Michael Edwin Thornton was born in Greenville, South Carolina and raised on the family farm near Spartanburg. Thornton joined the Navy upon graduating from high school in 1967 and completed the rigorous training to join the SEALs, the Navy’s elite sea-air-land special operations force. As overall American conventional forces were gradually withdrawn from Vietnam in the early 1970s, the “unconventional warfare” role of Navy SEALs grew. In the spring of 1972, Petty Officer Thornton was assigned to a mission under the command of Lt. Thomas Norris.
Thornton and Norris accompanied a three-man South Vietnamese Navy team on an intelligence gathering mission in enemy-held territory. Launched from a Vietnamese Navy junk in a rubber boat, the patrol reached land and found themselves farther behind enemy lines than they had planned. Continuing on foot toward their objective, they came under heavy fire from a far larger force and were in danger of being surrounded. While inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, they headed for the shore, in hopes of escaping by sea.
On learning that Lieutenant Norris had been hit by enemy fire and was believed to be dead, Thornton returned through a hail of fire to the lieutenant’s last position and found him severely wounded and unconscious but alive. Quickly disposing of two enemy soldiers who approached at that moment, Thornton slung Norris over his shoulder and dashed for life over 400 yards of open beach, returning enemy fire as he ran. He carried Norris and another wounded comrade out to sea, beyond the range of enemy fire. The company floated for approximately two hours before being retrieved by the South Vietnamese Navy.
Close to a year after his heroics in Vietnam, on October 15, 1973, Michael Thornton received the Medal of Honor at the White House from President Richard Nixon. Lieutenant Norris, still a patient at nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital, had been forbidden by his doctors to go to the ceremony, but Thornton spirited him out the back door of the facility and took him along. Almost three years later, Norris himself, received the medal with Thornton looking on. Thornton is the first person in more than a century to receive that honor for saving the life of another Medal of Honor recipient. Now retired after a distinguished Navy career that continued through Operation Desert Storm, he resides near Houston, Texas.