Bat 21 Bravo landed in the middle of the largest NVA offensive of the war…and lived to tell about it.
On April 2, 1972 over South Vietnam, two United States Air Force (USAF) EB-66 Destroyers were escorting a cell of three Boeing B-52D Stratofortresses tasked to bomb Ho Chi Minh Trail access points in Quang Tri Province. The EB-66s were there to provide search and guidance radar jamming for the B-52D big ugly fat…fellows (BUFFs) and to gather electronic signals intelligence. The call sign of the first EB-66C as Bat 21. The 1972 Easter Offensive was in its third day. Roughly 30,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops had crossed the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) and were headed south. What happened next would be debated for its human cost, and celebrated for its ingenuity and bravery by all involved.
B-52D BUFFs had been flying “Arc Light” bombing missions in support of the defenders on the ground but had been increasingly tracked and fired upon by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The BUFFs needed more electronic support and the 42nd Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (42nd TEWS) was tasked to provide that support. Like many other organizations, manpower had been depleted by the personnel draw down in the 42nd TEWS. As a result, a senior navigator by the name of Iceal Hambleton, better known as Gene, assigned himself to fly as the navigator in one of the EB-66s slated for the mission of April 2nd. Ironically, Hambleton had tracked NVA SA-2 Guideline SAMs south of the DMZ before, but others continued to question their presence so in South Vietnam.
Douglas EB-66C Destroyer, Air Force serial number 54-0466, was flying over Quang Tri Province, just south of the DMZ, when the NVA shot a volley of SAMs at the two EB-66s. Hambleton’s EB-66C was hit by a SA-2 while flying at 29,000 feet over northern South Vietnam. Hambleton called for the crew to eject and pulled his seat ejection handles just before the stricken EB-66 was hit by a second SA-2 and destroyed. Hambleton was the sole survivor of a crew totaling six. As he floated down in his parachute he realized he had shrapnel wounds from his aircraft exploding, a ripped finger, and four compressed vertebra from the force of the ejection. Remember those 30,000 NVA troops pouring over the border? Hambleton floated down in his parachute right into the middle of their advance, yet a fortuitous low cloud bank hid him as he landed in a dry rice paddy.
Hambleton (call sign Bat 21 Bravo) was in radio contact with Air Force Forward Air Controllers (FACs) flying a Cessna O-2 in the vicinity even before he landed. Even though the FACs saw the EB-66 get shot down, they were still unprepared for the number of NVA troops and the sheer amount of NVA arms and equipment in the area. The FACs fixed Hambleton’s position and relayed it to an HC-130P combat search and rescue (CSAR) tanker aircraft (call sign King 22) in order to get a rescue force spun up. Friendly forces had just destroyed a bridge in the area, so now Hambleton had a front row seat (less than 100 meters away) for the re-routed NVA advance to the south.
Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton was not just another Air Force World War II veteran and senior navigator. Hambleton had worked on Strategic Air Command’s (SAC’s) Jupiter, Titan I, and Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs. He had even been Deputy Chief of Operations at SAC’s 390th Strategic Missile Wing. He had firsthand knowledge of the innermost workings of America’s atomic weapons delivery systems and likely targeting information as well. Gene Hambleton simply could not be captured. It is highly likely that the North Vietnamese (and by extension the Soviets) knew of Hambleton’s assignment to the 42nd TEWS, based in Thailand, and if they found out he had been shot down they would make every effort to grab Hambleton. On the other hand, the United States Air Force, Navy, Marines, and even the South Vietnamese, were about to make every effort to rescue Gene Hambleton.
Two Air Force A-1H Sandys from the 1st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) joined the FAC over Hambleton’s position in short order. They loitered in the vicinity as Hambleton calmly and effectively called in strikes on the NVA positions around him. The A-1H Sandys called for a rescue attempt in the belief that the airstrikes had created a window of opportunity for rescue. Two Bell UH-1 Iroquoi (Huey) helicopters escorted by two Bell AH-1 Cobra gunships, made their way to the scene for a “quick snatch” rescue but enemy fire was just too heavy and accurate. One of the Hueys was shot down and the other three helicopters and both Sandy A-1Hs were heavily damaged. Rescue operations were suspended for the night and Hambleton was instructed to hole up and wait.
The next day (April 3rd) another rescue mission was attempted. A combined force consisting of A-1H Sandys, two HH-53 Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopters, and several F-4 Phantom IIs tasked with dropping anti-personnel cluster bombs around Hambleton’s position were overhead. OV-10A Bronco FAC aircraft remained on station over the area. One of the HH-53s went in for the pickup. The rescue helo was so badly shot up by heavy and accurate NVA ground fire that it was fortunate to make it back to a friendly base at all. When the second Jolly Green approached the area it too was heavily damaged and barely made it back from the area. To make matters worse, the OV-10 Bronco FAC aircraft was shot down. One of the crew was taken prisoner. The other crew member, First Lieutenant Mark Clark (grandson of General Mark Clark), successfully evaded the NVA and became potential rescue number two in the area.
On April 4th, A-1H Sandys tried to soften up the area around Hambleton in preparation for another rescue attempt but were shot up badly enough that availability of Sandy aircraft was a critical issue for the remainder of the war. Eight of the ten aircraft that flew the mission were damaged. April 5th passed without any SAR activity due to poor weather in the area. But on April 6th, another rescue attempt was laid on. A-1H Sandys once again attacked the troops located near Hambleton’s position. Even B-52 BUFFs were used to bomb NVA staging areas nearby. In response the NVA fired some 80 SAMs at the American aircraft operating in the area.
The plan for the 6th was to pick up Hambleton first and then grab Clark. After checking the area and finding NVA fire to be reduced, the on-scene commander gave the first rescue helo the go sign. When the first Jolly Green Giant approached it too was shot to pieces. The HH-53 made it out of the area but the damage it sustained caused the aircraft to crash a few kilometers away. The entire crew of six men was listed as missing in action (MIA) but presumed killed. SAR activity was suspended for the rest of the day. Hambleton and now Clark would be forced to spend another day surrounded by NVA troops who were beating the bushes looking for them. The North Vietnamese, seeing the effort the American CSAR forces were making to rescue Bat 21 Bravo, decided to commit even more resources to finding him.
On April 7th, yet another OV-10 Bronco FAC aircraft was shot down and its crew captured while spotting for naval gunfire to protect Hambleton from the NVA. It was time to come up with a new plan. Five days, five aircraft lost, 16 more heavily damaged, twelve crew members either killed or captured, and no rescue. The area in which Hambleton and Clark were holed up was just too hot to try another airborne CSAR helo rescue. General Creighton Abrams himself ordered no more such rescue attempts would be made, but that every effort should be made to extricate the two men from the area. It would take the efforts of two heroic and fearless volunteers, an encyclopedic knowledge of golf courses, and luck by the metric ton to pull this one off.
One of the heroic men was Navy SEAL Lieutenant Thomas Norris. As one of only three SEAL officers and nine SEAL enlisted men left in Vietnam, Norris was between assignments when the ground rescue of Hambleton was conceived. Norris recruited five of the South Vietnamese commandos with whom he been working as the rest of his small insertion team. The North Vietnamese were still listening in on radio comms, so Clark and Hambleton were given directions in code only they would understand. Clark, who hailed from the great state of Idaho, was told to “Get to the Snake, make like Esther Williams, and float to Boston.” Which of course meant get to the river and swim east.
It would not be quite that simple for Bat 21 Bravo. He would have to sneak past NVA villages, gun emplacements, dug-in tanks, SAMs, and groups of troops beating the bushes trying to find him. Hambleton did have one ace up his sleeve. He was one of the finest golfers in the Air Force. He had played courses all over the world and remembered every golf hole he had ever played. When his rescuers learned of this they overlaid the layouts of golf holes Hambleton had played on top of a map of the area and devised a coded way to direct Hambleton around the enemy using the distances and directions of the golf holes. Bat 21 Bravo had to get to the Song Meiu Giang river in order to be extracted. When Hambleton was told “You’re going to play 18 holes and then you’re going to get in the Suwanee and make like Esther Williams and Charlie the Tuna. The round starts on the first hole at Tucson National,” Hambleton was incredulous. But once he deduced the meaning of the code, Hambleton teed off on the most important round of golf he would ever play.
Hambleton’s round was not all birdies and bogies. He was forced to kill an NVA soldier who confronted him and he fell off a cliff at one point and broke his arm. But he finished his round of golf. He had made it to the river. On April 9th, Hambleton’s eighth day on the ground surrounded by NVA troops, he was so weakened he could not climb a short distance uphill to retrieve a survival pack dropped to him by a Sandy. The pack would have provided Hambleton with badly needed food along with water, ammunition, and extra radios. Fearing that Hambleton was reaching the end of his considerable endurance, and having indeed lost nearly 40 pounds already during his ordeal, it was time to get Bat 21 Bravo out of there.
Meanwhile, Navy SEAL Norris and his team of South Vietnamese commandos staged as close to the area as possible and prepared to move behind enemy lines. They made contact with Clark first, although they nearly missed him as he floated downriver. Interrupted by NVA patrols and narrowly averting discovery several times, Clark was picked up and retuned to American control on April 10th 1972. By April 11th Hambleton was done in. He could not go any farther. Norris would have to go in and get him. Norris and his team tried to reach Hambleton on the night of the 11th, but two of the South Vietnamese were wounded before the rescue attempt even started. Dissention among the ranks of the South Vietnamese left Norris with one man (Petty Officer Third Class Nguyen Van Kiet of the South Vietnamese Navy) to help him. But that one man was all he would need.
On the night of April 12th Norris and Van Kiet were slowly working their way upriver when they came upon a bombed out village. They used found clothing and a sampan to disguise themselves as fishermen. Even though the night was dark and foggy the two men could see NVA troops and tanks along the shore of the river. The two men passed Hambleton’s position in the dark and fog and were forced to double back downriver through the gauntlet of NVA personnel. When they finally found Hambleton it was nearly light, but Norris did not want to wait to extricate Hambleton. Although fired on by some of the NVA troops they passed along the way downriver, they kept Bat 21 Bravo covered up in the bottom of the sampan and paddled for all they were worth. Two separate times the fire from the NVA became intense enough that Norris called in close air support from Navy A-4F Skyhawks flying from the aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19). Finally reaching friendly territory, Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton was returned to American control on April 13th 1972.
On arrival back at the American base at Dong Ha, a reporter said to Norris, “It must have been tough out there. I bet you wouldn’t do that again.” Norris, a SEAL to the core, replied, “An American was down in enemy territory. Of course I’d do it again.” Lieutenant Thomas Norris was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his rescue of Bat 21 Bravo and First Lieutenant Mark Clark. Petty Officer Third Class Nguyen Van Kiet of the South Vietnamese Navy was awarded the only Navy Cross awarded to South Vietnamese Navy personnel for his role in the rescues. Hambleton received the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal (United States) and a Purple Heart. In all, 234 individual medals were awarded to participants in the effort to rescue Bat 21 Bravo. Search and rescue forces saved 3,883 lives at the cost of 71 rescuers and 45 aircraft during the Vietnam War.