Golf Digest (Jan, 2001)
Even now, sitting in her living room, Gwen Hambleton clasps her hands when she talks about that day. She is at arm's reach from her husband, Gene, and they talk about that day as if it were yesterday. It was April 2, 1972.
That morning a travel agent delivered tickets for Gwen's trip from Arizona to Thailand, where she planned to meet her husband, then a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force.
That same day, Col. Hambleton flew from Royal Korat Air Base in Thailand on his 63rd combat mission of the Vietnam War.
Before Gwen Hambleton could leave that morning, she saw an Air Force car at the curb and saw men walking to her door. One was a chaplain. Hearing without hearing, she heard some words those kind men said. She heard "down" and "missing." Now, nearly 29 years later, hands together, she draws in a breath. "My knees buckled, and I knew..."
Gene Hambleton joined the Air Force in 1943, flew in Korea, commanded nuclear-missile sites and in 1971 went to Southeast Asia as a navigator on a Douglas EB-66c aircraft.
The electronic warfare plane jammed enemy radar and communications to clear a path for B-52 bombers. As such, the EB-66c with the call sign Bat-21 invited attention. "Anytime a missile came up, we had 10 seconds to evade it," Hambleton says.
No problem--until the North Vietnamese surprised the U.S. with missiles that arrived in five seconds. "They put one up our tailpipe."
In the explosion, only the colonel ejected. The rocket-seat ejection at 31,000 feet left him dangling from parachute lines as a second missile obliterated the falling remains of the aircraft. "Just awful," he says.
Gwen Hambleton looks at her husband and folds her hands against her chest.
Looking at the positive side
At age 82, Gene Hambleton is tall, lean and erect. He plays golf on Wednesdays with buddies and with his wife on Fridays and Sundays.
"My drives are getting shorter, and my handicap's gone from 3 to 16, and it's moving up," the colonel says. "But you know what?"
"I'm looking at the grass from the right side."
On that April morning a lifetime ago, he was 53, an old man who left a desk to join a young man's war. "It was a year, or 100 missions, whichever came first, and I thought, `What´s the big deal? It´s my job.´"
His wife's trip to Thailand was routine, too. One more address for a career officer's wife, one more place to tee it up. At every stop, they'd play golf. The colonel often flew to the south of Thailand to play a course so beautiful, he says, every blade must have been cut by an attendant using fine scissors.
No golf that day in 1972. Gene Hambleton and three other American flyers were down in Quang Tri province near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam.
There's no good time to be in the enemy's territory, but this was an exceptionally bad time. Following U.S. withdrawal from northern South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese Army, 30,000 strong, had moved into that area.
Looking for Hambleton and three other fliers downed in separate incidents, the U.S. mounted a rescue operation that became the largest in the history of the war and remains controversial today for both its interruption of an air offensive against the North Vietnamese and its cost in lives and material.
In 17 days, the U.S. flew 800 supporting air strikes. Eleven American men were killed. Personnel from the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard were involved. Hambleton's rescuer, a Navy SEAL named Tom Norris, won the Medal of Honor. Hambleton earned a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart. In all, 234 medals were awarded.
Air Force Reserve Col. Darrel D. Whitcomb, who wrote a history of the operation, The Rescue of Bat 21, says, "All this was done in the middle of one of the war's largest ground battles. It shows what we will do to bring our guys out." Hambleton and Mark Clark were rescued; Bruce Walker was killed. Bill Henderson was captured and became a POW.
It's beyond silly and near blasphemous to say golf saved Gene Hambleton. He was saved by undaunted courage, his own and that of hundreds of men.
Yet it's also true that Hambleton is playing golf today because he played so much golf before parachuting into a South Vietnam rice paddy.
To understand that, listen to Whitcomb: "A team from Special Operations decided to pick up the men at the Cam Lo River. Mark Clark was near the river. He's from Idaho, so the radio message from Forward Air Controllers flying above the area was, `Get to the Snake, make like Esther Williams and float to Boston.´"
North Vietnamese radio monitors understood English. But Special Ops figured Clark would swim east long before the bad guys solved that order's cultural/geographic riddles.
Whitcomb: "Hambleton was farther from the river and we had to move him through the territory and around villages. Going through his history and talking to his squadron, we learned golf was very important to him, and he had a photo-like memory of holes he'd played."
Hambleton had been hiding six days, sometimes crawling out to report enemy traffic that U.S. jets then strafed. "Finally, they said, We´ve come up with a new plan," Hambleton says.
"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."
Maybe only a navigator with a compass in his brain could have broken that code. "It took me a half-hour to figure out they were giving me distance and direction," Hambleton says. "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."
Hambleton remembers using holes from Shaw, Hickam and Davis-Monthan Air Force base courses as well as a par 3 from Augusta National Golf Club to navigate his way to the pickup point. He walked the imaginary fairways during the night, passing enemy occupied villages and gun emplacements. With only four tiny ears of corn to eat, he lost 40 pounds, down to 128.
One moonlit night when he was passing a village he saw a chicken. Dinner. "As I chased it, I realized a villager was chasing me," he says. In a knife fight, Hambleton was slashed in the leg. The villager? "He's still there." Maybe dead.
Hambleton had been injured during his rocket-seat ejection. A gash was ripped into a finger. Shrapnel peppered his body. Compression of four spinal disks left him limping in some pain.
At the Cam Lo, he was less Esther Williams than Humphrey Bogart tugging the African Queen. "It was three days and three nights in the water and on the bank under thick trees," Hambleton says. "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. Old Tom Norris."
Three times during a harrowing float to safety, the Vietnamese sea commando stopped the boat because he'd seen enemy troops. Machine-gun fire stopped the sampan another time--until the Navy SEAL, Lt. Thomas R. Norris, called in an air strike.
At the sampan's last stop, Norris and Hambleton were helped on shore by Vietnamese men. The colonel remembers asking, "Tom, what the hell have you got me into?" "Colonel, don't worry," Norris said with a smile. "They're getting paid a helluva lot more than we are."
The principle characters today
A 1988 movie, "Bat 21", starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover, is Hollywood fiction. But truth survives distortion, as demonstrated by Col. Whitcomb's meticulous book and in a rescues-operation documentary on The History Channel. Still, there is a question.
All this was so long ago. Why do we still care?
We care because in a bad war, good people did good.
Tom Norris now is a retired FBI agent. The Vietnamese sea commando, Kiet Van Nguyen, works for the Boeing Corporation in Everett, Wash. Gwen Hambleton and her man, Gene, live in Tucson.
On a day of memories revisited, the old colonel says, "Two things kept me alive. The will to live. And my wife." Gwen raises her eyes to him.
"And we're playing golf Friday", he says.
"If my tendinitis clears up", she says.
"If it hurts, we'll just stop."
"I want to try", she says.