In October 1972, with U.S. combat involvement in Vietnam almost at an end, Petty Officer Michael Thornton heroically rescued a fellow Navy SEAL
. In doing so he became the first man to win the Medal of Honor for saving another recipient’s life and achieved legendary status within the frogman community.
Thornton enlisted in the Navy after graduating from Spartanburg high school with the dubious record of having been suspended more than any other pupil. After completing BUDs (Basic Underwater Demolition School) he went on to become a SEAL and served two tours in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
During his third tour of duty Thornton was part of a U.S. / Vietnamese five-man SEAL team given an intelligence gathering and prisoner capture mission. After launching from a junk just before dawn, the men paddled their rubber boat to shore before stealthily making their way through the sand dunes. However, they were quickly forced to turn back after learning that they’d been inserted further north than was planned. Whilst returning to the beach they were spotted by a couple of enemy soldiers, who were part of a larger unit in the area.
Over the next forty-five minutes a fierce firefight raged. Significantly outnumbered and with the North Vietnamese lobbing grenades, team leader Lt. Thomas Norris
ordered his men to begin “leapfrogging” their way back to the final dune. Thornton and two of the LDNNs (Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia) made it, but Norris suffered a serious head wound and was left for dead by the remaining Vietnamese SEAL.
Without hesitating Thornton leapt to his feet and sprinted through a hail of automatic weapons fire to his officer’s position, killing two enemy soldiers on route. Though unconscious Norris, who six months earlier had daringly rescued a downed Air Force Colonel, was still alive. Lifting the lieutenant over his shoulder, Thornton ran back though the enemy gunfire and across 250 meters of open beach to reach the sea.
Laden down with Norris’ body and his own equipment, he swam out to the surf zone, finding one of the Vietnamese wounded and struggling against the breaking waves. Despite being injured, Thornton somehow managed to tow both men beyond the range of enemy fire and swam for two hours, until they were finally picked up by one of the junks that had originally inserted them. The team were quickly transferred to the Cruiser ‘Newport News’ and although he was told his officer wouldn’t make it, Thornton demanded that Norris be treated.
For the incredible courage and resilience he displayed in saving the life of his commanding officer, Michael Thornton was awarded the Medal of Honour by President Nixon on 15th October 1973.
After Vietnam Thornton spent two years in Britain with the SBS (Special Boat Service) before returning to the U.S. to be commissioned as an officer. He went on to coordinate a rapid response deployment during Desert Storm and finally retired from the Navy in May 1992.
Further InformationMichael Thornton & Thomas Norris Interview (2006)Mike Thornton
- Official Website