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Engineman 2nd Class Michael E. Thornton: Profile

Republic of Vietnam...Members of U.S. Navy Seal Team One move down the Bassac River in a Seal team Assault Boat (STAB) during operations along the river south of Saigon., 11/1967 (Photo: National Archives)
Republic of Vietnam...Members of U.S. Navy Seal Team One move down the Bassac River in a Seal team Assault Boat (STAB) during operations along the river south of Saigon., 11/1967 (Photo: National Archives)

One Medal of Honor recipient rescues another during dangerous intel mission.

The two American servicemen paddling quietly in the small inflatable boat near Cua Viet River on Oct. 31, 1972, were among the last military personnel left in Vietnam. Lt. Thomas Norris and Engineman 2nd Class Michael E. Thornton could not have been more different from each other.

Norris, serving his second tour in Vietnam, was slight of build, while Thornton, in country for two years, was as large as a linebacker. Both men, however, were members of the elite Navy SEALs who knew that their mission of capturing a North Vietnamese prisoner and collecting intelligence on the river area carried high risks.

Their team included three South Vietnamese LDNNs — Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia, literally "soldiers who fight under the sea." All five men hid their craft and made their way through the sand dunes. Their mission was uneventful until they were spotted by several NVA soldiers, part of a larger unit in the area. A fierce firefight ensued, and Norris finally ordered his outnumbered team to the sea in a "leapfrogging" maneuver.

As Norris began the maneuver, he was seriously wounded in the head. Norris's LDNN counterpart looked down at the gaping hole in the left side of the American's head and ran to join the rest of the team. "Go, go!" the man shouted as he made it to the last dune.

"Where's my lieutenant?" asked Thornton. "Dead!" replied the LDNN officer, who urged immediate withdrawal.

"Not without my lieutenant," said Thornton, upholding the pledge that no SEAL would ever be left behind by a brother. Thornton, searching frantically for Norris, found him at the same time two enemy soldiers did. Thornton dispatched them and rushed to Norris. Although the head wound was grievous and Norris was unconscious, he was still alive.

Thornton carried his lieutenant into the water and inflated his lifejacket, swam with him until they were out of range of fire, and continued to swim for two hours until they were picked up by the Vietnamese junk that had brought them to their operation position.

Both men survived, and both were awarded Medals of Honor — Norris for an earlier rescue, and Thornton for rescuing Norris. It is the only time one Medal of Honor recipient has saved another's life in combat.

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