Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients Speak at BHS

Two Congressional Medal of Honor recipients,Captain William Swenson and Thomas Norris, spoke at Belmont High School on Wednesday, September 16th. They shared their experiences with the sophomore class and participated in a Q & A.

The Medal of Honor recipients arrived by helicopter and landed on the softball field near the tennis courts.  The Medal of Honor recipients and their security detail were welcomed by students, school, local, state officials, and the outstanding BHS band.

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Thomas Norris enlisted in the Navy when his student deferment from the draft was not extended. Norris had hoped to become a pilot, but when disqualified due to visual acuity and depth perception problems, volunteered for the Navy SEALs. He served with extraordinary distinction as a Navy SEAL on two tours of duty in Vietnam, rescuing two downed Air Force officers on separate and daring night missions amid overwhelming enemy forces.

Lieutenant Norris was on his second SEAL tour in Vietnam when on April 2, 1972 an American EB-66 electronic warfare aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam. Over 30,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were in the immediate area, in the beginning of a pincer-like Easter offensive.

One crewman, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Gene Hambleton, survived the crash. He knew intimate information about U.S. missiles and targets, so it was critical that the enemy not capture him. On April 3, two rescuing aviators were shot down; of the two, only Lieutenant Mark Clark evaded capture.

The Air Force Force launched a supreme effort to recover Clark and Hambleton, which became the most intense and costliest rescue of the Vietnam War. In five days, 14 people were killed, eight aircraft lost, two rescuers captured, and two more stranded behind enemy lines. The 7th Air Force was communicating with Clark and Hambleton, assisting them to escape and evade, but after great losses, realized that a rescue by air was not achievable.

On April 8, Marine Colonel Albert Gray, (who later went on to become the Commandant of the Marine Corps), suggested a covert, land-based rescue effort, saying, “I have a boat load of guys who would love to do something like that.”

On April 10, Thomas Norris led five ARVN (Vietnamese SEALs) on a two kilometer overland insertion into dense enemy territory. He located Lieutenant Mark Clark at daybreak on April 11th, and then floated him downriver in the strong current. Later, the North Vietnamese conducted a devastating rocket attack on their small outpost, killing two of Norris’ original team.

On April 12, Lieutenant Norris and his three remaining Vietnamese SEALs went 4 kilometers into enemy territory in an unsuccessful attempt to find Hambleton by dawn. Two of the three ARVN were so daunted by the massive enemy forces that they did not accompany Norris on further missions.

On April 13th, after Lieutenant Norris was given Hambleton’s location by a Forward Air Controller, he attempted another night rescue with his Vietnamese SEAL comrade, Nguyen Van Kiet. They dressed as fishermen, paddled a sampan upriver, discovered the injured pilot at daybreak, and hid him in the boat under banana leaves.

On their return down river to the base, they were pursued and fired upon by a North Vietnamese Army patrol on the bank, and called in air support. They were fired upon again by heavy machine guns as they neared the shore, and got Hambleton to their bunker. Norris administered first aid to the wounded pilot, (who had been on escape and evasion for 11 days), and prepared him for evacuation.

Six months later, Lieutenant Norris was leading an intelligence and capture mission of one other U.S. Navy SEAL and three South Vietnamese when he was shot in the face and believed killed. SEAL Petty Officer Michael Thornton ran into a hail of bullets, dragged Norris away, and swam him seaward for two hours, saving his life. It was the first time in over 100 years that one Medal of Honor recipient saved the life of another. Both are still alive and well.

For his service, Lieutenant Norris was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on March 6, 1976, by President Gerald Ford, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a SEAL Advisor with the Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team, Headquarters, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.

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Captain William D. Swenson joined the U.S. Army in 2002 and attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant.  He served one tour in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan. For his final tour in Afghanistan he was assigned to Task Force Phoenix, Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan and served as an Afghan Border Police advisor.

Captain Swenson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in a lengthy battle against the Taliban in the Ganjgal valley near the Pakistan border on Sept. 8, 2009, which claimed the lives of five Americans, 10 Afghan army troops and an interpreter.

At the time, Swenson was an embedded trainer and mentor with the Afghan National Security Forces in Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan. He risked his life to recover bodies and help save fellow troops.

On that morning, more than 60 well-armed, well-positioned enemy fighters ambushed Captain Swenson’s combat team as it moved on foot into the village of Ganjgal for a meeting with village elders. As the enemy unleashed a barrage of rocket-propelled grenade, mortar and machine gun fire, Captain Swenson immediately returned fire and coordinated and directed the response of his Afghan Border Police, while simultaneously calling in suppressive artillery fire and aviation support. After the enemy effectively flanked Coalition Forces, Captain Swenson repeatedly called for smoke to cover the withdrawal of the forward elements. Surrounded on three sides by enemy forces inflicting effective and accurate fire, Captain Swenson coordinated air assets, indirect fire support and medical evacuation helicopter support to allow for the evacuation of the wounded.

Captain Swenson ignored enemy radio transmissions demanding surrender and maneuvered uncovered to render medical aid to a wounded fellow soldier. Captain Swenson stopped administering aid long enough to throw a grenade at approaching enemy forces, before assisting with moving the soldier for air evacuation. With complete disregard for his own safety, Captain Swenson unhesitatingly led a team in an unarmored vehicle into the kill zone, exposing himself to enemy fire on at least two occasions, to recover the wounded and search for four missing comrades. After using aviation support to mark locations of fallen and wounded comrades, it became clear that ground recovery of the fallen was required due to heavy enemy fire on helicopter landing zones.

Captain Swenson’s team returned to the kill zone another time in a Humvee. Captain Swenson voluntarily exited the vehicle, exposing himself to enemy fire, to locate and recover three fallen Marines and one fallen Navy corpsman. His exceptional leadership and stout resistance against the enemy during six hours of continuous fighting rallied his teammates and effectively disrupted the enemy’s assault. Captain William D. Swenson’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Task Force Phoenix, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division and the United States Army.

Excerpted and adapted from:

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