USAF Special Tactics pivotal role rescuing 'Boys in the Cave'

Elizabeth Howe
November 20, 2018 - 11:59 am

Photo courtesy of HarperCollins


This past summer, the entire world watched with bated breath as an army of ten thousand soldiers, civilian rescuers, and volunteers worked feverishly to rescue a Thai boy's soccer team trapped in a cave. Months later, Matt Gutman's novel Boys in the Cave: Deep Inside the Impossible Rescue in Thailand provides an in-depth look at the countless pieces that went into saving those boys — including a United States Air Force Special Tactics team without which Gutman believes the mission would not have succeeded.

"I was on vacation with my family in Tel Aviv. Hearing that the boys had already been in the cave for nine days — like many people — I thought there was no way they could have survived. And then the report came out — they're alive. Within 18 hours of that, maybe less, I was on a plane to Thailand."

Gutman is ABC News's chief national correspondent. He reports on "World News Tonight with David Muir," "20/20," "Good Morning America," and "Nightline." He also hosts ABC's "Sea Rescue" and has a particular interest in survival stories. This particular survival story proved to be a puzzle. 

"One of the things that was so exciting and exhilarating about writing this book is that I didn't know a lot when I started writing," Gutman said. "What I knew was how little I knew. I knew there were huge gaps I didn't know, and the more I reported on it the more I learned that I didn't know...It was this giant puzzle that I ended up putting together." 

And one of the puzzle pieces Gutman found? The United States military. 

"The U.S. military was absolutely seminal in making sure the boys got out of the cave alive," said Gutman.

The Thai government communicated a call to action to Pacific Command three days after the boys went into the cave — and the call was answered by the 353rd Special Tactics Group. 

"These are the folks who basically describe themselves as the human Swiss Army knives of the Air Force. They're incredible people with an unbelievable skill set."

It was this group that was so crucial to the outcome of the rescue mission. 

"Their's is really the untold story of the whole cave rescue," Gutman said. "My book focuses to a large degree on how they managed to corral everybody, tell the Thai government what the story really was inside the cave, and then come up with the plan to extricate them."

A plan that the Thai government was not initially on board with.

"The Thai government promised everyone watching that it was going with a zero risk option. That meant that they hoped to get every single kid out alive. At the time they believed the only way to do that was to wait out the monsoon season," said Gutman. 

The 353rd knew the realities of the cave better than to think that plan would work. The chambers of the cave were only 15 percent oxygen, getting supplies back to the kids was too grueling a task to continue for the months before the end of the monsoon season, and the water levels would fluctuate until the boys had no more space than that of a dining room table. 

"They realized that if they didn't get them out soon, they would definitely die," Gutman said. 

Photo courtesy of Capt. Jessica Tait

Members of the 353rd were allowed a meeting with the higher-ups of the Thai government and convinced them to make the difficult decision — one that could cost these officials their jobs or their lives — to pursue a rescue mission. 

"I can tell you for a fact, that if the 353rd folks hadn't been there, those boys would still be in the cave right now."

Months later, we know that all twelve boys and their coach were successfully rescued after 17 days in the cave. Countless hours of work contributed by countless parties went into that rescue, but through his reporting and research on the story, Gutman found a particular pride in the efforts of the United States military. 

"I'm always a proud American, but it was one of those moments that made me feel really good about our military and our country," Gutman said. "And it was just amazing to learn after the fact about the might and quickness with which the U.S. military can react — the devotion and dedication that our airmen and women showed to this cause and in everything they do."

"I was very proud to have participated in this — to have learned about the 353rd, this unsung group of airmen. And I'm proud that they were American."

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