Medal of Honor Recipient Thomas Norris Interview
For three years, it was a secret that Tom Norris had participated in one of the most difficult and dangerous rescues ever attempted in the Vietnam War. Since then, it's been no secret that this retired Navy SEAL has an incredible story to tell.
In 1972, a surveillance aircraft was shot down over enemy territory with USAF Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton aboard. As an expert in radar and communications jamming techniques, Hambleton would have been a highly valued prisoner for the North Vietnamese and their Soviet advisers. The Air Force launched a massive rescue effort, but it came at an equally massive cost: in the first week, ten Americans were killed, four aircraft were destroyed, two rescuers were captured, and two more were stranded behind enemy lines. With progress stalled, Lt. Norris led a patrol deep into enemy territory. Under cover of darkness, Norris traveled alone through the jungle, located one of the attempted rescuers, and led him safely back to the forward operating base. But they weren't out of danger yet. Mere hours later, a heavy rocket attack hit the base, killing more than half of those present. Norris took on several roles at once, directing the counter-fire and treating the wounded.
Hambleton, however, remained isolated and injured, with more than 30,000 North Vietnamese troops in the area. At last, an Air Force forward air controller was able to pinpoint his location. Dressed as fishermen, Norris and a South Vietnamese commando, Nguyen Van Kiet, took a small wooden boat up the river and recovered Hambleton. Concealing him under plants at the bottom of their boat, Norris and Kiet began to paddle back to base. Within reach of safe harbor, the ruse was discovered - machine-gun fire erupted from the banks of the river, but they made it back intact.
Following the declassification of the rescue mission, Norris received the Medal of Honor from President Ford. With the secret out, Norris and Kiet's story has since been recounted in numerous books and a film, BAT*21, starring Gene Hackman as Hambleton. After leaving the Navy, Norris joined the FBI and served for 20 years in hostage rescue operations. Now retired, he lives in Idaho.
His Citation Reads:
Lt. Norris completed an unprecedented ground rescue of two downed pilots deep within heavily controlled enemy territory in Quang Tri Province. Lt. Norris, on the night of 10 April, led a five-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 three-man team on two 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 one 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 machinegun 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.