During 2019, Freedoms Foundation and the Friends of the Medal of Honor Grove are paying tribute to the living recipients of the Medal of Honor on the anniversary of the actions for which they earned the nation’s highest award for valor. Today focuses on April 10-13, 1972, and the rescue of two downed American pilots, Lt. Mark Clark and Lt. Col. Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, by Navy SEAL Lt. Thomas R. Norris in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam.
Thomas Norris’ Medal of Honor citation reads:
“Lt. Norris completed an unprecedented ground rescue of two downed pilots deep within heavily controlled enemy territory in Quang Tri Province.
“Lt. Norris, on the night of 10 April, led a five-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 11 April, after a devastating mortar and rocket attack on the small FOB, Lt. Norris led a three-man team on two unsuccessful rescue attempts for the second pilot. On the afternoon of the 12th, a forward air controller located the pilot and notified Lt. Norris.
“Dressed in fishermen disguises and using a sampan, Lt. 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. Lt. 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, Lt. Norris enhanced the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”
The story continues in Peter Collier’s Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty:
“Several months later, Norris was leading a SEAL patrol on a reconnaissance mission when his team was ambushed by a large enemy unit. At the end of a long firefight, Norris ordered his men to head for the water and the boat waiting to pick them up, while he provided cover. When he was shot in the head, another SEAL, Michael Thornton, charged back to save him, killing two North Vietnamese about to dispatch Norris.
“For his action, Thornton would be awarded the Medal of Honor in October 1973. Norris, who was hospitalized for three years, defied doctors’ orders and attended the White House ceremony.
“Norris heard that he too might be recommended for the medal, but he didn’t feel worthy of it. However, in 1975, when the rescue of Clark and Hambleton was finally declassified, Navy investigators talked with those involved and submitted the action for review. On March 6, 1976, with Michael Thornton in attendance, Thomas Norris was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Gerald Ford.”
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