This was such an honor. I got to sit down with a true hero. Mike Thornton is by all accounts a true American hero.
In April of 1972, near the end of the Vietnam War, SEAL Lieutenant Tom Norris performed an unprecedented ground rescue of two American airmen who were shot down behind enemy lines in North Vietnam, a feat for which he would be awarded the Medal of Honor. Just six months later, Norris was sent on a dangerous special reconnaissance mission that would take his team deep into enemy territory. In the running gun battle that ensued, Lieutenant Norris was severely wounded; a bullet entered his left eye and exited the left side of his head. SEAL Petty Officer Mike Thornton, under heavy fire, fought his way back onto a North Vietnamese beach to rescue his officer―an act of heroism that earned him the Medal of Honor as well.
This is the true story of two living American legends who entered military service and the Navy SEAL teams for vastly different reasons―and were thrown together for a single combat mission that would define their lives.
Thornton served aboard destroyers as a gunner’s mate apprentice until November 1968, when he attended United States Navy SEAL selection and training at Coronado, California. He was among only 18 students who graduated from BUD/S class 49 in March 1969, which started with 129 members. He received direct assignment to SEAL Team ONE, a separate organization from the Underwater Demolition Teams that new personnel were normally assigned. Following SEAL Basic Indoctrination (SBI) training and platoon training, Thornton deployed to South Vietnam with Charlie Platoon from December 1969 to June 1970. He served numerous combat tours in Southeast Asia which ran from 1969 to December 1972.
Thornton conducted intelligence gathering operations across Vietnam. By the last quarter of 1972, U.S. involvement in the region had waned and Thornton, by then a petty officer, was one of only a dozen SEALs remaining in Vietnam.
Medal of Honor action
Thornton at the Army–Navy football game on December 2, 2006
On October 31 of that year, Thornton participated in a mission to capture prisoners and gather intelligence from the Cửa Việt Base near the coast of Quảng Trị Province, just south of the Demilitarized Zone. In addition to Thornton, the mission team consisted of SEAL Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris, and three experienced Vietnamese men Thornton had worked with before, members of the LDNN, the South Vietnamese Special Forces. The group was transported by junk until sunset, then paddled a rubber boat to within a mile of shore and swam the remaining distance. Moving inland past numerous North Vietnamese encampments, the group reconnoitered through the night.
The team soon realized that they had landed too far north and were actually in North Vietnam. They found large numbers of bunker complexes and heavy concentrations of North Vietnamese troops. They patrolled slowly through the middle of the enemy troops, gathering intelligence as they went.
The group encountered a two-man North Vietnamese patrol on the beach, which the South Vietnamese attempted to capture. Thornton chased one of the enemy back towards the jungle to prevent him from alerting others. When Thornton shot him, about 50 North Vietnamese soldiers chased after him. Moving from one position to another, Thornton and the others kept the enemy confused about the number of troops they faced. Thornton was wounded in the back by a grenade. He contacted a destroyer and requested naval gunfire support, but unknown to Thornton it was struck by North Vietnamese shore batteries and unable to fire. A second destroyer was unable to maneuver into firing position for the same reason.
For the next four hours, the five men held off an enemy force estimated at 150 strong. Norris attempted to call in the Vietnamese junk boats, one of which had a mortar on board, but the destroyers forbid them from entering the line of fire. Thornton, Norris and the three Vietnamese were alone and nearly surrounded. Near dawn, Norris ordered the group to extract towards the beach, and they leap-frogged towards the surf. Norris was able to contact the cruiser USS Newport News and requested that they fire for effect to cover their withdrawal. Norris covered the group’s rearward movement. As he prepared to fire a LAW rocket at a group of 70 to 75 North Vietnamese troops attacking his position, he was severely wounded by a round through his head.
One of the South Vietnamese who saw Norris get shot assumed he was dead. Thornton, upon hearing the news, ran about 400 yards (370 m) to the last location he saw Norris to recover the body of his fallen comrade. When he found Norris, he saw that “the whole side of his head was completely gone.” As enemy troops overran his position, he stopped to shoot several. Thornton put Norris on his shoulders and ran back towards the beach when the first shell from the Newport News struck the beach. The concussion from the round blew Thornton and Norris 20 feet (6.1 m) into the air. It also slowed the advance of the enemy troops, and Thornton picked up Norris who he discovered was just barely alive.
Thornton visiting troops at Ramstein Air Base, 2008
Thornton carried Norris into the surf and began to swim with him. One of the Vietnamese was shot in the buttocks and couldn’t swim, so Thornton grabbed him as well and pushed both of them out to sea. Bullets landed in the sea all around them. The Newport News left, thinking that the Americans and South Vietnamese had been killed. Thornton bandaged Norris’ wound as well as he could and swam for about three hours. One of the South Vietnamese was finally picked up by the junk. He reported that the two Americans were dead, which was relayed to the Newport News. Thornton fired Norris’ AK-47 to draw the attention of the junk. They were picked up and then transported to the Newport News. Thornton carried Norris to the operating room, where the doctor told Thornton, “There’s no way he’s going to make it.”
For these actions, Thornton was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon during a ceremony at the White House on October 15, 1973. The man Thornton rescued, Thomas Norris, survived his wounds and was awarded the Medal of Honor from President Gerald R. Ford in a White House ceremony on March 6, 1976, for his April 1972 rescue of Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton and First Lieutenant Mark Clark in the rescue of Bat 21 Bravo.
Thornton received a commission in 1982 as a limited duty officer and retired from the navy as a lieutenant in 1992.
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.