Name: Michael E. Thornton
Specialty: Navy SEAL
SEAL Service: 25 years
Rank: Petty Officer Second Class
Retired Rank: Lieutenant
Home: Spartanburg, SC
Assigned: SEAL Team ONE
Operation: Vietnam War
Date of Action: October 31, 1972
Date of Award: October 15, 1973
The Congressional Medal of Honor on October 15, 1973 by President Richard Nixon, “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 in the Republic of Vietnam on October 31, 1972.”
Michael Thornton was one of only 15 U.S. Navy personnel, (three of them SEALs), who received the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions during the Vietnam War. He is also the only recipient in over a century to save the life of another Medal of Honor recipient – SEAL Lieutenant Thomas Norris – who had performed heroic, lifesaving actions of his own just months earlier. Both men are still alive and well today.
Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V” (3)
Meritorious Service Medal
Combat Action Ribbon with Gold Star
Vietnamese Service Medal with one Silver Star and two Bronze Stars
Michael Thornton enlisted in the Navy in 1967 after graduating from high school at the age of 18. Upon successful completion of BUD/S training, Thornton was assigned to SEAL Team ONE, and served several tours in Vietnam and Thailand between October 1968 and January 1973.
On his last tour to Vietnam, at the age of 23, Thornton heroically saved the life of his senior officer on an intelligence gathering and prisoner capture operation. The small team of two Navy SEALs and three South Vietnamese commandos was discovered by a larger North Vietnamese Army force, and a fierce firefight ensued. SEAL LT Thomas Norris, who had himself earned the Medal of Honor just months earlier, was shot in the face and believed dead.
Thornton ran into a hail of enemy fire to retrieve Norris’ body, and found him badly wounded and unconscious, but alive. He dragged Norris to the beach, inflated his life vest, and swam both Norris and a wounded South Vietnamese commando seaward for two hours before they were rescued by a comrade in a support craft, who had refused to give them up for dead.
“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 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.”
His Own Words
Thornton recently addressed a class of middle school students in April 2007. Asked if he was scared when saving his friend he replied. “Fear is a great thing, but you have to take that fear and focus it into something good.”
The students were surprised when he told them that he didn’t consider himself a hero. “I feel honored, but I’m not a hero,” he said. “This medal belongs to every man and woman who died serving their country. I feel honored to represent them.”
Michael Thornton went on to serve in the following SEAL assignments:
- BUD/S Instructor at Naval Special Warfare Training Command
- Senior enlisted man in a SEAL Team TWO operational platoon
- Exchange tour with Royal Marine British Special Boat Squadron
- Assisted in establishing and operated with Naval Special Warfare Development Group
In 1982, Michael Thornton received his commission as a U.S. Navy Ensign, after which he served 10 years as an officer in the diving and salvage community. In April 1990, he reported as Bravo Company Commander where he coordinated a rapid response deployment in support of Desert Shield/Desert Storm (the first U.S. invasion of Iraq).
Lieutenant Thornton retired in 1992. He was the last Congressional Medal of Honor recipient on active duty at that time.