Of the 258 Medals of Honor awarded since the SEALs were authorized 50 years ago, five members of this special operations community have received America’s highest decoration for military valor in combat – three for action in the Vietnam War and one each for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brave men have fought and died building the proud tradition and feared reputation that I am bound to uphold. In the worst of conditions, the legacy of my teammates steadies my resolve and silently guides my every deed. I will not fail.
– Excerpt from the U.S. Navy SEAL Creed
In chronological order these men are Lt. (j.g.) Joseph Robert “Bob” Kerrey, Lt. Thomas R. Norris, Petty Officer (later Lt.) Michael E. Thornton, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, and Petty Officer Michael A. Monsoor. They came from different backgrounds and different parts of the country, but they were all united in their desire to serve their country, doing so as part of a close-knit fraternity considered the best of the best. Their actions “above and beyond the call of duty” included ignoring severe wounds in order to save comrades (Kerrey), daring rescues of downed pilots on two separate occasions (Norris), the sacrificing of his life in order to save his comrades (Monsoor and Murphy), and, uniquely, saving the life of a future Medal of Honor recipient (Thornton). Herein are summaries of the heroic deeds that resulted in their being awarded the Medal of Honor.
Lt. (j.g.) Joseph Robert “Bob” Kerrey, SEAL Team One
In early March 1969, Kerrey received intelligence about a Viet Cong sapper and political cadre unit located on Hòn Tre (Bamboo Island), located off the coast of the popular South Vietnamese resort of Nha Trang. The communists had been a chronic threat in the area. Thanks to a Viet Cong member who opted to ally himself with American forces through the chieu hoi (“open arms”) program, the Americans now had hard intelligence about the makeup and location of the communists’ camp, and a special operations raid was organized. In his autobiography, When I Was a Young Man, Kerrey wrote that, after he and his men had been ferried close to the island, his plan was to load his team into two rubber boats, “land, hide our boats, hand climb a cliff to where our targets were sleeping, awaken them with force, bind and gag them with tape, and call for a helicopter to remove them to Nha Trang.”
The night of March 14 was dark, “one of the darkest nights we had in Vietnam,” he recalled, which greatly aided them in landing on the island, climbing a 350-foot cliff, and approaching the enemy camp without detection.
The enemy force had split into two groups. Kerrey’s team found the first group asleep and quickly bound and gagged them and prepared them for extraction. Kerrey then divided his command, leaving one element to guard their prisoners while he led the other element on a search for the second enemy force.
But instead of being asleep, the second group was moving, and the two sides spotted each other almost simultaneously.
A firefight erupted, with Kerrey being severely wounded by a grenade that exploded at his feet. He quickly applied a tourniquet to his right leg and, despite this and other wounds, calmly directed his element’s fire at the enemy’s position. He then got on his radio and coordinated supporting cross fire from the SEAL element guarding the prisoners. After about an hour, the enemy fire was sufficiently suppressed that they could call for an extraction. Helicopters soon arrived and Kerrey and other wounded were promptly medically evacuated (MEDEVACed). The prisoners and other SEALs eventually made it safely back to base.
“You must accept this award for everyone who should have been recognized but was not. You must wear it for others.”
Ultimately, Kerrey’s right foot had to be amputated. Kerrey recalled in his book that it was during his recuperation from his wounds that he was informed that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor. Shortly after getting that news, he was in San Diego visiting his platoon that had just returned from Vietnam, and told them of his reluctance to accept the medal. SEAL Chief Petty Officer Barry Enoch immediately told him he really had no choice, stating, “You must accept this award for everyone who should have been recognized but was not. You must wear it for others.”
On May 14, 1970, Lt. (j.g.) Joseph Robert “Bob” Kerrey, together with a number of other servicemen, received the Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon in a White House ceremony.
Lt. Thomas R. Norris, SEAL Team TWO
On the night of April 10, 1972, SEAL Lt. Thomas R. Norris, leading a handpicked team of five South Vietnamese Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia (LDNN), or “soldiers who fight under the sea,” similar to Navy SEALs, paddled a sampan more than a mile up the Cam Lo River to get Clark.
In early April 1972, two American airmen were trapped deep behind enemy lines in Quang Tri province, Vietnam. One of them, Lt. Col. Iceal “Gene” Hambleton – code name Bat-21B – had managed to evade capture for more than a week. Because Hambleton was an intelligence officer with intimate knowledge of aerial and missile operations, it was doubly imperative he be rescued. Numerous aerial attempts had been made; all had failed. One of those attempts had resulted in a second airman, Lt. Mark Clark (contrary to some accounts, no relation to the World War II general), needing rescue as well, and the calling off of further aerial efforts. The two airmen were then told that the next attempt would be a land rescue up the monsoon-swollen Cam Lo River.
On the night of April 10, 1972, SEAL Lt. Thomas R. Norris, leading a handpicked team of five South Vietnamese Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia (LDNN), or “soldiers who fight under the sea,” similar to Navy SEALs, paddled a sampan more than a mile up the Cam Lo River to get Clark. Clark’s trip to the pick-up point was a harrowing one. Twice he was almost spotted by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) patrols. But, at around dawn on the morning of April 11, Clark and Norris linked up and the sampan sped back down the Cam Lo River to their Forward Operating Base (FOB) and safety.
Shortly after Norris’s sampan returned, the FOB came under attack by a strong NVA unit that was only repulsed after numerous air strikes were called in. The attack caused several casualties, including the killing of two of the South Vietnamese LDNNs.
On the night of April 12, Norris, together with the remaining three LDNNs, attempted to reach Hambleton. They traveled upriver about 4 kilometers but failed to rendezvous with him. Two of the three South Vietnamese LDNNs were so intimidated by the large number of NVA troops they saw along their route that they refused to return.
On the night of April 13, after receiving updated directions from a Forward Air Controller who had identified Hambleton’s location, Norris and LDNN Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet, dressed as local fishermen, got into a sampan and headed upriver.
With the sun high overhead and dodging enemy fire from the other side of the river, Norris and Kiet returned Bat-2 to the FOB. Hambleton’s ordeal was finally over.
After several harrowing close calls with NVA troops, they found Hambleton; weak and delirious but still alive. Quickly they got him into the sampan and hid him under some bamboo. Now it was a race against time to get back before dawn. Twice they were discovered by North Vietnamese troops. The first time they managed to escape downriver before the patrol could fire at them. The second time they found themselves cut off by an enemy unit with a heavy machine gun. Norris radioed for an air strike. Soon seven airplanes from the USS Hancock arrived, and their attacks enabled Norris to resume his downriver journey.
With the sun high overhead and dodging enemy fire from the other side of the river, Norris and Kiet returned Bat-2 to the FOB. Hambleton’s ordeal was finally over.
The U.S. Navy awarded Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet the Navy Cross, the only South Vietnamese Navy member to be so honored. On March 6, 1976, in a White House ceremony, President Gerald Ford presented Lt. Thomas R. Norris with the Medal of Honor. If it hadn’t been for fellow SEAL Petty Officer Michael Thornton, Norris might not have lived to receive it. The reason why is in the next account.
Petty Officer Second Class Michael E. Thornton, SEAL Team One
About six months after his rescue of Bat-21, in late October 1972, Lt. Thomas R. Norris was even deeper behind enemy lines. This time he was leading a team that included SEAL Petty Officer Second Class Michael E. Thornton and three South Vietnamese commandos on a high risk/high reward reconnaissance mission of the Cua Viet River military base that had been captured by the NVA.
The team was ferried up the South China Sea the night of Oct. 30, 1972, and landed on a beach believed close to the base. The team stealthily entered the enemy base – and quickly discovered that instead of being in the Cua Viet River base, they were dropped north of the Demilitarized Zone border separating South and North Vietnam, and that they were reconnoitering a large NVA base!
The team continued its mission and returned to the beach early on the morning of Oct. 31 to await exfiltration. As they waited, an NVA patrol wandered close. Before Norris or Thornton could stop him, the South Vietnamese commander ordered two of his commandos to capture the patrol. Instead, a firefight broke out, attracting more NVA troops. The next thing Norris and Thornton knew, they were in a fight for their lives in a tactical situation that could only be described as a disaster about to get worse.
Norris was hit in the face and part of his forehead was shot off, exposing his brain. Ignoring the hail of enemy fire, Thornton dashed up and grabbed his lieutenant, who he thought was dead. Amazingly, Norris was still alive.
And, when Norris received his Medal of Honor in 1976, Thornton had the distinction of becoming the only Medal of Honor recipient to save the life of a fellow recipient.
The team retreated to the sea, where Thornton, wounded across his back and legs by a grenade, inflated Norris’s life vest and the vest of one of the commandos, who also had been wounded. After inflating his own vest, Thornton began swimming the two wounded men out to sea for rendezvous with their support craft.
The trio’s ordeal lasted hours. Thornton saw one support craft leave the area after having picked up the South Vietnamese commander, who had swum ahead and informed the crew that he was the only survivor. But a second support craft manned by fellow SEAL Woody Woodruff remained in the area, spotted the trio, and rescued them.
Though it would take numerous operations and years to recuperate, miraculously Norris survived. On Oct. 15, 1973, Petty Officer Second Class Michael Thornton received his Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon. Norris was there to witness it. And, when Norris received his Medal of Honor in 1976, Thornton had the distinction of becoming the only Medal of Honor recipient to save the life of a fellow recipient.
Lt. Michael P. Murphy, SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team ONE
On the night of June 27, 2005, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, a Long Island native who had turned his back on a promising law career to become a SEAL, and his team, including Petty Officers Second Class Marcus Luttrell, Matthew G. Axelson, and Danny P. Dietz, boarded the MH-47 Chinook from the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment – the Night Stalkers – to conduct their part in Operation Red Wings, an operation designed to stop insurgents from disrupting the upcoming national elections in Afghanistan. Theirs was a special reconnaissance mission aimed at locating Ahmad Shah, who led a guerrilla group called the Mountain Tigers and was aligned with the Taliban and other militant groups operating close to the Pakistani border.
Discovering their initial observation site to be unsuitable due to fog, they moved to a second location where, at about noon, their mission was compromised when they were discovered by three goatherds leading their goats. As there was no evidence they were insurgents, they were allowed to go.
The SEALs moved to a third location, but about two hours after being discovered, they were attacked from the high ground behind them by Ahmad Shah and his men.
A running firefight down the mountain slope ensued. The SEALs’ goal was to reach the village in the valley far below and turn a hut into a fortress where they would fight off Shah and his men until reinforcements arrived.
The SEALs stopped their descent only long enough to return fire and try to communicate with Bagram [a U.S. base and airfield in Afghanistan]. But they were in a communications “dead zone,” unable to establish two-way contact.
Meanwhile, Shah used his advantage in superior numbers and high ground to keep up constant pressure. Dietz was killed, and the others all wounded.
When Murphy, Luttrell, and Axelson reached their latest defensive position, Murphy took out his Iridium satellite phone. The only way Murphy could connect with the communication satellites above, however, was to expose himself to enemy fire. He moved out from protective cover and in plain sight of the enemy hit the speed-dial button on the phone.
After listening on the phone for another moment, he replied, “Roger that, sir. Thank you.” Then he hung up and staggered back to his fellow SEALs.
With AK-47 bullets ricocheting around him, Murphy said, “My men are taking heavy fire … we’re getting picked apart. My guys are dying out here … we need help.”
An AK-47 round struck him in the back and burst through his chest. The impact knocked Murphy forward and caused him to drop his rifle and phone. Somehow, he managed to reach down and pick both up. After listening on the phone for another moment, he replied, “Roger that, sir. Thank you.” Then he hung up and staggered back to his fellow SEALs.
Rescue was on the way.
They were SEALs, but they were not supermen. Murphy was soon hit again. The concussion from an RPG explosion knocked Luttrell down the slope, an event that ultimately helped save his life, making him the only survivor of the ordeal. Luttrell’s last sight of Axelson was of him using his sidearm; Axelson had three magazines left for his pistol. When a search party found his body days later, only one magazine remained unused.
The rescue attempt itself ended in disaster. A Chinook carrying 8 SEALs and 8 Army Night Stalkers was hit by an RPG. All personnel aboard were killed.
Axelson, Dietz, and Luttrell were awarded the Navy Cross. On Oct. 22, 2007, in a ceremony in front of his parents, President George W. Bush posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Lt. Michael P. Murphy.
Petty Officer Second Class Michael A. Monsoor, SEAL Team THREE
In April 2006, Mike Monsoor’s 19-man SEAL platoon was deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, and assigned to the Mulaab area, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Ramadi. Grafitti on building walls boasted that it was “the graveyard of the Americans.”
When he wasn’t patrolling on the mean streets of Ramadi, Monsoor, who was the team’s heavy weapons machine gunner and communicator, was above them – stationed in rooftop sniper posts. There, acting in his role as a communications specialist, he spotted enemy positions and called in supporting fire.
On Sept. 29, 2006, Col. Sean MacFarland, the commander of troops in Ramadi, launched Operation Kentucky Jumper, a combined coalition battalion clearance and isolation operation in southern Ramadi using integrated American and Iraqi forces.
Monsoor’s assignment was to serve as the machine gunner for a combined-force team of four SEALs and eight Iraqi army soldiers tasked to serve as a sniper overwatch element guarding the western flank of a unit sweeping the area. The SEAL/Iraqi team quickly found a rooftop location that gave them a good field of view and as much defensive security as possible.
Using tactical periscopes to scan over the walls for enemy activity, they soon spotted a group of four armed insurgents conducting reconnaissance for follow-on attacks of the U.S./Iraqi ground force moving through the area. The snipers promptly engaged them, killing one and wounding another. Not long after, another mutually supporting SEAL/Iraqi army team killed another enemy fighter. After these two actions, area residents who supported the insurgents began blocking off the streets around the teams with rocks. The purpose was twofold: to warn away civilians and to identify the location of the sniper teams for the insurgents.
Monsoor shouted “Grenade!” and as he threw himself onto the grenade, it detonated. Shrapnel from the explosion hit the two SEALs closest to him, wounding them. But Monsoor’s body had absorbed most of the blast.
The first attack occurred in the early afternoon, when a vehicle loaded with armed insurgents charged their position. Though the SEALs and Iraqis successfully repulsed the assault, they knew the insurgents would follow up with additional attacks. Despite this risk, the men stayed with the mission and refused to evacuate.
The SEAL lieutenant in charge repositioned his men, placing Monsoor with his heavy machine gun on the roof outcrop that overlooked the most likely avenue of attack.
Monsoor was using a tactical periscope when an insurgent on the street managed to get close enough to hurl a hand grenade up onto the roof. The grenade hit Monsoor in the chest and bounced onto the rooftop. Monsoor was just a couple of steps away from the exit door. He could have leaped through it to safety. But there were three other SEALs and eight Iraqi soldiers nearby, and no time to throw the grenade over the side of the building.
Monsoor shouted “Grenade!” and as he threw himself onto the grenade, it detonated. Shrapnel from the explosion hit the two SEALs closest to him, wounding them. But Monsoor’s body had absorbed most of the blast. Medical evacuation was immediately requested, and within minutes the three wounded were carried away. Monsoor was still alive when he arrived at the field hospital. But his wounds were mortal. Thirty minutes after he had acted to save the lives of those with him, 25-year-old Michael Monsoor died.
On April 8, 2008, at a White House ceremony in front of his parents, President George W. Bush posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Petty Officer Second Class Michael A. Monsoor.
This article first appeared in Navy Seals 50: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the U.S. Navy SEALs.