Gene Hambleton was a 53-year-old Air Force navigator when his EB-66 aircraft, call sign Bat 21, was hit by a surface-to-air missile over Vietnam on April 2, 1972. Five of the six crewmembers were killed. Hambleton ejected, but landed in an area occupied by 30,000 enemy troops.
The military, which has a tradition of never leaving a comrade behind, mounted a rescue. But rescue forces ran into the most intense enemy barrage anyone had ever seen. Over the next few days, 11 aircrew members died, two were taken prisoner, and multiple aircraft were lost or damaged. Finally, on the 12th day, Navy Seal Tommy Norris and a South Vietnamese commando named Nguyen Van Kiet, rescued Hambleton by infiltrating on the ground through enemy territory. Norris was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
It had been the largest operation to rescue a single servicemember in history.
After the war, Hambleton spoke to hundreds of groups about his experience. Books were written. A movie about the operation, Bat-21, much of it fictionalized, was released in 1988. I just finished a new book called Saving Bravo: The Greatest Rescue Mission in Navy Seal History. I couldn’t put it down.
In his speeches, Hambleton talked about the men who gave their lives to save him. But years later, as their remains started being repatriated, Hambleton couldn’t bring himself to attend their funerals. The question that kept haunting him was, “Am I worth eleven lives?”
In the middle of the greatest enemy offensive of the war, the US military essentially put the war on hold to rescue one man.
If someone died to save you, you’d owe that person everything, wouldn’t you? There would be nothing you wouldn’t do for their family for as long as you lived, right? As I read Saving Bravo, I kept thinking about the Gospel, God’s great rescue mission.
Do you ever think about what it cost Jesus to save you?
Are you worth his life?
He thought so.