Vietnam, October 1972. The North Vietnamese Nguyen Hue Campaign, called by the Americans the Easter Offensive, was over. Though it had failed in achieving its strategic goal of conquering South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese Army had succeeded in seizing and holding sections of South Vietnam, particularly in the north, along the Demilitarized Zone in Quang Tri Province. One of the most important places the Communists had taken was the large Cua Viet River Base at the mouth of the Cua Viet River off the coast of the South China Sea.
The war in Vietnam in 1972 was far different from the one that had seared American memory. As a result of President Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program that passed increasing responsibility for fighting the war to the South Vietnamese, American troops strength was roughly just 60,000 men, almost all of them advisors. The U.S. Navy SEAL force numbered just three officers and nine enlisted men. In their present advisory role, procedure called for two SEALs, one officer and one enlisted man, to be paired with a team of four South Vietnamese Navy Seals (Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia – LDNN) for reconnaissance missions. A typical night recon mission involved the team traveling well out of sight of land in a cement-hulled junk, then rendezvousing with a U.S. Navy destroyer assigned to provide gunfire support. The destroyer would vector the junk to the assigned search area. The team would land using motorized rubber boats that would return to the junk once the SEALs had disembarked. The SEALs would then conduct their recon patrol up to four or five kilometers inland before returning to their pick-up point for exfiltration. Because of the heavy antiaircraft defenses in the region around the DMZ, friendly air support was not an option. If the SEALs got into trouble, their only help would be from the American destroyer.
In late October, the South Vietnamese commander in Da Nang passed a request to Cmdr. Dave Schaible, commanding officer of SEAL Team One, asking for a reconnaissance mission of the Cua Viet River Base area. The purpose was twofold: obtain intelligence on the strength and type of NVA antiaircraft defenses, and determine whether or not it was feasible for South Vietnamese forces to retake the base.
Schaible gave the mission to Lt. Thomas R. Norris, telling him that the LDNN officer had already been chosen, but that he was free to select all the other members of the team. Norris, who had served earlier tours of duty in Vietnam, was so short and slender that under disguise and at night he could be mistaken for a Vietnamese. He also had earned a respectable reputation with his fellow SEALs. His latest exploit had been the harrowing rescue of the downed aviators Lt. Mark Clark and Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton – Bat-21 – on the Cam Lo River six months earlier, in April, at the height of the Easter Offensive. Norris picked as his NCO a SEAL who, on his fourth tour of duty, was the most experienced SEAL enlisted man in Vietnam, Petty Officer Mike Thornton. Unlike Tommy Norris, no one would ever mistake Thornton for a Vietnamese. Tall, broad-shouldered, Thornton was built like an NFL lineman. Norris briefed Thornton on the mission and told him he could pick the Vietnamese enlisted men. He closed the briefing by saying, “Pick the best you can, and take lots of bullets.”
Mike Thornton knew who he wanted, Dang and Kwan, two Vietnamese that he had fought beside in earlier missions. He knew they would never leave his side no matter how bad the fighting got.
The day before the mission was to be launched, the assigned LDNN officer was hurt in a boating accident. His replacement was an officer Norris had worked with in the past. The man was not someone he would have picked if he had a choice, but the decision was out of his hands.
What Norris did do was take the unusual step of tapping a third American SEAL for the mission, Woody Woodruff. Woodruff’s duty was to remain in the cement-hulled junk, which also carried a mortar for close-in fire support, and assist as needed once the team had disembarked from the junk.
On the evening of Oct. 31, Norris and his team boarded the junk and headed north. Though Norris had already arranged for fire support from destroyers in the area, the enemy was staging attacks elsewhere in the province and the U.S. Navy fleet in the area was forced to send its ships to help counter the new threat. As a result, the destroyer they normally would have rendezvoused with and which would have vectored them to their proper landing site was providing gunfire support elsewhere. The LDNN officer talked with the Vietnamese captain of the junk, who assured them that, despite the darkness, he could get them to their landing site. They continued north until the captain told them they had arrived. Quietly the team boarded their rubber boats and inserted.
Once ashore, Thornton peered through his Starlight scope to help him see. With Norris at the point, the Vietnamese in the middle, and Thornton providing security in the rear, they proceeded slowly inland. Thornton almost immediately realized something was wrong; the terrain did not resemble what they were told to expect, and their major landmark, the Cua Viet River, was nowhere to be found. Also, the area was unexpectedly thick with enemy troops. Thornton quietly approached Norris and, using his nickname for the lieutenant, whispered, “Nasty, Nasty, I don’t see the Cua Viet. We’re not where we’re supposed to be.” Norris took the disturbing news in stride. Since this was a reconnaissance mission, and they had found a major enemy force, they would find out as much as they could before leaving and re-inserting in their planned location.
The team found major fortifications, tanks, and other heavy equipment and weapons. Some bunkers they discovered were huge. Indicating one large bunker, Thornton whispered to Norris, “They didn’t build this in 30 days,” referring to how long the North Vietnamese Army had been holding the Cua Viet River Base. Norris and Thornton estimated they had stumbled on a base containing at least three NVA regiments, possibly a division. They reached another conclusion, the team was far north of where it should be – they were in North Vietnam.
As dawn approached, Norris and Thornton decided the team should find a place to lay up during the day and extract that night. Once aboard the junk, they’d redeploy at their assigned location. They found a location that seemed fairly secure, with numerous sand dunes that was flanked by a large lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other. They proceeded to lay up for the day.
Not long after the sun had risen, they saw a two-man NVA patrol emerge from the jungle and approach. One soldier continued down the beach, while the other began walking along the dunes. As the team was well hidden, Norris and Thornton were confident they wouldn’t be found unless the patrol walked straight into their position. Suddenly, the LDNN officer ordered the two Vietnamese enlisted men to capture the patrol. Before the startled Americans could stop them, the LDNN enlisted men took off for the NVA patrol. Thornton immediately dashed to the closest North Vietnamese soldier on the dune and hit him with the butt of his rifle. The other NVA soldier, on the beach, fired a shot before turning around and running back to the jungle and nearby village. Thornton was right behind, running hard to catch him. Thornton managed to shoot the NVA soldier, but by then the damage had been done. The gunfire had alerted the enemy. The American NCO saw at least 50 NVA soldiers heading toward him. Thornton dashed back to the dunes.
A number of things started happening at the same time. Norris had set up a perimeter and had the LDNN troops return fire prior to beginning a retrograde maneuver to the beach and extraction. Dang, in between shooting at the advancing troops, was interrogating the NVA soldier they had captured. Norris would alternate between firing and showing their captive his map, trying to determine their exact location so the Navy ships could get a fix on their position and help with gunfire. Once he got what he thought was a good “fix,” he got on the radio and tried to raise a ship that could bring in supporting gunfire. He succeeded in contacting a destroyer. Unfortunately, the officer he was talking with was young and inexperienced. The staccato communication caused by Norris having to stop and help drive off advancing enemy troops confused the young officer, who was used to dealing with an aerial forward air controller flying above a battle and not someone in the middle of a firefight.
Meanwhile, Thornton was about a hundred yards forward of Norris, and laying down his own defensive fire. Thornton would fire a few rounds, do a quick roll to another location, fire a few more rounds, and roll again. This gave the appearance that the NVA were facing a larger force than they actually were. What they knew for certain was that whomever they were facing knew how to shoot. Thornton had noticed that the NVA soldiers had a habit of peeking above the edge of the sand dune. When they did so, Thornton would take aim at about an inch below the edge of the dune and fire.
As Thornton was whittling down the number of enemy facing them, Norris found himself having to recapitulate on the radio to a new naval officer all the coordinates and firing information he had just passed on. What Norris didn’t realize was that he was in contact with a second destroyer. When the first approached to provide support gunfire, NVA shore batteries responded, hitting the destroyer and forcing it to retire. Unfortunately, when the second destroyer closed, it, too, had to abort due to heavy shelling from the shore batteries.
At some point during this a third ship arrived, the heavy cruiser Newport News. Once again Norris radioed the coordinates of his position and those of the enemy. But with the North Vietnamese soldiers so close, the Newport News could not fire for fear of short rounds landing on Norris’s position.
At one point, Thornton found himself playing deadly “volleyball” with NVA troops that had tossed a grenade at him. Thornton was used to American grenades with their four-second fuses. But the Chinese Communist grenades the NVA troops used had a longer fuse. Thornton would throw their grenade back at them, and they would promptly return it. This went on for a few nerve-wracking throws. Finally, instead of grabbing the grenade when it came back yet again, Thornton began rolling away. As he did so, the grenade finally went off, peppering his back with shrapnel.
Norris saw the explosion and called out to Thornton who, though conscious, didn’t respond. Norris left his position to come and help the SEAL when four NVA soldiers came over the dune. Thornton promptly shot two of the enemy, who fell dead on top of him. The other two fell back and didn’t reappear. Then Norris arrived at Thornton’s side. “How do you think we’re doing so far?” Norris asked. “I don’t know. I think I killed 33 so far,” Thornton replied.
The fighting had lasted for about 45 minutes. Suddenly a quiet descended on the battlefield. Cautiously, both crawled up to the top of a dune to investigate. The sight before them was chilling. Reinforcements had arrived in the form of troops from the 283rd NVA Regiment. An estimated 150 soldiers were attempting a flanking maneuver to surround them.
Norris turned to Thornton and told him to take Kwan and the LDNN officer, fall back to a sand dune closer to the beach and set up a covering position. He and Dang, who still had the radio on his back, would provide cover fire and then follow. As the three left, Norris radioed the Newport News and told the ship to target his position, wait five minutes for them to clear the area, and then fire for effect.
Norris next picked up his LAW, intending to fire the man-portable anti-tank rocket at an approaching group of enemy before breaking off. But as he was raising the rocket tube to his shoulder, a bullet hit him in the head and he fell to the ground.
Meanwhile, Thornton had reached a group of sand dunes roughly a hundred yards from Norris. As he was getting everyone into new defensive positions, a frightened Dang suddenly appeared beside him. “Mike! Dai Wei’s dead! Dai Wei’s dead!” shouted Dang, referring to Norris. “Are you sure?” Thornton asked. Dang told the petty officer he was. Dang was wounded as well. Even though he was still carrying the radio, which somewhat protected him, he had at least two wounds in the back.
Thornton didn’t hesitate. Dead or alive, he was not going to leave his fellow SEAL behind. He told the others to remain where they were and cover him. In a series of short dashes alternating with pauses when he would fire at the enemy, he reached Norris. At first, Thornton thought Dang was right, that Norris was dead. The bullet had entered near one side of Norris’ head and had torn part of his forehead off. Pieces of bone, brain, and flesh were scattered about and there was a large pool of blood. A small group of NVA soldiers appeared on the crest of the dune. Thornton immediately fired on the startled troops, hitting some, driving the rest off. Then he grabbed Norris in a fireman’s carry. As he did so, he heard Norris weakly call out to him. Incredibly, Tommy Norris was still alive. Thornton also picked up the AK-47 Norris had been using as well as his own rifle and began to run back to where the LDNN frogmen were.
Thornton had only gone a few yards, and was at the top of a 30-foot dune, when the first of 104 5-inch rounds fired from the Newport News landed behind them. The concussion from the exploding shells hurled them off the dune. Thornton felt Norris fly off his shoulders and land in front of him at the base of the dune. Thornton fell heavily nearby. Dazed by the concussion, the petty officer was convinced that if Norris wasn’t dead before, he surely had to be dead now. Yet, when he reached down to pick up the lieutenant, Thornton heard him mumble, “Mike, buddy . . .
Shells from the Newport News continued to fall on the enemy positions, damaging bunkers and other structures and setting off a couple of secondary explosions. Thornton reached the Vietnamese frogmen and saw that the Vietnamese officer was gone. The others didn’t know where he was. Dang and Kwan then asked what they were to do next. Thornton explained that they would leapfrog to the beach, with each alternating to stop and lay down a base of fire until all were at the water’s edge. They would then swim out to the ships.
The group then began their leapfrog dash across almost 300 yards of open beach. Just as they reached the water’s edge, Thornton fell down, dropping Norris. Only later would he discover that he had been hit in the calf by an enemy bullet. They discarded all their now unnecessary weapons, radio, and gear and struggled through the 4-foot surf.
Once the group was able to get past the surf, Thornton inflated Norris’s life jacket, and strapped the wounded lieutenant to him. Thornton began swimming in a steady breaststroke motion as enemy bullets struck the water all around them. The petty officer then noticed that Kwan was floundering. He had been hit in the buttocks and was unable to use his legs. Thornton pulled Kwan to him. With one wounded man on his back, and another hugging his chest, Thornton, wounded as well, resumed swimming out to sea as bullets continued to strike the water around him. With each stroke he prayed, “Lord, don’t let them hit me now.”
They eventually got out of range of the small arms fire. But then Thornton saw something that he later said was the worst thing that ever happened in his life. The Newport News was turning away and heading out to sea, leaving them behind. What Thornton didn’t know was that a forward air control airplane had arrived over the battlefield, and after looking at the scattered bodies on the ground, had radioed the Newport News telling the ship that the SEAL team was dead or captured.
But help was on the way in the form of SEAL Woody Woodruff and the cement-hulled junk. Earlier, when the shooting had started, he had been searching along the coast near the original landing site. After learning through radio intercepts that the team was north of their intended position, Woodruff ordered the junk to head north. The first person in the team that Woodruff picked up was the LDNN frogman officer who had preceded everyone into the water. Minutes later the junk was beside the rest of the team and all were safely on board.
Woodruff then radioed the Newport News, informing the ship that they had three wounded men, one seriously. The wounded were transferred to the Newport News and Norris was quickly medevaced first to Da Nang and then to the Philippines and eventually to Bethesda for medical treatment that would last three years.
On Oct. 15, 1973, with Lt. Tommy Norris watching, in a White House ceremony, Petty Officer Mike Thornton received from President Richard Nixon the Medal of Honor. Thornton was the first SEAL enlisted man to be so awarded. His citation read, in part, “By his extraordinary courage and perseverance, Petty Officer 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 United States Naval Service.”
Almost three years later, Thornton was back in the White House, this time to witness his friend Tommy Norris receive the Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford for his rescue of Clark and Hambleton. With that second ceremony, the two achieved a unique distinction. For the first time in the medal’s history, one Medal of Honor recipient had saved the life of another serviceman honored with the nation’s highest decoration for valor.
This article was first published in U.S. Special Operations Command – The First 20 Years.