Thomas Norris was a Navy SEAL and a critical component of the largest rescue mission in the Vietnam conflict – “BAT 21.” Norris was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and later moved with his family to Wisconsin, and then Maryland. He attended University of Maryland, with the intent of pursuing a criminology career with the FBI. As a collegiate wrestler, he was the Atlantic Coast Conference champion both in 1965 and in 1966. In 1967, Norris graduated with a B.S. in Sociology with a specialty in Criminology.
He joined the Navy with hopes of becoming a pilot, but when disqualified due to vision problems, he pursued and became a Navy SEAL. In that role, his expertise was called upon when on April 2nd, 1972, an EB-66 EW aircraft was shot down and Lt Col Iceal Hambleton was behind enemy lines. The rescue effort that followed would become the most intense and costly rescue mission of the Vietnam War.
In five days’ time, there were fourteen people killed, eight aircraft lost, two rescuers captured, and two more stranded behind enemy lines. On April 10th, with over 30,000 North Vietnamese soldiers in the immediate area, Norris led a five-man team of Vietnamese Sea Commandos on a two-kilometer insertion overland into dense enemy territory. He located LT Mark Clark, a member of the initial rescue effort, at daybreak and returned him to a safeguarded position. Unfortunately, two members of Norris’ original team were wounded in a deadly rocket attack. Two days later, on April 12th, Norris and his three remaining Sea Commandos proceeded four kilometers deeper into enemy territory in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue Lt Col Hambleton. Two of the three Sea Commandos were so intimidated by the massive enemy forces that they declined any further missions. Finally, on April 13th, after receiving Hambleton’s position, Norris prepared to make another night rescue attempt with Nguyen Van Kiet, the only remaining Sea Commando.
Disguised as fishermen, they paddled a sampan upriver. At daybreak, they located, freed, and hid Hambleton in their boat under bamboo leaves. While returning to base, they were pursued and fired upon by NVA patrols but made it back to safety with the aid of air support. Six months later, Norris was wounded by a gunshot to the head. SEAL Petty Officer Michael Thornton dragged Norris away while still under heavy fire, thereby saving Norris’ life. It was the first time in over 100 years that one Medal of Honor recipient had saved the life of another. Because of his head injury, Norris was medically retired from the Navy. In 1979, Norris applied to the FBI and requested a waiver for his disabilities. FBI director William Webster responded, “If he can pass the same test as anybody else applying for this organization, I will waive his disabilities. He has certainly earned it.” Norris subsequently served as an FBI agent for twenty years and was an original member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team as an assault team leader.