In the closing days of the Vietnam War, a Navy SEAL pulled off an almost impossible mission and earned the Medal of Honor for it.
In April 1972, the South Vietnamese military launched the Easter Offensive, the largest combined arms operation of the entire Vietnam War, with U.S. aircraft supporting their Vietnamese allies.
During the initial days of the operation, an EB-66 electronic warfare aircraft was shot down, and only Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton managed to survive. The shootdown would trigger one of the largest combat search and rescue operations of the war. You see, Hambleton held a top-secret security clearance and had intimate knowledge of classified ballistic missile and countermeasures technology and tactics. If the North Vietnamese and their Soviet allies captured him, they could potentially gain a great deal from his interrogation.
In the following days, the Air Force repeatedly tried to rescue Hambleton but to no avail and at a heavy price. The North Vietnamese shot down five aircraft and damaged several more, killing ten airmen and capturing a further two. And in addition to Hambleton, 1st Lieutenant Mark Clark, one of those shot down, was now also escaping and evading capture.
At that point, the military leadership ordered a halt to further combat search and rescue operations. However, General Creighton Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, ordered that every effort possible was made to rescue Hambleton because of his classified knowledge of missile and countermeasure technology. So, military planners turned to the Navy SEALs, and specifically Lieutenant Tom Norris, one of the last American frogmen in Vietnam.
Behind Enemy Lines
On the night of April 10, 1972, Norris led a five-man special operations team tasked with the rescue the two American pilots who had been shot down by the North Vietnamese air defenses. The mission was named Operation Bat-21 after the callsign of one of the downed aircraft. Norris was the only American commando on the team.
Norris and his team launched from an impromptu forward operations base that had been hastily established near the front lines. They patrolled for approximately one mile inside enemy territory, while hundreds of North Vietnamese troops around them also searched for the two pilots. After a long and stressful night with many near misses, the team successfully located Clark in the morning hours. Norris swam himself to the pilot’s position and helped him back to the team’s hideout. The whole team and Clark then returned to the forward operations base. But they still had to find and rescue Hambleton.
Throughout his ordeal, which by now had stretched across eight full days, Hambleton had been in contact with American forces through his survival radio. But he was growing weary of the evasion and survival effort—and for good reason. The harsh conditions, physical exhaustion, and minimal resources were bearing down on the man, who would lose 50 pounds during the ordeal.
On April 12, Norris and one Vietnamese SEAL launched a desperate last effort to find Hambleton. Dressed like Vietnamese fishermen, the two men used a sampan boat to paddle upriver. After a great deal of effort, they found the downed pilot but were not out of the woods yet, both metaphorically and literally. The final hours of the operation could have been straight out from a movie.
“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 the 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.”
For his actions, Norris received the Medal of Honor in 1976, after he had been seriously wounded in the operation that earned his fellow Navy SEAL, Petty Officer Mike Thorton, the same prestigious award.
But Norris wasn’t the only one who was recognized for his bravery and intrepidity during the operation. South Vietnamese Navy SEAL Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet received the U.S. Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for his actions; he was the only South Vietnamese sailor to earn the award.
During the operation, the U.S. military conducted more than 800 airstrikes in support of the downed airmen and Norris’ team.
A Rare Occasion and a Life of Service
Medal of Honor recipients are rare due to the very nature of the award. Those who survive the action that earned them the Medal of Honor are even rarer. But what is even rarer, if not practically impossible, is to have one Medal of Honor recipient save the life of another. In the history of the Medal, there have been only three such instances. The latest and most recent one took place in Vietnam and it involved the very same Lt. Thomas Norris.
In October 1972, Thornton saved the life of Norris. They were among the last SEALs in Vietnam and had gone on a clandestine strategic reconnaissance mission with some South Vietnamese frogmen. Although Norris didn’t know it at the time, he would be awarded the nation’s highest award for valor under fire for the operation that had taken place a few months earlier, at least he would be, after the rescue.
What’s even more impressive about Norris is that even after the debilitating injury he suffered in the line of duty, he still desired to serve the country. When the FBI was setting up its Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), a rough federal law enforcement equivalent to the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, Norris volunteered and served as an assaulter. In order to do so, he had to prove that he could conduct close-quarters battle (CQB) with one eye. Despite skepticism from naysayers, Norris proved himself and went on to have a successful career as a special agent.