Michael E. Thornton

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For other people named Michael Thornton, see Michael Thornton (disambiguation).
Michael E. Thornton
Michael E. Thornton at the Army-Navy football game on December 2, 2006 wearing his Medal of Honor
Birth name Michael Edwin Thornton
Born (1949-03-23) March 23, 1949 (age 68)
Greenville, South Carolina
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch  United States Navy
Years of service 1967–1992
Rank US-O3 insignia.svg Lieutenant
Unit SEAL Team 1
SEAL Team 6
Battles/wars Vietnam War
Operation Desert Storm
Desert Shield
Awards Medal of Honor
Silver Star
Bronze Star (3)
Purple Heart

Michael Edwin Thornton (born March 23, 1949) is a retired United States Navy SEAL and a recipient of the U.S. military's highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, for his actions in the Vietnam War. He was awarded the medal for saving the life of his senior officer, Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris, who also earned the Medal of Honor in an unrelated incident.

Early life[edit]

Born on March 23, 1949, in Greenville, South Carolina, Thornton graduated from high school in 1967 and enlisted in the United States Navy later that year in Spartanburg.

Military career[edit]

He served aboard destroyers as a gunner's mate apprentice until November 1968, when he began Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. Upon graduation, he was assigned to SEAL Team 1 and began a series of tours in southeast Asia which ran from January 1, 1970, to December 1972.[1][2]

By the last quarter of 1972, U.S. involvement in the region had waned and Thornton, by then a Petty Officer, was one of only a dozen SEALs remaining in Vietnam. On October 31 of that year, he participated in a mission to capture prisoners and gather intelligence from the Cửa Việt Base near the coast of Quảng Trị Province, just south of the Demilitarized Zone. In addition to Thornton, the mission team consisted of another SEAL, Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris, and three men from the LDNN, the South Vietnamese Special Forces. Approaching by sea, the group was transported by junk until sunset, then paddled a rubber boat to within a mile of shore and swam the remaining distance. Moving inland past numerous North Vietnamese encampments, the group reconnoitered through the night.[1][2]

When morning dawned, the 5-man group realized that they had landed too far north and were actually in North Vietnam. They made their way toward the coast but were spotted by a group of 50 soldiers, beginning an intense five-hour battle. When the group's commander, Lieutenant Norris, was severely wounded, Thornton ran through heavy fire to rescue him. He then carried the unconscious Norris into the water and began swimming out to sea. When one of the LDNNs was wounded, Thornton supported him in the water as well. He swam with the two injured men for more than two hours before being picked up by the same junk which had dropped them off the night before.[2]

For these actions, Thornton was awarded the Medal of Honor. The medal was formally presented to him by President Richard Nixon during a ceremony at the White House on October 15, 1973. The man Thornton rescued, Thomas Norris, survived his wounds and was awarded the Medal of Honor from President Gerald R. Ford in a White House ceremony on March 6, 1976 for his April 1972 rescue of Lt Col Iceal Hambleton and 1stLt Mark Clark from behind enemy lines.[2] From 1974 to 1977, Thornton served as a BUD/S instructor at NAB Coronado, CA and in 1978 was selected to serve two years with the British Royal Marine British Special Boat Squadron (SBS) in an exchange billet. In Fall 1980, Thornton was chosen by Commander Richard Marcinko to be a founding member of SEAL Team Six, the U.S. Navy's first unit dedicated to counterterrorism.[3] Thornton later became a commissioned officer in June 1982 and retired as a Lieutenant. He currently sits on the board of advisors for Veterans Direct.

Medal of Honor citation[edit]

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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 Advisor, along with a U.S. Navy lieutenant serving as Senior Advisor, accompanied a 3-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 Advisor 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 2 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 2 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.[4]

Awards and decorations[edit]

Thornton visiting troops at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in 2008

Thornton received a commission in 1982 as a Limited Duty Officer and retired as a Lieutenant. During his career he was awarded

U.S. Navy SEALs Special Warfare insignia.png Special Warfare insignia
United States Navy Parachutist Badge.png Naval Parachutist insignia
Surface Warfare Officer Insignia.png Surface Warfare Officer insignia
USN - Diving Officer.png Diving Officer insignia
Gold star
Gold star
Gold star
Gold star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Silver star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Silver star
Medal of Honor Silver Star
Bronze Star with "V" device and two gold stars Purple Heart Meritorious Service Medal Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with "V" device and gold star
Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal Combat Action Ribbon with gold star Navy Presidential Unit Citation with two bronze stars Navy Unit Commendation with two bronze stars
Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation with bronze star Navy Good Conduct Medal with two bronze stars Navy Expeditionary Medal National Defense Service Medal with bronze star
Vietnam Service Medal with one silver and two bronze service stars Southwest Asia Service Medal with one bronze service star Humanitarian Service Medal Sea Service Deployment Ribbon
Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Silver Star Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal 1st class Vietnam Staff Service Medal 1st class Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with Palm
Vietnam Civil Actions Unit Citation with Palm Vietnam Campaign Medal Navy Expert Rifleman Medal Navy Expert Pistol Medal

His publications[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Dockery, Kevin (1991). SEALs in Action. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 202–4. ISBN 978-0-380-75886-9. 
  2. ^ a b c d Collier, Peter (2006). Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty. New York: Workman Publishing Company. p. 258. ISBN 978-1-57965-314-9. 
  3. ^ Marcinko, Richard; Weisman (1992). Rogue Warrior. New York: Pocket Books. p. 278. ISBN 0-671-70390-0. 
  4. ^ "Medal of Honor Recipients - Vietnam War (M–Z)". Medal of Honor Citations. United States Army Center of Military History. August 3, 2009. Retrieved October 30, 2010. 

External links[edit]