Moral Imperative

1972, Combat Rescue, and the End of America's War in Vietnam

Darrel Whitcomb

In 1972, America was completing its withdrawal from the long and divisive war in Vietnam. Air power covered the departure of ground forces, and search and rescue teams from all services and Air America covered the airmen and soldiers still in the fight. Day and night these military and civilian aircrews stood alert to respond to “Mayday” calls. The rescue forces were the answer to every mans prayer, and those forces brought home airmen, sailors, marines, and soldiers downed or trapped across the breadth and depth of the entire Southeast Asia theater. Moral Imperative relies on a trove of declassified documents and unit histories to tell their tales.

Focusing on 1972, Darrel Whitcomb combines stories of soldiers cut off from their units, advisors trapped with allied forces, and airmen downed deep in enemy territory, with the narratives of the US Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, contract pilots, and special operations teams ready to conduct rescues in Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. All of these missions occur against the backdrop of our withdrawal from the war and our diplomatic efforts to achieve a lasting peace. In detail, Whitcomb shows how American rescue forces supported the military response to the North Vietnamese’s massive three-pronged invasion of South Vietnam, America’s subsequent interdiction operations against North Vietnam, and ultimately the strategic bombing of Linebacker II.

“This book does an outstanding job in addressing the search and rescue (SAR) efforts of the US Air Force and US Navy during the last year of the war in which US forces were still engaged in combat. This was a period that has not been covered extensively in other histories of the war, and the author puts the SAR story in the larger context of what was happening on the ground, particularly during the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. Impressively documented, this book is strongly recommended.”

—James H. Willbanks, professor emeritus, US Army Command and General Staff College, Vietnam veteran, and author of Abandoning Vietnam

“American combat pilots live with the possibility of being shot down over enemy territory, but this comes with the understanding that every possible attempt will be made to secure their rescue. In Moral Imperative: 1972, Combat Rescue, and the End of America’s War in Vietnam, Darrel Whitcomb deftly demonstrates the ends to which rescue crews were willing to go to save a downed airman or aviator. Whitcomb shows the almost daily struggle of the men who flew the Sandys, Jolly Greens, Big Mothers, and a host of others who were willing to put it all on the line to bring their comrades out of harm’s way. Whitcomb has written the definitive work on search and rescue during the Vietnam War. Moral Imperative is comprehensive and well researched but also an amazing tale of gallantry and sacrifice.”

—Brian Laslie, author of The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam

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About the Author

Darrel D. Whitcomb graduated from the US Air Force Academy in 1969. He served three tours in Southeast Asia as a cargo pilot and forward air controller, logging combat missions over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He retired from the Air Force Reserve as a colonel in 1999 and is the author of The Rescue of Bat 21 and three other books on military rescue and aviation.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series