The Rescue of Bat 21
“When his electronic warfare plane, call sign Bat 21, was shot down on 2 April 1972, fifty-three-year-old Air Force navigator Iceal “Gene” Hambleton parachuted into the middle of a North Vietnamese invasion force and set off the biggest and most controversial air rescue effort of the Vietnam War.” (Whitcomb, “The Rescue of Bat 21,” 1998)
I arrived at DaNang Air Base, Vietnam, in May 1972, to begin my assignment as a rescue helicopter pilot on the HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant. It was a little over a month after the amazing rescue of Lt. Col. Hambleton who was the lone survivor of the crew of an EB-66 that had been shot down. Needless to say, there was great excitement among the rescue community over this successful rescue.
The story was made into a film in 1988 starring Gene Hackman who played Lt. Col. Hambleton and Danny Glover who played the O-2 forward air controller pilot who “orchestrated” the rescue. Darrel Whitcomb’s book “The Rescue of Bat 21”corrected some of the Hollywood script to set the record straight. The movie and the book both tell a powerful story of courage, strength and sacrifice that involved Air Force, Army, Navy and Vietnamese allies that brings honor to all the military services and to our allies.
During the rescue of Bat 21B, there were untold numbers of heroes who went beyond the call of duty to save one man. The pilots, maintenance troops, intelligence briefers and soldiers who engaged the enemy to keep them away from Bat 21 all did their part to bring the survivor home. There were actually three downed pilots that were part of the big operation. Two were rescued; one was killed in action.
The final act of courage was kept classified for 25 years because we did not want to reveal our tactics. The now-declassified story tells of Navy SEAL Lt. Thomas Norris and South Vietnamese Petty Officer Third Class Nguyen Kiet who went behind enemy lines disguised as fishermen in a sampan to rescue Lt. Col. Hambleton. Lt. Norris was awarded the Medal of Honor and Petty Officer Kiet received the Navy Cross.
The fact that the American military forces have this “leave no one behind” commitment is an incredible testimony to our heritage as a nation. I think it comes from our Christian foundation that affirms every person is of great worth. We believe that every life is precious in God’s sight and is worth the risk of saving. Eleven soldiers and airmen gave their lives in the rescue of Bat 21. In an earlier war, in a letter to the mother of a Confederate soldier who had been killed in action, President Abraham Lincoln wrote, “The solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
It is my prayer that the families of those who gave their lives to save these two airmen will also know that “solemn pride.”
The Lord Jesus came to rescue us. We Christians talk about “God’s plan of salvation.” It is a rescue plan that saves us from our sins and gives us the promise of the resurrection of the body and eternal life with God.
The Lord explained the intensity of His plan in Luke 15. He told three parables about the “lost” ones.
The parable of the lost sheep is about God’s plan to save the wandering lost. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the 99 … and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” God is the Good Shepherd. He will go after the one who wandered away.
The parable of the lost coin is about God’s plan to save the carelessly lost. A coin does not wander away; it gets knocked off the table or rolls under the couch. A coin does not even know it is lost. But the owner does! And so she searches diligently until she finds the coin that was carelessly lost.
The parable of the prodigal son is about God’s plan to save the rebelliously lost. Some people, by their own freewill turn away from their family and friends and rebel against God’s way of life. It is like they bailed out of a perfectly good airplane to find “life in the fast lane.” Thankfully, some, like the prodigal son in the Bible, come home to the loving father. Some spend their entire life being rebellious. They may never know that God sent an entire armada of rescuers to bring them home. Pastors, missionaries, mothers and fathers and friends who became vulnerable to the “enemies of God” to rescue the rebelliously lost one.
When Bat 21 made it safely back to the base, there was a huge party to celebrate his rescue. It happened every time the rescued airman or soldier was not left behind, but was brought back home.
At the end of each parable of the “Wandering … Carelessly … Rebelliously Lost”, the Lord Jesus said. “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10). That God-blessed joy was made possible because God sent His only Son to be our Rescuer. He died on the cross to complete God’s plan of salvation and rose from the grave to guarantee God’s hope of eternal life is secured for all the lost ones who were found.
As Hillsong sings in their great song “So Will I,” “You’re the One who never leaves the one behind.” Thank You, Lord.
Chaplain Charles C. Baldwin (Major General, USAF, retired) is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He and his wife, Anne, have been married for 49 years and have three children and ten grandchildren. He is serving as an associate pastor at the French Huguenot Church, Charleston, S.C.