Hall of Heroes: Mike Thornton

This is a transcript of the Unto the Breach program. Click here for the audio.

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Mike Thornton

Today’s Hall of Heroes is a special one: Today we feature South Carolina native Mike Thornton. Thornton served several tours with the Navy SEALs during the Vietnam War. Thornton’s tale goes to who you what the people who serve our country are capable of.

By the fall of 1972, the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia was winding down, and there were only three officers and nine enlisted SEALs left in Vietnam. The 23-year old Petty Officer Mike Thornton was one. The SEALs’ primary missions were rescuing downed American airmen and doing “sneak and peek” reconnaissance on the North Vietnamese Army’s advance into the south.

On October 31, a five-man SEAL patrol was ordered to conduct an intelligence gathering and prisoner capturing operation at the NVA-held Cua Viet River Base. The patrol was made up of three LDNN (South Vietnamese SEALs), Lieutenant Tom Norris, and Petty Officer Thornton. Both Thornton and Norris were experienced combat veterans. Just six months before, LT Norris had led an operation to rescue a pair of U.S. airmen who had been shot down in enemy territory, an action for which he would be awarded the Medal of Honor.

A Vietnamese cement junk transported the team under cover of darkness, and American vessels were supposed to be available to vector the SEALs in to their objective by radar. But currents delayed the junk, so they had to do without the vectors. The team deployed under cover of darkness, and they paddled to shore in inflatable rafts. Once they were about a mile offshore, the men pulled in their rafts and swam to shore. As daybreak approached, seeing no identifiable landmarks, they realized that the junk had inserted them too far north. In fact, they were inserted in North Vietnam. Moving inland and not seeing their landmarks, they quickly realized that they were inserted in the wrong location. In fact, they were inserted in North Vietnam. The team pass silently through heavily fortified enemy camps and bunkers. They were surrounded by about 30,000 NVA. They patrolled all through the night, gathering important intelligence. As they moved back toward the beach, Lieutenant Norris established radio contact with the fleet.

While they were under cover on the beach, the Vietnamese LDNN officer saw two NVA soldiers on patrol and ordered his men to capture them. Thornton whacked one with his rifle, and chased after the fleeing soldier. Norris watched from a sand dune as Thornton chased the enemy soldier into the jungle, and killed him. Then Norris saw Thornton running back out of the jungle with about 50 NVA in hot pursuit.

LT Norris called in coordinates for naval gun support while the NVA assaulted the SEAL team with well over ten-to-one odds. The NVA attempted to surround the SEALs, closed within yards of Thornton’s position behind a sand dune. An NVA grenade landed next to Thornton, which he threw back. Thornton recalled in an interview: “Well, in America the grenades are four seconds, ‘1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000…’ the grenade goes off. So they throw the grenade back over, and I’m going, ‘5,000, 6,000…’ I throw the grenade back. I’m going, ‘8,000, 9,000…” and this grenade comes over again.” The grenade detonated this time, throwing pieces of shrapnel in Thornton’s back. Three NVA soldiers assaulted Thornton’s position, and he killed them when they popped over the sand dune.

Meanwhile, the vessel that should have been providing artillery support for the SEALs was taking incoming fire from North Vietnamese guns, so they were offline. As was the second ship that came to assist the team. The cement junk had a mortar on board, but the Navy wouldn’t allow it to move in in case one of their rounds would fall short and hit the junk. So LT Norris’ calls for support went unanswered.

The NVA were to the north and the south of the SEALs, but they still had their escape to the sea, which was about a mile of open beach with one sand dune. SEALs were LT Norris ordered Thornton and two of the South Vietnamese SEALs to fall back to a sand dune to the north and provide covering fire. The team was leap-frogging to the shore, providing cover fire for eachother as they moved. LT Norris made radio contact with the heavy cruiser USS Newport News and her massive 8-inch guns, and told them to “fire for effect,” destroying the entire area. At this time, the SEALs counted about 150 NVA in pursuit. LT Norris stopped to launch a LAW rocket at a group of NVA, and he was shot in the head.

A Vietnamese SEAL arrived at Thornton’s position and told him that Norris had been killed. Thornton refused to leave his lieutenant behind, and charged back over five hundred yards of open terrain to Norris. When he got there, he killed two enemy soldiers standing over the lieutenant’s body. He lifted the unconscious Norris, barely alive and with a shattered skull, and began to run back toward the beach, enemy fire kicking up all around him.

The blast from an 8-inch round fired from the Newport News blew both men into the air. Thornton picked up Norris again and raced for a sand dune and then retreated to the water. As he plunged into the surf, Thornton put his life vest on Norris. A South Vietnamese SEAL was shot in the hip and couldn’t swim, so Thornton grabbed him and slowly and painfully swam both men out to sea. After being told by a forward observer that no one could survive the fight onshore, the Newport News withdrew from the area, heading south. Despite his wounds, Thornton swam out to sea with his team in tow, dodging bullets from the NVA. Thornton swam for three hours before they were finally rescued by the same junk that had dropped them off sixteen hours earlier. Now Thornton is a really big guy, and he was so tired that he wasn’t able to get on the junk for quite a while until the Vietnamese were able to drag him on board. Thanks to Thornton’s superhuman actions, the entire team lived.

Almost a year later in October of 1973, Mike Thornton was on his way to the White House to receive the Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon. Lieutenant Norris, still a patient at nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital, had been forbidden by his doctors to go to the ceremony, but Thornton “basically kidnapped” Norris and took him along. Almost three years later, Norris himself received the medal, with Thornton looking on.

There is a fantastic video of this at the Pritzker Military Library, and I strongly suggest UTB listeners to download it.

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  1. […] I did a radio show on Mike Thornton in January, and the transcript is available here. […]

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