said. Reagan invited Goodman and Jackson to the White House after the release. There, Jackson said he asked Reagan to speak to President Assad and thank him for Goodman’s release. That did help improve the relationship between the two countries. Goodman would continue on with his military career before retiring from the Navy in 1995.