In the realm of golf cinema, anyone who ever picked up a club has their favorite golf movie. Caddyshack is quoted everyday on tee boxes, grill rooms, and corporate offices around the world.
Happy Gilmore was an instant cult classic among golfers for its brilliant one-liners and its unconventional underdog come hero narrative. And Tin Cup is the reference point for every hapless hacker’s blow-up hole due to a shot that can’t be executed.
Here at the OneBeardedGolfer Blog, we have a new favorite golf movie. Well, it’s actually a Buddy Movie, which is really a War Movie. It’s called Bat *21 starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. And truth be told, it isn’t new at all, being released in 1988.
I’d seen Bat *21 before, years earlier, but until I came across it again recently, I’d forgotten the unique golf angle of the movie’s storyline, and its integral role in how it help save the lives of several real American heroes.
For those of you Dear Readers that are members of the Armed Forces, I apologize in advance for what is to follow, as I’m sure I will botch some of the terms and phrases. In all seriousness, I sincerely thank you for your service, and please forgive my ignorance.
Bat *21, based on a book of the same name by Air Force Colonel William C. Andersen, is the Hollywood version of the events of real, honest-to-goodness American heroes. I mean like Chuck Yeager, John McCain, Seal Team Six hero stuff.
As is often the case, the real story of the rescue of Air Force Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton from the jungles of Vietnam is so much richer than the celluloid version could deliver that the story had to be toned down for audiences to accept it.
What’s more is that golf plays a key role in Hambleton’s survival, both in the movie and in the actual search and rescue operation in Vietnam, in a way that is both novel and brilliant.
Thus, Bat*21 is our new favorite golf movie. I’d encourage you to watch it next time it pops up on some Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day movie marathon.
The Hollywood Version
In the film, Gene Hackman plays Lt. Col. Hambleton, a veteran Air Force strategic missile officer and renowned golfer within Air Force circles of the time.
Hambleton’s background includes service as a high level signal and missile officer who spent time at Strategic Air Command, and was thereby exposed to highly sensitive, classified material that the communists would love to obtain.
Hambleton volunteers to serve on an EB-66 surveillance flight, call sign Bat-21, tasked with observing and marking the Surface-to-Air Missile enemy capabilities ahead of a massive Air Force bombardment in response to the North Vietnamese Army’s (“NVA”) Easter Offensive.
Unfortunately, the NVA’s missile capabilities exceeded what the Americans expected and Hambleton’s plane is shot down, and Hambleton is the only member of his crew to eject and survive.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, he parachutes into the middle of hostile territory. By hostile, I mean into the middle of 30,000 NVA soldiers on the move as part of the Easter Offensive. The area is far too dangerous for an immediate search and rescue operation, so Hambleton must elude the enemy and evade capture until a rescue can be executed.
Enter Danny Glover as USAF Lt. Bartholomew Clark, a tree-top flyer in an O-2A Skymaster who is tasked with protecting and guiding Bat 21 Bravo’s (Hambleton’s call sign) movements to a location from which he can be extracted.
Clark makes around-the-clock flights to check on and guide Bat 21, during which a friendship develops between the two soldiers as Clark works desperately to keep Hambleton alive.
Battered, injured, and constantly pursued, Hambleton struggles to survive until a helicopter crew can rescue him. On the first attempt, the landing zone is ambushed, with one of the Jolly Green helicopters being shot down by NVA forces. The entire helicopter crew is executed, only adding to the anguish Hambleton is experiencing.
After the failed rescue, Hambleton’s only hope is to make it to a river bank, safe from the carnage of the impending USAF carpet bombing maneuvers the following day.
Hambleton, along with his would-be rescuer Clark, eventually make it out to the river out of harm’s way, where they are picked up by a navy river boat and transported to safety.
The Golf Angle
While Hambleton is on the ground, he and Clark know that the NVA are listening to all of their radio communications. Hambleton’s solution is pure genius.
On the spot, he invents a code whereby he overlays nine golf holes that he knows by heart over the terrain map that will be his nine-hole course to the river. By adding a zero to the exact yardage of the actual holes (extending the holes by a factor of 10), his makeshift nine holes allows him to “play” to safety with the ever-listening Vietcong none the wiser.
Of course, as an avid golfer, I see absolute genius in the plan. It’s perhaps the most practical application of years wasted away on a golf course in history, military or otherwise.
I have a home course. I play it roughly 15-20 times a year. I know all the bounces, the trouble spots, where to challenge and when to lay up. But it’s all instinctual. I have no idea of the yardage on any hole with the sort of precision required to formulate such a plan such as Hambleton’s. It’s an incredible idea, really.
Clark: “Bat *21, what is your…lie?” Hambleton: “I’m 150 yards northwest of the 3rd green.”
And it works, but not just because it’s Hollywood. Lt. Col. Hambleton actually used this method to safely move to where he would eventually be rescued from, though not exactly as the movie says it happened.
Clark: “I want you to play the 4th hole tonight. The green will be our LZ.”
Hambleton: “That’s a long goddamn hole!”
Clark: “A few hazards, but the green is safe.”
In addition to the golf course map strategy, the film includes a few funny golf related one-liners of note. For instance, while Clark and his commanding officer, played by Jerry Reed, are discussing Hambleton’s code.
Reed asks, “You play golf, captain?” Clark, played by Glover, responds with the slightly racist but utterly humorous, “No, sir. Golf wasn’t big in my neighborhood.”
The Real Story
Several years after the release of Bat *21, details of the events depicted in the movie were declassified. A second book, The Rescue of Bat 21 was released, which painted a more accurate picture of the tragic and daring rescue attempts that finally brought Lt. Col. Hambleton to safety.
Hambleton, a 53 year-old career officer nine months from retirement, eluded capture and survived in the jungle for 11 days before finally being rescued.
After five days and multiple air based attempts to rescue Hambleton, five aircraft had been shot down and another 16 seriously damaged, 10 service members had been killed or were missing in action, two were POWs, and two were behind front lines also waiting to be rescued.
Hambleton’s rescue became a watershed moment for the Air Force for how future search and rescue operations were evaluated, planned, and executed. Eventually, an air rescue was ruled out, as the incredible NVA strength in the area overmatched the US’s air superiority.
Given Hambleton’s strategic value and the desire to leave no man behind, a Marine Corps General and Colonel set about devising a ground based rescue. Enter Navy Lt. Thomas Norris, one of a handful of Navy SEALs remaining in Vietnam at the time.
Along with Col. Anderson (no relation to the Bat *21 author), Lt. Norris would command a group of South Vietnamese commandos in a daring attempt to rescue Hambleton and a pilot who had been shot down during one of the failed attempts to rescue Hambleton.
In reality, command and control actually sent Hambleton his instructions in the golf code. He was “playing 18 holes” beginning at No. 1 at Tucson National – a course referenced in the movie, that Hambleton knew all too well. At first he thought his commanders were crazy, but he eventually was able to apply the code and make his way to the river safely.
Hambleton, severely weakened from 11 days in the mountain jungles, starving, dehydrated, and severely injured, having lost 40 pounds from the day his plane was shot down, was finally evacuated in a sampan river boat by Lt. Norris and one of his Vietnamese commandos disguised as fishermen, and delivered to safety
Hambleton wrote from his Air Force hospital, “I had to stand by and watch six young men die trying to save my life. It was a hell of a price to pay for one life. I’m very sorry.”
For his actions in rescuing Hambleton behind enemy lines, Lt. Norris was recommended for and received the Medal of Honor. He received it from President Ford in a White House ceremony on March 6, 1976 attended by Michael Thornton, another Navy SEAL who had saved Norris’ life on October 31, 1972, and himself was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts in saving Lt. Norris.
As mentioned above, the real thing is so much more amazing. Hollywood couldn’t make that movie, no one would believe it.
So next time that you see Bat *21 on your channel guide, check it out. It’s a good golf movie, a great buddy movie, and a fantastic war movie. My hope is that you appreciate the sacrifices of the men involved, and the sacrifices that our servicemen and women continue to make on our behalf.
I also encourage you to click on any of the links in this column for more detailed information on the men and details of this incredible chapter of the Vietnam War.
And for heaven’s sake, pay attention to the yardages on your scorecard from now on; you never know when you may need that kind of information.