7 Apr 1945 near Untergriesheim, Germany: Enemy fire pinned down Private Michael “Mike” Colalillo and his company. Despite the heavy machine gun, artillery, and mortar fire, Colalillo stood up and urged his men and a tank to follow him. Firing his Grease Gun until it was destroyed by shrapnel, he then climbed up on a friendly tank and began firing the machine gun on the turret. Although exposed to enemy fire, Colalillo killing and wounding numerous enemy troops, and destroyed machine gun positions before silencing all resistance. Having expended all the ammunition, he then secured a Thompson machine gun from the tank crew and pursued the fleeing Germans on foot. Once their ammunition was expended, the order to withdraw was given. However, Colalillo remained behind to rescue a wounded comrade – crossing several hundred yards of open terrain as the soldiers were rocked by heavy artillery and mortar fire. Read the citation
2 Apr 1972: Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton’s electronic surveillance aircraft is shot down by an enemy surface-to-air missile – into an area with 30,000 enemy troops. Over the course of the next several days, ten men are killed in rescue efforts; four aircraft are shot down; two more airmen are captured; and two others are trapped behind enemy lines. Enter SEAL Adviser Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris.
10-13 Apr 1972: Lt. Norris volunteered to lead a five-man team through the heavily-controlled enemy area to rescue a downed airman. Norris locates Lt. Mark Clark in a river deep behind enemy lines, and returns him to a Forward Operating Base (FOB). Once back at the FOB however, the base came under heavy enemy attack. Half of the personnel are lost, but Norris saved numerous South Vietnamese personnel, directed counterfire, and provided medical aid. The next day, Norris led two unsuccessful attempts to rescue the second pilot. Then on the 13th, Norris and another South Vietnamese commando located Hambleton, placing him in the bottom of a sampan and brought him back to the FOB. But before they reached the relative safety of the base, the three came under machine gun attack. Norris called in an airstrike, and the men were able to finally bring Col. Hambleton to safety. Read the citation
Note: Lt. Norris was involved in another Medal of Honor action in months to come, but we will discuss that on 31 October.
The Pritzker Military Library hosted Medal of Honor recipient Thomas R. Norris earlier this year.
In the video, Norris tells his story of his Naval Special Warfare training and his daring rescue of American pilots behind enemy lines in Vietnam. The video and podcast are available here.
In addition, Ben Stein, the writer and economist, graduated in the same high school class as Norris, and recently wrote a very heartfelt piece at The American Spectator honoring his friend.
Now, many people say America is finished, that it does not have the spirit that it once had, that its best days are behind. I beg to differ, and I offer as Exhibit A, my childhood friend and classmate and neighbor in North Idaho, Tom Norris, a man of total fearlessness and total modesty, Blair class of 1962. If our school had produced him and not one other person, it would still be a place of honor.
Medal of Honor recipient Michael Thornton will be appearing at the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago on November 19.
Thornton appeared along with fellow SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient Tom Norris (who pulled off one of the military’s most daring rescues, and whose life Thornton saved in 1972) appeared together at a similar event in 2006. Video and audio of the 2006 event are available from the library’s site, which I highly recommend that everyone watch.
In his “This Week in American Military History” series at Human Events this week, W. Thomas Smith Jr. mentions the anniversary of Navy SEAL Michael Thornton’s amazing battle with the North Vietnamese Army:
Oct. 31, 1972: U.S. Navy SEAL Petty Officer (future lieutenant) Michael E. Thornton; his commanding officer, Lt. Thomas R. Norris; and three South Vietnamese Naval commandos are conducting an intelligence-collection and prisoner-snatch operation deep behind enemy lines when they are discovered by a force that outnumbers them at least 10 to one.
Fierce, close fighting ensues. Thornton and Norris are both wounded, Norris badly.
As the team begins a fighting withdrawal toward the beach, Thornton learns that Norris is down, perhaps dead.
Thornton races back through a hailstorm of enemy fire to find and retrieve his commander — dead or alive.
Thornton finds Norris, kills two enemy soldiers who are standing over his wounded commander, then hoists Norris onto his shoulders and sprints back toward the beach for several hundred yards under heavy enemy fire.
When he hits the surf, Thornton ties Norris to his own body and starts swimming. When he sees one of the South Vietnamese commandos shot in the hip and unable to swim, Thornton grabs him too; swimming both men out to sea for more than two hours before they are rescued.
For his actions, Thornton will receive the Medal of Honor.
Norris will survive and receive the Medal himself for a previous action.
The remainder of the article can be found at Human Events or by clicking below.
This is a transcript of the Unto the Breach program. Click here for the audio.
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.