“It was never easy moving from one part of Vietnam to another,” Tom Norris said of his time in-country. “You typically go down to the airstrip and see what’s flying and where it might be going. If you’re lucky, you find a helo or a fixed-wing going somewhere closer to where you want to go than where you are now. Usually, it’s a UH-1 Huey helo. There’s no schedule and no reservation number to call; it’s all done by personal contact. You find the crew chief and see if he’s got room for you, and if he says you’ve got a spot, you’ve got a spot. That day I was in the lower Mekong Delta checking on two of my Sea Commando teams on my way back to Da Nang and our home base, Camp Fay. But I had to make a stop at our headquarters in Saigon, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group— MACVSOG or, often, just SOG. This day I was lucky. Coming out of Bien Thuy, I found an Army Huey that was going straight to Tan Son Nhut Airbase in Saigon. The flight north was bouncy and erratic. We thrashed our way across the Rung Sat Special Zone, trying to stay under the layer of thunderstorms moving in from the South China Sea and above the ground fire. After we set down, I thanked the crew chief, collected my pack and rifle, and set off for the main gate of the big airbase. No one knew when I would be getting in, so there was no car waiting for me. It was late morning on Sunday, April 9, 1972.
“Just outside the gate, I flagged down an open motorized tuktuk, one of the smoke-belching three-wheelers that crowd the streets of Saigon. Even on Sunday morning it was crowded as we fought our way through traffic to the MACVSOG compound. I was soaked—from sweat and the 100 percent humidity, and from the occasional rain shower that swept the Saigon area from time to time. At the gate to the compound, I said hello to the Vietnam see sentry who waved me through. Once inside, I headed down the hall to the SOG Maritime Branch.
“ ‘Can I help you?’ said an officer seated behind a battered desk.
“ ‘I hope so, sir. I’m Tom Norris and I’m looking for Lieutenant Commander Dorman.’
“ ‘Tom! I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow. Come in— come in.’ He reached his hand across the desk. ‘I’m Craig Dorman. Glad to finally meet you. Good flight?’
“ ‘A little bumpy, but not bad. Welcome to Vietnam, sir.’
“’Thanks, I think, and it’s just Craig. It’s good to finally get here.’ ”
Tom took Dorman’s hand, then dumped his pack and AK-47 in the corner of the small office and took a seat. Both men were dressed in rumpled jungle greens, a light, rip-stop cotton poplin uniform that was identical to the operational jungle cammies, but of a solid, olive drab color. Both had their last name stitched on the slanted right pocket of their blouses, “U.S. Navy” on the left . Dorman wore muted gold oak leaves on his collar points; Norris wore no rank.
Lieutenant Commander Craig Dorman had been in Vietnam for less than a week, and unlike the veteran Tom Norris, it was his first tour in- country. He had just taken over as the head of the Maritime Section of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group. MACVSOG was a secret organization of U.S.and Vietnamese special operators with a generous sprinkling of CIA personnel. Established in January 1964, its shadowy mission was to conduct strategic reconnaissance, intelligence collection, and unconventional warfare operations in South and North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was one of the few organizations associated with the U.S. military that was authorized to conduct cross-border operations.
Tom Norris was six months into his second tour in Vietnam. In this role, he was the primary American advisor to the Vietnam see Sea Commandos. His previous Vietnam rotation was as an assistant officer in charge, or OIC, of a SEAL platoon from SEAL Team Two. Now he was on a yearlong tour, having relieved a lieutenant from SEAL Team One named Sandy Prouty, who would later play an important part in Tom’s post- Navy career.
During Tom’s first combat tour as assistant platoon OIC, then Lieutenant Mike Jukoski was the OIC. “Tom and I were both new to SEAL Team Two,” said Mike Jukoski. “I had a tour in the fl set and had been with Underwater Demolition Team 21 for several years before coming to Team Two. Tom was right out of basic SEAL training and, like me, he had been through SEAL Team Two cadre training. Tom had also been through Army Ranger School. We had a good ninety- day workup before we went over, and we had a good deployment. Th e platoon left for Vietnam in early 1970 and rotated back in August of that year. Since he and I were both on our first combat deployment, we were assigned some terrific enlisted SEAL operators.”
“I can’t say enough about our enlisted guys,” echoed Tom.
“Our platoon chief was Chief Cressini, one of my BUD/S instructors, and we had experienced operators like Jim Glasscock and Al Ashton with us. They were invaluable.”
“Early on, Tommy developed a reputation for being aggressive in the fi eld,” Jukoski said. “But he always listened to his senior enlisted SEALs, and they liked him because he did listen to them. He was never known for going against their recommendations, and that was important. But he was aggressive. All this earned him the nickname of ‘Nasty.’ And as we all know, his personality is just the opposite of that.”
Those of us who knew Tom Norris in SEAL training and in the teams remember him then as a quiet, serious, and unassuming officer. He liked to hang out with the guys, but if he drank at all, it was a single beer. And he never, but never, used foul language. As one SEAL put it, “I can just imagine Tom Norris, in a firefight, saying, ‘Oh, heck. Here come those gosh-darn Viet Cong again.’ ”
During his first combat rotation with SEAL Team Two, Tom Norris established himself as a solid operator and combat leader. He also had his share of close calls on that first combat rotation. On one occasion, a Viet Cong fighter popped out of a spider hole in front of him and engaged him with an automatic weapon. Tom took several rounds through his clothes but amazingly all the bullets missed him. When he tried to return fi re, his weapon jammed. The SEAL behind him, armed with a Stoner rifle, stepped to one side and laid down a base of fire, allowing the rest of his team to come on-line and overrun the enemy position. For most of us, an event like this would have at least been the source of more than a few sleepless nights. For Tom Norris, it was just another close call. Another time, on a mission to capture an enemy fighter, Tom entered a hut and was jumped by an enemy fighter armed with a knife who was trying to escape through the doorway. Th e enemy fighter managed to slice him with his knife before Tom could kick him away and take him down with a barrel strike. It was a flesh wound that required only a few stitches, but definitely a combat wound. I knew that Tom had only one “official” Purple Heart, and it was not from this stab wound. I asked him about the incident.
“Heck,” he said, “I didn’t count that as a real combat wound. And I didn’t really want anyone to know that I’d let a bad guy get in close enough to cut me with a knife.”
This was vintage Tom Norris. He cared little for medals or recognition. He was all about the mission and getting the job done. And as I learned in talking to more than one Navy SEAL who was with him in combat, he simply did not seem to notice or react to personal danger.
Dorman’s posting to the maritime billet at SOG was like receiving a set of orders to serve as a deck officer on the Titanic. The war in Vietnam was winding down, and winding down fast. Unit aft er unit of the U.S. military was being rotated out of the country. Th e last SEAL platoon had left Vietnam in December 1971. Those American SEALs remaining in Vietnam in the spring of 1972 served as advisors and were primarily engaged in the training of Vietnamese SEALs. Most of those, about a dozen of them, were assigned to the conventional Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). Only Norris and Dorman were assigned to MACVSOG. Tom’s duties involved the training and operational tasking of the Vietnamese Sea Commandos, or Biet Hai. Craig Dorman’s assignment as the MACVSOG maritime representative was primarily administrative and dealt with the turnover of maritime assets to the Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese SEALs under MACV were recruited and trained by U.S. Navy SEALs in a program that went by the name of Lien Doi Nguoi Nhai or LDNN. The literal translation: “soldiers who fight under the sea.” The mission of the LDNNs was similar to that of the American SEALs, and they were assigned missions in South Vietnam proper. Th e Sea Commandos were assigned to MACVSOG, and were trained by American SEALs and Reconnaissance Marines. Th ey operated in South Vietnam as well as in Laos, Cambodia, and, on occasion, North Vietnam. Th e training was similar, but the Sea Commandos could operate cross-border and often did.
MACVSOG itself was downsizing into a smaller, purely advisory unit to be known as the Strategic Technical Direct Assistance Team (STDAT) 158. Much of this wind- down to America’s Vietnam adventure was opaque to men like Tom Norris and Craig Dorman. They were focused on day-to-day operations and training their Vietnamese counter parts and, when possible, running operations against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units that were coming south in increasing numbers. Tom traveled the length of Vietnam, but his home base was the MACVSOG training unit at Da Nang known as Camp Fay. On the SOG organizational chart, those at Camp Fay were listed as the Maritime Studies Group (SOG) 37, but their unclassified title was the Naval Advisory Detachment, Da Nang. Norris was in Saigon at the MACVSOG headquarters to personally brief Craig Dorman on the activities of the Camp Fay detachment. A great deal of the Studies and Observation Group’s advisory activity was taking place in the northern part of South Vietnam, and Tom was responsible for Sea Commando/Biet Hai training and operations there.
“This was the first time I’d laid eyes on Craig,” Tom said of their meeting, “but the SEAL teams back then were a close fraternity. There were less than four hundred of us and seldom more than a hundred and twenty of us in Vietnam at one time. And that included the platoons as well as the advisors. But in the spring of 1972, there were prob ably only a dozen or so of us left . And while I’d never met Craig, I knew he was a smart guy, a lot smarter than most of us. And now he was my boss and the senior naval officers at SOG, or what was left of the MACVSOG organization. We were just about to become the Strategic Technical Direct Assistance Team. Things were changing fast. Th e Americans and American units were disappearing. Every time you turned around, someone was rotating out and no one was coming in to take their place.”
“I was the new guy in town, and I’d heard a lot about Tom Norris,” Dorman said of his only SEAL subordinate. “I was a West Coast team guy, and Tom was East Coast. But he had a fi ne reputation both at SEAL Team Two and during his tour at SOG. Sandy Prouty, his predecessor, spoke highly of him. I couldn’t wait to meet him.”
Both Dorman and Norris were Navy SEALs, but their time in service could not have been more different. Tom Norris was an operational SEAL, and Craig Dorman was an academic. Aft er graduating from Dartmouth, he joined the Navy and graduated with BUD/S Class 32 in 1964. Shortly after he was posted to Underwater Demolition Team 11, he was sent to graduate school at Monterey for his master’s degree in oceanography, then on to MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for his Ph.D. Yet like many career-minded officers of that era, he needed a tour in the combat zone, in Vietnam, to improve his chances for promotion. More than that, it was the war of his generation of SEALs, and he, like most SEALs I knew at the time, wanted to be a part of it. Dorman would go on to serve as the commanding officer of Underwater Demolition Team 11 and, ultimately, return to academia. He served as the chief scientist at the Office of Naval Research and would retire with the rank of rear admiral. Following retirement, he would go on to serve as the director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. But in the spring of 1972, he was the new guy on the MACVSOG staff , trying to get his arms around the complexities of the secret MACVSOG organization and a waning but still vicious war.
The issues relating to East Coast SEALs and West Coast SEALs was still a big thing back then. The training was conducted on each coast to provide men for the Underwater Demolition Teams and SEAL Teams on that coast. Training was equally hard in both places, but different. Unlike today, there was no standardization of operating procedures, equipment, or advanced training. The Team One and Team Two SEALs talked to each other, though, and, being adaptable creatures, learned from each other. They melded well when called upon to work together in the battle space. And there was mutual respect. Yet from their inception of the SEAL teams in 1962 up through the end of the Vietnam War, SEAL Team One in Coronado, California, and SEAL Team Two in Little Creek, Virginia, were two separate and distinct cultures.
“I had two objectives for my meeting with Tom. I needed to know what he was doing, both training- wise and operationally, and what I could do to support him. I had read his after-action reports, so I had some idea of what he was doing in Da Nang as well as down farther south. But I wanted to hear it from him. My direction was to downsize our presence in Vietnam and to expedite our turnover of assets and responsibilities to the Vietnamese. And in addition to getting Tom what he needed, I wanted his ideas on what we might do to help the South Vietnamese resist the recent NVA push into South Vietnam. Neither of us knew much about what was going on up north, but we knew a major battle in Quang Tri Province just south of the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] was in progress.”
It was called the Easter Offensive. In late March 1972, the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA, had just conducted a surprise push across the Demilitarized Zone into South Vietnam and had taken control of the northern portion of Quang Tri Province—the province just to the south of the DMZ. Th e South Vietnamese Army had fallen back to a defensive line along the southern banks of the Cam Lo and Cua Viet Rivers, temporarily halting the NVA advance. For this offensive, the North Vietnamese had committed literally their entire Army with a spearhead of some 30,000 troops backed by large quantities of armor. The Americans did not have the troop strength to counter the off ensive, but they did have the air power to make it very costly for the massed NVA troops. General Creighton Abrams ordered the B-52 strikes that effectively blunted the NVA advance, but the battle for Quang Tri and other northern provinces raged throughout the summer and into the fall. Eventually the NVA would capture the provincial capital of Quang Tri City. Th e city of Hue was threatened, as was Da Nang itself.
“There was not a whole lot I could tell Craig at the time,” Tom recalled.
“The NVA offensive caught us all by surprise, and it was a conventional push with tanks and massed infantry. We were primarily a reconnaissance force and were used to operating in very diverse, squad-sized units. The NVA came across the DMZ with armor and in division-sized strength. We Americans knew this war was winding down for us—we were going home. Those of us who were left were just advisors. We went out into the field with our Vietnamese, but it was now their show. At the time, I was anxious to get back up to Da Nang and Camp Fay, where most of my South Vietnamese Sea Commandos were at the time.”
“Tom and I were the only two SEALs still attached to MACVSOG,” Craig Dorman said. “And Tom was by far the most experienced SEAL officer still operating in Vietnam. He was what we call a pass-down item. I had just relieved a marine major in the SOG maritime billet, and Tom was one of his subordinates. My direction at the time was to get ready to close things down, here in Saigon and at Camp Fay up in Da Nang. Th en just as the SOG organization was downsizing, here comes this push from the north. So I was very interested in our operations up there. In addition to Tom’s work with the Sea Commandos, we had a small fleet of fast patrol boats that were engaged in the interdiction of North Vietnam see coastal smuggling operations and taking our own agents up into North Vietnam. And on top of that, I was a very green SEAL officer. This was my first trip to Vietnam. Tom was the go-to SEAL at MACVSOG, so I was glad to finally meet him.”
The book, “By Honor Bound” is available starting 5/17 on Amazon.