When the Air Force set out to rescue downed navigator Iceal Hambleton, nobody could’ve guessed that it would turn out to be the “largest and most costly search and rescue effort” of the Vietnam War.
In April 1972, Hambleton was a 53-year-old career Air Force officer of the Tactical Air Command who was an expert in missile systems and electronic warfare. He was an Electronic Warfare Officer in a squadron tasked with flying missions to detect and jam North Vietnamese defense systems. On April 2, since his unit was understaffed, Hambleton, who was in charge of scheduling the flights, decided to fill in as navigator on one of the planes.
But as they were flying over enemy territory, their plane was shot down, and Hambleton was the only one who was able to eject. Other aircraft saw where Hambleton had landed, and that, along with the fact that Hambleton had a radio, allowed the search and rescue to pinpoint his location. Over the next five days, the Air Force flew sorties to try to suppress the North Vietnamese in Hambleton’s location, but Hambleton had landed in the middle of 30,000 NVA troops, and the Air Force missions proved too dangerous. In the course of the attempted rescue, five aircraft had been shot down and more had been damaged. Eleven men were killed or missing in action, two were taken prisoner of war, and two were on the ground waiting to be rescued too.
The air rescue was called off, and instead a ground rescue, led by Navy SEAL Thomas Norris, was sent out. They first rescued another downed airman who was closer, and then made their attempt to save Hambleton, who by this point was extremely weak. Using Hambleton’s near perfect memory of golf courses, the rescue team was able to use coded messages to lead Hambleton to a river where they could reach him. At this point, most of Norris’s small team, composed of South Vietnamese soldiers, refused to continue the mission, considering it too dangerous. So Norris and one other, Nguyen Van Kiet, went to save Hambleton alone.
On April 12, they dressed up as fishermen and used a sampan to sail down the river to Hambleton’s position. Once they found him, they hid him under some greenery in the bottom of the boat. They were fired on by the NVA but, with the help of some air support, managed to make it to safety.
By the time he was rescued, Hambleton had been behind enemy lines for 11 days and had lost 40 pounds. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and a Purple Heart. Norris received the Medal of Honor and Kiet received the Navy Cross for their actions.