author: Dale Carter
History has labelled the event The Canadian Caper and many believe it was Canada’s finest hour of diplomatic cooperation with the United States. Through the lens of filmmaker and actor Ben Affleck, it was a story worthy of the silver screen, complete with a daring rogue CIA agent and American intrigue. But Argo, Ben Affleck’s blockbuster, Oscar-winning movie, ignores the real heroes behind the dramatic escape of six American from the clutches of the violent Islamic revolutionaries. One of those heroes was Laverna Dollimore.
January, 2005 marked the 25th anniversary of the part played by Ken Taylor, Canada’s Ambassador to Iran and his embassy staff in the daring rescue of six Americans in post revolutionary Iran.
Under a cobalt blue sky the following June, Miss Laverna Dollimore worked in the kitchen of her picture book Victorian home, fussing over the final preparations for the reunion. A special group of friends were gathering to trade stories and celebrate events shared a quarter century earlier, in a country torn by Islamic revolution.
Brighton, a sleepy little town verging on Lake Ontario with scarcely a nod to Middle East politics and far from the shadowy corridors and intrigue of Ottawa’s Foreign Service, seemed an unlikely choice for such a notable gathering.
But Brighton was home to Laverna Dollimore who had chosen a career path early in life wrought with adventure and danger that had taken her around the world and back in service to her country.
As secretary to Ken Taylor, Laverna had played a key role during those dark, tense days in the Canadian Embassy in Tehran. Amazingly, this was but a single chapter in her most remarkable life.
Laverna arrived in Tehran in early August 1979. Nearing retirement with many years of challenging postings behind her, serving in this lawless middle-east country in the aftermath of an Islamic revolution seemed to hold little fear for Laverna.
Her older sister Neysa kept personal memoirs of Laverna’s adventurous foreign exploits. In recounting her preparation for Tehran, she wrote that Laverna shrugged off the risks of serving in a country at war with itself and was eager to set about discovering the glories of ancient Persia.
Following a distinguished career in the Canadian navy during World War II, Laverna tried her hand at several office jobs, but dissatisfied with routine, she joined Canada’s Department of External Affairs.
Her first posting was to Cairo in 1957 in the aftermath of the Suez crisis, where she witnessed the rebuilding of the country after the invasion of Britain and France and saw firsthand the United Nations peacekeeping initiative that awarded future Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson the Nobel Peace Prize.
After two years in Cairo, Laverna served in seven different countries – including trouble spots like Laos, the Congo and Malaysia – and spent two years in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. Her experience prepared her well for the position in post-revolutionary Iran.
When Laverna arrived in Iran anti-US feelings ran high and protests in front of the American Embassy compound were common.
A seasoned professional, Laverna quickly adapted to her new role. As secretary to Ambassador Taylor, it was her job to act as gatekeeper; screening calls, setting appointments and keeping the ambassador on track while acting as his personal confidante. Under the best of circumstances, it was a demanding job about to take on unexpected dimensions.
In a recent interview with former ambassador Ken Taylor, from his New York home, he chuckled warmly at the mention of Laverna’s name. “She was a true paragon, a model of excellence who brought a certain serenity to the office. She did everything with grace.”
Ken Taylor arrived in Iran in September 1977 with the task of promoting Canada and finding opportunity for Canadian exports. The Shah’s regime was in power and Iran was a progressive country; a model for the Middle East, boasting world renowned universities, hospitals and research facilities.
Within two months of his arrival, Taylor was appointed Ambassador. The sparks of unrest within the Shah’s regime ignited a smouldering rebellion that eventually fuelled a full-fledged fundamentalist Islamic revolution, forcing the departure of the Shah in early 1979 and heralding the triumphant return of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. The revolution spurred mounting anti-American demonstrations in the streets of Tehran, which came to a head on November 4, 1979, when an armed mob of ‘student’ demonstrators stormed the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound and took the occupants hostage. For the next 444 days, 52 Americans were held by the Iranians. The revolutionaries taunted the western world with their brazen attack, often parading their blindfolded and shackled captives in front of news cameras to the horror of the international community.
A handful of Americans avoided capture on November 4th. John Sheardown, Taylor’s chief immigration officer, received information that five Americans who had evaded capture needed refuge. Ambassador Taylor reacted decisively, cabling External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald. She in turn, contacted Prime Minister Joe Clark. With backing from the highest levels of the Canadian government, Ken Taylor moved to hide the fugitives.
Taylor knew they couldn’t shelter the Americans at the Embassy. Unlike the sprawling American walled compound, the Canadian Embassy was a modest building on the fringe of downtown Tehran with doors opening directly onto a busy street. With the occupation of the American Embassy, the number of Iranians seeking visas had increased dramatically and its high visibility made the building a poor choice for asylum.
Taylor and Sheardown acted quickly taking the fugitives to their homes in the quiet, upscale Shemiran district north of the city. A sixth American joined the others weeks later.
Watching Taylor in a time of crisis heightened Laverna’s respect for her new ambassador. In his book, Our Man in Tehran, Robert Wright quotes her as saying, “It was the Americans’ good fortune that Ken Taylor was not cut from the typical diplomatic cloth...because, he was the only diplomat I know who would act first and tell Ottawa later. If they had gone by the book, nothing would ever have happened.”
Taylor deflected the compliment in true diplomatic style by saying, “Yes well, Laverna was very generous. I feel that any number of my colleagues could have carried it off. I had great support from Ottawa, from Flora MacDonald and Joe Clark who gave us a good deal of freedom and of course I had excellent embassy staff.”
Taylor also knew that Laverna had a wealth of experience; she was never afraid to make a decision or act quickly and she admired this quality in others. “She responded well to a plan and a clear course of action.”
The only secure way to pass information from the embassy to the outside world was by encoded messages transmitted through sophisticated cipher equipment. Laverna was responsible for transcribing all correspondence and official reports in shorthand, then typing them for encoding and filing. Always an important duty, this became critical while the embassy sheltered the six Americans.
The ‘house guests’ as the fugitives were called, remained behind closed doors. American Thanksgiving and Christmas had passed. Time was ticking and nerves were fraying. There was concern that the U.S. might mount an attempt to rescue the ‘house guests’ and by doing so, would jeopardize the Canadians. Adding to the tense drama were persistent rumours that some American Embassy staff were at large. Jean Pelletier, Washington correspondent for Montreal’s La Presse, pieced together the puzzle and confronted the government about Canada’s possible involvement in the concealment. The cat was out of the bag! But Pelletier was a man of conscience. To their credit, both he and the publishers at La Presse agreed to sit on the story. The New York Times also had a whiff of the story. It was time to move on the situation. On December 30, Flora MacDonald met with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and it was decided that the U.S. and Canada would work in concert on a strategy to rescue the ‘house guests’.
Ottawa and Washington developed a plan that would eventually include the CIA and a most unlikely fourth party – Hollywood, dream capital of the world.
Operation Argo involved government-approved forged Canadian passports for the six Americans positioning them as Canadian film makers scouting locations in Iran. Washington provided forged entry and exit visas that were flown in a diplomatic pouch to Tehran where Roger Lucy, Taylor’s First Secretary picked them up from the tarmac of the Mehrabad Airport. Back in Los Angeles, CIA exfiltration expert Antonio Mendez set up a bogus Hollywood production company, took an option on a rejected sci-fi script – Argo – and started the Hollywood ‘buzz’ to lend credence to the project.
The decision was made to spirit the six Americans out of the country on January 28, 1980. Agent Mendez and his fellow operative flew from Germany to Tehran early on Friday, January 25th, checked into their hotel and went in search of the Canadian Embassy. They became lost because of faulty CIA instructions, but then after a few uncomfortable tourist moments with a map, an armed Iranian guard and a puzzled English speaking resident, Mendez and his partner leapt into a passing taxi and sped across town for the pre-arranged meeting with Taylor.
In his official and since declassified CIA report, Mendez describes Taylor as “A tall, lean, rather young, pleasant individual dressed in western jeans and a plaid shirt, wearing cowboy boots. This improbable-looking diplomat greeted us warmly. By his side was his secretary, Laverna Dollimore…a small elderly lady who was pleasant and cheerful.”
Taylor laughs at the memory. “In those final days, there was no official business and every day was a casual day.” His Calgary roots explained the boots and jeans.
The CIA agents and their Canadian hosts spent two days briefing the house guests on their assumed identities, reviewing their exit strategy and poring over the forged passports and visas. Fortunately, Roger Lucy, who spoke Farsi discovered the CIA visas carried incorrect Farsi calendar dates that were quickly amended.
Throughout the tense drama that was unfolding in his own embassy, Ken Taylor was also passing critical information to Washington, where Operation Eagle Claw – the first attempt to rescue the hostages in the American embassy – was being conceived.
Taylor was also in the process of closing down the Canadian Embassy, releasing embassy staff and shredding incriminating documents. At least three times, the overworked shredder blew out the electrical fuses before the job was finished. Laverna was asked several times if she wanted to leave and true to her character, she cheerfully chose to stand her ground, keeping her personal routine as close to normal as possible.
In the final days, besides Taylor, the only staff members remaining were political officer Roger Lucy, security chief Sergeant Claude Gauthier, embassy communicator Mary O’Flaherty and Laverna.
With gunfire in the background and the distant chanting of mobs, the skeleton Canadian embassy staff was furtively shredding the files and correspondence. As a final act, burly security chief Sergeant Gauthier, wielding a 12-pound sledgehammer, destroyed the once vital communication equipment.
CIA agent Mendez drove the “film crew” to the Mehrabad Airport early Monday morning. Clutching their passports and visas, the crew made it past Iranian security and on to a Swissair flight to Zurich. Taylor and his staff closed the embassy that afternoon and made their way to Mehrabad.
Against an uncertain day, Laverna had made a full breakfast for the young military police that had come to take her to the airport. She then took a last look around her flat and left, closing the door behind her.
Taylor and his group, including Laverna, flew separately from Tehran to the safety of the waiting Western world. Laverna's flight took her to London where she was met by Canadian officials and immediately placed under security protection.
The American government desperately wanted the escape of the six Americans to remain undetected should it trigger severe repercussions at the American Embassy where the hostages were still being held. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance called for the “strictest confidentiality” but with the six escapees out of danger, Pelletier and La Presse published the story that spread throughout the world like wildfire.
Ken Taylor and his team were overwhelmed with the outpouring of gratitude and mountains of letters and cards from across Canada and the United States. With time, the story faded from the memories of Canadians and Americans, until recently when Ben Affleck produced Argo. In the early version of the movie, Affleck depicted CIA agent Tony Mendez and the American government as the driving forces behind the rescue. There was a quiet outcry which gained force until Affleck, to his credit, “diplomatically” adapted the movie’s postscript to reflect the invaluable contributions of a handful of dynamic Canadians who had quietly sacrificed their own safety for that of six Americans.
Laverna Dollimore was awarded the Order of Canada for her role in the daring rescue and long time service to the nation, joining Taylor and other embassy members.
In 1982, Laverna retired to Brighton, close to her sister Neysa. She shared few details of the adventures she had experienced in her service to Canada. Roger Lucy claims that Laverna’s whole life was spent keeping secrets, first in WWII and then in Russia during the cold war and finally Tehran. It became second nature to her and a habit difficult to give up.
Taylor remembers the June, 2005 reunion at Laverna Dollimore’s home in Brighton when he, John Sheardown, Roger Lucy, CIA agent Tony Mendez and three of the six fugitive Americans – most of the principal players at the core of the Canadian Caper gathered to celebrate a moment that went beyond international cooperation, into the heart of individual freedoms. “Very informal,” he said, savouring the memory. “Everyone was comfortable and at ease with each other and everything felt like home. It was a great day…like a family picnic…and so typical of Laverna. Throughout her career, she was a true reflection of the very best of Canada’s Foreign Service.”
Twenty-five years after the bold venture, Laverna confided to a close friend that she felt CIA agent Tony Mendez had perhaps spoken too openly that day about some of the details of the rescue.
Diplomatic discretion to the end.
Editor’s note: Watershed thanks the following people for their contributions to this article: Former Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor and his First Secretary in Iran, Roger Lucy for sharing their memories of Laverna and Bob Yager, Laverna’s friend and, in her words, “Money Man” for his help and support and Laverna’s niece Wynneth Clark. Robert Wright’s book, Our Man in Tehran, provides fascinating historical background to the events leading up to and beyond the Islamic revolution in Iran.