“They were within two minutes of picking me up and all at once the helicopter goes up in a ball of tire. I thought, this thing isn’t worth it. I was a 53 year old lieutenant colonel and I cried,” Gene Hambleton, Bat 21.
After many years in the ICBM field, Lieutenant Colonel Gene Hambleton‘s turn came to return to the cockpit and pull a Vietnam tour.
Gerald Hanner, an EB-66 navigator, recalls going through training at Shaw with Gene in Wolfgang W.E. Samuel Colonel, U.S. Air Force (Ret) in his book Glory Days, the Untold Story of the Men who Flew the B-66 Destroyer onto the Face of Fear. “He was one of three Lieutenant Colonels who were rather long in the tooth, but they all took the assignment because they wanted to retire with thirty years. Gene seemed to glide through training with little effort. He made it look easy. Then we were all off to Korat via one or more survival schools.” Hambleton went to Tukey Point in Florida for water survival, then headed to Clark for snake school — jungle survival. At Korat he soon became squadron navigator and began flying combat missions.
The area adjacent to Route Pack 1 was considered a milk run throughout the war when compared to missions further north in and around Route Packs V and VI, in the Hanoi/Haiphong area.
“Part of the EB-66s role was trolling for SAMs at an altitude seven to eight-thousand feet below the B-52 formation, putting themselves between the bombers and the SAM sites. If electronic countermeasures did not defeat a SAM, they would insure it was locked on their aircraft and not the B-52s. Count to ten after a launch to allow the missile to get up to 25,000 feet, then go into a SAM break. The EB-66 could get into a five-G break in a hurry while the SAM’s gyroscopes tumbled at just over two-Gs as it tried to follow. `We’d giggle and laugh and drop down to about 10,000 feet, then come up and let them shoot another one at us'” Hambleton said in an interview after his rescue.
The NVA air defense build-up which started in January 1972 progressed to the point where aircrews reported that the intensity of fire near the DMZ was equal to that encountered during raids in the Hanoi area. The fact that SAMs had been forward deployed was not news to Hambleton or his crew. “The SAM site that shot us down we had been plotting for about two months. I kept telling people there’s a missile site there and nobody would believe us, because they never launched. You’d fly one mission and there wouldn’t be any signal there. Somebody else would come back and say, ‘Hey, I plotted this guy right there,’ and that was south of the DMZ.'” The 42nd TEWS had good intelligence on where the active SAM sites were, but did not connect their presence with the NVA’s spring invasion. Nor did 7th Air Force intelligence in Saigon put much credence in their reported SAM intercepts. After all, the EB-66C’s direction finding equipment was not state of the art. They just didn’t DF it right. Such is the stuff of tragedies.
As the squadron navigator Hambleton had the ironic opportunity to schedule himself for his last mission as a crew member of Bat 21, an EB-66C, that along with Bat 22, an EB-66E, had to fly in support for a B-52 Arc Light strike against NVA units crossing the DMZ into South Vietnam.
On Apr. 2, 1972, the EB-66s were heading east when the SAMs came up south of the DMZ they fired two salvos of at least ten missiles at the B-52s and the EB-66s protecting them. All ten missiles went wild, attesting to the effectiveness of the electronic countermeasures employed. The Fansong radar signal did not come up as usual though. The APR-25/26 radar warning receiver gave no low and high power indication. The SAM site was probably using a Spoon rest or Flatface acquisition radar for its target inputs. The first indication of a launch came when the BGO6 missile guidance signal popped up. Then the crew of Bat 21 and 22 got launch lights, but the missile was already on its way. “The timing count was started for a right hand break, but the Ravens shouted, ‘Negative, negative,’ believing the SAM was tracking from the south, not the north. The pilot, Major Wayne Bolte, tried to correct the SAM break, the missile got there first, they were hit in mid-break. The crew of Bat 21 had been caught five seconds late, looking in the wrong direction. The North Vietnamese stole a five second lead on Bat 21 by launching the missile at the EB-66 without the use of the Fansong track-while-scan radar. Hambleton knew the guys in back were lost when the SAM detonated, and he ran through his ejection sequence on the pilot’s signal. He fully expected to see the aircraft commander Major Boltej to follow. Almost immediately after he ejected a second explosion rocked the air, disintegrating the aircraft and putting Hambleton in a spin. He opened his parachute manually to stop the spin at somewhere below 28,000 feet. ‘I didn’t realize it was going to take me 16 minutes to hit the ground. But opening the parachute when I did was probably the smartest thing I did. There was a fog bank starting to roll in, and it gave the bank time to move in completely. When I came down, I came right through it. If I’d waited for the barometric opener [to open the chute at 14,000 feet] I’d have been out in the clear with 30,000 enemy troops around me, and I wouldn’t be here today. I got down about half-way, probably at 16 or 17-thousand feet when I saw this little 0-2 orbiting. So I unzipped the survival vest and took one of the radios out and cranked up Guard Channel. I called, ‘O-2, O-2, do you hear me’?’
“He came back, ‘Yes, where are you?’
“‘I’m in a parachute hanging about four or five thousand feet above you.’
“‘You gotta be kidding me.’
“’No, I’m not.’ So, he poured the power to that little thing and he came up and orbited with me right down to the ground. While he’s orbiting with me, he calls in other aircraft, Sandies and F-4s who ‘sterilized’ the area. When I hit the ground I had a pretty clear area and there weren’t too many people too close, if you know what I mean.
“This all happened about twilight, it was five o’clock in the afternoon. I landed in a rice paddy, so I got up against this mound of dirt and lay there for two or three hours. As soon as it got dark I took off, got up in the jungle, and dug in for the night. The third day I went out and got some food, corn, four little ears of corn about as big around as your thumb. It’s not too tasty unless you are very hungry. I didn’t have any water with me. I think it was the third night, it started to rain and I had one of these rubberized escape and evasion maps that I laid on top of a bush. I got my plastic bottle out and filled it with water.” On the fourth one of OV-10 observation aircraft looking for him got shot down and Hambleton was ready to give up. But a FAC, a first lieutenant, wouldn’t let the colonel entertain the thought. “He called me every name in the book and he told me what he was going to do to me if I gave up. He wouldn’t let me quit.” The second low point came when the Jolly Green got shot down, about two days later. “They were within two minutes of picking me up and all at once that thing goes up in a ball of tire. I thought, this thing isn’t worth it. I was a 53 year old lieutenant colonel and I cried. The people that shot the chopper down were in this village and the Air Force decided to neutralize it. The day before I started to walk, they came in with two or three F-4s with smart bombs and they did a pretty good job on the village. I didn’t think there was anyone left.” But Hambleton did run into someone as he passed through the village. He was stabbed in the back, then ran for the river where he was supposed to be picked up. “I got down to the river and got lost in a banana grove. Around four o’clock in the morning, about daylight, I saw the river. I was so damn excited, I stepped off into nothing – and fifteen or twenty feet later I am laying up against a tree. I fractured my arm.’ Hambleton had been told to get across the river as quickly as possible. “I hadn’t been on the other side thirty minutes when twenty or so of these guys walked right up to where I’d been sitting. They beat the bushes for a while and then they took off, they never came across the river. There were two or three nights early on when patrols walked within 20 feet of my hiding place. They stopped, sat down, lit cigarettes and talked. Finally they just put out their cigarettes and walked away. That happened twice. And there’s a little word in the English language – pray. I did. You sit there and pray that everything will work out right.” Then a sampan appeared on the river and it had a Navy SEAL team on it. Tom Norris, a Navy Seal received the Medal of Honor for his part in the rescue. Lieutenant Colonel Hambleton was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the Purple Heart.
According to Samuel, EB-66C 54-466 was one of Shaw’s electronic reconnaissance training aircraft flown over to Korat to augment the strained resources of the 42nd TEWS. When 466 was shot down that first Sunday in April 1972, five men died. A UH-1H Huey helicopter was shot down attempting a rescue with the loss of four lives. Two OV-10 FACs were downed by SA-7s — two men were killed, a third became a prisoner of war. and a fourth made good his escape. Six more lost their lives when a Jolly Green rescue helicopter was shot down. That Others May Live is the motto of those who risk their lives rescuing airmen in distress — no truer words were ever spoken in the rescue of Gene Hambleton. Nearly 1,000 air strikes were flown in support of Hambleton’s rescue at the cost of eight aircraft and four seriously damaged. Bat 21 was the most extensive and costly rescue effort ever undertaken by the US Air Force. The Marines take pride in never leaving any of their own behind, so does the Air Force — if it is at all possible. Says Gerald Hanner “One quote I do recall Hambleton making to us once he returned to Korat. ‘It was a hell of a price to pay for one life. I’m very sorry.’”
The rescue of Gene Hambleton in later years was chronicled in two books and a movie starring Gene Hackman.
Glory Days, the Untold Story of the Men who Flew the B-66 Destroyer onto the Face of Fear is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force