RESCUE OF BAT 21 BRAVO
The largest, longest, and most complicated rescue operation of the entire war in Vietnam, the recovery of Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton ended up revolutionizing the way the United States Air Force organized their rescue missions. It also made a lot of people in Strategic Air Command question the wisdom of allowing people with top-secret anti-aircraft missile information out on combat missions.
Hambleton was flying escort for a B-52 mission when his EB-66 Destroyer electronic warfare plane was shot down over the overrun South Vietnamese province of Quang Tri. The lieutenant colonel possessed secrets vital to American air defense and fighter tactics, and Soviet intelligence was determined to track him down.
The USAF attempted an airborne rescue operation that resulted in the loss of five aircraft and the death or capture of thirteen airmen. Realizing that American airplanes had no realistic hope of penetrating the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft defenses, the Air Force sent in Navy SEAL commando Lt. Thomas Norris along with a five-man Vietnamese frogman team to reach the downed officer.
Knowing that their radio communications could easily be intercepted, the ground forces guided Hambleton to safety with an improvised code language based on the lieutenant colonel’s encyclopedic knowledge of golf courses—the direction “number one at Tucson National” (a hole running southeast for 408 yards) translated to “move southeast 400 yards.” Despite a broken arm and severe dehydration, Hambleton finally made it to safety.