Darrel Whitcomb’s Moral Imperative: 1972, Combat Rescue, and the End of America’s War in Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 368 pp. $27.95, paper; $20.49, Kindle) 2021 is a well-written, researched, detailed, and informed book filled with accounts of incredible search and rescue missions. Whitcomb, a USAFA graduate who served three Vietnam War tours as a cargo pilot and forward air controller, begins with the earliest phase of American involvement in Southeast Asia as a backdrop to the evolving SAR mission. That quickly leads to the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive and Operations Linebacker I and II, the centerpieces of the book.
Reading the details of these rescue missions I was repeatedly awestruck by the courage and perseverance of the rescue crews—especially when so many were shot down, riddled with fire, killed, or captured.
On the eve of the 1972 Easter Offensive North Vietnamese antiaircraft units were heavily equipped with the latest Soviet technology and concentrated around sites targeted by U.S. forces. Facing an array of weaponry that could defend at all altitudes and weather, attacking aircraft were always in danger of being brought down.
The Russians had supplied the North Vietnamese with an abundance of artillery and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles with supporting radar, as well as fighter aircraft. Most telling was the large-scale introduction of portable, heat-seeking, shoulder-fired SA-7’s. Those weapons brought about U.S. losses practically every time they engaged attacking American aircraft. And nearly every attempted rescue mission took place in a high-risk environment.
The North Vietnamese monitored the American radio net, and set traps for inbound rescuers using downed flier as bait. Many rescuers and pilots consequently were hit by intense fire.
The questions then arose: When is this tradeoff too costly to continue a rescue effort? Is it ethical not to try to rescue a downed crew? If so, what was the morale impact on others who continued to fly high-risk missions?
Perhaps the BAT-21 episode, which is described in this book, has been written about extensively, and was the subject of a Hollywood movie, best illustrates cost-versus-gain. BAT-21 was an EB-66 electronic warfare aircraft that was shot down. Only one crewmember, the navigator, survived, and he wound up in a highly dangerous sector saturated with ground-to-air missile sites, SA-7s, and antiaircraft artillery.
The effort to save him resulted in the loss of five additional aircraft and the deaths of eleven airmen. What’s more, U.S. planes scheduled to help embattled South Vietnamese troops in desperate need of airstrikes were diverted to the rescue effort. After an extensive effort the navigator was rescued by a determined and courageous two-man SEAL team backed up by South Vietnamese Navy commandos.
Was saving the navigator worth the losses? As Air Force Gen. John Vogt said about ordering highly risky SAR missions: “The one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. If that was ever in doubt, morale would tumble.” Hence, the “moral imperative” of the book’s title.
One comes away from this book with a deep-felt admiration for the crews who willingly put everything on the line to rescue others in the Vietnam War.
— John Cirafici