US Navy SEAL, Lt. Tommy Norris received the Medal of Honor for his ground rescue of two downed pilots in heavily controlled enemy territory Quang Tri Province, Vietnam with the assistance of Petty Officer 3rd Class Nguyen Van Kiet of the Republic of Vietnam Navy.
In April 1972, Norris and Kiet went behind enemy lines three times to successfully rescue the pilots. There were more than 30,000 North Vietnamese troops in the area.
On the first attempt, Norris saw Lt. Mark Clark float by him in the river, but was unable to rescue him due to a nearby North Vietnamese patrol. Later, the team located Clark and guided him back to a forward operating base.
The next day, Norris led a three man team back to find Lt. Col. Iceal “Gene” Hambleton. They proceeded 2 ½ miles upriver and encountered a massive North Vietnamese army force. During the night, upon seeing the massive amount of enemy forces, two of the South Vietnamese commandos declined to press the mission further.
On the third attempt, Norris was prepared to go alone, but Kiet volunteered to go with him. They dressed as fishermen/NVA and using a sampan headed up river. After avoiding enemy units, they found Hambleton and hid him under vegetation on the boat. On the return trip they evaded an enemy patrol which had seen them, but came under fire from a bunkered position. Norris called in an airstrike which provided cover for them to make it back to safety.
When interviewed by a reporter stationed in Dong Ha, the reporter said to Norris, “It must have been tough out there. I bet you wouldn’t do that again.” Norris looked at him and replied, “An American was down in enemy territory. Of course, I’d do it again.”
Kiet was the only S. Vietnamese Navy member to be awarded the US Navy Cross for actions in Vietnam. The Navy Cross is the second highest military decoration for valor that is awarded for extraordinary heroism in combat.
The two remain good friends today.
The painting now hangs in the National Navy SEAL Museum.