By the early 1970s, the U.S. was winding down its involvement in Vietnam. Nevertheless, there were still troops putting their lives on the line. And for Navy SEAL Thomas Norris, his heroism and refusal to abandon downed pilots would result in his being awarded the Medal of Honor. His incredible story was later made into the blockbuster film BAT-21, starring Gene Hackman. 

Lt. Thomas Norris was an extraordinarily brave and quick-thinking SEAL. He was assigned to MACV-SOG Danang Naval Advisory Detachment and conducted several operations over April 9-13, 1972 to rescue downed Air Force pilots. 

Thomas Norris was born in Jacksonville, Florida but grew up in Wisconsin and Washington DC. After graduating high school, he attended the University of Maryland. He graduated in 1967 with a degree in sociology with a specialty in criminology. He was also an ACC Wrestling Champion in 1965 and 1966.

Thomas Norris initially hoped to join the FBI. But when his draft deferment ran out he joined the Navy. He volunteered for Navy SEAL training and graduated BUD/S Class 45. He joined SEAL Team Two and on his first tour of duty in Vietnam was awarded a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor device. 

LTC Iceal Hambleton Is Shot Down Leading to a Massive Rescue Attempt
Lt. Thomas R. Norris in Vietnam with Nguyen Van Kiet, the Vietnamese Sea Commando who accompanied him on the rescues of Clark and Hambleton. Kiet was awarded the Navy Cross for his role in this operation, the highest award the Navy can give to a foreign national. (DoD)

On April 2, 1972, an Air Force EB-66 electronic surveillance plane was shot down over enemy-held territory in Quang Tri after it was hit by a Soviet SA-2 Guideline missile at 30,000 feet. Only LTC Iceal Hambleton, the navigator of the three-man crew, was able to safely eject. He landed in the middle of the huge North Vietnamese Easter Offensive

Hambleton was a ballistic missile expert with a Top Secret/SCI clearance. Thus, his capture by the North Vietnamese Army would have been of tremendous benefit to the Soviet Union. Hambleton said after the war that he felt sure that if he were captured he would never have been taken to Hanoi.

The resultant rescue effort was the largest that the United States had ever attempted. Nevertheless, the enemy troop concentration was so great that five additional aircraft were shot down, 11 airmen were killed in action, and two more were captured. Nine additional aircraft and helicopters were badly damaged during the rescue attempts.

Thomas Norris and Nguyen Van Kiet’s Ingenious Rescue Plan

MACV Saigon would risk no more air rescue attempts. Therefore, Thomas Norris, one of the few SEALs remaining in Vietnam, was selected to rescue Hambleton and the two other downed American pilots, Lieutenant Mark Clark (son of the famous WWII Fifth Army Commander) and Lieutenant Bruce Walker. All three were deep inside NVA territory.