Thomas R. Norris was born in Jacksonville, Florida. His family moved to Wisconsin and later to the Washington, D.C. area, where Norris attended the University of Maryland, intent on pursuing a career in criminology with the FBI. Graduating in 1967, Norris enlisted in the Navy when his student deferment from the draft was not extended. He volunteered for the SEALs -- the Navy's elite special forces unit -- and after completing the brutally rigorous training program served multiple tours of duty in Vietnam.
In the spring of 1973, an American electronic surveillance plane was shot down over North Vietnam. One crewman survived the crash and narrowly escaped capture. The Air Force launched an unprecedented rescue effort. In five days, 14 people were killed, eight aircraft were lost, two rescuers were captured and two more were stranded behind enemy lines.
On April 10, 1972, Norris led a five-man patrol deep into enemy territory. Separating temporarily from his patrol, he traveled alone through the jungle and located one of the downed pilots just before dawn. He led his crew safely back to their forward operating base. Later that day, a North Vietnamese rocket attack on the small base inflicted devastating casualties and compelled the medical evacuation of the one other American officer, the remaining Vietnamese officers and all but a remnant of the Vietnamese supporting force. After an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the first missing flier, two of Norris's three remaining Vietnamese commandos proved unwilling to accompany Norris on further missions.
On the afternoon of the 12th, a forward air controller located the first pilot and notified Lt. Norris. Dressed as fishermen, Lt. Norris and a Vietnamese comrade, Nguyen Van Kiet, paddled a sampan up the river and found the injured pilot at dawn. Concealing him in the bottom of their vessel, Norris and Kiet headed down river to their base, dodging one North Vietnamese patrol and surviving heavy machine gun fire from a bunker along the river. This extraordinary rescue has been recounted in numerous books and a feature film, BAT-21, the Air Force code name for the original reconnaissance mission.
The following October he received a near-fatal head wound in action and was rescued by his fellow Navy SEAL, Michael Thornton. At first, Norris's doctors gave him little chance of recovery, but with constant encouragement from his family and from Michael Thornton, Norris fought on. In time, Norris and Thornton enjoyed the unique satisfaction of witnessing each other's Medal of Honor ceremonies at the White House. Thomas Norris ultimately realized his youthful ambition of joining the FBI. After many years of distinguished service in FBI hostage rescue operations, he now enjoys a well-earned retirement in Idaho
Michael Edwin Thornton was born in Greenville, South Carolina and raised on the family farm near Spartanburg. Thornton joined the Navy upon graduating from high school in 1967 and completed the rigorous training to join the SEALs, the Navy's elite sea-air-land special operations force. As overall American conventional forces were gradually withdrawn from Vietnam in the early 1970s, the "unconventional warfare" role of Navy SEALs grew. In the spring of 1972, Petty Officer Thornton was assigned to a mission under the command of Lt. Thomas Norris.
Thornton and Norris accompanied a three-man South Vietnamese Navy team on an intelligence gathering mission in enemy-held territory. Launched from a Vietnamese Navy junk in a rubber boat, the patrol reached land and found themselves far behind enemy lines than they had planned. Continuing on foot toward their objective, they came under heavy fire from a far larger force and were in danger of being surrounded. While inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, they headed for the shore, in hopes of escaping by sea.
On learning that Lt. Norris had been hit by enemy fire and was believed to be dead, Thornton returned through a hail of fire to the lieutenant's last position and found him severely wounded and unconscious but alive. Quickly disposing of two enemy soldiers who approached at that moment, Thornton slung Norris over his shoulder and dashed for life over 400 yards of open beach, returning enemy fire as he ran. He carried Norris and another wounded comrade out to sea, beyond the range of enemy fire. The company floated for approximately two hours before being retrieved by the South Vietnamese Navy.
Michael Thornton was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on October 15, 1973. He is the first person in more than a century to receive that honor for saving the life of another Medal of Honor recipient. Now retired after a distinguished Navy career that continued through Operation Desert Storm, he resides near Houston, Texas.
DVD 2006-11-9:Medal of Honor with Ed Tracy
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