On March 30, 1972, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had amassed three divisions worth of artillery, tank and infantry units along the South Vietnamese border. It would be the start of a confrontation now referred to as the Easter Offensive. After waiting for the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) to establish their defensive line along the DMZ border, the NVA boldly displayed their flags announcing their presence on the other side. The American airmen supporting the ARVN forces anticipated that the NVA air defenses would be tough to penetrate, but our airmen would soon realize just how tenacious an opponent they faced.
No one, including Lt. Col. Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, could have known that on the afternoon of April 2, 1972, the largest and longest combat search and rescue (CSAR) operation of the war in Southeast Asia was about to begin. It would last a total of 17 days; 24 sorties would be flown and 13 men would lose their lives. It was all to save one precious human life and the invaluable knowledge in his head.
Hambleton was a senior navigator and electronic warfare specialist on an EB-66C electronic reconnaissance aircraft. These planes were used as escorts to the larger, less maneuverable B-52′s, because they could locate the enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and jam the SAM radars if necessary. On this particular day in April, there had been a short notice request for two EB-66s to escort three B-52s that were to take out a buildup of SAM sites that had been noted in the southern panhandle of North Vietnam. Because the unit was under staffed, 53-year-old Hambleton, normally the scheduler for the crews, decided to put himself in the navigator’s seat of EB-66C, call sign BAT-21 Bravo. It was a bad idea, because Hambleton knew as much about American electronic warfare capabilities as any man in the Air Force, which made him an incredible prize for the enemy side should things go wrong. They did.
The briefing for the mission had been quick and no warning had been given of any NVA SAM sites seen in South Vietnam. Despite cloudy weather, the mission proceeded. As the convoy of the B-52s and EB-66s approached the border, they immediately came under assault from the unseen SAM sites. The others went unscathed, but BAT-21 was not so lucky. It was ripped apart by an enemy SA-2 Guideline SAM. Sitting in the navigator’s position, Hambleton was automatically set to be the first to eject in the event of an emergency. The second was the pilot, Wayne Brady. Brady and the four electronic warfare specialists in the rear of the aircraft never made it out.
During his lonely descent, Hambleton had 20 minutes to contemplate his fate. With only nine months to go until his retirement, Hambleton determined that no matter what, he was going to get out of this alive. Plus, he was confident that his American brethren would soon be there to rescue him. But what BAT-21Bravo did not know was that he had just landed on the wrong side of a 30,000 strong North Vietnamese offensive thrust.
After landing in a rice paddy just east of Cam Lo village and roughly one mile from the Cam Lo Bridge, Hambleton waited until dark to move into a nearby wooded area. Hambleton had made radio contact with an O-2 FAC (forward air controller) pilot that was patrolling in his vicinity. The FAC pilot had actually seen Hambleton float past his cockpit window in his parachute shortly after he had ejected. The FAC pilot’s constant contact was reassuring and helpful in calling AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships and F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers to lay down enough gunfire, bombs and “gravel” (anti-personnel mines) to keep enemy troops and villagers away from his hideout. Advised by the FAC pilot to stay in one spot, Hambleton dug himself a hole and anxiously awaited his rescue.
The downed aviator would watch with a heavy heart for days, as sortie after sortie was flown in and forced to turn around because of the intensity of the ground fire. Hungry, exhausted and desperate, Hambleton’s lowest moment came at the end of the fifth day, when he watched an Air Force Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter erupt into a giant fireball, killing all six men aboard. By the end of day five, the tally of losses included a Cobra helicopter, the Jolly Green and eight lives. An OV-10 was also lost but the pilot was captured and another crewman, Mark Clark, was on the ground evading. Five other aircraft were shot down, but their crews were rescued, and countless others were badly damaged. The cost had become too high.
At the end of the sixth day, Gen. Creighton Abrams, while in Saigon, declared that no further helicopters were to be used for CSAR missions to pick up Hambleton and Clark. The normal American mode of brute force from the air was not going to work this time; the NVA force was too large and too entrenched. It was going to have to be a rescue closer to the ground. Lt. Col. Andy Anderson, USMC, then the commander of the Joint Personnel Recovery Center in Saigon, had not yet supervised a successful ground rescue of an American, and had anxiously been monitoring Hambleton’s and Clark’s situation. Anderson figured he could get a team of Vietnamese commandos he had been working with to run the mission, but he needed another American to go along as an adviser. Enter Navy SEAL Tom Norris.
The SEAL team Norris was assigned to had been training Force Recon Marines to run covert special operations. “I was used to running ops where I was penetrating into the opposing forces’ territory without much support, but I had never seen anything like this,” Norris said. The ARVN general commanding, a brigadier by the name of Gen. Giai, thought the mission was insane. He told Norris he would get the team to the front lines but after that he would take no responsibility for them.”
Norris later said, “When you attempt a rescue mission, you don’t plan on being shot down. War is not a game where at the end you can get all your players back. The Air Force had to reevaluate all the losses they were taking and realize there needed to be another approach.” The initial plan was to have a small team composed of Lt. Col. Anderson, Norris, and five Vietnamese commandos put up an over-watch position along the Mieu Giang River, which ran near the positions of both downed airmen. Both Clark and Hambleton would be directed to literally float down to the team. Unfortunately, Hambleton, already down a week, was getting weaker by the day and no more time could be wasted. OV-10 pilot Clark, who had spent five days on the ground, was closest to the team’s position and would be rescued first.
After radioing an orbiting FAC aircraft to signal Clark to get in the water and float downstream, Norris started maneuvering with half of the team towards the riverbank. Anderson and the other Vietnamese waited further downstream as a backup in case Norris missed Clark. Originally instructed by Anderson to take his team only 1,000 meters, Norris turned off his radio and ventured twice that far. It was slow going for Norris’ team to reach the river as they worked to avoid numerous enemy patrols. They finally reach the river’s edge and were kneeling down in some bushes when Norris heard Clark floating down the river.
The cold river water was causing Clark to breathe hard and Norris was just about to step out of cover to grab Clark when a six-man NVA patrol walked directly between them. Norris’ first instinct was to have his team open fire, but he knew they were outgunned. Also, firing would compromise the mission by announcing the team’s presence, so he let them pass. But by the time the NVA patrol had moved by, Clark was out of sight. Norris didn’t give up hope, and he entered the river himself to search for Clark. He floated down the river and searched for a few hours before finally finding Clark lying behind a boat on the riverbank. Norris then linked back up with the rest of his team and safely delivered the survivor to Anderson’s position. It was now early morning and they would have to wait until nightfall to go back out and get Hambleton.
The FACs in contact with Hambleton were reporting that he was getting increasingly weary and difficult to work with. Hambleton was now at the water’s edge. He was cold, wet and now on his eighth day of danger, stress, hunger, and dehydration. Hambleton at one point became so desperate that he came out of the bush cover and started waving a white flag at the FACs flying above. The airborne observers had to yell at him to get back in the bushes and wait just a little bit longer.
Norris and Anderson spent the day relaying bombing targets along the river to the FACs on duty. However, the NVA troops returned the favor by unleashing mortar rounds and B-40 rockets directly on the team’s position. Lt. Col. Anderson and the senior Vietnamese commando chief were both seriously wounded and had to be helicoptered out. Losing both of these leaders was a huge blow to the team’s confidence. Norris was now left with just three Vietnamese commandos who spoke very little English. Hambleton was on his ninth day of evasion and was rapidly losing strength and hope. Now his would-be direct rescuers had taken casualties and were running out of ammunition.
As night approached, Norris and his three remaining team members began their final effort to find Hambleton. Two of the Vietnamese commandos became obstinate and refused to go on, feeling that Hambleton was not worth the risks they were facing. As the realization set in that he could not force the two men into helping him, Norris changed his tactics and asked for volunteers. One Vietnamese petty officer stepped forward and Norris realized that young Nguyen Van Kiet not only had the ability but the determination that was needed for this mission. Thus was formed a courageous two-man team that would become the stuff of SEAL legend. Leaving the other two men behind, Norris and Kiet headed upriver to rescue Hambleton.
Hambleton was too weak to move any farther; they were going to have to go to him. Norris and Kiet cautiously scoured the shoreline all night looking for some sign of BAT-21. As the sun rose on Hambleton’s tenth day down, the two rescuers reluctantly returned to their outpost to rest and plan the next evening’s attempt.
That evening, Norris and Kiet began to work their way upriver, taking care to avoid NVA patrols. Walking through a deserted village, Norris and Kiet found some native clothing and dressed themselves as peasants. They then commandeered an abandoned sampan to move up the river. It was an eerie and treacherous journey. Even in the pitch dark, surrounded by dense fog, they could see North Vietnamese soldiers sitting and sleeping on the shoreline. Up on a bluff above the river, Norris could make out the cannon barrels of a line of tanks. Kiet was quietly passing information back to Norris on the numbers of enemy he was able to see in plain sight. But they couldn’t afford to be discovered.
The two men continued to paddle upriver, but got turned around because of the heavy fog. Suddenly, they popped out of a thick fog bank and realized they were underneath the bridge at Cam Lo. They saw tanks and troops crossing the bridge overhead. When Norris saw the bridge, he realized they had overshot Hambleton’s position upriver by half an hour. Kiet and Norris turned around and paddled rapidly down toward Hambleton’s last known position.
On the south shore of the river they saw what looked like a body lying on the bank. They pulled the canoe over to the bank and discovered it was Hambleton, still alive but in very poor shape. Worse, by now it was close to sunrise and Norris wanted to hole up until they had the cover of darkness to go back down the river. But with Hambleton in such poor physical condition, slipping in and out of consciousness, moaning and rambling on senselessly, Norris knew he had to get him downriver immediately. Hambleton was hurriedly placed onto the bottom of the sampan and covered with bamboo from the riverbank. Then they began the journey downriver.
Norris and Kiet were soon spotted by a North Vietnamese patrol, who hailed them but did not fire. Then Hambleton started moaning, and Kiet stuck his hand over Hambleton’s mouth to keep him quiet. It didn’t matter, as the enemy troops along the banks were awakening and beginning to notice them. Some fired at them, but Norris and Kiet could not afford to return fire. Their job was to get Hambleton to safety, and they grimly bent to the task.
As they rounded a bend in the river, a NVA heavy caliber machine gun opened up on them from the north shore. Norris and Kiet pulled the sampan over to the opposite bank and turned the sampan over to provide some cover. After finding some vegetation to cover them, they called in some much-needed help from the air. Five A-4 Skyhawks from the carrier Hancock immediately answered the call. Their ordnance completely obliterated the enemy troops and weapons on the opposite bank. As the A-4s finished their deadly work, Norris and Kiet moved Hambleton back into the sampan and headed back to the team’s original outpost.
The trio was not free from danger yet, though. During the climb up the riverbank, NVA troops opened up on them from across the river. Norris had to call in additional airstrikes as they endured more small arms, mortar and rocket attacks. This time, South Vietnamese forces were there to cover them. Soon after the A-4’s silenced the enemy, an ARVN M113 armored personnel carrier arrived and was finally able to carry Hambleton, Norris and Kiet back to Dong Ha. Hambleton had to be carried to safety, as he was unable to walk, but he was finally safe. BAT-21 was home.
When the three arrived at Dong Ha, a reporter commented to Norris, “It must have been tough out there. I bet you wouldn’t do that again.” Norris just stared him down with his steely blue SEAL eyes and replied, “An American was down in enemy territory. Of course I’d do it again.”
For their heroic roles in the rescue of Iceal Hambleton, both warriors were recognized with extraordinary decorations. Petty Officer Kiet became the only Vietnamese of the entire war to be awarded the Navy Cross. For his role, President Ford awarded Lt. Tom Norris the Medal of Honor on April, 3 1976.