The real life “Saving Private Ryan” mission you never heard of


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Two years ago, I began researching the story of Gene Hambleton, who was shot down behind enemy lines in 1972, setting off one of the most extraordinary rescue missions in American history. My book, “Saving Bravo,” looks at the operation and the men who died to get Hambelton back.

Gene Hambleton had always dreamt of being a war hero. Growing up in a small town in Illinois in the early 1940s, he and his friends talked about the rise of Adolf Hitler. “ ‘When the time comes, I’m going to get into the action,’ ” he told them. “I made up my mind right then and there that I was going to be part of the military.”

Not only that, but Hambleton was determined to fight the Nazis as that most dashing of warriors — the American aviator.

Image Credit: Jim Flessner, Mary Ann Anderson & Donna Cutsinger.

The Hambleton Brothers

Instead it was Hambleton’s younger brother, Gil, who became the World War II hero after flying bombers over Germany. Gene became a navigator but finished training too late to see action in the war.

After serving in Korea, Hambleton was close to retirement when the Air Force – short on navigators — ordered him to Southeast Asia. By 1972, Vietnam had become an air war for the Americans.

Image Credit: Jim Flessner, Mary Ann Anderson & Donna Cutsinger.

The plane

On April 2, 1972 Hambleton was aboard an EB-66 surveillance aircraft when a Soviet SAM missile slammed into the fuselage. The five other airmen aboard were killed almost immediately.

Hambleton ejected from the aircraft and parachuted toward the Vietnamese jungle. What he didn’t know was that a major North Vietnamese attack was underway, with 30,000 troops and heavy artillery. As the navigator possessed classified secrets about advanced rocketry and radar systems, the Pentagon wanted him rescued.

The greatest rescue mission of the Vietnam War had begun. Eleven men would die trying to get Hambleton back.

Image Credit: United States Air Force.

Bill Henderson

Air Force pilot Bill Henderson was shot down on Day 1 of the mission. The aviator was captured and spent a year in a sweltering North Vietnamese camp, where he was tortured and lost 35 pounds in the searing heat. At one point, Henderson thought he would die in North Vietnam.

Though he’d always thought he’d remain in the Air Force, the experience “reset” him. “I asked myself, ‘How can I help people’?” After a year in the POW camp, Henderson returned home and became a psychologist. Now retired, he has no regrets about the mission. “If you’re hanging your butt out there, you expect your compadres to come get you.”

Image Credit: William J. Henderson.


The Navy, Army, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard sent airmen, soldiers, fighter planes and helicopters to rescue Hambleton. At one point, the U.S. military essentially stopped fighting the Vietnam War to focus on the operation. But every attempt to reach the navigator failed.

Helicopters were shot out of the sky or, wrecked by anti-aircraft fire, limped back to their bases. Millions of dollars were spent. Hambleton – who had no food and little access to fresh water – was growing weaker.

Image Credit: United States Air Force.

James Alley

James Alley never wanted to fight in Vietnam. When he was drafted, he went into the Air Force as a photographer so he wouldn’t have to kill anyone.

Alley was only a few days from returning home when Hambleton was shot down. Ordered onto a rescue chopper, Alley at first refused to go. He’d had a premonition that he would die in Vietnam – he’d even told his parents to adopt a baby boy if he didn’t come back.

At the last moment, Alley boarded the helicopter. He was shot down and killed minutes later. Years later, his remains were returned to South Florida, and met there by his brother Tim, whom his parents had adopted when James died.


Image Credit: William Van Der Ven.

Hayden Chapman

Capt. Hayden Chapman was a pilot who aborted an earlier rescue mission when he felt his helicopter taking hits. On returning to base, he found no bullet holes in his aircraft. Deeply distressed, he vowed to make up for his mistake.

When Hambleton went down, Chapman demanded to fly the lead chopper on Day 4 of the mission. The aircraft was hit by a North Vietnamese shell and exploded. Chapman died in the inferno. He’d been scheduled to begin a new stateside assignment in a matter of days: flying members of Congress around the United States.


Image Credit: Dorothy E. Murphy.

Bruce Walker

Capt. Bruce Walker was a second-generation Air Force pilot who was having doubts about the war. “He felt that they weren’t protecting democracy,” says his widow, Martha. “And they were killing people inadvertently.” On R&R in Hawaii, he told Martha he was considering going AWOL in Canada.

But service to his country ran in Walker’s blood. He returned to Vietnam and his squadron.

On Day 5, Walker’s plane was shot down and he spent eleven agonizing days on the run from the enemy before finally being tracked down and killed by the Viet Cong.

Image Credit: Martha L. Walker.

Tommy Norris and Nguyen Van Kiet

By Day 10, Hambleton was malnourished and hallucinating. He remained in imminent danger of being captured.

The military’s technology had failed. Now it turned to a Navy SEAL, Tommy Norris, and the South Vietnamese commando, Nguyen Van Kiet. Despite the near-suicidal nature of the mission, the two men volunteered to venture up the Mieu Giang river to save Hambleton.

To get the navigator to the rescue zone, the Air Force devised a special code based on golf – they instructed the navigator to “play” certain famous holes, such as the 14th at the Masters. Hambleton knew the distance and direction of dozens of holes, and his obsession with the sport helped save his life.

Image Credit: United States Navy.

The rescue

On Day 11, Hambleton made it to the Mieu Giang. Norris and Kiet, disguised as Vietnamese fishermen, evaded 30,000 enemy troops and endured a rocket attack on their base camp before finding the navigator and bringing him back alive. For their bravery, Norris, who went on to an illustrious career with the FBI, won the Medal of Honor and Kiet the Navy Cross.

Image Credit: Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Nearly 50 years later…

“Saving Bravo,” is the first definitive account of the Hambleton mission. It draws from an unpublished memoir written by Hambleton and dozens of interviews with the survivors of the mission and the families of those who didn’t return.

When talking to a family member of one of the aviators who never came home, I asked if he often thought about the mission, nearly fifty years after it ended. “I cried about it last night,” the man replied.

The remains of several of the men killed during the operation have never been recovered.

This article is based on the book “Saving Bravo” and was syndicated by

Image Credit: Saving Bravo.