Just to Save One Guy...
In his fact-based story collection Tales of the South Pacific, James Michener describes the rescue of one pilot downed in Japanese territory. When completed, it is at the cost of another plane and its pilot, a seaplane rescue craft, and to protect him, a PT boat, destroyer, and a hundred plus aircraft. The narrator marvels at so much effort, risk, and loss ". . . just to save one guy".
Just to save one guy. The theme recurred in the film Saving Private Ryan. Eight Rangers are dispatched to find and return a single soldier, whose three siblings have died in combat. The final cost "just to save one guy" was six dead Rangers.
The fiction of movies, however, is far exceeded by uncounted real acts of heroism when fellow Americans were having the worst days of their life.
Cinema that dramatized fact, not fiction, was 1988's Bat 21. USAF Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton was a 53-year old navigator shot down and parachuted into the midst of tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops. He was just one guy, surrounded by an overwhelming enemy. What could this one guy expect in terms of rescue in the midst of a huge war? He would soon learn.
For the next eleven days, the war was essentially put on hold as over 800 sorties were flown to support his rescue. The price to save Hambleton was astounding: 11 rescue forces were killed, six of them within his sight. Two more became POWs. 5 aircraft were shot down and others badly damaged. Scores of allied South Vietnamese forces died in related combat actions.
Hambleton, who died in 2004, assessed their sacrifices thusly: "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"
Hambleton's humility did not obscure this reality -- that when a fellow American is in extremis, other Americans, especially its fighting men, will pay any price, even that last full measure, to come to their aid. It has been a testimony to our American exceptionalism and the worth we place on the individual.
Hambleton's story was not unique. A month later USAF Captain Roger Locher was shot down northwest of Hanoi. For twenty-three days he hid out deep in enemy territory until he was able to contact another flight. After an initial rescue was turned back by heavy enemy fire, General John Vogt, commander of the air forces in Vietnam, in an unparalleled act of courage and leadership, ordered the air war shut down and all assets turned over to rescue Locher. 150 aircraft were launched, just to save one guy.
From a cost-benefits analysis what Vogt did could be considered reckless. Vogt's own response was "I had to decide whether we should risk the loss of maybe a dozen airplanes and crews just to get one man out. Finally I said to myself, Goddamn it, 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 is ever in doubt, morale would tumble. That was my major consideration. So I took it on myself. I didn't ask anybody for permission. I just said, "Go do it!"
These are but two examples of an America and of selfless, brave Americans who will risk everything for a total stranger, regardless of the odds, the costs, or even sometimes common sense. Americans don't leave anyone behind. No matter what the risks, there is never a shortage of those who will say "Send me" just to save one guy.
Which brings us to Benghazi.
There was no shortage of brave Americans eager to step forward for a Benghazi rescue. There were the ready and willing at Tripoli. There were assets from Aviano airbase in Italy which with air or ground refueling could have been overhead before the last abandoned American died. There was time to possibly save two Americans who perished at the end of the fight.
But, alas, there was no John Vogt. There was only a rogues' gallery of political survivalists and timid generals who were not going to risk careers "just to save one guy".
There will be continuing fallout from Benghazi, mostly political residues and pundit diatribes. But for those who silently and selflessly serve our nation, those who, outside the mediascape, define just what kind of people we are, it will have one lingering effect. Now, when survival is in doubt, when options are few, when hope is near gone, they will wonder if someone is coming for me.
What difference does it make? Maybe we should ask that "just one guy".