In early 1972, the United States Navy's involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down. Many of their operations and duties had been turned over to their South Vietnamese counterparts. The few sailors left were primarily advisors. Many of them were SEALs.
Thomas Rolland Norris was born in Jacksonville, FL on January 14, 1944. As a teenager he became an Eagle Scout and then graduated from the University of Maryland, at which he was an Atlantic Coast Conference champion wrestler. He joined the Navy in hopes of taking wings as an aviator, but poor eyesight prevented that. Norris volunteered for training as a SEAL, nearly didn't make it through training but did, and April 1972 found him as an advisor to a South Vietnamese Navy SEAL unit.
On April 2, 1972, an United States Air Force EB-66 Destroyer electronic warfare aircraft supporting B-52 bombers was shot down. Five of the six crew were unable to eject and are still to this day listed as missing in action. The sole survivor, Lieutenant Colonel Iceal E. "Gene" Hambleton, found himself alone and surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese troops at the beginning of their Easter Offensive. Amazingly, he was able to evade capture for eleven days.
Rescuing Lieutenant Colonel Hambleton became a top priority. He had been intimately involved with the Air Force's ballistic missile programs under the Strategic Air Command. His capture and interrogation by the Communists would be a strategic disaster. He had to be rescued.
The story of Hambleton's rescue is epic. It was later dramatized into a Hollywood movie starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover (very good, actually). The film, however, left out the two people responsible for rescuing the trapped American: Thomas Norris and his Vietnamese comrade, Nguyen Van Kiet. Their role was still classified.
Several other aircraft were lost and casualties suffered during the rescue attempts. It was ordered that any further rescue attempts would have to be done on the ground. Norris & Nguyen found a sampan, disguised themselves as fishermen, and managed to rescue Hambleton. Norris received our Nation's highest honor. Nguyen received the highest award our Navy could give him: the Navy Cross.
From Medal of Honor Citations for the Vietnam War (M-Z):
NORRIS, THOMAS R.
Rank and organization: Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, SEAL Advisor, Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team, Headquarters, U.S. Military Assistance Command. Place and date: Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam, 10 to 13 April 1972. Entered service at: Silver Spring, Md. Born: 14 January 1944, Jacksonville, Fla. Citation: Lt. Norris completed an unprecedented ground rescue of 2 downed pilots deep within heavily controlled enemy territory in Quang Tri Province. Lt. Norris, on the night of 10 April, led a 5-man patrol through 2,000 meters of heavily controlled enemy territory, located 1 of the downed pilots at daybreak, and returned to the Forward Operating Base (FOB). On 11 April, after a devastating mortar and rocket attack on the small FOB, Lt. Norris led a 3-man team on 2 unsuccessful rescue attempts for the second pilot. On the afternoon of the 12th, a forward air controller located the pilot and notified Lt. Norris. Dressed in fishermen disguises and using a sampan, Lt. Norris and 1 Vietnamese traveled throughout that night and found the injured pilot at dawn. Covering the pilot with bamboo and vegetation, they began the return journey, successfully evading a North Vietnamese patrol. Approaching the FOB, they came under heavy machine gun fire. Lt. Norris called in an air strike which provided suppression fire and a smoke screen, allowing the rescue party to reach the FOB. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, undaunted courage, and selfless dedication in the face of extreme danger, Lt. Norris enhanced the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
Petty Officer 3d Class Nguyen Van Kiet's Navy Cross Citation (Military Times' Hall of Valor):
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Petty Officer Third Class Nguyen Van Kiet, Navy of the Republic of Vietnam, for extraordinary heroism while serving with friendly forces engaged in armed conflict against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communist aggressors in the Republic of Vietnam. On 13 April 1972, Petty Officer Kiet participated in an unprecedented recovery operation for a downed United States aviator behind enemy lines in Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam. He courageously volunteered to accompany a United States SEAL Advisor in an extremely hazardous attempt to reach the aviator, who was physically unable to move toward friendly positions. Using a sampan and traveling throughout the night, they silently made their way deep into enemy territory, past numerous major enemy positions, locating the pilot at dawn. Once, after being spotted by a North Vietnamese patrol, he calmly continued to keep the enemy confused as the small party successfully evaded the patrol. Later, they were suddenly taken under heavy machine gun fire. Thinking first of the pilot, he quickly pulled the sampan to safety behind a bank and camouflaged it while air strikes were called on the enemy position. Due to Petty Officer Kiet's coolness under extremely dangerous conditions and his outstanding courage and professionalism, an American aviator was recovered after an eleven-day ordeal behind enemy lines. His self-discipline, personal courage, and dynamic fighting spirit were an inspiration to all; thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and the Naval Service.
After the rescue, Norris was interviewed by a reporter. The reporter commented to him, "It must have been tough out there. I bet you wouldn’t do that again." The courageous SEAL knew there was but one possible reply, and he gave it:
Both Norris and Nguyen survived the war and are still living. There's another Medal of Honor story involving Norris, and that will be told later this year on its 40th Anniversary. Nguyen escaped the collapsing South Vietnam in 1975 and today lives in the United States.
Iceal Hambleton passed away at age 85 in 2004.