Thomas Richards
Retired Rear Adm. Thomas Richards is presented the Silver Star by Rear Adm. Keith Davids, commander, Naval Special Warfare Command. Navy Photo

A half-century ago, a wounded and exhausted Lt. j.g. Thomas Richards made repeated trips through enemy gunfire in Vietnam to rescue three injured SEAL Team One Zulu Platoon teammates.

Nicknamed “The Hulk” for his size and strength, Richards demonstrated uncommon valor by hauling the wounded men across a dike and then lifting each into a helicopter for evacuation. Without his courageous runs into the “kill zone,” the other men on patrol would not have survived that day in 1971.

At a ceremony in Virginia on Wednesday, Richards, now a retired rear admiral, was finally awarded the Silver Star for his courage that day in the rice paddies.

“Today we were fortunate to attend a very long overdue ceremony to recognize one of Naval Special Warfare’s truest warriors, tribal elders and fantastic teammates,” said Naval Special Warfare Force Master Chief Walter S. Dittmar. “His humility was absolutely evident in the fact that he still recognizes and defers to all the brothers who were around him for why he is alive today.”

Saving his teammates in Vietnam was just the beginning of Richards’ long and colorful career. Over the next 30 years, Richards led special operations missions in the Arabian Gulf during Operation Praying Mantis and Operation Prime Chance.

He would also serve in numerous staff and command positions, including as executive officer of Underwater Demolition Team 12 and as commanding officer of Special Boat Unit 13,  SEAL Team One, and the Naval Special Warfare Center. His final post would be as commander of Naval Special Warfare Command from 1996-1999, after which he retired from active duty.

“Thinking back on that day, I never gave any thought to my own personal exposure to enemy fire,” Richards said. “I wanted to get my friends out of danger and to safety.”
“This Silver Star reminds our country that we have people risking their lives for the democracy we enjoy daily,” he added.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.