Cold War Era

The Odyssey of Bat 21: the most famous EB-66 loss

Bat 21: the most famous EB-66 loss

Reports of an impending communist invasion of South Vietnam were confirmed when Maj Dave Brookbank, flying a fragile O-1 Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft near the DMZ on Mar. 20, 1972, reported considerable NVA troop activity. American troop withdrawals in the previous three years had left only token ground and air forces in the region to support the Vietnamization policy in which South Vietnam would conduct its own defence.

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Radar-guided B-52 attacks began on Apr. 1, and US air losses resumed the following day when 20th TASS O-2A FAC ‘Mike 81’ was hit by AAA. As told by Peter E. Davies in his book B/EB-66 Destroyer Units in Combat, it was during a B-52 strike with ECM support south of the DMZ that the most famous EB-66 loss, and subsequent rescue attempts, took place that same day.

One Arc Light cell (call-sign ‘Copper’) had been directed against a road near Camp Carroll, a major ARVN stronghold that had been surrendered. It was on a main NVA approach route defended by numerous SAM sites, including the first in South Vietnam, as well as AAA. The North Vietnamese were also fielding a new and unexpected threat – short-ranged Soviet SA-7 ‘Strela’ (Igla) shoulder-launched heat-seeking missiles, immune to jamming. SA-2s were still the main hazard for highflying B-52s, however, so two EB-66s (with the call-sign ‘Bat’) from the 42nd TEWS orbited nearby.

Following their usual pattern, an EB-66E (‘Bat 22’) took up position to jam ‘Fan Songs’ and ‘Fire Cans’, while an EB-66C (‘Bat 21’ 54-466) orbited to locate the SAM and AAA radar positions. An F-4 MiG CAP for the EB-66s and two ‘Coy’ F-105G Wild Weasels were included.

Douglas RB-66C Destroyer.

The most experienced SAM battalions

Below them, some of the most experienced SAM battalions such as Pham Truong Huy’s 62nd Missile Battalion. Huy had experienced the dangers of ‘Fan Song’ operation when one of his fellow missile command operators had been killed by a shrapnel hit in the head moments before they set up a B-52 interception. He had not had the chance to put on his steel helmet. Huy’s unit had recently moved south to Quang Tri, and it was there that it claimed a B-52 and the shooting down of ‘Bat 21’.

The EB-66 crews knew nothing of the invasion that was taking place beneath them. There were no SAM sites marked on their local maps, as the missiles had only recently been moved in and South Vietnamese FACs had not kept an adequate aerial watch on the NVA forces’ progress.

The three B-52s, flying east along the DMZ towards their target, were tracked by NVA radars, and the EB-66s’ task was to ‘troll’ for SAMs and then place themselves between the ‘Fan Songs’ and the bombers. Two ‘Fan Songs’ near Khe Sanh engaged them and fired four SA-2s while the B-52 EWOs focused their jammers. Maj Ed Anderson, an EWO in ‘Bat 22’, detected the SA-2’s BGO-6 guidance tones and told his pilot to make the standard evasive diving turn while QRC-530 chaff was dispensed. The missiles were diverted by the various ECM emissions and burst some distance away from the EB-66E and the B-52s.

Crews’ lack of information

The crews’ lack of information on the ground situation became even clearer moments later when more SAM sites were found to be tracking them and six more SA-2s were launched without any indications appearing on the EB-66’s AN/APR-25/26 screens. Again, the B-52s initiated jamming, but then they released their bombs and turned away. The SA-2s exploded near the flight without causing damage, as did some shells from the NVA’s heaviest AAA guns. ‘Coy’ flight directed its Shrikes at the 100 mm guns’ radar. ‘Bat 22’ made another diving turn to avoid the SAM salvo and ‘Bat 21’ picked up a third set of ‘Fan Song’ launch signals without the usual pre-launch emissions because the SA-2s were fired with guidance from ‘Spoon Rest’ or ‘Flat Face’ acquisition radars, rather than ‘Fan Song’, from a position just above the DMZ.

Lt. Col. Icheal “Gene” Hambleton

‘Bat 21’s’ crew initiated jamming and tracked three SA-2s approaching them, but assumed they were coming from a southerly direction, not the north.

EB-66 Bat 21 shot down

Five seconds later, an SA-2 struck the belly of the aircraft, killing all four ‘Ravens’. The pilot, Maj Wayne Bolte, signalled the navigator, World War 2 veteran Lt Col Iceal ‘Gene’ Hambleton, to eject. He was the only crewman to escape. As his seat rocketed him to safety, the EB-66C was shaken by another massive explosion, possibly from a second SA-2 hit.

O-2 Super Skymaster ‘Bilk 34’ flown by 1Lt Bill Jankowski and Capt Lyle Wilson, who were attempting to find targets among the NVA advances, had spotted the SAMs climbing towards ‘Bat 21’ and witnessed the subsequent explosion. As the blazing wreckage fell to earth, Jankowski heard an emergency beeper and asked its owner (presumed to be on the ground) to switch to ‘voice’ on his URC-64 survival radio. He could then talk to Hambleton, who was actually descending beneath his parachute several thousand feet above the O-2.

Rescue attempt

While the HC-130 (call-sign ‘King 22’) began to organise a rescue attempt and ‘Bat 22’ departed for inflight refuelling so that it could participate in the SAR, Hambleton (‘Bat 21 Bravo’, in view of his role as second crew member in importance) landed in a rice paddy close to roads that were packed with enemy troops and armour heading south. ‘Bat 22’ refuelled repeatedly until it was finally called back into position to provide ECM cover for the rescue. Jankowski flew below the cloud to plot Hambleton’s position, taking considerable ground fire in the process. While the rescue force was assembled in Thailand, darkness began to fall and Hambleton hid among trees. Jankowski stayed in place as on-scene commander for the recovery of the only known survivor from the EB-66C.

B/EB-66 Destroyer Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. EA-3B Skywarrior VQ-2 Sandeman, JQ12 “Ranger 12” / 146448 / 1980

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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