Incredible Story: How One Navy SEAL was Awarded the MoH for Saving Another MoH Recipient

Those who have received the nation’s highest military honor are members of a small and elite club in military history. Equally, those who have earned the famed SEAL Trident are also in exclusive company. Which makes the fact that SEAL Michael Thornton would be awarded his Medal of Honor for saving a fellow SEAL and fellow Medal of Honor recipient quite remarkable.

On October 31st of 1972, Petty Officer Michael Thornton was part of a reconnaissance mission being led by Lieutenant Thomas Norris deep into enemy territory. Norris had already committed the act that would lead to his Medal of Honor, and he would prove himself again in this fight.

Thomas Norris 2008
Thomas Norris 2008

After being dropped off too far north, the team found themselves face to face with hundreds of soldiers from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).  With only 5 men among them, the team became engaged in a prolonged firefight back to sea.

After Norris received a gunshot wound directly to the head, Thornton raced over 400 yards to recover what he thought was his fallen comrade.

To his surprise, Norris was still, if barely, alive. Thornton then carried Norris all the way back to the sea where he had to swim for hours with not only Norris to take care of but another wounded comrade, too.

Eventually, they were rescued, and Thornton emerged from the water to become the first to earn the Medal of Honor by saving the life of a fellow recipient of the prestigious award.

Destined for History

Michael Thornton was born in the year 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina. After graduating from high school in 1967 and always looking for a little action, Thornton decided to join the United States Navy.

He initially served as a gunner’s mate apprentice aboard a destroyer but had a desire to be more in the thick of the fight. Making his way to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training, he became one of only 16 students out of a class of 129 members to graduate from class 49.

Seal Endurance Training
Seal Endurance Training

From 1969 to 1972, Thornton served on a variety of combat tours in Southeast Asia where he would distinguish himself as a capable and efficient warrior. By 1972, he was one of only a handful of SEALs left in Vietnam as the war began to draw down.

In October of 1972, Thornton would make sure that he didn’t leave Vietnam without earning his own unique place in military history. To do so would require him to save another SEAL who had done the same just months earlier.

Lieutenant Thomas Norris had participated in the famed rescue of Lieutenant Colonel Hambleton or Bat 21 Bravo and earned the Medal of Honor for his actions in that engagement. On October 31st, Norris would find himself leading Thornton on an equally harrowing mission.

Into North Vietnam

North and South Vietnamese DMZ
North and South Vietnamese DMZ

The mission was to gather intelligence and prisoners near the coast of the Quang Tri Province which was just south of the demilitarized zone. Norris and Thornton were accompanied by three members of the South Vietnamese special forces, traveling by junk close to the coast and then by rubber boat. The last mile the men swam ashore themselves.

Once inland, contact with the enemy was quick as they reconnoitered their way quietly past the enemy placements. Unfortunately for the team, they realized they’d made a terrible mistake.

It turns out they had drifted too far north and instead of being south of the demilitarized zone they were in North Vietnam.

From one bunker complex to the next, there was a heavy presence of NVA troops. Making their way back to the beach, they encountered a two-man NVA patrol. The South Vietnamese forces made a tactical mistake in trying to capture the two enemy combatants, and before they knew it a North Vietnamese force of hundreds had been alerted.

Vietnamese bunker
Vietnamese bunker

Unable to secure supporting naval fire, what resulted was a 4-hour long fight of 5 men leaping and bounding to escape against up to 150 of the enemy. Norris eventually ordered the men back to the beach while he attempted to call in cover fire for their withdrawal.

However, while doing so, Norris took a direct hit to the head and slumped over. One of the South Vietnamese troops believed him to be dead and notified Thornton, who was not content to leave his fallen SEAL behind.

SEAL’s in combat in Viet Nam
SEAL’s in combat in Viet Nam

Never Give Up

By this time, Thornton had already received shrapnel wounds himself when he bounded over 400 yards in order to retrieve the fallen body of his leader. Thinking him dead, Thornton picked up Norris only to be knocked down by an explosion.

It was then that Thornton realized his friend was still alive. Racing Norris back to the beach under heavy fire, he encountered one of the South Vietnamese who had been wounded and also unable to swim. Thornton inflated the life vests of all three and set out to sea.

With bullets hitting the water all around them, the three men pushed out to sea in hopes of reaching a friendly ship nearby.

Unfortunately, confusion as to the team’s survival and heavy enemy fire would delay any rescue. For over three hours, Thornton kept the men afloat before a friendly vessel finally brought the men in.

Miraculously, Norris would survive his wounds. It would take many years and much surgery, but Norris would survive to see fellow SEAL Michael Thornton receive the Medal of Honor from President Nixon for saving his life.

Michael Thornton 2006
Michael Thornton 2006

Thornton would go on to become an instructor at BUD/S before retiring a commissioned officer in 1982. His place in military history was secure, however, and thanks to his actions, he would have fellow SEAL Thomas Norris there to accompany him.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE