Two Navy Seals, Two MOH Recipients, And Immeasurable Valor

Navy SEAL Lt Thomas Norris and Republic of Vietnam Navy Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet rescued two men who had to eject several miles inside NVA lines. Their harrowing rescue is the stuff of movies. But after that action, when Lt Thomas Norris was severely wounded, another Navy SEAL, Michael Thornton, received the Medal of Honor for his rescue of Thomas Norris. Two MOH recipients in the midst of war was immeasurable valor.

April 10 -13, 1972 Quang Tri Province, Vietnam

Lt Thomas Norris was sent to rescue US military servicemen who ended up deep behind enemy lines. LTC ICeal Hambleton was a ballistic missile expert, and the only one of a three man crew able to eject from an Air Force EB-66 electronic surveillance plane that was shot down. If he would be captured, the enemy would have used every means necessary to extract information. His rescue was critical.

Two other downed American pilots were also deep behind enemy lines. The US military already lost 5 aircraft, 11 airmen, and had 9 more aicraft badly damaged in the attempted rescues. They weren’t inclined to try it again, since it was the NVA Easter offensive.

Lt Thomas Norris was tapped to mount a ground rescue mission. Along with Officer Nguyen Van Kiet, they were able to extract Lt Mark Clark, and learned that Lt Bruce Walker was killed. They twice failed to rescue Hambleton. Lt Norris came up with a dangerous and ingenious plan:

Dressed up as Vietnamese fishermen they paddled down the river behind the NVA forces. They found Hambleton at dawn on April 13. They covered him with bamboo and other vegetation. The three men slowly made their way back to the FOB while dodging an NVA patrol. 

As they approached the FOB, they came under heavy machinegun fire. Lt. Norris called in an airstrike. It provided suppressive fire and a smokescreen, allowing the three men to reach the FOB.

Excerpt from SOFREP, Steve Balestrieri
Hambleton on a stretcher after his rescue. DOD photo

Norris’ citation reads similar to the above excerpt, and finishes with:

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.

Medal of Honor citation

In another action, Lt Thomas Norris was shot in the eye, which also blew part of his skull off, exposing his brain. It was a rescue by Michael Thornton, also a Navy SEAL that earned him the Medal of Honor as well:

Upon learning that the Senior Advisor had been hit by enemy fire and was believed to be dead, PO Thornton returned through a hail of fire to the lieutenant’s last position; quickly disposed of two enemy soldiers about to overrun the position, and succeeded in removing the seriously wounded and unconscious Senior Naval Advisor to the water’s edge. He then inflated the lieutenant’s lifejacket and towed him seaward for approximately two hours until picked up by support craft.

By his extraordinary courage and perseverance, PO Thornton was directly responsible for saving the life of his superior officer and enabling the safe extraction of all patrol members, thereby upholding the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”

Norris was not dead, and survived the ordeal. After leaving the Navy he worked for the FBI, retiring after 20 years. Thornton moved up in ranks to Lt, and retired in 1992.

You have a determination not to give up. And my injury — when you see the death and destruction to other people that you see in war — I mean, what I have is nothing. So I lost an eye and part of my head and brain and had some other bodily injuries. I have another eye. You just go on.

Thomas Norris


Featured photo: YouTube Screenshot

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