During 2019, Freedoms Foundation and the Friends of the Medal of Honor Grove are paying tribute to the living recipients of the Medal of Honor on the anniversary of the actions for which they earned the nation’s highest award for valor. The series continues with Petty Officer Michael E. Thornton, a Navy SEAL whose patrol came under attack on Oct. 31, 1972, near the Cua Viet River Base in South Vietnam.
“The patrol was made up of three South Vietnames SEALs, Lieutenant Tom Norris, and Petty Officer Thornton,” Peter Collier reports in Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty. “Both of the Americans were experienced combat veterans. Earlier that spring, in fact, Norris had led a similar team on a heroic mission to rescue a pair of U.S. airmen who had been shot down in enemy territory, an action for which he would be recommended for the Medal of Honor.
“Launched in a rubber boat at dusk by a Vietnamese junk, the SEAL patrol paddled toward the beach in the gathering darkness. About a mile offshore, the men left their small boat and swam to shore. Then they moved inland, passing silently beside numerous enemy encampments. They patrolled all through the night, gathering important intelligence. As daybreak approached, seeing no identifiable landmarks, they realized that they had come ashore too far north; in fact, they were in North Vietnam. As they moved back toward the beach, Lt. Norris established radio contact with the fleet. However, they were soon spotted by the enemy and began to draw fire. More than 50 enemy soldiers attacked, closing to within five yards.”
Michael Thornton’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
“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 three-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 two 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 two 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.”
Collier provides more detail of the engagement and rescue:
“During the five-hour firefight, Thornton was wounded in his back. Norris ordered Thornton and two of the South Vietnamese SEALs to fall back to a sand dune to the north and provide covering fire. Not long after, the Vietnamese SEAL who had stayed behind arrived at Thornton’s position and told him that Norris had been killed. Thornton charged back over 500 yards of open terrain to Norris. When he got there, he killed two enemy soldiers standing over the lieutenant’s body. He lifted Norris, barely alive and with a shattered skull, and began to run back toward the beach, enemy fire kicking up all around him.
“The blast from an incoming round fired by the USS Newport News blew both men into the air. Thornton picked up Norris again and raced for a sand dune and then retreated 300 yards to the water. As he plunged into the surf, Thornton lashed his life vest to the unconscious officer’s body. When another SEAL was hit in the hip and couldn’t swim, Thornton grabbed him and slowly and painfully swam both men out to sea. Despite his wounds, Thornton swam for more than two hours. All three wounded men were rescued by the same junk that had dropped them off 16 hours earlier.
“On Oct. 5, 1973, Michael Thornton was on his way to the White House to receive the Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon. Lt. Norris, still a patient at 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 described the meaning of the Medal and the men who wear it in the book he co-authored with Norris, By Honor Bound: Two Navy SEALs, the Medal of Honor, and a Story of Extraordinary Courage:
“As for the medal, we wear it for those who served with us who are no longer with us, or whose sacrifice and service went unnoticed. We wear it for all Americans who served with honor. And at times, it can be a burden, but that’s the nature of receiving this distinguished award. None of us like being held up as an example for others. I sure don’t, but it comes with the medal. You not only have to live up to it, you have to grow into it.
“But … you know you’re in the company of greatness. I remember Gen. Doolittle saying to me, ‘Mike, welcome to the greatest organization and fraternity in the world,’ and he was right. I met men like Jack Lucas, who joined the Marine Corps at the age of 13 under his brother’s name and became a recipient on Iwo Jima. There are generals and corporals, college graduates with Ph.D.s and high school dropouts, rich and poor. I’m truly honored to be in such company. I want to be worthy of their company. And I want to make my children, my stepson, and my grandchildren proud of me.”
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