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BAT 21

          You probably heard of the story BAT 21, or worse watch...the Movie Bat 21 (made by "Hollywood"). If the US main stream media used to ignore the role of ARVN's effort during the Vietnam war, so did the Hollywood in the making of the movie Bat 21. The following article is credible enough to shed light on the harrowing rescue of the downed pilot, but another Vietnamese version (translated in English) soon will be presented on this website with more emotional details and a better picture of the military situation of Quang Tri province at that time frame. But first, enjoy the American version of the story BAT 21.


          In one of the most bizarre rescues of the Vietnam War, Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton was recovered from enemy territory in northern South Vietnam after 11 1/2 days on the ground. This was the largest rescue operation in USAF history.

On Easter Sunday, April 2, 1972, Lt. Col. Hambleton was flying as navigator in an EB-66 electronic counter-measures aircraft (call sign Bat-21). When the aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile, he was the only man to eject safely, landing near a busy highway junction on a Communist supply route. Intelligence sources reported the area contained 30,000 enemy troops. When he came up on a survival radio an effort was immediately instituted to try and rescue him. A Huey helicopter was shot down with a three-man crew. Two of them were killed and one of them was captured.

On the second day, two more helicopters went in and were so badly shot up they had to abort the mission, and a forward air controller aircraft was shot down, putting two more individuals on the ground. One was captured and one became just like Hambleton. They went in with one more rescue attempt. They were shot down and lost a six-man crew. The day after that another forward air control aircraft was shot down with two men aboard. One was killed and the second one, First Lieutenant Bruce Walker, was missing on the ground. After five days effort, we had 14 people killed, we had lost eight aircraft, we had two people captured, and we had three on the ground to be rescued. That's when Lt Tom Norris and a team of 5 ARVN Sea Commandos became involved.

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Bat 21 area Map

           By now it was obvious that Nail-38 Bravo and Bat-21 Bravo could not be rescued from the air. Any new rescue attempt would call for a covert, land-based movement. Such an alternative was suggested on the afternoon of April 8th by Marine Colonel Al Gray. "I have a boat load of guys that would love to do something like that," he announced. With the agreement of the rescue planners, the call went out to assemble the commando team at once. It would call for a special kind of warrior.

If the Air Force was expecting "RAMBO" to show up, they would have been disappointed when Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas Norris arrived to join a five man SOG Naval Advisory Detachment (NAD) Sea Commando team from Da Nang. One of the few remaining Navy SEALS in Vietnam, Norris was serving his second tour in Vietnam. Slight of stature, he didn't fit the profile we have come to associate with the military's elite. But like Rambo, Tom Norris was tough. Unlike Rambo, he was REAL. Above all, the 28 year old warrior had HEART! As the mission unfolded for the SEAL and his five South Vietnamese "frog men", the mission essentials would necessitate all three characteristics.

Meanwhile the Air Force began the intricate process of preparing Nail-38 Bravo and Bat-21 Bravo for the newest rescue attempt. Lieutenant Clark was already near the Cam Lo river that flowed east into the Cua Viet so he remained hidden with instruction to move to the water on the night of April 10th. Lieutenant Colonel Hambleton was a mile away from the river and had to be guided through a heavily coded series of messages related in simile to a golf course, towards the river and past thousands of NVA soldiers.

Bat 21 area Map From a small South Vietnamese (ARVN) outpost less than a mile away, Lieutenant Norris would take his team of five up the river to find and rescue first Clark, and then Hambleton. As darkness fell on April 10th the team set out, six men alone in the darkness against a force that had defied the might of American air power.

Initially the plan had been for the team to swim upriver, against the current, while Lieutenant Clark floated down stream to meet them. The SEAL advisor checked the current and found it too swift for his frog men to swim against, and began an overland insertion along the banks of the river. Slowly the team moved west, passing columns of enemy tanks, trucks, and frequent patrols. It was slow, dangerous work that could turn deadly without warning. Rescue planners had known the journey would be a dangerous one, and had instructed Lieutenant Norris to proceed no further than one kilometer into the enemy infested river bottom. The courageous SEAL knew that wouldn't be close enough and moved eastward through the enemy, finally setting his team up to wait....TWO kilometers upriver.

Overhead the FAC pilot instructed Lieutenant Clark to slip into the river and float down until rescued by the commando team. Somewhere between 2 and 3 AM Norris noticed something moving down the river. It was Lieutenant Clark. Then, before Norris could begin the rescue, an enemy patrol appeared. He sat quietly at the water's edge until they passed, then slipped into the chilly river and floated down stream after the pilot. The water moved swiftly and Norris had lost track of Clark. Stealthily he emerged from the water and began a search of the banks, eventually returning all the way to his hidden team. He reported the situation to the rescue co-ordinators by radio, then began moving his team east again. His team searched the banks on their withdrawal, while the Navy SEAL floated down the river. As dawn lit the dangerous skies, Lieutenant Norris rounded a bend in the river and noticed movement. It was the downed pilot, hiding along the banks of the river. Norris made contact, then led the airman to rendezvous with the rest of the team. Though they had found their quarry, they were still deep into an area filled with enemy soldiers. Slowly, carefully, they continued their escape and evasion, finally bringing Lieutenant Clark to safety. That afternoon he was taken by armored personnel carrier to the last outpost on the Cua Viet River at Dong Ha, then flown to Da Nang. Tommy Norris and his team of South Vietnamese "frog men" remained at the distant ARVN outpost. Their mission wasn't complete. There was still an American pilot in harm's way.

Despite the overwhelming number of enemy the commando team had witnessed on their first incursion into enemy territory to rescue Lieutenant Clark, Tom Norris was prepared to do it all again on the night of April 11th to find and recover Hambleton. Enemy tanks had been reported at the Cam Lo bridge, and strikes were ordered to destroy them before the team began their dangerous journey. This time the enemy responded in kind, raining death and destruction on the tiny ARVN outpost. Among the casualties were two of Norris' South Vietnamese SEALS. The following morning the wounded were evacuated, and Norris sat down with his remaining three team members to plan a renewed effort. They left the outpost after dark on the night of April 12th, this time moving nearly four kilometers into the massive enemy force to find BAT-21 Bravo. Two of Norris' team, upon seeing the force arrayed against them, became frightened and refused to continue. Only by convincing them that their only hope of returning to safety was to stay with the team, was he able to get them upriver to wait for Hambleton. As daylight began to break the skies they had to withdraw in frustration once again. After ten days on the ground, the 53-year old airman was weak and in the darkness directions were becoming confusing. Time was running out and little more could be done.

As Norris and his team tried to rest during the afternoon of the 13th, the FACs in the air above Hambleton continued to encourage the embattled airman to hang on. His survival for eleven days had tested the limits of human endurance, however, and his physical condition had rapidly deteriorated. If they couldn't reach him tonight, it would probably be the last chance. It was also becoming obvious that in his weakened condition, Hambleton couldn't come to the rescue team. If they were to accomplish the task, they would have to go to him.

By far the most daring effort yet, Norris could not risk taking the two team members who had faltered the night before. The last remaining member of the team, Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet, volunteered to stay with the brave SEAL advisor. The two men dressed as native fishermen and set out after dark once again. They worked their way up river to a bombed out village, where they found a small sampan. Hunched low in the small craft they paddled upriver. Along the banks they could hear the voices of enemy soldiers, the roar of tank engines, and the movements of a massive enemy force. Carefully they threaded their way past unseeing eyes to find BAT-21 Bravo. A brief lowering of fog gave them obscurity but also masked their progress. Without realizing it they had paddled all the way to the Cam Lo bridge. Fortunately they escaped unnoticed, moved back down stream a short distance, and beached the small craft. Then they began the slow, dangerous work of searching the river for Hambleton. Finally they found him, the shell of a 53-year old man who had endured beyond human limitation for almost twelve days. He had lost 45 pounds, had steeled himself against the pain of a broken wrist for nearly two weeks, and evaded every effort expended by the enemy. But he was still alive.

Norris and Kiet slowly helped the near delirious airman back to the hidden sampan, laid him low in its bottom, and covered him with banana leaves. Slowly they began the long return home, past the enemy, and out of the jaws of death. By radio Norris notified the base that BAT-21 Bravo had been recovered. The rescue was not yet complete, however. Daylight was breaking and their thin disguise as native fishermen might not hold out. American aircraft were put on notice to stand by to lend fire support as the three moved toward safety on the surface of the fast moving river.

Suddenly the shouts of enemy soldiers could be heard, and along the banks of the river the pursuit began. Norris and Kiet paddled furiously, taking advantage of the current to move swiftly while also seeking to use the dense foliage along the banks to mask their desperate race against time. Gunfire erupted across the water and they pulled into a hidden bank to call for air support. A smoke scream billowed across the river as Norris and Kiet took to the water again, moving swiftly towards safety. As they neared the outpost the North Vietnamese crowded the north bank of the river, the South Vietnamese the south. As they fired back and forth at each other, Norris and Kiet helped Lieutenant Colonel Hambleton out of the sampan and began the dangerous last rush to the safety of a bunker. Hambleton could no longer walk, and South Vietnamese soldiers ran down the hill to help him to safety. When finally the three reached the bunker, Norris began administering first aid to Hambleton and preparing him for evacuation.

The saga of the rescue of BAT-21 Bravo was completed. The ordeal of Lieutenant Colonel Hambleton would be written about, even featured in a popular movie starring Gene Hackman as the downed navigator, and Danny Glover as his friendly voice in the sky. Retired, "Gene" Hambleton is a popular speaker who makes his home in the state of Arizona. No one played the part of Lieutenant Tom Norris. His courageous actions were unknown to all but a few people, classified military secrets to protect the nature of such SAR actions on the ground.

(From the book "The Brotherhood of soldier at war" written by C. Douglas Sterner)

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