Six months after he had rescued Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton (Bat 21), on the evening of Oct. 31, 1972, Navy SEAL Lt. Tommy Norris was again heading north into harm’s way in Vietnam.
This time he was on a junk and his mission was to conduct reconnaissance. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was consolidating the territorial gains won in its spring 1972 Easter Offensive. Norris was leading a recon team tasked with gathering intelligence on a captured South Vietnamese army base near the mouth of the Cua Viet River in Quang Tri province. With Norris were Petty Officer Michael Thornton and three South Vietnamese Navy frogmen (Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia – LDNN).
Shortly after they landed, Norris and Thornton determined the junk’s captain had gotten lost and that they had disembarked in North Vietnam. But Norris figured since this was a reconnaissance mission, they’d find out what they could about this site, then continue their actual mission.
With dawn approaching, Norris and Thornton found a location near the beach that appeared fairly secure. They’d lay up there during the day and extract that night.
Later that morning, a two-man NVA patrol was spotted heading in their general direction. Just when it appeared the patrol would pass by without incident, the LDNN officer ordered the two enlisted LDNN to capture the patrol. A startled Thornton quickly recovered, rushed past the frogmen, knocked out one of the NVA soldiers and, after an exchange of shots, killed the second. But alerted by the gunfire, NVA troops rushed to the area.
A desperate firefight erupted.
After learning their location from the captured NVA soldier, Norris got on the radio and raised help. Two destroyers arrived, but heavy shelling by NVA shore batteries forced them to retire. A third ship, the heavy cruiser Newport News, appeared. Though it could duel with the shore batteries, it could provide little direct help to the team for fear of short rounds landing on Norris’s position.
During a lull in the battle, Norris and Thornton agreed the team should make a dash for the beach. Norris radioed their intentions to the Newport News, giving instructions for the ship to target their position, wait five minutes for them to get clear, then fire for effect. Less than a minute after he signed off, an enemy bullet tore off the forehead of Norris’s skull and knocked him to the ground.
Thornton didn’t hesitate. Dead or alive, he was not going to leave his fellow SEAL behind. Covered by the frogmen and ignoring enemy fire, Thornton reached the still living Norris. Thornton grabbed Norris, and as he began running for the beach, the first of 104 5-inch rounds fired from the Newport News landed. The concussion picked them up and hurled them to the ground. Miraculously, Norris remained alive.
Thornton, carrying Norris and accompanied by the two enlisted LDNN frogmen, soon reached the beach. The LDNN officer was nowhere to be seen. After discarding all excess equipment and inflating their life jackets, Thornton strapped a semi-conscious Norris to his back and they began swimming out to sea. At one point Thornton saw that one of the enlisted LDNN frogmen was wounded. Thornton instructed him to hold onto Thornton’s chest. Wounded himself in the leg, Thornton, with steady breaststrokes and ignoring the sporadic gunfire, began swimming toward the distant Newport News. Shortly after they got out of small arms range, Thornton saw the heavy cruiser turn away and head out to sea, erroneously informed by a forward air control aircraft overhead that the team had been either captured or killed.
Fortunately, the team hadn’t been abandoned. SEAL Woody Woodward, in a cement-hulled junk, had been assigned to provide backup assistance in the mission. Woodward had arrived at the original landing site and, upon learning their real location, headed north to help. Woodward had already rescued the LDNN officer. Despite the latter’s claim that the others were dead, after transferring the officer to the Newport News, Woodward patrolled off the beach and found the rest of the team. Incredibly Norris survived his ordeal, though medical treatment would last three years.
On Oct. 15, 1973 and with Norris in the audience, for his action saving the lives of Norris and the other members of the team, Petty Officer Mike Thornton became the first enlisted SEAL Medal of Honor recipient. Three years later, their roles were reversed. Norris received the Medal of Honor for his rescue of Lt. Col. Hambleton. For only the second time in the medal’s history, one Medal of Honor recipient had saved the life of another serviceman awarded the nation’s highest decoration for valor.