NZ survivor of hostage crisis breaks silence over Kiwi heroism in Tehran

By Kathryn Powley

The untold tale of Kiwi courage missing from Oscar-winning film

Maureen Campbell-White. Photo / Doug Sherring
Maureen Campbell-White. Photo / Doug Sherring

The Oscar-winning movie Argo cut New Zealand out of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis credits.

Now, former New Zealand Embassy worker Maureen Campbell-White is breaking 34 years of silence to set the record straight.

Controversy surrounded Ben Affleck's blockbuster movie about six American fugitives hidden by the Canadian Ambassador and spirited safely out of Iran by the CIA. According to the movie, the British and New Zealand Embassies turned their backs on the Americans.

This week NZ First leader Winston Peters moved a Parliamentary motion formally expressing regret that Argo misled the world.

Campbell-White, believed to be the last surviving staff member from the New Zealand Embassy in Tehran during the hostage crisis, told the Herald on Sunday that Kiwis were instrumental in saving at least two American lives.

The weekend before militants stormed the US Embassy, Campbell-White and other staff from the New Zealand, US and UN compounds went camping in the Turkoman Steppes.

Tehran was a dangerous place with Mujahideen checkpoints everywhere and frequent gunfire.

"You'd hear crowds coming down the road shouting, 'Allah hu akbar' (Allah is great), and shooting their guns in the air," said Campbell-White, 71, of Auckland.

The camping trip was a welcome escape for the group - including NZ Ambassador Chris Beeby, second secretary Richard Sewell, cryptographer Margaret Hoggett, and Campbell-White's then-husband Winston Prattley, who was head of the UN in Iran, as well as four Americans.

"We started to drive back. We were all in Land Rovers and it was about midnight when one of the American Land Rovers broke down."

The Kiwis tried but failed to fix the vehicle, and it was decided to leave and return for it later.

"They piled into our Land Rover and we drove back into Tehran.

"When we got to the house it was between 2am and 3am. We all had to be off to work at 7am."

The Americans had unrolled their sleeping bags and dossed down in Campbell-White's sitting room.

"When we got up in the morning, even before we had breakfast, we heard there was something going on at the American Embassy." They heard about the storming of the embassy via a walkie-talkie system.

Prattley and Campbell-White, who was then in charge of record-keeping at the embassy, drove to the New Zealand compound and told officials of their four house guests.

Beeby then drove his Chevrolet Blazer to Campbell-White's house and hid the four Americans under blankets in the back. "We told them not to move and managed to bring them to the New Zealand Embassy."

Two of the four men had decided to "go off and do their own thing". She doesn't remember what happened to them.

The other two hid in the embassy's safe room, out of bounds to the Iranian cleaner. "It had big Chubb doors because our coded cable machine was in there."

Beeby got in touch with his close ally, the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and, several days later, drove the two Americans to Taylor's residence.

She said the New Zealand sites were considered too risky to harbour the Americans for long.

"We had to be very, very careful. Christopher didn't take them to his residence because he had two cooks, cleaners, a butler and gardeners. The New Zealand Embassy residence was a big compound so there were lots of locals working there."

The mission to shelter the Americans was so top secret she couldn't tell her husband what had happened to them - even as she was smuggling food into the NZ Embassy for the fugitives. "We were sworn to secrecy."

Campbell-White didn't see the two Americans again and doesn't remember their names, but she is clear on one thing: Argo is even more factually wrong than anyone realised.

"The acting might be good, the film might be good, but the content is inaccurate. I just think it's a great pity because that will probably go down in history as what happened."

Scottish-born Campbell-White and her family were evacuated from Iran soon after.

She thinks Sewell and Beeby should receive posthumous awards. She has lost touch with Margaret Hoggett.

This week, Peters told the Herald on Sunday he had seen the film and it was "worse than erroneous".

"It's despicable to paint a courageous diplomat as failing to help an ally nation. It is simply not tolerable."

He said Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade should release any secret reports from the time about the incident.

- Herald on Sunday

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