American flags as far as the eye can see greet visitors as they enter America’s Cemetery® in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. Originally they were the symbol of “America Held Hostage.” Today the Avenue of 444 Flags remains as silent proclamation that our freedoms must never be taken for granted.
The story began when the United States permitted the exiled former shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to enter the country for cancer treatment. On November 4, 1979, a mob of students gathered outside the American Embassy in Tehran, to demand his extradition. Before the end of the day, the rioters stormed the embassy gates and took 66 Americans hostage. The new ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, spoke out in support of these actions. Two weeks later he ordered the release of the women and African-Americans, leaving 53 Americans to be physically and mentally abused by their captors.
Negotiations for their release started immediately. No one thought that the situation would last very long. But the Iranians continued to hold the hostages even after Iranian assets in the United States were frozen and the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution ordering the release of the hostages.
The ostensible motivation for the crisis became null when the Shah left the United States for Panama on December 15, 1979. Neverthless, the hostage situation continued. One more hostage was released on July 11, 1980, due to illness, but the remaining 52 continued to be imprisoned in the embassy – even after the Shah died on July 27, 1980.
As day 100 of the crisis approached, Tom Flynn, owner of Hillcrest Memorial Park (now named America’s Cemetery®, decided he was tired of seeing our nation’s flag burned by Iranians on the 6 o’clock news. He was determined to do something to help the nation remember our hostages. He decided to raise a flag along the avenue leading into the park for every day the crisis continued. Local veterans organizations, community members, and businesses got behind the idea. On February 11, 1980, the 100th day of the crisis, 100 flags were raised along the avenue leading into the park. The poles were contributed by Wheatland Tube; casket flags were donated by families with a relative who had been buried in a military funeral; and the flags were raised by volunteers, including labor unions and unemployed steel workers. Alice and Harry Matrinko, parents of hostage Michael Matrinko from Scranton, PA, represented the hostages and their families at the event.
From that day on, another flag was raised every day, regardless of the weather. Community members gathered for remembrance services on the 200th and 300th days, the one-year anniversary, and the 400th day. These events, as well as the Avenue itself, attracted extensive national and international media coverage on television news as well as in print. Finally, supporters of the Avenue gathered for a great celebration on January 20, 1981, the 444th and final day of the captivity. The very next issue of Time Magazine, published on January 26, 1981, featured a photo of the Avenue’s flags on its cover. On February 14, 1981, six former hostages came to the Avenue to dedicate the monument to the servicemen killed in the failed rescue attempt on April 25, 1980, and to light an eternal flame at its base.
Today, more than 30 years after the end of the crisis, 444 of the more than 18,000 replacement flags still fly along the Avenue as a reminder that freedom isn’t free, and as a tribute to all honorable service people and veterans who sacrifice so much to defend that freedom. The Avenue has also become a place where the cremated remains of veterans and their families can be buried with full military honors. The Avenue is open to the public 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Admission is free.
Citizens from Scranton, PA, raised funds to build a permanent monument in memory of six servicemen who lost their lives in the failed rescue attempt on April 25, 1980. The 10-ft. monument features an eagle with its wings spread, announcing hope and freedom. A plaque lists the names of the men who died