Remembering Joe Alex Morris Jr., the L.A. Times correspondent who died covering the Iranian revolution
By William Branigin
Feb 18, 2019 | 3:25 PM
Forty years later, I can still hear that earsplitting crack.
It was the sound of a bullet from a high-velocity rifle breaking the sound barrier, just before it slammed into the chest of Joe Alex Morris Jr., the veteran Middle East correspondent of the Los Angeles Times.
Joe Alex was standing in front of me when he was fatally shot on Feb. 10, 1979. We were covering a military mutiny in Tehran that culminated the next day in the fall of Iran’s 2,500-year-old monarchy and the triumph of the country’s Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Morris died in a second-floor photo studio where we and two other correspondents had taken refuge with several Iranians, when we were caught in a crossfire between rebellious, pro-Khomeini air force cadets and Imperial Guard troops loyal to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Peering through venetian blinds, we had been watching the battle unfold in the street below when a single shot came through the window, killing Joe Alex, 51. Considered the dean of Middle East correspondents, he was the only American journalist to die covering the Iranian revolution.
Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the revolution, a momentous event in the history of the 20th century and one that reshaped the Middle East. As Iran holds massive state-sponsored demonstrations to celebrate the anniversary, the revolution continues to reverberate, and scholars are revisiting it. Some argue that if only the United States had more strongly supported the shah, or had intervened in some fashion, the revolution and all that ensued could have been averted.
As a young reporter who by then had lived in Iran for more than three years, I witnessed events that gave me a different perspective: The tide of history was turning — you could feel it — and nothing in the world was going to stop it.
Casting a pall over those heady days for me was the tragedy outside Doshan Tappeh Air Base in eastern Tehran that claimed the life of my friend and mentor.
I first met Joe Alex when I was a Tehran-based stringer for The Washington Post and other news outlets, and he would drop in occasionally from his base in Athens to report on developments in Iran, particularly the mounting opposition to the shah. Later, when I was living for a time in Beirut, we would make the rounds together while covering the mayhem of Lebanon’s civil war and the intervention by neighboring Syria.
Joe Alex was the quintessential foreign correspondent. A 1949 Harvard graduate, he started working in the Middle East in 1950 for United Press before moving on to the New York Herald Tribune, Newsweek and, in 1965, the L.A. Times. He covered the 1956 Suez crisis, the 1967 Six-Day War, for which he won an Overseas Press Club Award, and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
The son of renowned newsman and author Joe Alex Morris Sr., he chronicled “the downtrodden, the manipulated, the cannon fodder” with devotion and honesty on numerous dangerous assignments, said his close friend and veteran Post foreign correspondent Jonathan C. Randal. “If he was ever physically afraid, I never knew it.”
“Joe Alex was the epitome of Hemingway’s phrase: ‘grace under pressure,’” another friend wrote to the slain correspondent’s wife, Ulla, on the day of his death.
He was fearless, but not reckless. I recall him telling me: “It’s not the bullet with your name on it that you worry about. It’s the one marked ‘to whom it may concern.’” I took that to mean you had to calculate your risks — and take only the ones that were really necessary. It was advice that we didn’t always follow as we tooled around Beirut in the severely used 1964 MG convertible I had bought, crossing the notorious Green Line with the top down. Or when we played tennis on courts that we had to sweep clear of shrapnel. I remember botching a shot one afternoon as artillery boomed in the distance, prompting Joe Alex to call out, “What’s the matter? Rattled by a little shelling?”
I envied the way, after a day of reporting, often wearing his customary tweed sports coat and clenching his pipe between his teeth, he would sit down at his portable typewriter and tap away at a steady pace, interrupted only by the ding of the carriage return, and not stop until he had finished a finely crafted story. I also admired how he would inject his sense of humor into even the weightiest of subjects.
A cancer survivor with a wife and three daughters, Joe Alex was affable and even-keeled. But he was also tenacious and determined in pursuing a big story.
Those qualities were on display in early 1979 as the upheaval against the shah gathered strength.
Overwhelmed by more than a year of growing opposition, the ailing, 59-year-old monarch flew into exile on Jan. 16, 1979, with his wife, a few aides and a boxful of Iranian soil. After an emotional departure ceremony at the Tehran airport’s Imperial Pavilion, where a loyalist soldier knelt down to kiss his shoe, the shah left behind a tenuous new government. It was headed by a secular opposition figure, Shahpour Bakhtiar, as the newly appointed prime minister — a move aimed at heading off a takeover by Khomeini and preserving the monarchy.
Ostensibly, the unpopular autocrat was flying to Egypt for a temporary “winter vacation” and medical treatment, but the box of soil was a giveaway (his father had also brought Iranian soil with him when forced into exile in 1941, never to return). It was clear the shah was not coming back, and the capital exploded with joy at the news of his departure.
Sixteen days later, Khomeini, then 78, made a triumphant return, flying into the same airport on the morning of Feb. 1. Crowds of jubilant Iranians, estimated at roughly 2 million strong, thronged the streets to welcome him back from more than 14 years of exile. He had spent most of that time in neighboring Iraq but had been living more recently in a Paris suburb after the Baghdad government expelled him.
In an extraordinary collaboration, The Post, the L.A. Times, the New York Times and other publications banded together to cover Khomeini’s return, dispatching correspondents to various venues to file pool reports back to writers for each outlet standing by at the Tehran Intercontinental Hotel. My colleague Jon Randal drew the assignment of covering Khomeini’s speech that morning at the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery south of Tehran, spending the night there to be sure to beat the crowds.
Khomeini moved into a former girls’ school not far from Doshan Tappeh, the headquarters of the Imperial Iranian Air Force and the site of training facilities. There, young pro-Khomeini cadets soon became the vanguard of a growing rebellion within the shah’s vaunted armed forces.
It was to check out reports of overnight turmoil at the base that Joe Alex and I set out in a taxi before dawn from the Intercontinental on Feb. 10. After passing the remains of fiery street barricades, we reached the main entrance and were joined there by two other American journalists — Arthur Higbee of United Press International and Ray Moseley of the Chicago Tribune — who had arrived separately.
Led by Joe Alex, we managed to get inside the base and went looking for the cadet commander, but we were soon escorted out. Meanwhile, pro-shah troops of the Imperial Guard’s crack Javidan (Immortals) brigade had arrived to disperse a demonstration at the main gate by civilians and cadets. Another group of guardsmen faced off against demonstrators farther up the street.
The protest at the gate suddenly escalated, and the guardsmen fired bursts from their automatic rifles into the air. Cadets started throwing rocks and bricks at the guardsmen, who then leveled their guns and opened fire through the gate.
We ducked into a building between the two groups of Imperial Guards at either end of the street and ran up to the second-floor photo shop. The cadets began firing back. From the window, we saw two guardsmen get hit in the legs and limp away up the street. Cadets ran out of the compound and, joined by civilian youths, set fire to an army jeep.
More Imperial Guards arrived in a truck with a rear-mounted .50-caliber heavy machine gun and backed it down the street toward the main gate, firing all the way.
Then came that loud crack and a groan. We all tumbled to the floor. Looking around, I saw that Joe Alex had been hit. As Higbee knelt over him, we shouted for help. Not knowing what else to do, I reached for a telephone and tried to call for an ambulance. While I was on the phone, a couple of cadets ran in and looked at Joe Alex.
“Monsieur est mort,” one of them said in French.
The cadets took an interior door off its hinges to use as a stretcher, and they and Higbee took advantage of a lull to carry Joe Alex’s body out of the building toward a hospital on the base. I gave up my futile attempt to call for an ambulance, and Moseley and I went to follow them.
Just then, Imperial Guard reinforcements arrived, and a fierce house-to-house battle began. Moseley and I dashed back into the building and took cover again in the photo shop. Intense gunfire went on for more than an hour, much of it in the street outside.
Struggling to overcome my shock, my bloodstained notebook in hand, I tried to do what I knew Joe Alex would have done: report the story.
I saw cadets armed with G-3 automatic rifles running up and down the stairs. When the shooting died down a bit, I followed them up to the roof. Eight cadets were crouching on the flat rooftop. To my amazement, the airmen had control of the area in a wide radius. They had beaten back the vaunted Imperial Guard. Armed civilians and airmen were on rooftops all around for several blocks. An army truck burned on the main avenue. A dozen other fires in the neighborhood belched black smoke into the clear morning sky. People were putting up street barricades and helping to sandbag rooftop positions. Many civilians carried rifles and pistols.
I saw one well-dressed young man, running down the street, holding a rifle in front of him with both hands like a trained soldier — undoubtedly a product of Iran’s mandatory military service, which now seemed to be backfiring on the shah’s regime.
Moseley and I then left the building and headed east on foot, trying to get out of the area. We saw youths busy making Molotov cocktails. Civilians ran up and down the streets with automatic rifles, pistols, knives, clubs and any other weapons they could find. One man brandished an ax. A woman in a black chador, the full-length cloak worn by many Iranian Muslim women, showed a small boy how to light a Molotov cocktail and throw it. Everywhere, people were digging up dirt and filling sandbags to fortify gun positions or make barricades.
As we made our way east, we ran into more fighting and had to take refuge in an Iranian family’s house. When civilians reappeared in the streets, we set out again. We saw a column of British-made Chieftain tanks of the Imperial Guard moving toward Doshan Tappeh along a main avenue. Civilians and air force men opened fire on them from rooftops. At least three guardsmen were captured, and angry civilians marched them back toward the base. After about six hours caught in the area, we eventually made it back to the Intercontinental, where we found Higbee, who had returned earlier.
Which side had fired the shot that killed Joe Alex remained a mystery. Some reports attributed it to a “sniper.” That made no sense to me. I believed it was a stray bullet, but we’ll never know for sure.
His death left me angry, grief-stricken and racked by survivor’s guilt. I was the one, after all, who had called his hotel room early that morning and asked if he wanted to come with me to check out reports of a revolt at Doshan Tappeh.
That night, I wept as I toiled over my story of the day’s events. And I choked up several times while dictating it over the phone. Finally I reached the standard sign-off: “Period. Paragraph. End of story.”
The dictationist at the other end seemed at a loss for words. “I’m so sorry you had such a bad day,” she said.
It seemed like a civil war had broken out. But the shah’s armed forces — including the 20,000-member Imperial Guard — crumbled with stunning speed. By Feb. 11, a Sunday, the Bakhtiar government had collapsed, and the monarchy was no more.
Thousands of gun-wielding civilians — armed during the rebel takeover of Doshan Tappeh and the sudden fall of numerous armories and military installations — celebrated their victory over the Guard.
At Doshan Tappeh, at least six Guard tanks and as many as 50 army trucks sat burned out or abandoned after the fierce battle for the base. Iran’s Pars News Agency reported that more than 200 people were killed and nearly 800 wounded in the fighting as of Sunday morning.
The ordeal, however, was far from over. Joe Alex’s body was still at Doshan Tappeh. Or so we thought.
Accompanied by an Iranian former college classmate, I set off to try to recover it. But anarchy and chaos still ruled the streets, and checkpoints manned by young “revolutionaries” had sprung up everywhere. At one of them, a boy of grade-school age held a Molotov cocktail as he stood next to an older youth, pestering him for permission to throw the gasoline bomb under our car. My ex-classmate, a persuasive woman, objected strenuously, telling the boy sternly in Farsi to do no such thing. Ultimately, though, we had to turn around.
Los Angeles Times correspondent Ken Freed, on his first foreign assignment for the paper, managed to get into the base, but the body was gone. He later found it after searching a packed morgue.
Early on Feb. 14, Freed and I went to the U.S. Embassy, hoping to get some consular help in arranging to get Joe Alex’s body out of the country. We were in a temporary consular section on the ground floor of the main chancery building when machine gun rounds began hitting the outside walls.
In a well-organized assault, heavily armed leftist guerrillas, part of the array of underground anti-shah groups, were attacking the embassy. After blocking off the street in front of the compound’s main entrance, they opened fire from surrounding rooftops. Soon they were coming over the walls. Armed with tear gas and shotguns loaded with No. 9 skeet shot — rarely lethal — the embassy’s contingent of 19 Marine guards fought to hold them off.
Fearing that the guerrillas’ plan was to spark a gun battle that would enrage Iranians and trigger an overwhelming mob attack with unpredictable consequences, Ambassador William H. Sullivan ordered the Marine guards to surrender if possible. One Marine who did so was shot and wounded with his own shotgun.
About an hour into the attack, as bullets smacked into the embassy walls and came through windows, walkie-talkies crackled with word that 200 people were coming in the main gate, and everyone on the ground floor was ordered upstairs. Marines tear-gassed the lower corridors and locked a metal door to the stairs.
With gunmen now storming the building and tear gas fumes seeping under the door, about 100 of us were directed into a large vault filled with the embassy’s secrets. There, several staffers were shredding and burning classified documents, while others used sledgehammers to smash sensitive communications gear and cryptographic code plates.
Cheers went up when word came that pro-Khomeini forces, including rebellious airmen, had arrived to confront the attackers and take control of the situation. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” somebody said inside the vault, and a few Marines with us passed out cigarettes and cold beers from a nearby refrigerator.
But attackers were now inside the ambassador’s office. We were ordered to file out of the vault with our hands up and frisked every few paces. As shooting resumed outside, one trigger-happy guerrilla fired his G3 rifle into the ceiling, while others tried to blast open another vault with gunfire. Eventually, we were herded out of the embassy at gunpoint. Outside, Khomeini loyalists were mingling with the attacking guerrillas. Several mullahs arrived to help restore order, and everyone was ultimately released.
Nine months later, embassy personnel wouldn’t be so lucky. After Islamic militants seized the embassy with Khomeini’s blessing, 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days.
In any case, it was now clear to Freed and me that the embassy would not be of much help.
In fact, the revolution was entering a bloody post-victory phase. Firing squads armed with submachine guns began executing leaders of the shah’s regime on the roof of Khomeini’s headquarters. One of the first to go was the head of the feared SAVAK secret police. In reporters’ shorthand, these summary executions were dubbed “rooftoppings.” Their victims were said to have been “rooftopped.”
From Athens, meanwhile, my Post colleague Jon Randal tirelessly worked the phones, calling his contacts in the revolutionary government and trying to arrange permission to repatriate Joe Alex’s body. We worried that it would end up being taken to Behesht-e Zahra cemetery for burial with Iranian “martyrs” of the revolution.
At the morgue, Freed paid a hefty bribe to have the body released. It was then sent to a mortuary and placed in a heavy, zinc-lined casket.
The L.A. Times chartered a Learjet carrying Randal and Times London bureau chief Bill Tuohy on a mission to retrieve Joe Alex’s body. It was Feb. 15, and Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport was closed. In the disorder still gripping the capital, Randal worried that their special permission to land would be rescinded and the plane shot down. After some haggling with the control tower, the plane set down safely, then was quickly surrounded by confused armed guards.
Freed, my Post colleague Bill Claiborne and I accompanied the casket from the mortuary to the airport, where we found Tuohy and Randal waiting on the tarmac.
A zealous guard, suspecting that these foreigners were trying to smuggle out contraband, or even a live counterrevolutionary, insisted on opening the sealed casket. It was a demand that particularly disgusted Tuohy.
But after the coffin was pried open and the guard peered inside, we sealed it again and carried it to the plane, only to find that it was too big to fit through the door. The pilot had to remove a seal around the door before we managed to maneuver the casket inside.
Now cleared for takeoff minutes before a dusk deadline, the Learjet climbed into the Iranian sky, beginning the consummate foreign correspondent’s long journey home.