Michael Edwin Thornton (born March 23, 1949) is a retired United States Navy SEAL and a recipient of the U.S. military's highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, for his actions in the Vietnam War. He was awarded the medal for saving the life of his senior officer, Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris, who also earned the Medal of Honor in an unrelated incident.
Born on March 23, 1949, in Greenville, South Carolina, Thornton graduated from high school in 1967 and enlisted in the United States Navy later that year in Spartanburg.
He served aboard destroyers as a gunner's mate apprentice until November 1968, when he began Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. Upon graduation, he was assigned to SEAL Team 1 and began a series of tours in southeast Asia which ran from January 1, 1970, to December 1972.
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. On October 31 of that year, he 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 another SEAL, Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris, and three men from the LDNN, the South Vietnamese Special Forces. Approaching by sea, 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.
When morning dawned, the 5-man group realized that they had landed too far north and were actually in North Vietnam. They made their way toward the coast but were spotted by a group of 50 soldiers, beginning an intense five-hour battle. When the group's commander, Lieutenant Norris, was severely wounded, Thornton ran through heavy fire to rescue him. He then carried the unconscious Norris into the water and began swimming out to sea. When one of the LDNNs was wounded, Thornton supported him in the water as well. He swam with the two injured men for more than two hours before being picked up by the same junk which had dropped them off the night before.
For these actions, Thornton was awarded the Medal of Honor. The medal was formally presented to him 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 Lt Col Iceal Hambleton and 1stLt Mark Clark from behind enemy lines.
In 1980, Thornton was chosen by Commander Richard Marcinko to be a founding member of SEAL Team Six, the U.S. Navy's first unit dedicated to counterterrorism. Thornton later became a commissioned officer and retired as a Lieutenant. He currently sits on the board of advisors for Veterans Direct.
Medal of Honor citation
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.
Awards and decorations
Thornton received a commission in 1982 as a Limited Duty Officer and retired as a Lieutenant. During his career he was awarded
|Special Warfare insignia|
|Naval Parachutist insignia|
|Surface Warfare Officer insignia|
|Diving Officer insignia|
|Medal of Honor||Silver Star|
|Bronze Star with "V" device and two gold stars||Purple Heart||Meritorious Service Medal||Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with "V" device and gold star|
|Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal||Combat Action Ribbon with gold star||Navy Presidential Unit Citation with two bronze stars||Navy Unit Commendation with two bronze stars|
|Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation with bronze star||Navy Good Conduct Medal with two bronze stars||Navy Expeditionary Medal||National Defense Service Medal with bronze star|
|Vietnam Service Medal with one silver and two bronze service stars||Southwest Asia Service Medal with one bronze service star||Humanitarian Service Medal||Sea Service Deployment Ribbon|
|Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Silver Star||Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal 1st class||Vietnam Staff Service Medal 1st class||Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with Palm|
|Vietnam Civil Actions Unit Citation with Palm||Vietnam Campaign Medal||Navy Expert Rifleman Medal||Navy Expert Pistol Medal|
- By Honor Bound: Two Navy SEALs, the Medal of Honor, and a Story of Extraordinary Courage. St. Martin's Press. 2016. ISBN 1250070597. Written with Thomas R. Norris and Dick Couch