When two American pilots were shot down in enemy territory towards the end of the Vietnam War, numerous attempts to rescue them by other planes failed. It was then that Navy Lieutenant Thomas Rolland Norris was called in to lead a ground team to find them. Both missions were successful and earned the young Navy SEAL the Medal of Honor.
Norris was born on January 14, 1944 in Jacksonville, Florida to Rolland and Irene Norris. He had two brothers, James and Kenneth. Since their father was in the navy, the family did not stay there long. They moved to Michigan, Wisconsin, and then to the Washington, D.C. area, where Norris graduated from high school in 1963.
Growing up, Norris became an Eagle Scout, ran track and wrestled – a talent that served him well when he went to the University of Maryland and became the Atlantic Coast Conference wrestling champion. in 1965 and 1966. Norris graduated from college in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and sociology.
Shortly after, when his student deferment from the Vietnam War draft was not extended, he enlisted in the Navy and was commissioned.
Norris said in a later life interview that he had wanted to be a Navy pilot since he was a child. He joined the program to become one, but vision problems forced him to drop out. Instead, he volunteered for a newly created naval special warfare unit that became known as SEALs.
Norris earned the Medal of Honor during his second tour of duty in Vietnam. It was the spring of 1972, and the United States was on its way to de-escalation and Vietnamization. There were few American combat troops left in the country – American air power made up most of the force still in the region – and the military advisers who were still there prepared the South Vietnamese troops to continue the war on their own. .
North Vietnam saw this as an opportunity, so in late March 1972 its army sent ground troops, tanks, and artillery through the DMZ to begin a full-scale invasion known as the Offensive. Easter. The United States responded by launching B-52 Stratofortress bombers and EB-66 destroyers, electronic warfare aircraft capable of blocking missiles aimed at the bombers.
On April 2, an EB-66 aircraft was shot down just below the DMZ. Air Force Lt. Col. Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, 53, was the only survivor, and he was trapped in the heart of the enemy offensive. Army helicopters attempted to reach it, but one was shot down and the others failed.
The Air Force then began its biggest rescue mission in history, and it didn’t go well. According to an Army War College text, in six days of aerial rescue efforts, more than a dozen men were killed and six planes were shot down or damaged. Two Americans had been taken prisoner and Air Force 1st Lt. Mark Clark’s close air support pilot, who had also been shot down, was now stranded with Hambleton in enemy territory.
American military leaders decided that the only way to reach the two pilots was by ground troops, so they asked Norris to lead this rescue effort. Norris said he believed he was chosen because he was one of the few special operators remaining in the country who had worked with the Vietnamese teams involved. He was comfortable leading operations with them.
On the night of April 10, Norris and a team of five Vietnamese SEALs began their mission through over a mile of heavily controlled enemy territory to find Clark, the most recently shot down pilot. After carefully maneuvering around enemy units throughout the night, Norris’ team picked up Clark’s movements in a river he had been radioed to float down.
“I could hear it coming,” Norris said during an interview with the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. “He was breathing hard.”
It took until dawn, but Norris finally found Clark in the water and convinced the pilot that he would be safe if he followed his lead.
“I told him to stay in line, follow me and do whatever I do,” Norris said.
Reversing course, the small team moved quietly through enemy territory and made their way to their forward operating base, where they delivered Clark to the medical aid station.
Later that day, the base was hit by an enemy rocket and mortar attack. Norris said it was a daily occurrence, but today’s attack was particularly deadly. Two of the team members who had helped save Clark were killed and several other people were injured. Many of them, including Clark, were evacuated by helicopter. Norris remained to continue the rescue mission.
That evening, Norris and the remaining three-man SEAL team attempted to reach Hambleton twice, but both attempts were unsuccessful. For five days since attempts to rescue the plane failed, Hambleton had been communicating intermittently with Air Force forward air controllers by radio. They were helping him move from hide to hide in hopes of leading him to a nearby river so that Norris could reach him.
On the afternoon of April 12, a forward air controller located Hambleton and notified Norris. Because Hambleton had not received survival kits that had been dropped for him, he was in real trouble, and the FAC stressed to Norris the urgency of finding the pilot as soon as possible.
At this point, only one of the Vietnamese SEALs, Nguyễn Văn Kiệt, wanted to continue assisting Norris in the rescue mission. So, dressed as fishermen, the pair floated all night in a sampan – a small Vietnamese canoe-like boat – down the river, passing many enemy encampments along the way. At dawn they found Hambleton where he should be.
“I parked right where he was sitting,” Norris said. “It was luck.”
Norris and Kiệt put the injured pilot in the bottom of the sampan, covered him with life jackets, bamboo and vegetation, and began their return journey. Along the way, they managed to sneak past enemy rocket positions and even evaded a North Vietnamese patrol trying to stop them.
As they neared the relative safety of their forward operating base, the small craft came under heavy machine gun fire from a North Vietnamese bunker. The trio quickly beached the sampan and went into hiding. After checking the enemy ground forces, Norris then called in an airstrike, which fired into the enemy bunker and provided a smokescreen that gave the trio a chance to get back into the sampan and reach the base by completely safe.
Hambleton was treated for his injuries and eventually recovered. If it hadn’t been for Norris’ steely courage and dedication to the cause, he and Clark might never have gone home.
Six months later, while on another combat mission, Norris was shot in the face and suffered serious head injuries. He was rescued by Lt. Michael Thornton, a fellow Navy SEAL who earned the Medal of Honor for this rescue mission.
Norris medically retired due to his injuries, which included the loss of his left eye. His rehabilitation required many surgeries over several years.
Norris learned he would receive the Medal of Honor in 1974, but he did not receive it until March 6, 1976. President Gerald R. Ford presented the nation’s highest honor for gallantry to the SEAL in a ceremony to the White House. His parents and two brothers were present, as was Thornton. Norris had attended Thornton’s Medal of Honor ceremony before his own.
In 1979, after being granted a disability waiver, Norris became an FBI agent, something he hoped to do when he entered college more than 15 years earlier. He worked at the agency for 20 years and was one of the first members of its hostage rescue team as an assault team leader.
Over the past several years, Norris has participated in various Navy and Medal of Honor events and discussions that celebrate the significance of the medal. He said he was very proud of what he represents.
“I’m just a keeper of this medal. I wear it for my team members and people who have served so valiantly who will never have the chance to wear an award like this. There are those who deserved it but were never recognized, and those who gave their lives for the missions in which they were sent and who will never return,” he said. “It’s an honor for me to wear it, but I don’t consider it my own.”
Naval unconventional warfare operators have not forgotten Norris’ legacy. At Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia, Lt. Thomas R. Norris’ building houses the Second Naval Special Warfare Group.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday”, in which we highlight one of more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have won the highest medal of bravery in the US army.