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‘Gene’ Hambleton, 85; His Rescue Depicted in ‘Bat-21' Books, Film

Times Staff Writer

Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, a U.S. Air Force navigator who became the focus of the largest rescue operation for one man in Air Force history after his plane was shot down behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War, has died. He was 85.

Hambleton, a retired lieutenant colonel whose harrowing ordeal was chronicled in two books and was the basis for the 1988 movie “Bat 21,” starring Gene Hackman, died of pneumonia related to lung cancer Sept. 19 at Tucson Medical Center in Tucson, said his sister-in-law, Donna Cutsinger.

Assigned to an air base in Thailand, Hambleton was on his 63rd combat mission over Vietnam when his EB-66, an unarmed electronic jamming aircraft, was hit by a surface-to-air missile at 30,000 feet on April 2, 1972.

The only member of the six-man crew able to eject, the 53-year-old navigator spent the next 11 1/2 days evading capture.

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He parachuted into Quang Tri province, just south of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam -- a particularly dangerous region at the time.

The previously massive American ground combat presence in South Vietnam was gone, the North Vietnamese Army had just launched a major offensive against the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam and more than 30,000 North Vietnamese troops equipped with tanks and heavy artillery were moving through the area.

A forward air controller pilot involved in the major U.S. air campaign in support of the beleaguered South Vietnamese forces monitored Hambleton’s descent, talking to him via his small emergency radio as he dropped into a dry rice paddy and took cover.

Ground fog hampered air search and rescue attempts and at one point a large rescue helicopter was shot down, killing six crewmen. Also during rescue operations, a forward air controller aircraft was shot down and both men bailed out; the pilot was captured, but 1st Lt. Mark N. Clark, the back-seat observer, was in need of rescue, too.

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The U.S. command in Saigon, according to a 1972 Los Angeles Times account, ordered special high-altitude B-52 bombing raids nearby to divert pressure from the two men, who were several miles apart.

Hambleton, wounded by shrapnel when the rear of his plane exploded, kept in touch with U.S. forces with his emergency radio and directed numerous air strikes against enemy supply lines.

A Rossville, Ill., native, he had served in the Army Air Forces during World War II without seeing combat, but he had flown 43 combat missions in a B-29 bomber during the Korean War.

“Dropping a bomb from a plane is not an emotional experience,” he told the Syracuse Post-Standard in 1988. “I got on the ground [in Vietnam] and found out what war was.”

After the failed air-rescue attempts, it was decided that Navy SEAL Lt. Thomas R. Norris and a small team would infiltrate enemy lines and attempt to pick up Hambleton and Clark at the nearby Cam Lo River.

Aware that North Vietnamese radio monitors understood English, the radio message from a forward air controller in the area told Clark, an Idaho native: “Get to the Snake, make like Esther Williams and float to Boston” -- go to the river and swim east.

Hambleton, however, was much farther from the river than Clark and would have to maneuver around enemy-occupied villages and gun emplacements.

Rescue planners, who had discovered that Hambleton was one of the best golfers in the Air Force and had a vivid memory of the courses he had played, came up with a novel idea: guiding him to the river via a series of specific golf-course holes that had been provided by his golfing buddies.

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As Hambleton recalled in a 2001 interview with Golf Digest, the planners told him, “You’re going to play 18 holes and you’re going to get in the Suwannee and make like Esther Williams and Charlie the Tuna. The round starts on No. 1 at Tucson National.”

Hambleton said it took him awhile to figure out they were giving him distance and direction: “No. 1 at Tucson National is 408 yards running southeast. They wanted me to move southeast 400 yards. The ‘course’ would lead me to water.”

On the night of his eighth day in hiding, Hambleton began walking the imaginary fairways that had been mapped out for him.

“Playing” hole No. 4 of the Abilene Country Club on the ninth day -- 195 yards due east -- took him through the outskirts of a village.

As recounted in William C. Anderson’s 1980 book “Bat-21,” whose title derives from the call sign for Hambleton’s aircraft, Hambleton passed a seemingly deserted hooch when a rooster suddenly emerged from the doorway -- “food!” thought Hambleton, who lost 45 pounds during his ordeal.

But when he made a lunge for the bird in the darkness someone emerged from the hooch and slashed him in his left shoulder with a knife. In the ensuing tussle, Hambleton used his own knife to stab his Vietnamese assailant to death.

Later, while suffering from dehydration, Hambleton was told to “play” hole No. 4 at Corona de Tucson -- a short par three -- where he’d find a “refreshment stand” but would have to “tap” his own “keg.”

That “fairway” led him to a banana tree grove, where he was able to cut a hole in the trunks and drink the water that flows up the trunks in the morning and runs down to the ground at night.

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Once he reached the river, Hambleton told Golf Digest, “It was three days and three nights in the water and on the bank under thick trees. Then I saw this sampan with two men. A Vietnamese in front carried an AK-47 and I thought, ‘This is it.’ But the other guy dressed like a Vietnamese fisherman had these big, round, American eyes” -- those of Norris.

Norris, who had picked up Clark at the river a day earlier, earned the Medal of Honor for his actions during the rescue mission.

For his own heroic efforts, Hambleton was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal and a Purple Heart.

The 11 1/2 day search-and-rescue effort took a heavy toll, according to “The Rescue of Bat 21,” a 1998 book by Darrell D. Whitcomb. Among the costs: 10 soldiers and airmen working or supporting the mission were killed, two men were captured but later released and several recovery team members were injured. In addition to a number of downed or damaged aircraft, more than 800 strike sorties, including B-52s, were flown in direct support of the rescue.

“It was a hell of a price to pay for one life,” Hambleton told the Associated Press at the time. “I’m very sorry.”

Hambleton, who worked in the Jupiter, Titan I and Titan II missile programs in the 1960s before returning to flying duties as a navigator over Vietnam, retired in 1973.

“He was happy to be alive and lived a very nice life in Arizona for another 30 years,” his sister-in-law told The Times this week. She said Hambleton did a lot of speaking about his experience, “mostly to military people,” over the years.

“He also played a lot of golf.”

Hambleton’s wife and frequent golf partner, Gwen, died of lung cancer nine months ago.

He is survived by a brother, Gil, of Hampton Falls, N.H.; and a sister, Fran Luning, of Winona, Ill.


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