Document created: 12 April 99

The Rescue of Bat 21 by Darrel D. Whitcomb. Naval Institute Press, 118 Maryland Avenue, Annapolis, Maryland 21402-5035, 1998, 196 pages, $27.95.

It’s about time someone set the record straight. Darrel D. Whitcomb does it concisely in this powerful tragedy from the American experience in Vietnam. An introduction by Col Harry G. Summers Jr. advises that the book offers lessons that we ignore at our peril.

Bat 21B is the call sign of an EB-66 navigator, Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, who is slammed by an SA-2 missile just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in 1972. The plot thickens when he must parachute into the middle of a vast North Vietnamese Army (NVA) invasion of the south. Search and rescue (SAR) missions launch into an area where the NVA has brought sufficient antiaircraft weaponry to contest American air superiority. Eleven brave men die, and two more survivors enter the problem. The author details the falls of Mike 81, Blueghost 39, Nail 38, Blueghost 28, Jolly Green 67, and Covey 282. A previous book by William C. Anderson and a movie starring Gene Hackman focused on the 12-day evasion ordeal of Hambleton. Whitcomb’s effort brings the full story home with the stark power of what actually happened.

Reading The Rescue of Bat 21 is like standing near a thundering freight train. The story is powerful, moves quickly, and is vividly told. Thorough research and the author’s experience in the forward air control mission facilitate smooth storytelling. As opposed to oversimplified tales in the past, this account gives detailed documentation. The exact chain of events comes to life. The focus is not on survival stories but on the support and decision systems that drive the rescue. This way, the author aims the spotlight at some larger questions.

What is the price of one man’s life? A prevailing sentiment held that rescue of a downed brother was the only mission in that conflict that was worth any risk. “A Long, Bitter War” is an apt chapter title for an insight into this inscrutable war without a clear strategy. In the end, Whitcomb holds class on critical aspects of executing joint and coalition operations. He raises issues that go to the heart of Air Force identity.

The Rescue of Bat 21 could serve as a textbook for leaders and planners. It offers all of us a fast but wrenching story of tragedy and heroism from a controversial period in our history.

Col James E. Roper, USAF, Retired
Colorado Springs, Colorado