(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $28.00)
When I first picked up a copy of Saving Bravo,
I was impressed by author Stephan Talty’s indepth knowledge of Special Operations and his obviously well-researched investigation into the rescue of Lt. Col. Iceal “Gene” Hambleton. The subtitle of this book, “the greatest rescue mission in Navy SEAL history,” is no exaggeration.
Hambleton was shot down behind enemy lines while he was carrying highly classified information. After Airborne rescue attempts had failed, the task fell to Navy SEAL Thomas “Flipper” Norris and his Vietnamese guide Nguyen Van
Kiet, both of whom volunteered to go in on foot to retrieve their high-value target.
From the first page, the narrative puts you right in the middle of the action: a steamy, thick, mosquito-infested jungle, seen from Hambleton’s viewpoint some eight days into his run to evade the enemy. Badly bruised, barely able to walk, and suffering from hallucinations, he had already lost 40 pounds and was in constant fear of being captured. A U.S. Air Force veteran of nearly 30 years, he had worked on highly classified missile systems and had intimate knowledge of advanced radar systems.
Hambleton was trained as a navigator, but World War II ended before he could report for his first assignment. He was retrained and eventually found himself in the nose of a B-29 Superfortress as the Korean War began and ended up flying 43 missions. After completing his combat tour, he was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, where he served as an intelligence and targeting officer and then as a radar-bomb navigator. In the early ’60s, Hambleton worked on the Jupiter family of missiles at Redstone Arsenal. In 1971, he found himself in the 42nd Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron as a staff navigator, heading to Vietnam. The day Hambleton was shot down over the jungle, he was the navigator of a Douglas B-66 Destroyer, assigned to keep surface-toair missiles (SAMs) away from a flight of B-52 bombers. During his mission, Hambleton’s call sign was “Bat 21 Bravo.”
The missions sent to rescue “Bravo” included everything from HH-53 “Jolly Green Giant” rescue helicopters and O2 Birddogs to A-1 Skyraiders, F-4 Phantoms, and F-104s. Radio calls with forward air controllers and some improvised identification code brought Hambleton together with his rescuers some 11 days after the SAMs had blown him out of the sky.
The story doesn’t end there, however; it involves a harrowing trip upriver to a bunker, followed by a bumpy trip in an armored patrol vehicle to Ðông Hà to a waiting medevac helicopter, all while being surrounded by smallarms fire. Hambleton was treated for his most serious wounds at a nearby field hospital and then transferred to a better-equipped facility in Da Nang. Where just days before, he had thoughts that the military might have forgotten him, he was now alive and safe.
With dozens of interviews to draw from and access to unpublished information, the author has provided an amazing adventure that’s both engaging and informative.—