On this day in 1972, a Navy SEAL saves his senior officer from almost certain death. He would later receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery, but there is another interesting twist. Petty Officer Michael Thornton saved the life of Lt. Tom Norris on this day so long ago. But Norris would also later receive a Medal of Honor for his bravery in a completely unrelated conflict.
Because of Thornton’s actions, both men would be alive to receive their Medals in person. And each man attended the other’s Medal of Honor ceremony. One caveat? Norris attended Thornton’s ceremony against doctor’s orders.
Would you expect anything less from a Navy SEAL?!
By October 1972, United States involvement in Vietnam was winding down, but a handful of Americans remained in the area. Those SEALs that remained were primarily working to recover downed American airmen or to conduct reconnaissance.
On October 31, Thornton and Norris were dispatched on one of these missions. They were dropped off by boat, accompanied by three South Vietnamese allies. They paddled toward shore.
Unfortunately, a mistake was made. The small force was dropped off a bit further north than intended. Unsurprisingly, they soon found themselves engaged in a pretty serious firefight with about fifty North Vietnamese.
Our Navy SEALs might have been outnumbered, but they were holding their own. They took out most of the enemy.
As the small force was beginning to fall back, one of the South Vietnamese reported to Thornton that Norris had been killed. Thornton wasn’t so sure, and he took off running toward Norris’s last known position. The enemy was firing at Thornton the whole way! By the time Thornton found Norris, the senior officer was barely alive. Thornton threw the officer over his shoulders and began his retreat toward the lagoon.
Just then, American ships arrived in the area. Friendly fire came too close to Thornton, blowing him into the air—and blowing Norris off his shoulders. Undeterred, Thornton picked up Norris (again) and continued on.
Thornton reached the lagoon, inflated a life preserver and placed it on Norris. “I got to the surf zone, and I grabbed Tommy and I put Tommy in the front of me, like this, and I started swimming,” he later described, “and these guys were chasing us and they were shooting and as we swam through the surf zone, you could see the bullets just going through the water.” As if that were not enough, Thornton soon saw that one of the South Vietnamese was also too wounded to swim. Grabbing both men, he pushed his way into the surf.
For hours, Thornton swam out into the sea, bringing both Norris and the South Vietnamese ally with him to safety. The three men were finally picked up by an American vessel.
Thanks to Thornton, Norris miraculously survived. He had some pretty serious wounds, though! A year later, he was still in the hospital, recovering. The doctors didn’t intend to let him attend Thornton’s October 15, 1973 Medal ceremony. Did they really think they would stop two Navy SEALs?!
The two conspired to sneak Norris out of the hospital so he could be present at Thornton’s ceremony. Naturally.
“I feel honored, but I’m not a hero,” Thornton later said. “This medal belongs to every man and woman who died serving their country. I feel honored to represent them.”
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Medal of Honor citation (Michael Edwin Thornton, 10/15/1973)
Medal of Honor: Oral Histories (Michael Thornton, Medal of Honor, Vietnam War)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)