Thomas Norris

Full Name
Thomas Rolland Norris

Date of Birth
14 January 1944

Place of Birth
Jacksonville, Florida

In 1972 U.S. Navy SEAL Tom Norris participated in one of the most fascinating and daring rescue missions of the Vietnam War. The bulk of the operation was made famous by the book BAT-21, however, despite performing a vital and courageous role, Norris was barely mentioned.

Norris enlisted in the Navy with the intention of becoming a pilot after graduating from the University of Maryland in 1967. However, after depth perception problems disqualified him from flying, he volunteered for the SEALs. Norris served a tour in the Mekong Delta between 1969 and 1970 before returning to Vietnam in 1972 as part of the highly classified Studies and Observations Group (SOG).

On April 2nd 1972 a modified bomber being used to jam North Vietnamese radar sites was shot down near the DMZ during the air campaign that had been staged in response to the Communist’s Easter Offensive. The only surviving crewmember was Lt Col. Iceal Hambleton, an Electronic Warfare Officer who possessed detailed knowledge of the U.S. ballistic missile system having previously served in the Strategic Air Command.

Determined to prevent the North Vietnamese from capturing Hambleton, a massive air rescue operation was launched. However, these efforts were unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of several additional U.S. aircraft and men.

As a result Lt. Norris was tasked with performing the ground rescue of the missing airmen. On the night of April 10th he daringly led 5 Vietnamese frogmen 2,000 meters behind enemy lines to retrieve Lt Mark Clark, a pilot shot down in one of the previous SAR (Search and Rescue) missions.

Despite losing two team members during a devastating mortar attack on the return to their small Forward Operating Base (FOB), Norris again ventured into hostile territory the following evening, twice leading his 3-man Vietnamese team in unsuccessful efforts to save Hambleton.

After being notified on April 12th that Hambleton had finally been successfully located, Norris and Vietnamese SEAL Nguyen Van Kiet embarked on another audacious rescue attempt. Disguised as fisherman and under the constant threat of detection by large enemy patrols, the pair paddled a sampan up the Song Mieu Giang River throughout the night. Reaching the injured Air Force Colonel at dawn, they hid him in the boat under bamboo and began the perilous return journey, requiring air strikes to aid their escape.

For his heroism Norris was awarded the Medal of Honor, but had to wait four years to receive it because in October 1972, he suffered a near-fatal head wound that needed years of surgery. He was rescued by fellow Navy SEAL Michael Thornton, who became the first person in more than a century to receive the Medal of Honor for saving the life of another recipient. The Navy also bestowed an honour on Lt. Norris, naming a building after him at the Naval Special Warfare Group Two in Little Creek, Virginia.1

Norris’ injuries forced him to retire from the Navy, but after his rehabilitation he embarked on a 20-year career with the FBI.

1. For his participation in the rescue of Lt. Col. Hambleton, the United States Navy awarded Nguyen Van Kiet the Navy Cross. He is the only member of the South Vietnamese Navy to receive the award.

Further Information

Thomas Norris Interview (2009) Norris talks about the joining the Navy, the SEALs, the rescue mission and answers audience questions. Really worth watching.
The Rescue of Bat 21 by Darrel Whitcomb ( affiliate link). Based on declassified records and interviews with participants, this book reveals how Norris brought out Bat 21.
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