Michael Thornton was a Navy SEAL and was awarded the U.S. military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, for his actions during the war in Vietnam. He was decorated for saving the life of his senior officer, Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris, who also a recipient of the Medal of Honor in another combat action in Vietnam.

Thornton was born in Greenville, SC and graduated from high school in 1967 and immediately joined the U.S. Navy. He was trained as a gunner’s mate and served on a destroyer until he volunteered for Naval Special Warfare. Thornton graduated from Class 49 Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training in Coronado, CA in November 1968 and was assigned to SEAL Team One and served in several tours in Vietnam between 1969 and 1972.

He was a member of MACVSOG (Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group), the Special Operations Forces joint command in Vietnam. During the final year of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam during 1972, only a handful of Navy SEALs remained in Vietnam. But the combat didn’t lessen for those who were there. And Thornton, now a Petty Officer would see some horrific combat where he’d be awarded the nation’s highest honor.

Quang Tri Mission:

Thornton and Lt. Thomas Norris would accompany three South Vietnamese troops on a mission on October 31, 1972, to gather intelligence and capture enemy personnel. The three Vietnamese were members of their Special Forces and they had worked extensively with the two SEALs in the past.

They boarded Vietnamese junks and then after dark took rubber boats ashore near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). The five men slipped around several North Vietnamese encampments and began their reconnoiter.

Realizing too late they had actually landed in North Vietnam, they scouted several bunkers and large amounts of NVA troops. Moving back toward the shore, they scouted two NVA troops which they would attempt to capture.

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When one of the NVA troops broke towards the jungle, Thornton chased him to prevent him from alerting the others. That is when all hell broke loose. All of a sudden, 50 NVA troops were turning the tables on Thornton and firing at him. He moved from position to position trying to link back up with his small team as he was taking fire.

Thornton was constantly moving about, giving the NVA troops the impression there were many more Americans on the ground than they thought. He called for Naval gunfire from two destroyers nearby but they had been driven off by shore fire from several North Vietnamese artillery batteries.

The tiny band of five men held off a force of about 150 NVA for the next four hours. One of the South Vietnamese junks had a mortar on board and Thornton called for them to come in and lend some indirect fire support but the destroyers wouldn’t allow them to get close enough.

Near dawn, Norris had the men withdraw towards the beach, but bounding while he covered them from the rear. He called in a fire for effect mission from the cruiser USS Newport News (CA-148) to cover their withdrawal. As he was attempting to fire a LAW rocket to suppress the enemy. He was shot thru the head. The South Vietnamese assumed he was dead.

When they told Thornton, he raced to Norris’ position to recover his body. To his shock, Norris was alive but “the whole side of his head was completely gone.”  He took down several NVA who tried to overrun their position. He then hoisted Norris over his shoulders despite having suffered a wound in his back from grenade shrapnel, he ran to the beach.

Just then the first shells from Newport News hit the beach. The concussion threw both Thornton and Norris 20 feet into the air. He then dragged the barely alive Lieutenant into the surf and began swimming out to sea. One of the South Vietnamese was shot thru his hip and into his butt and couldn’t swim. Thornton pushed, pulled both he and Norris out to sea as bullets rained around them. The Newport News left believing the team was dead.

One of the other South Vietnamese reached a junk and reported the rest of the team had been killed. Despite this, Thornton bandaged Norris’ head as best he could and then fired his AK-47 to draw the attention of the junks. They were finally picked up and transported to the Newport News. Thornton carried his SEAL Lt to the operating room. The doctor there told him that there was no way that Norris would survive.

But he did and Norris was the guest of President Gerald Ford on March 6, 1976, at the White House as he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his rescue of Air Force LTC Iceal Hambleton in the famous “BAT 21” story.

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Thornton would receive the Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon at the White House on October 15, 1973, nearly one year from the action that took place. In doing so, he became the first man ever to receive the Medal of Honor for rescuing another man who was a fellow MOH awardee.  Thornton also was awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star with “V” device with two oak leaf clusters, and the Purple Heart. He later served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. 

After the war in Vietnam, Thornton would continue to serve in the SEALs and from 1974 -1977, Thornton served as a BUD/S instructor at NAB Coronado. In 1978 he was selected to serve two years with the British Royal Marines’ Special Boat Squadron (SBS) in an exchange program. In 1980, the Navy was putting together SEAL Team Six, which was the Navy’s first Counter-Terrorism Force. Thornton was personally chosen by the first Commander, Richard Marcinko to be a founding member of the team.

Thornton later became a commissioned officer in June 1982 and retired as a Lieutenant in 1992.

Medal of Honor citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while participating in a daring operation against enemy forces. PO Thornton, as Assistant U.S. Navy Advisor, along with a U.S. Navy lieutenant serving as Senior Advisor, accompanied a 3-man Vietnamese Navy SEAL patrol on an intelligence gathering and prisoner capture operation against an enemy-occupied naval river base.

Launched from a Vietnamese Navy junk in a rubber boat, the patrol reached land and was continuing on foot toward its objective when it suddenly came under heavy fire from a numerically superior force. The patrol called in naval gunfire support and then engaged the enemy in a fierce firefight, accounting for many enemy casualties before moving back to the waterline to prevent encirclement.

Upon learning that the Senior Advisor had been hit by enemy fire and was believed to be dead, PO Thornton returned through a hail of fire to the lieutenant’s last position; quickly disposed of 2 enemy soldiers about to overrun the position, and succeeded in removing the seriously wounded and unconscious Senior Naval Advisor to the water’s edge. He then inflated the lieutenant’s lifejacket and towed him seaward for approximately 2 hours until picked up by support craft.

By his extraordinary courage and perseverance, PO Thornton was directly responsible for saving the life of his superior officer and enabling the safe extraction of all patrol members, thereby upholding the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service

Photos: Michael Thornton (right) and LT Tom Norris, US Navy