Vietnam POW speaks to 15th Wing senior leaders

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Avery Larkin
  • 15th Wing Public Affairs

The 15th Wing opened Readiness Day, where senior leaders discussed maintaining optimal mission readiness, Aug. 24 here, at Hollister Auditorium, with a speech on individual readiness and resiliency from a former prisoner of war.

Retired Air Force Col. Thomas Norris, then a captain, was shot down Aug. 12, 1967, after dropping bombs on a bridge near the center of Hanoi, Vietnam.

Norris was then captured and transported to a prison camp in Hanoi, where he faced physical and mental cruelty from North Vietnamese soldiers, but found solidarity with other POWs.

Organizing themselves into a military structure, the POWs developed a way to remind themselves of the camaraderie they had in their units before they were captured.

“The military structure helped us take care of each other by giving us something that was familiar,” Norris said. “We used ‘Unity over self’ as our guideline to get through everything as a team. It helped us stay together and survive.”

During his time in captivity, Norris encountered leaders who inspired him and pushed him to endure his circumstances with more determination, like Maj. George “Bud” Day and Lt. Col. James Robinson Risner.

“Leadership comes in different forms, but you know it when you see it,” Norris said. “The leaders in the camps kept us unified and made us stronger.”

After more than five years as a POW, Norris returned to the U.S., requalified for flight, and served another 14 years in the Air Force. Looking back on his experience, Norris said his individual resiliency made it possible to survive being a POW and integrate back into his life in the military.

“When facing any obstacle, no matter how big, you can make it through,” he said. “Take care of your body, spirit and mind. If you keep that circle in balance, you can do it.”

To end his speech, Norris discussed how individual readiness relates to the mission.

“You must have individual resiliency to get the job done,” he said. “It was absolutely vital to my survival and it is vital to accomplishing any mission, no matter who you are.”