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. 

Walker was discovered and killed by the North Vietnamese Army. But Norris was undaunted. He and Republic of Vietnam Navy Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet went behind enemy lines in a daring mission. They were able to successfully extract Lt. Mark Clark and return him to the FOB. Nevertheless, they failed twice to get Hambleton. 

Even after the two failures, Norris and Kiet persevered. They came up with a daring and ingenious plan. Dressed up as Vietnamese fishermen they paddled down the river behind the NVA forces. They found Hambleton at dawn on April 13. They covered him with bamboo and other vegetation. The three men slowly made their way back to the FOB while dodging an NVA patrol. 

Lt. Thomas Norris in the background as LTC Iceal Hambleton (stretcher) is taken to be evacuated. (DoD)

As they approached the FOB, they came under heavy machinegun fire. Lt. Norris called in an airstrike. It provided suppressive fire and a smokescreen, allowing the three men to reach the FOB.

This was a classic American special operation. It shows how, without any other means at his disposal, Norris was able to go in and rescue two of the pilots, using only his valor and ingenuity. For this Norris was awarded the Medal of Honor. 

Thomas Norris and Michael Thornton: One MOH Recipient Rescues Another

Later, in another operation, Norris was shot in the left eye and had a section of his skull blown away, exposing his brain.

With the same “never leave a comrade behind” attitude, another SEAL, Michael Thornton braved heavy enemy fire to recover his injured teammate. Thornton then proceeded to swim with Norris and another wounded Vietnamese SEAL teammate through the surf zone, and out to sea for two hours. The men were all recovered by a Vietnamese naval vessel, with a SEAL aboard who had been coordinating the operation.

Thornton’s actions were incredible, saving Norris’s life as well as their Vietnamese comrade’s. Michael Thornton was also awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Incredible Tale of Two SEALs Bound by Blood and the Medal of Honor

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This is the only time where one MOH recipient has rescued another MOH recipient.
Norris and Thornton, two incredible SEALs who have been awarded the Medal of Honor. (U.S. Navy)

Thomas Norris recovered from his injuries. He went on to finally join the FBI and served 20 years before retiring. His comments on what transpired at quite telling. 

“You have a determination not to give up. And my injury — when you see the death and destruction to other people that you see in war — I mean, what I have is nothing. So I lost an eye and part of my head and brain and had some other bodily injuries. I have another eye. You just go on.”