Lt. Thomas R. Norris and the Rescue of Bat 21
Written by: Dwight Jon Zimmerman on May 23, 2012

Lt. Thomas R. Norris and South Vietnamese Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet, the rescuers of Lt. Col. Iceal "Gene" Hambleton.

“An American was down in enemy territory. Of course I’d do it again.”
—Lt. Thomas R. Norris, responding to a reporter’s question

On March 30, 1972, North Vietnam launched an all-out campaign to defeat South Vietnam. Called the Easter Offensive because it began during that holiday, it took the American and South Vietnamese Army by surprise. Electronic warfare specialist Lt. Col. Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, code name Bat 21, led an aerial reconnaissance mission near the Demilitarized Zone to find out what was going on. His plane was shot down, and he was trapped behind enemy lines near the Cam Lo River. Repeated rescue efforts had all ended in failure, with fourteen men killed and nineteen aircraft damaged or destroyed, and all further airborne search and rescue attempts of Hambleton had been suspended. But that didn’t mean Bat 21 had been abandoned. Instead, Marine Lt. Col. Andy Anderson had an unconventional answer: Bright Light. Though Bright Light during its six years of existence had failed in its mission to rescue any American POWs, perhaps it could prevent Hambleton and two other downed American aviators trapped in the area from becoming prisoners. U.S. Navy SEAL Lt. Thomas R. “Tommy” Norris accepted the mission.
Hambleton and the other two aviators, Lt. Mark Clark (no relation to the World War II general) and Lt. Bruce Walker, were told to find hideouts along the banks of the Cam Lo River and await rescue. Norris’s base of operations was an undermanned and exposed bunker on a hill overlooking the river
Clark was the first to be rescued. Despite complications caused by a swiftly flowing Cam Lo River swollen by the spring monsoons that almost caused Clark to drown, Norris and his small team of South Vietnamese Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia (LDNN), or “soldiers who fight under the sea,” similar to Navy SEALs, successfully extricated the aviator and sent him off to the American base at Da Nang.

Clark was evacuated just in time, because shortly after that, the North Vietnamese army (NVA) launched a powerful attack on the bunker. It was repulsed thanks to American air strikes called in by Anderson, who decided to oversee the mission from the bunker. Though the attack failed, many of the troops in the bunker were wounded and evacuated, including Anderson and all but three of Norris’s LDNNs.

That night, Norris led his tiny group upriver in a sampan to rescue Hambleton. Shortly after they crossed the enemy front line, two LDNNs mutinied, claiming they wouldn’t risk their lives to rescue an American. With his limited Vietnamese, Norris managed to convince them that their chances of survival were better if they all stayed together. When they reached the assigned rendezvous site, Hambleton wasn’t there. Weak from his multi-day escape and evasion ordeal, Hambleton, who had lost forty pounds, couldn’t reach the site and was unable to clearly explain his present river bank location. After giving Hambleton instructions to remain where he was until the next night, Norris headed back with his men

Lt. Thomas Norris stands in the background at center as Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton (on stretcher) is taken to a waiting M113 armored personnel carrier to be evacuated.

During the day, various observation and combat air support patrol aircraft were able to clearly identify Hambleton’s location and relay the coordinates to Norris. With Hambleton in such a weakened state, Norris was in a now or never situation to rescue the lieutenant colonel.

That night Norris and Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet, the one LDNN who had not mutinied, dressed as local fishermen and got into their sampan. Dodging patrols and making ample use of fog, they paddled upriver. When they emerged from the fog, they discovered they had overshot their objective and had emerged under the Cam Lo Bridge. Somehow they managed to avoid being seen by the NVA troops crossing it, and they headed back downriver.

Slowly backtracking along the river’s south bank, they eventually found the delirious Hambleton. Checking his watch, Norris realized they’d never reach the bunker before daylight. After radioing Bilk 11, the air observer that had been assisting Hambleton rescue efforts from the beginning, Norris worked out a plan for air support if they encountered trouble. Norris and Kiet then hid Hambleton under a bunch of bamboo and began paddling downriver.

With the help of air support that knocked out entrenched NVA positions that threatened their escape, on April 13, 1972, Norris and Kiet completed the rescue of Hambleton. Unfortunately, Walker was captured by the North Vietnamese before he could be rescued.

For succeeding against odds that had defeated everyone else, Norris was awarded the Medal of Honor. And, in gratitude, Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet was awarded the Navy Cross, the only Vietnamese to receive the decoration.