Michael Thornton is a hardcore 30 year-veteran of the United States Navy, a founding member of SEAL Team Six, and one of only three SEALs to receive the Medal of Honor in ‘Nam – an honor he earned in blood on Halloween 1972, when he almost single-handedly battled through enemy territory against a swarming horde of enemy soldiers, charged through a naval artillery bombardment to save his commanding officer from certain death, and then swam three hours through North Vietnamese waters with two wounded guys hanging off his back and a half-dozen chunks of grenade shrapnel lodged in various parts of his abdomen.
If that’s not badass enough for you, then clearly you’ve come to the wrong website.
Mike Thornton was born March 23, 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina. He joined the U.S. Navy and served as a Gunner’s Mate on a couple destroyers, but in 1968 he decided to try his hand at making the Navy’s elite Underwater Demolitions Team – the original precursor to the SEALs. Training was brutal, exhausting, and unbelievably intense – of the 129 men who signed up for UDT Class 49, only 16 graduated and were accepted into the program.
One of those 16 was Mike Thornton. Not long after completing one of the most brutal military training courses on the face of the planet, he was assigned to SEAL Team One and deployed to the Republic of Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam War.
Thornton arrived in-country in 1969 and spent the next three years doing a wide variety of super-badass over-the-top Navy SEALs stuff. He gathered intel on enemy positions, scouted deep behind enemy lines on daring covert missions, captured prisoners when he could, battled enemy forces on the reg, and basically did all that cool Black Ops classified SEAL stuff that was presumably so hardcore and top-secret classified that we’ll likely never really know the full details of all of it.
Team One was at the heart of many of America’s Special Operations in ‘Nam, and in the fall of 1972 this was still very much the case. In October, 23 year-old Petty Officer Mike Thornton was sent on a mission to the Qua Viet Naval Base in Quan Tri Province on a dangerous mission to gather intel on some NVA positions, capture a few prisoners, and then somehow extract back to friendly lines. Thornton’s team would consist of himself, three South Vietnamese Special Forces operators, and the unit commander, Lieutenant Thomas Norris, a hardcore Medal of Honor recipient Navy SEAL who was already a legend among the SEALs thanks to a wild mission he’d undertaken a few months earlier when he went undercover deep into enemy territory to rescue a downed American pilot. Facing extreme danger, and surrounded constantly by a massive force of NVA soldiers, Norris succeeded in extracting not only the pilot, but also the crew of a team that had already gone in to get the pilot and ended up getting pinned down. The mission was so hardcore that they made a movie out of it – it’s called Bat*21, and Norris was so tough that they got Gene Hackman to play him in the movie.
Needless to say, this was not a crew of guys you wanted to face in a dark alley late at night.
The SEALs deployed first by sailing an ordinary-looking Vietnamese junk boat up a river late at night, then by boarding a small rubber boat and infiltrating enemy lines under the cover of darkness. Well, unfortunately, the mission started to go sideways right away – the map wasn’t really lining up with what was supposed to be there, and it didn’t take long for Norris and Thornton to realize that they’d landed a little too far into enemy terrirotyr. So now, instead of scouting temporary enemy fortifications that had been thrown up days before, these guys were now straight in the middle of a hardened network of NVA bunkers that had been designed years ago to repel full-scale assaults by massive formations of enemy troops and armor.
It wasn’t really the kind of place you wanted to be walking around with an American flag patch on your shoulder.
So, ok, the SEALs were off-course, and were now wayyyy deeper in enemy territory then they would have hoped, but a mission is a mission, and these guys were pros. They immediately went to work – noting bunker positions, troop concentrations, fortifications, vehicles, and radio towers. They Splinter Celled their way silently and stealthily through the heart of an enemy naval base first by boat, then on foot, collecting tons of valuable intel, all somehow without being detected by the hundreds of hardened veteran NVA troops that now surrounded them from every direction.
Then, over one particular ridgeline, the SEALs saw a couple of NVA guards standing nearby. They were far enough away from the main base that they could potentially have been grabbed and taken prisoner without alerting the base, so the SEAL team moved in to try and take them into custody. The two South Vietnamese SEALs grabbed one of the guys, but they weren’t quick enough to grab the second guy – that dude bolted for it and started screaming his damn head off for the NVA to sound the alarm.
Thornton ran him down and capped him with a well-placed pistol round, but it was already too late – the SEAL stopped dead in his tracks as he heard the sound of alarm sirens blaring from a nearby camp.
Thornton ran for it. By the time he’d reached the spot where his buddies were waiting for him, he was already being run down by a group of roughly fifty NVA soldiers, who immediately started spraying AK-47 gunfire into the jungle all around him.
One of the South Vietnamese SEALs launched a LAW rocket into the middle of the attacking forces, hoping that the resulting explosion would buy the SEAL team a little time to take off and run to the extraction point.
The SEALs were now in a fight for their lives. They had to get back to their extraction point before they were completely surrounded and overrun by a force that massively outnumbered them.
Fighting through the pitch darkness, facing down presumably hundreds of enemy soldiers, the five Navy SEALs fought the way you’d expect the most badass military force in the world to fight. They fired, repositioned, fired again, and launched grenades and LAW rockets, constantly changing position in an attempt to confuse the enemy about how many guys they were facing. The SEALs had the advantage of surprise, and concealment, and the NVA couldn’t just charge in there after them because they couldn’t quite figure out how many guys they were actually facing. So, through the darkness of the Vietnamese jungle, the Navy SEALs spent the next four hours (!!) battling their way back towards the water.
Bullets were zipping through the jungle from every direction as the SEALs made their escape. Five men against hundreds. As his ammunition began to run out, Norris (who took up the rear of the SEAL position) ditched his M-16 and took an AK-47 off a dead enemy soldier, using captured ammo to keep up a steady hail of fire back towards the ever-closing NVA troops. At the head of the column, Mike Thornton raced through pitch-black jungle navigating his team to the extract point. As dawn began to break and the SEALs approached the beach, Norris got on his radio and called in for two Destroyers to come in and lay down some covering fire. Shortly after, though, he received a report that heavy fire from fortified NVA shore guns had damaged both Destroyers and drove them back from the coast. A cruiser was inbound to help, but for now the SEALs were on their own.
Thornton continued to the extraction, firing his M-16 in all directions, until suddenly an enemy grenade landed dangerously close to him. It exploded, ripping shrapnel through the SEAL. White-hot shards of splintered steel embedded in his back in six different places, as the concussive force of the blast sent him flying hard into the ground. With his ears ringing, and his back screaming in pain, Thornton still held on to his weapon, and rolled over onto his back just in time to see four NVA troops running up onto the ridgeline to finish the job – despite every muscle in his body screaming in pain, Thornton still somehow had the calmness and unimaginable skill to take out all four of those guys before they could spray him full of 7.62.
One of the South Vietnamese SEALs rushed over to pick Thornton up, and the SEAL asked what had happened to Tom Norris. The SEAL responded, “He’s gone. Let’s go”. The guy said that Norris’s position had been overrun, he was shot in the head and killed, and the rest of the team had to fall back. He urged Thornton to get to the beach to extract, because the window to get out of this alive was very rapidly closing, and a US Cruiser was already maneuvering into position to lay down some cover fire.
But Navy SEALs don’t leave a man behind. And Thornton wasn’t about to start now.
With AK-47 fire zipping around him from every direction, Michael Thornton ran 400 yards through a hail of bullets to reach the body of his good friend. Four NVA troops were standing over the fallen SEAL, but Thornton killed them with his rifle, screaming with rage, and finally fell to his knees at his friend’s side. Norris was bleeding badly from a gunshot to the head, but Thornton wasn’t about to leave that guy behind. With enemy troops ripping shots past his head, and blood pouring from grenade wounds in his back, Mike Thornton threw Tom Norris on his shoulders and started to make a run back for the beach.
It was at this point that the U.S. Navy cruiser reached firing position. And the coordinates the firing teams had were the ones that Tom Norris had given them – at a time when Norris thought he wasn’t going to get out of this fight alive.
The shell landed pretty much right where Norris’s body had been. The explosion blew Thornton 20 feet through the air, slamming him hard to the beach, ringing his ears, and blurring his vision. As he lie on the ground, he heard something amazing. A familiar voice, quiet and fading, but clearly audible even among the gunfire and artillery.
Tom Norris was alive.
Surging with adrenaline, Mike Thornton jumped back to his feet, threw Norris on his back, and started running to the shore. With bullets, mortars, and naval artillery chewing up the beach and the trees around him, Thornton ran though the fire, finally reaching the shore, where one of the Vietnamese SEALs also lay wounded from a gunshot to the back.
Thornton grabbed that guy too. Then he jumped in the water, inflated his life vest, and proceeded to swim through salt water with six grenade wounds in his back for four hours while dragging two seriously wounded men.
The American ship that had been sent to extract the SEALs was preparing to go home, convinced that nobody could have survived that mission, when suddenly they saw a dude in the water shooting his rifle in the air trying to get their attention. It was Mike Thornton.
Every member of the mission survived.
When Thornton received his Medal of Honor in 1973, Tom Norris was still recovering in the hospital, and they weren’t about to let him leave just to attend a medal ceremony. So, the day of the ceremony, Thornton went to the hospital, put Norris in a wheelchair, and snuck him out the back door so he could attend.
After Vietnam, Mike Thornton would go on to be a BUD/S instructor in Coronado, where he would train future Navy SEALs, as well as members of the British Royal Marines’ badass Special Boat Service. He was a founding member of SEAL Team Six in 1980, and retired as a Lieutenant in 1992. Nowadays there’s a really badass statue of his rescue mission standing outside the SEAL museum in Ft. Pierce, Florida.
Defense Media Network
Collier, Peter and Nick Del Calzo. Medal of Honor. New York: Artisan, 2006.
Dockery, Kevin. SEALs in Action. New York: Avon Books, 1991.
Norris, Tom and Mike Thornton. By Honor Bound. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.