Thomas R. Norris
Name: Thomas R. Norris
Specialty: Navy SEAL
BUD/S Class: 45
SEAL Service: 3 years (1969 – 1972)
Rank: Lieutenant, U.S. Navy Reserves
Retired Rank: Lieutenant
Home: Jacksonville, Florida
Assigned: SEAL Team ONE
Organization: SEAL Advisor, Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team, Headquarters, U.S. Military Assistance Command
Conflict: Vietnam War
Location of Action: Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam
Date of Action: April 10-13, 1972
Date of Award: March 6, 1976
Retired: Medically retired
Congressional Medal of Honor on March 6, 1976, by President Gerald Ford, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a SEAL Advisor with the Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team, Headquarters, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.
Thomas Norris served with extraordinary distinction as a Navy SEAL on two tours of duty in Vietnam. He rescued two downed Air Force officers on separate and daring night missions amid overwhelming enemy forces.
LT Norris persevered in his repeated night sorties to find and rescue the American aviators, demonstrating the greatest courage and commitment Lt Norris was medically retired due to severe head injuries sustained when he was shot in the face during a combat mission six months later. Norris was rescued by fellow SEAL Michael Thornton, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions. Each had the pleasure of attending the other’s Congressional Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House.
In 1979, after years of surgeries, LT Norris achieved his life ambition of becoming an FBI Agent. FBI Director William Webster wrote that, “If you can pass the same test as anybody else applying for this organization, I will waiver your disabilities.” Norris gave 20 years distinguished service to the FBI and was an original member of its Hostage Rescue Team as an assault team leader.
“During the period 10 to 13 April 1972, Lieutenant Norris completed an unprecedented ground rescue of two downed pilots deep within heavily controlled enemy territory in Quang Tri Province. Lieutenant Norris, on the night of April 10, led a 5-man patrol through 2,000 meters of heavily controlled enemy territory, located one of the downed pilots at daybreak, and returned to the Forward Operating Base (FOB).
On April 11, after a devastating mortar and rocket attack on the small FOB, Lieutenant Norris led a 3-man team on two unsuccessful rescue attempts for the second pilot. On the afternoon of April 12, a forward air controller located the pilot and notified Lieutenant Norris.
Dressed in fishermen disguises and using a sampan, Lieutenant 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. Lieutenant 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, Lieutenant Norris enhanced the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”
Thomas Norris was born in Jacksonville, Florida, then moved with his family to Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. He entered the University of Maryland in 1963, with the intent of pursuing a criminology career with the FBI. While in college, he was the Atlantic Coast Conference ACC wrestling champion in both 1965 and 1966.
Norris graduated from the University of Maryland in 1967 with a B.S. in Sociology and a specialty in Criminology. He enlisted in the Navy when his student deferment from the draft was not extended. Norris had hoped to become a pilot, but when disqualified due to visual acuity and depth perception problems, volunteered for the Navy SEALs.
Norris was on his second SEAL tour in Vietnam when on April 2, 1972 an American EB-66 electronic warfare aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam. Over 30,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were in the immediate area, in the beginning of a pincer-like Easter offensive.
One crewman, Air Force LT Col Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, survived the crash. He knew intimate information about U.S. missiles and targets from a tour at Strategic Air Command, so it was critical that the enemy not capture him. On April 3, two rescuing aviators were shot down; of the two, only LT Mark Clark evaded capture.
The Air Force Force launched a supreme effort to recover Clark and Hambleton, which became the most intense and costliest rescue of the Vietnam War. In five days, 14 people were killed, eight aircraft lost, two rescuers captured, and two more stranded behind enemy lines. The 7th Air Force was communicating with Clark and Hambleton, assisting them to escape and evade, but after great losses, realized that a rescue by air was not achievable.
On April 8, Marine Colonel Albert Gray, (who later went on to become the Commandant of the Marine Corps), suggested a covert, land-based rescue effort, saying, “I have a boat load of guys who would love to do something like that.”
On April 10, Thomas Norris led five ARVN (Vietnamese SEALs) on a two km overland insertion into dense enemy territory. He located LT Mark Clark at daybreak on April 11th, then floated him downriver in the strong current. Later, the North Vietnamese conducted a devastating rocket attack on their small outpost, killing two of Norris’ original team.
On April 12, LT Norris and his three remaining Vietnamese SEALs went 4 km into enemy territory in an unsuccessful attempt to find Hambleton by dawn. Two of the three ARVN were so daunted by the massive enemy forces that they did not accompany Norris on further missions.
On April 13th, after Lt. Norris was given Hambleton’s location by a Forward Air Controller, he attempted another night rescue with his Vietnamese SEAL comrade, Nguyen Van Kiet. They dressed as fishermen, paddled a sampan upriver, discovered the injured pilot at daybreak, and hid him in the boat under banana leaves.
On their return down river to the base, they were pursued and fired upon by an NVA patrol on the bank, and called in air support. They were fired upon again by heavy machine guns as they neared the shore, and got Hambleton to their bunker. Norris administered first aid to the wounded pilot, (who had been on escape and evasion for 11 days), and prepared him for evacuation.
Six months later, LT Norris was leading an intelligence and capture mission of one other U.S. Navy SEAL and three South Vietnamese when he was shot in the face and believed killed. SEAL Petty Officer Michael Thornton ran into a hail of bullets, dragged Norris away, and swam him seaward for two hours, saving his life. It was the first time in over 100 years that one Medal of Honor recipient saved the life of another. Both are still alive and well.
In His Own Words
“All in all, I’ve had a pretty interesting life,” Norris said a few years ago. “I’ve always gone after the challenge.”
American Valor, Stories of Valor, Thomas Norris / PBS:
Pritzker Military Library – Medal of Honor Series:
“Not Without My Lieutenant” – Tom Norris and Mike Thornton:
Vietnam War Medal of Honor Recipients:
Photos of Navy SEALs in Vietnam:
Films: “BAT-21” (The Air Force Code Name for the original reconnaissance mission)