In the spring of 1972, 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, Lieutenant Thomas 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.