As a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, "Gene" Hambleton commanded the 57first Missile Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base from 1965 to 1971. He is better known as by his tactical radio call-sign, "Bat 21", he used in Vietnam when he was shot down in 1972 while jamming enemy radar, and parachuted behind enemy lines. When on the ground Col Hambleton found himself in the midst of an invasion force of over 30,000 North Vietnamese troops. While evading capture for eleven days he used his survival radio to call in air strikes against the invasion force. Rescue crews gave him coded instructions for where to go to be rescued based on golf course that he had played at different air force bases. Hambleton's harrowing ordeal was recounted in the book Bat 21 (1980), which was made into a movie of the same name in 1988. He died from cancer on September 19 2004 at age 85.
The true story's ending was quite different. Navy SEAL LT Tom Norris and Vietnamese SEAL Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet took a sampan in to pick up Col. Hambleton after repeated attempts failed with major losses of helicopters and men. LT Norris was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
The true events surrounding this story were still classified at the time of production. Ltc Hambleton was rescued by Navy SEAL LT Tom Norris and Vietnamese SEAL Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet using a canoe to infiltrate to Hambleton's position and rescue him. LT Norris was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
This movie's opening prologue states: "Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton was a missile intelligence expert in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. As such, he was privy to certain highly classified information. The film you are about to see is based on a true story."
The transceiver used by Vietnamese operator to listen American traffic is a Hungarian version of originally Soviet R-108D VHF radio. The warning is clearly readable: "Vigyázz! Az ellenség lehallgat" (The enemy is listening.) Uti figura docet.
This movie was made about five years after Uncommon Valor (1983) which also starred Gene Hackman who in that movie was responsible for recruiting a band of brothers to bring home a number of their buddy soldiers who were still missing in action from the Vietnam War that they had fought in. This movie, Bat*21 (1988), represents the opposite of this. In this movie, Gene Hackman is trapped behind enemy lines in the Vietnam War and it is he who needs to be rescued.
In this movie Danny Glover's character commandeers an aircraft against orders to affect a rescue. Three years later in the 1991 movie "Flight Of The Intruder" when his character (the commander of a carrier-based A6 Intruder squadron) gets shot down over Vietnam, one of his pilots commandeers an aircraft against orders to affect his rescue.
In yet another ironic twist, Hackman would again come to the rescue (alá Uncommon Valor) when he goes above and beyond to save Owen Wilson from a similar perilous situation, as told in 'Behind Enemy Lines' (2001).