Moral Imperative: 1972, Combat Rescue, and the End of America’s War in Vietnam

  • Published

Moral Imperative: 1972, Combat Rescue, and the End of America’s War in Vietnam by Darrel D. Whitcomb. University Press of Kansas, 2021, 370 pp. 

What keeps you fighting when your country’s leadership has abandoned its hope of winning the war you find yourself fighting? Promising the Soldier on your left and the Sailor on your right that no one will get left behind, you fight for them. This is the moral imperative and the core of historian Darrel D. Whitcomb’s latest work. Whitcomb, the author of The Rescue of Bat 21 and Combat Search and Rescue in Desert Storm, takes a comprehensive look at combat rescue in Southeast Asia in 1972, the chaotic and tragic final year of America’s ground combat role in Vietnam.

The unconditional promise to come to each other’s aid, embodied by combat rescue, was a covenant that sustained American service members still fighting in the region in 1972, Moral Imperative asserts. Should an infantry company become besieged, a pilot shot down, or a helicopter crew crashed, their compatriots would come for them, no questions asked. As one of Whitcomb’s interviewees put it, “No one wanted to be the last casualty or POW. It was unspoken, but we weren’t going to leave anyone out on their own. You never gave it a thought. You just do it. I suspect we all had the same thought—if I don’t go for you, you won’t come for me.”

To make its case, Moral Imperative opens with a chapter-long survey of combat rescue in Southeast Asia from 1961-71, followed by eight chapters covering the events of 1972. A maelstrom of political forces converged in 1972, an election year, as the United States withdrew its combat forces while trying to bomb the North Vietnamese into a peace deal. In response to the North Vietnamese army’s massive spring 1972 invasion of South Vietnam, the United States initiated two intense air campaigns against Hanoi, Linebacker I and Linebacker II. With fewer Americans around for mutual support and aircraft flying deeper into the hornet’s nest of North Vietnamese antiaircraft and surface-to-air missile defenses, rescues became both more frequent and much tougher to pull off. In 1972 alone, the Department of Defense lost more than 300 fixed-wing aircraft. It awarded three Medals of Honor and 24 Service Crosses for rescue missions, and one service, the Air Force, awarded almost 17,000 individual medals for the same.

The mental gymnastics required to understand Washington’s political strategy must have been strenuous for the American forces remaining in Southeast Asia in 1972. To cut and run from a war it no longer believed in, the United States asked its military to accept even more risk and danger. “That rang hollow with those actually doing the fighting in this last year,” writes Whitcomb, himself an OV-10 pilot and forward air controller in Vietnam that year. “Nobody wanted to be the last guy lost, although all knew that if they were downed or trapped by enemy forces, their buddies would come for them. When all other causes fade, soldiers would always fight for their compatriots. That was what the rescue forces represented.”     

One of the main points Whitcomb makes about combat rescue is the broad scope of the mission. While Vietnam was the focus of the region’s conflict, combat rescue in Southeast Asia began in Laos in 1961 with the downing of an American C-47 and ended in Cambodia in 1975 with the attempted rescue of the SS Mayaguez’s crew. During that period, Americans needed recovery in Thailand, Laos, the Gulf of Tonkin, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam. The terrain and vast distances required more rescues than any single military service or unit could provide.

The Air Force had the primary responsibility for combat rescue beginning in 1964, but recovering isolated personnel was an all-in joint effort, Whitcomb observes. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, South Vietnamese military, Loatian irregulars, Air America contractors, and other forces used air, ground, and sea assets to rescue distressed Americans. Storied are the rescues by teams of HC-130 Kings, A-1 Skyraiders, and HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giants, but the Navy’s Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Seven (HC-7) redefined abiding by relocating itself to a different ship 142 times from 1967 to 1974 to maintain combat rescue coverage over the Gulf of Tonkin. Moral Imperative’s inclusion of HC-7’s heroics and Army air cavalry, special operations, and contractor rescues is one of the book’s strengths. While professional and dedicated search and rescue assets existed, often, circumstances required improvisation and deering-do solutions from whoever was available. Many responded to the call and did what they could at great personal risk.     

Another significant theme is combat rescue’s Darwinian struggle against an ever-evolving enemy that presented newer and different threats. Whitcomb is correct to point out that the moral imperative is only as good as the capability backing it up. Moral Imperative demonstrates combat rescue’s innovative tactics and close collaboration with other forces, and how the military raced technological advances to rescue units between 1961-71. This period was a rehearsal for 1972 and shows how combat rescue professionalized itself, thereby putting real force behind the moral imperative.    

The mutual commitment to come to each other’s aid was the foundation of troop morale, Whitcomb tells us, but he also grapples with the fact that the moral imperative was often a moral dilemma. The promise to come to the aid of a distressed American may have been all the reason that remained to keep troops fighting, but it came at a cost. Commanders had to balance the moral imperative’s demands with other considerations. Many service members died during both successful and unsuccessful rescue attempts. Was losing more crews and aircraft to save one man worth it? Rescue missions often required commanders to abandon other tasks, including support to imperiled South Vietnamese ground units, to pull assets into the search and rescue effort. This was a significant tension for commanders in 1972, Whitcomb explains.

The most effective support for Whitcomb’s argument is when he presents the voices of those who lived the moral imperative. Balancing the myriad stories of rescues with more words from the jet jocks, bomber and rescue crews, ground troops, and commanders would have closed Whitcomb’s case. While this book is of obvious appeal to those in the Joint combat rescue community, Moral Imperative has a strong message for military leaders charged with planning and executing our country’s wars—troops will take on unfathomable risks, even in the face of tough enemies and wavering politicians, as long as they can fight for each other.

Colonel Tobias Switzer, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."