A taut study of the largest military search-and-rescue operation in history and the lessons learned.
Talty (The Black Hand: The Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History, 2017, etc.) has a fascination for grim moments under seemingly impossible odds, as with the story that would eventually become the movie Captain Phillips. The yarn he spins here was already made into a movie three decades ago, the Gene Hackman vehicle Bat*21, recounting the harrowing experience of an Air Force navigator shot down over Vietnam in the late days of the war. Iceal “Gene” Hambleton (1918-2004) was one of the most experienced officers in the business, a master of signals intelligence whose capture by the North Vietnamese would probably have led to a strategic and propaganda victory not just for them, but also for the Soviet agents who were tracking him. Thus it was that when Hambleton’s plane went down under enemy fire, the commanders in Vietnam assembled “an armada of fighter planes, B-52s, attack helicopters, Navy aircraft carriers” to extract him from the field—to say nothing of soldiers, sailors, aviators, Marines, and special forces troops. As Talty recounts, for 11 days these allies raced against equally determined North Vietnamese troops to locate Hambleton, sometimes coming up against each other; among the costs of these extraordinary measures were the deaths of nearly a dozen airborne troops. Too young for service at the time, the author shows informed appreciation for military culture and the workings of war. As he writes, knowingly, “the men at Da Nang that spring would have loved to fight for values like freedom and liberty on behalf of a grateful republic. But as it was, their leaders were feckless, their country had forgotten them, and their allies rarely felt like allies….All they had, many airmen felt, was their unbreakable bond to one another.”
A well-conceived work of military history dissecting a seemingly minor episode that still speaks volumes.