Profiles of Valor: Michael Thornton
“Fear is a great thing, but you have to take that fear and focus it into something good.”
Mike Thornton is a native of Greenville, South Carolina, and grew up on a farm near Spartanburg. After graduating from high school in 1967, he enlisted in the Navy.
In 1968, he was selected for SEAL training at Coronado, California. Of the 129 men who entered BUD/S Class 49, Mike was among only 18 who graduated in March 1969. He was assigned to SEAL Team ONE. After completing SEAL Basic Indoctrination and platoon training, he deployed with Charlie Platoon to South Vietnam and served in combat tours through December 1972. At the end of his last tour, he was one of only a handful of SEALs remaining in Vietnam.
On October 31, 1972, then-Petty Officer Thornton, age 23, was part of an intelligence gathering team detailed just south of the Demilitarized Zone. The team consisted of SEAL commander LT Thomas Norris (who would later receive a Medal of Honor) and three Vietnamese Special Forces operators with whom Thornton had worked previously.
Their mission was to collect information on enemy unit concentrations during the night, but after encountering a two-man NVA patrol team, one of whom Thornton dispatched, they soon found themselves surrounded by enemy forces and in a pitched battle for their lives. Over four hours, the five-man team held off enemy forces estimated to be about 150 strong. Just before dawn, Norris ordered the men to a rendezvous point on the beach where they could commence extraction with Navy forces. In the process of moving to the beach, Norris attempted to fire a LAW rocket at a group of 70 to 75 North Vietnamese troops and was severely wounded.
One of the Vietnamese men assured Thornton that Norris was killed in action, but Mike was not content with that assessment and ran back toward the enemy line to where Norris was last seen. He found Norris severely wounded and, as enemy troops advanced, put Norris over his shoulder and attempted to reach the beach. One of the friendly fire rounds from the USS Newport News that LT Norris had called in earlier to protect their flank hit nearby and almost killed them both.
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 adviser, along with a U.S. Navy lieutenant serving as senior adviser, 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 adviser 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.
Mike is also the recipient of the Silver Star, 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. I invite you to hear him recount his actions.
A decade later, Mike was commissioned as a Navy Ensign and served for an additional 10 years, including as Bravo Company commander in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. In 1992, LT Thornton retired, and he now travels the country inspiring young people to live lives of honor and service.
Typical of the humility displayed by Medal of Honor recipients, Mike declares: “I feel honored, but I’m not a hero. This medal belongs to every man and woman who died serving their country. I feel honored to represent them. … The Medal of Honor belongs to every man and woman who gives us the freedom today to be able to hold our flag and hold our heads up high and say we have the greatest country in the world. As long as I live, that medal will always stand for all them. Not for me.”
To young people today, Mike says, “Fear is a great thing, but you have to take that fear and focus it into something good.”
He concludes: “I’ll always have the memories of guys I lost in Vietnam. And I’ve lost friends since the war, but I’ll always have the memories. The riches are great, but riches aren’t everything because when you go you can only take your memories and your word and your honor to the grave with you.”
It is a privilege to know Michael Thornton as a fellow board member of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center.
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