Sav­ing Bravo

Flight Journal - - CLASSICS - Gerry Yar­rish by Stephan Talty

(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.—

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