When two American pilots were downed in enemy territory toward the end of the Vietnam War, numerous attempts to rescue them by other aircraft failed.
That’s when Navy Lt. Thomas Rolland Norris was called in to lead a ground team to find them. Both missions were a success, and they earned the young Navy SEAL the Medal of Honor.
Norris was born on Jan. 14, 1944, in Jacksonville, Fla., to Rolland and Irene Norris. He had two brothers, James and Kenneth. Since their dad was in the Navy, the family didn’t stay put for long. They moved to Michigan, Wisconsin and then to the Washington, D.C., area, where Norris graduated 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’s 1965 and 1966 wrestling champ. Norris graduated college in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and sociology.
Not long after that, when his student deferment from the Vietnam War draft wasn’t extended, he enlisted in the Navy and was commissioned as an officer.
Norris said in an interview later in life that he’d wanted to be a Navy pilot since he was a child. He joined the program to become one, but vision issues forced him to drop out. Instead, he volunteered for a newly created naval special warfare unit that became known as the SEALs.
Norris earned the Medal of Honor while on his second tour of duty in Vietnam. It was the spring of 1972, and the U.S. was in the process of de-escalation and Vietnamization. There were few American combat troops left in the country — U.S. airpower accounted for most of the force still in the region — and the military advisers who were still there were preparing 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 across the demilitarized zone to begin a full-blown invasion known as the Easter Offensive. The U.S. responded by launching B-52 Stratofortress bombers and EB-66 Destroyers, electronic warfare aircraft that could jam missiles aimed at the bombers.
On April 2, one 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 thick of the enemy offensive. Army helicopters tried to reach him, but one was shot down and the rest were unsuccessful.
The Air Force then began its largest rescue mission in history, and it didn’t go well. According to an Army War College text, in six days of air rescue efforts, more than a dozen men were killed and six aircraft were either downed or damaged. Two Americans had been taken prisoner, and close-air support pilot Air Force 1st Lt. Mark Clark, who had also been shot down, was now stranded with Hambleton in enemy territory.
U.S. military leaders decided that the only way to get to the two pilots was by ground troops, so they asked Norris to lead that 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 running operations with them.
On the night of April 10, Norris and a team of five Vietnamese SEALs began their mission through more than a mile of heavily controlled enemy territory to find Clark, the more recently downed pilot. After carefully maneuvering around enemy units all night, Norris’ team picked up on Clark’s movements in a river that he’d been instructed by radio to float down.
“I could hear him coming,” Norris said during a Library of Congress Veterans History Project interview. “He was breathing hard.”
It took until daybreak, but Norris finally found Clark in the water and convinced the pilot 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 back through enemy territory and made it to their forward operating base, where they delivered Clark to the medical aid station.
Later that day, the base was hit with an enemy rocket and mortar attack. Norris said that was a daily occurrence, but this day’s attack was particularly deadly. Two of the team members who’d helped rescue Clark were killed, and several more people were injured. Many of them, including Clark, were evacuated by helicopter. Norris stayed behind to continue the rescue mission.
That evening, Norris and the remaining three-man SEAL team tried to reach Hambleton twice, but both attempts were unsuccessful. For five days since the failed aircraft rescue attempts, Hambleton had been communicating on and off with Air Force forward air controllers via radio. They were helping him move from hiding spot to hiding spot in hopes of getting him to a nearby river so Norris could get to him.
On the afternoon of April 12, a forward air controller located Hambleton and notified Norris. Because Hambleton hadn’t gotten survival packages that had been airdropped for him, he was really struggling, and the FAC stressed to Norris the urgency of finding the pilot as soon as possible.
By this point, only one of the Vietnamese SEALs, Nguyn Vn Kit, wanted to continue helping Norris with the rescue mission. So, dressed as fishermen, the pair floated all night in a sampan — a small canoe-like Vietnamese vessel — down the river, passing numerous enemy encampments along the way. At dawn, they found Hambleton where he was expected to be.
“I parked right about where he was sitting,” Norris said. “That was luck.”
Norris and Kit put the injured pilot in the bottom of the sampan, covered him with life vests, bamboo and vegetation, and began their return journey. Along the way, they successfully sneaked past enemy rocket positions and even evaded a North Vietnamese patrol that tried to stop them.
As they approached the relative safety of their forward operating base, the small craft was attacked by heavy machine gun fire from a North Vietnamese bunker. The trio quickly beached the sampan and hid. After checking for enemy ground forces, Norris then called in an air strike, which fired at the enemy bunker and provided a smoke screen that gave the trio a chance to get back into the sampan and safety reach the base.
Hambleton was treated for his injuries and eventually recovered. If it weren’t for Norris’ undaunted courage and dedication to the cause, he and Clark may have never made it home.
Six months later, during another combat mission, Norris was shot in the face and suffered severe head injuries. He was saved by Lt. Michael Thornton, a fellow Navy SEAL who earned the Medal of Honor for that rescue mission.
Norris medically retired due to his injuries, which included the loss of his left eye. His rehabilitation required numerous surgeries over the span of several years.
Norris learned he would receive the Medal of Honor sometime in 1974, but he didn’t get it until March 6, 1976. President Gerald R. Ford presented the nation’s highest honor for valor to the SEAL during a White House ceremony. His parents and both brothers were present for it, as was Thornton. Norris had attended Thornton’s Medal of Honor ceremony prior to his own.
In 1979, after getting a disability waiver, Norris became an FBI agent, which is what he’d hoped to do when he entered college more than 15 years earlier. He worked at the agency for 20 years and was an original member of its hostage rescue team as an assault team leader.
Over the past several years, Norris has taken part in various Navy and Medal of Honor events and discussions that celebrate the meaning of the medal. He said he has a great deal of pride for what it stands for.
“I’m just a custodian of this medal. I wear it for the members of my teams and the people that served as valiantly and will never have the chance to wear an award like that. There are those out there who deserved it but were never recognized, and the folks that gave their lives for the missions they were sent on who will never be back again,” he said. “It’s an honor for me to wear it, but I don’t consider it mine.”
Naval unconventional warfare operators have not forgotten Norris’ legacy. At Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia, the Lt. Thomas R. Norris Building is the home of Naval Special Warfare Group Two.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.