Nguyễn Văn Kiệt was a Petty Officer Third Class in the Republic of Vietnam Navy, one of only two South Vietnamese and the only South Vietnamese Navy member, to be awarded the Navy Cross for actions during the Vietnam War. (The other recipient was ARVN PFC Trần Văn Bảy.)
In April 1972, United States Navy SEAL Lt. Thomas Norris was one of the few remaining SEALs in Vietnam. When Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton was shot down behind enemy lines, aerial combat search and rescue operations failed, leading to the loss of five additional aircraft and the death of 11 or more airmen, two captured, and three more down and needing rescue. Norris was tasked with mounting a ground operation to recover Lt. Col. Hambleton, 1st Lt. Mark Clark (son of World war II General Mark W. Clark), and 1st Lt. Bruce Walker from behind enemy lines. Kiệt was one of five Vietnamese commandos to accompany Norris, and when the others refused to pursue the mission further, volunteered to assist Norris. They successfully brought out two of the three downed airmen from more than 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) behind enemy lines.
Kiệt was a member of the Vietnamese frogmen Naval Advisory Detachment, Sea Commando team, from Đà Nẵng. He was assigned to assist Norris in bringing three downed U.S. air men from more than 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) behind enemy lines. OV-10 pilot Clark was closest to the team’s position and would be rescued first. Clark was relayed instructions to get in the water and float downstream where Norris and his team would intercept him. Anderson ordered Norris to take his team no more than 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) forward and wait for the survivors to come to them, but Norris defied the order, turned off his radio and avoiding numerous enemy patrols, went twice that distance. Anderson, Norris, and Kiệt, along with four other Vietnamese commandos set up an overwatch position near the Miêu Giang River, which ran near the positions of both downed airmen.:244
Clark was seriously weakened by five days hiding from the enemy with little to eat. On the night of 9 April, Norris, Kiệt and the commandos retrieved him from the river and got him to friendly territory. The next night they set out to find Hambleton. During their search that night two of the commandos refused to press the mission further, saying they "refused to follow an American just to rescue an American." As dawn approached, Norris was going to proceed alone when Kiệt volunteered to stay with him. They took an abandoned sampan and cautiously searched the river shore for two more hours without success. They reluctantly returned to their forward operating base to rest and hope they would be more successful the next night. Forward air controller Harold Icke on Bilk 11 fixed Hambleton's position during the day so Norris and Kiệt could find him that night.
On the night of 12 April, Norris and Kiệt found a deserted village and clothing which they used to disguise themselves as fishermen. They took advantage of the abandoned sampan to row quietly up the river. Even in the pitch dark and dense fog, they could see large numbers of North Vietnamese soldiers and tanks on the shoreline. Traveling upriver in the sampan, they broke out of the heavy fog and found themselves under the Cam Lộ bridge. They had passed Hambleton's position more than 30 minutes ago. Turning around, they finally found Hambleton sitting in a clump of bushes, alive but partly delirious. Sunrise was coming, and although Norris thought it best to wait until dark to return downriver, he needed to be evacuated immediately. Despite the risk, they hid Hambleton in the bottom of the sampan, covered him with bamboo, and started downriver.
Their sampan was soon spotted by North Vietnamese troops, some of whom fired at them, but Norris and Kiệt could not afford to return fire. They traveled down river and Norris called in air support to eliminate the North Vietnamese shooting at them from the northern bank. They rescued Clark and Hambleton, but Walker was discovered and killed by the NVA before they could return to rescue him. A book written about Kiệt's heroism by William Charles Anderson was later adapted into a 1988 movie, Bat*21. In 1999, after the release of considerable classified information, a second book, The Rescue of Bat 21, was published by Darrel D. Whitcomb. Kiệt emigrated to the United States, and, as of 2008, resided in Washington State.
Thomas Norris readily supported nomination of Kiệt for the Navy Cross, the highest award the U.S. Navy can give to a foreign national.
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to:
- NGUYEN VAN KIET, PETTY OFFICER THIRD CLASS, NAVY OF THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM