Petty Officer Michael Thornton: Quite Possibly the Baddest Man in the Entire World

Petty Officer Michael Thornton was a highly decorated career Navy SEAL who distinguished himself in combat in Vietnam.

Michael Thornton was born in 1949 in South Carolina. He graduated from high school in 1966 and immediately enlisted in the US Navy.

SEAL training is legendarily grueling.

In 1968 Thornton was one of sixteen BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) graduates out of a starting class of 129.

The fictional war hero John Rambo had nothing on real-world Navy SEAL Mike Thornton.

Four years later on a bullet-swept beach in North Vietnam, Petty Officer Thornton made John Rambo look like a Sunday School teacher.

Naval Special Warfare soldiers were still pulling covert missions at the very end of the war in Vietnam. Mike Thornton is in the center. Note the blue jeans.

The war in Vietnam was winding down, and Michael Thornton was one of only a dozen Navy SEALs remaining in the country. On October 31, 1972, Thornton formed a team along with a SEAL officer named Thomas Norris and three South Vietnamese Special Forces operators.

Vietnam-era Navy SEALs were masters of unconventional warfare.

Their mission was to gather intelligence and capture prisoners for interrogation from the Cua Viet Naval Base north of Quang Tri. Thornton had worked with his three South Vietnamese counterparts before and trusted them as brothers.

SEAL stands for Sea/Air/Land. Waterborne insertions are their specialty.

The plan was to insert via rubber boat launched from a South Vietnamese junk. At dusk, they launched their small boat and then swam the last mile to reach their objective. In the darkness, they found that they had made a navigation error and landed well within North Vietnam. Advancing inland past numerous enemy positions they simply continued the mission.

Though the mission was a quiet reconnaissance and prisoner snatch, Thornton’s SEAL detachment was loaded for bear.

Their intelligence gathering complete, the small Naval Special Warfare team encountered a pair of North Vietnamese soldiers patrolling on the beach and attempted to capture them. When this operation went awry one of the NVA troops escaped and ran toward the jungle to alert his comrades. Thornton gave chase and was forced to shoot the man with a handgun, drawing the attention of some fifty NVA regulars located nearby. The result was a simply epic firefight.

Aggressive fire and maneuver kept the enemy confused concerning the size of Thornton’s small unit. The effective use of LAW (Light Antitank Weapon) rockets by the South Vietnamese SEALs helped slow down the attacking NVA troops.

Thornton picked up a load of shrapnel in his back from an NVA grenade early on but kept on fighting. The five allied warriors fired and moved constantly to keep the attacking NVA troops confused about the modest size of their small detachment.

Thornton attempted to call in friendly naval gunfire from American destroyers offshore but return fire from NVA shore batteries pushed the warships out of range. Over the next four hours, the five frogmen kept around 150 enemy troops at bay. With the coming dawn, however, things began to look bleak.

Only courage and implacable force of will got Mike Thornton and his team off that hostile beach.

The five sailors charged toward the water’s edge with Thornton in the lead and Norris taking up the rear. In the process, the unit commander took a round to the head and was presumed dead. When one of the South Vietnamese operators informed Thornton he ran back through blistering NVA fire to recover the body of his fallen friend. He arrived to find four NVA soldiers gathered around Norris’ inert form and killed them all.

As he lifted the limp man to his shoulders he observed that the whole side of his head seemed to be missing. Norris was, however, still breathing.

Thornton killed several of the pursuing NVA soldiers by firing his CAR15 assault rifle one-handed while carrying his severely injured commander to the water’s edge.

Running four hundred yards under fire carrying Norris on his shoulders, Thornton still managed to effectively engage the attacking NVA soldiers by firing his CAR15 assault rifle one-handed.

Mike Thornton’s extraordinary feat of heroism is memorialized in bronze outside the Navy UDT/SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida. Mike Thornton is on the left. Tommy Norris is on the right.

Tom Norris had previously called naval gunfire in on his position from a nearby heavy cruiser requesting a five-minute delay on the fire mission. When he was struck in the head and immobilized the timeline for the extraction fell apart. The supporting cruiser ultimately fired 104 five-inch high explosive rounds onto the beach.

When Naval gunfire support finally impacted, the two SEALs were blown fully twenty feet into the air. Petty Officer Thornton regained his senses, again hefted his buddy, and charged for the ocean. Once at the water’s edge Thornton found that one of his South Vietnamese comrades had been shot through the buttocks and was unable to swim.

Mike Thornton was not the sort of man to quit just because he was peppered with shrapnel and abandoned on a hostile Vietnamese beach.

Shoving both the severely wounded Norris and the South Vietnamese soldier into the surf, Thornton dragged them both out into open water. Once out of small arms range, Thornton bandaged Norris’ head wound as best he could. He subsequently trod water, keeping himself and his two injured comrades afloat for another three hours. The supporting vessels had presumed the patrol lost and retreated to safety.

Tommy Norris had an AK47 strapped to his body as Mike Thornton carried him into the surf. Thornton used this weapon to alert friendly troops in a South Vietnamese junk.

One of the South Vietnamese frogmen was eventually picked up by a friendly junk and reported both Americans killed. In desperation, Thornton fired Norris’ AK47 into the air and got the attention of an American SEAL onboard. Once taken aboard the South Vietnamese junk, the team was transported to the USS Newport News, the heavy cruiser that had recently fired in support of their extraction.

The heavy cruiser USS Newport News provided fire support to the beleaguered SEAL detachment. Surgeons onboard the vessel were the first to treat injured SEAL Thomas Norris.

Mike Thornton personally carried his friend Tom Norris into the big warship’s operating room only to be told that the severely injured man was beyond saving. Thornton insisted that the surgeon try his best regardless.

Mike Thornton was awarded the Medal of Honor roughly one year after his actions that saved his fellow operators.

A year later Michael Thornton was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon.

Thornton went on to a long and distinguished career in US Navy Special Operations.

Mike Thornton eventually served as an instructor at the BUD/S course in Coronado. He also did an exchange program with the elite British Special Boat Squadron and became a founding member of SEAL Team Six. Thornton was eventually commissioned and left the Navy as a Lieutenant in 1992.

Mike Thornton saved Tommy Norris’ life in 1972 on a beach in North Vietnam.

Tom Norris’ story did not end in the operating room of the Newport News in 1972. He survived his ordeal after a nineteen-hour emergency surgery. Multiple surgical procedures and many months of hospitalization later he was medically discharged from the Navy.

Tom Norris went on to complete training at the FBI academy despite the grievous nature of his injuries.

Not satisfied with medical retirement Norris applied for and received a waiver to attend the FBI academy at Quantico, Virginia. He went on to serve twenty years as a special agent in the FBI.

Tom Norris was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on a previous mission. The details of his exploits were memorialized in the movie BAT21.

Tom Norris was himself awarded the Medal of Honor for an extraordinary mission to rescue downed American pilots some six months prior to his wounding on that North Vietnamese beach. His exploits were immortalized in the book and movie BAT21. Thornton and Norris were two of only three Navy SEALs to be awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. Norris’s MOH mission was incredible in its own right and will likely be the focus of our efforts at some point in the future.

The Guns

Vietnam-era Navy SEALs carried a variety of unconventional weapons. Note the Stoner Light Machine Guns and AK 47 rifles in this team photo.

Vietnam-era Navy SEALs had great latitude in selecting their personal weapons.

Navy SEALs in Vietnam occasionally obtained their weapons from some unconventional sources.

A good friend who served as a SEAL in Vietnam in 1970 carried an M14, a Colt 1911A1, and a Browning pump 12-gauge shotgun stoked with buckshot whenever he went downrange. The shotgun carried a total of nine rounds onboard and was the product of a particularly successful night of poker soon after he arrived in the country. He cut the wooden buttstock down into a pistol grip and slung the gun over his shoulder on a makeshift single point sling.

The SEAL on the right is packing a Stoner 63 LMG. The one on the left has a highly modified M60 machine gun.

While the Stoner 63 light machinegun was a SEAL favorite, Michael Thornton carried a COLT CAR15 during his MOH mission.

The technical designation for the CAR15 was the XM177E2 Colt Commando. Issued with two slightly different barrel lengths, this stubby little carbine eventually evolved into today’s M4.

This compact carbine was a shortened version of the standard M16A1 that armed most of the conventional troops deployed during the war.

The CAR15 was popular for its modest weight and fast handling characteristics.

Sporting either a 10 or 11.5-inch barrel, a telescoping aluminum stock, and a sound moderator, the 5.56mm CAR15 was popular among aircrews, dog handlers, and Special Forces troops. By the end of the war, there were only about one thousand 30-round magazines available for these weapons in Vietnam. Special operators like Navy SEALs typically got first dibs.

The AK47 saw its first widespread use against American forces during the Vietnam War. American soldiers developed a healthy respect for the gun’s extraordinary reliability and exceptional firepower.

Tom Norris carried a captured AK47 during this mission. Special Forces troops frequently employed enemy weapons on clandestine operations. This practice would minimize the possibility of hostile troops distinguishing them by the sound of their gunfire. The AK47 was a rugged and effective assault rifle that was readily available in the latter stages of the war.

Mikhail Kalashnikov developed the most widely distributed combat rifle in human history as he recovered from wounds incurred fighting the Germans on the Eastern Front during World War 2.

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov developed the gun that would become the AK47 during the waning months of the Second World War. Firing a true intermediate 7.62x39mm cartridge via an unnaturally reliable long-stroke gas-operated system, the AK47 found its way into the hands of communist soldiers and insurgents around the globe. With more than 100 million of these tough guns in service, these weapons will be found anyplace men kill each other for untold generations to come.

Denouement

Mike Thornton’s dedication to country, mission, and teammates was awe-inspiring. He is shown here along with Tommy Norris, the SEAL whose life he saved during his MOH operation. If that picture doesn’t move you then something about you is broken.

Michael Thornton’s superhuman display of courage and stamina eclipses anything depicted in a Hollywood epic. That the man he rescued did himself earn the Medal of Honor on an unrelated mission simply speaks to the caliber of the warriors that served with the US Navy SEALs during the protracted war in Southeast Asia.

Mike Thornton is a legendary American hero.

While the causes and prosecution of the war in Vietnam are certainly open for debate, none could dispute that Michael Thornton’s actions on that dark Vietnamese beach were the stuff of legend. Mike Thornton was and is a true American hero.

Navy SEALs in Vietnam pioneered unconventional warfare in an asymmetric battlefield.

About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 55 comments… add one }
  • ANDy MCTIGUE May 4, 2021, 4:26 pm

    Mike has a great personal story too. Class 49, was brutal (as always) but mike took time even during hell week to help others and listen to their “personal plight. “

  • Lejames Suess March 4, 2021, 12:33 am

    My nephew Frederick “Skip” Hudson Borghi served two hitches in Nam as a helicopter crew chief in 1966 & 67. Had several soft emergency landings and a couple of hard landings the he lived through. Great kid, killed in a single engine aircraft accident two years later. I miss that kid!

  • Richard A Boothe February 19, 2021, 1:17 pm

    Thank You Sir, RLTW!

  • Joe February 3, 2021, 8:22 pm

    It’s not a war it’s a police action

    Sarcasem

  • Hershel January 24, 2021, 3:10 pm

    I sure wish I could have spent more than thirty years with these crazies, life is kinda boring now.

    • Betty Moore February 10, 2021, 9:39 pm

      WE NEED TO SEND THE DEMOCRAT CRAZIES TO WAR AND SEE REAL HEROES. TODAY MEN AND WOMEN ARE DISGUSTING AND COWARDS, ESPECIALLY THE LIBERAL PROGRESSIVE SOCIALIST COMMUNIST DEMOCRATS. THEY ARE ALL COWARDS.

  • jenn January 23, 2021, 1:39 am

    this was an amazing read. i wish more things like this got into the news now a days. we can’t learn this stuff if we are silenced or have no platforms to read it on. thank you for sharing this. so many brave people out there and all we hear about is high school congress.

  • BR549 January 22, 2021, 10:51 pm

    Curious if Mr. Biden and his dysfunctional entourage will be trying to take Mike Thornton’s guns away at some point.

    Asking for a friend. /s

  • dave brown January 22, 2021, 12:53 pm

    Maha just added what might be the only Political comment here. Sad as this ain’t about that kind of stuff. This is about US as in USA, and those of us that don’t much care what side or party they were on. During Nam a lot of us did not like our Government, but most of us still supported our troops without wondering who they voted for. God Bless US USA, All of US.

    • Mike V January 22, 2021, 9:38 pm

      I’m not sure it’s political.

      You read stories like this, an absolute display of personal greatness and these were and are the guys who get told what to do and where to do it by the goobers we elect.

      The best of us never seem to be in the top spot.

  • Maha January 22, 2021, 10:52 am

    We have great men like this, and Joe Biden is the president?

    • Peter Brown January 22, 2021, 12:05 pm

      biden isn’t a president and never will be. biden is a Trojan horse.

      • Alex January 27, 2021, 11:55 am

        Wake up Peter and embrace the real world.

    • dave brown January 22, 2021, 12:56 pm

      You are in the wrong place and the wrong time on this one. Who cares about stuff like that when you just read about more than one Great American.

      • Ej harbet January 28, 2021, 9:01 am

        Fake election
        Fake president
        Real tyrant puppet
        Supported by fake americans

  • RORY STEIDL January 22, 2021, 10:12 am

    SALUTE !

  • SD January 22, 2021, 7:56 am

    Great story and photos. It’s a shame we don’t have more like him

    • Andrew Stoy January 22, 2021, 11:52 am

      I suspect we do, we just have not heard about all of them yet!!!

  • Bill Breault January 22, 2021, 7:21 am

    Just finished working the nightshift, checked email quick and got hooked on this story. As a veteran of Desert Storm and with 21 years on a SWAT Team, stories like this reinforce why I do what I do. What a hero, true American and certainly an example for others. Especially in today’s age with the anti-American sentiment, Mr. Thornton embodies who we are, American’s…

  • Marc January 22, 2021, 3:44 am

    The OSS founded Unconventional Warfare for the US military in WWII. After the war the OSS was disbanded but the requirements remained and eventually the CIA was created along with the Army’s Special Forces (under former OSS Officer Aaron Bank).

    SEALs are well trained guys but in mission profile closer to Army Rangers, not true, full-spectrum unconventional warriors.

  • Mason January 21, 2021, 10:42 pm

    Great job that you always amaze me and everything you do. Mason

  • Dr. John C. Stitt January 19, 2021, 11:03 pm

    Thank you. Amazing heroism.

  • JR54 January 19, 2021, 9:22 pm

    Funny how this man and others risked their lives for the benefit of our country, only to be deceived by the likes of media correspondents. Specifically Walter Cronkite. The conflict was, at that time, being won by the US. Ask the NVR or Vietcong.
    Today, we seem to be basing our decisions on, once again, the media. No one in particular, such as the news opinions of the Vietnam conflict. There is a flurry of opinionated, “get the story”, Americans out there. No matter what it does to our Republic.

    • Eq-68 January 22, 2021, 9:24 am

      So True … South Viet Nam is democratic ic … oh wait no it isn’t.

      Not saying all the soldiers efforts were not heroic… they were. Especially since the Johnson Administration specifically had a no win strategy per the actual administration in their own words (Viet Nam A TV History documentary ). Also Johnson had economic ties to war suppliers.

      We won battles but we lost the war bottom line. Not due to soldiers but the Administration.

      History is clear. We should have never done the escalation of troops there. Viet Nam was correctly considered the right environment for newly formed special forces by JFK. Johnson did the troop escalation with conventional troops which was wrong.

  • STEVE LUTZ January 19, 2021, 4:28 pm

    Enjoyed this story very much. I was in the USN in the early 70’s and even though I might have dreamed of being a SEAL:, I would have NEVER made the grade!
    BTW,, my first firearm was given to me by my dad, a Remington 870 Wingmaster. I’ve extended the tube mag on it to hold 8, 2 and one-half inch 12 gauge rounds. It’s a little heavy when loaded, but I don’t mind.

    • James Rossetti January 22, 2021, 7:50 am

      Yea , first shotgun I bought at 13 for $100, from wages working on my parent’s farm all summer at .50 cents a hour, was a Wingmaster. I cracked the barrel duck hunting with steel shot that had rusted, so I cut it off to 18 inches and eventually put a tactical adjustable stock and foreend and extension tube to hold 7+1,and shelll receiver saddle. I still have it setup for home defense as a backup shotgun. ( My primary is a Beretta 1301 tac.) Still cycles nicely even though it is almost 50 years old.

  • Tony Thornton January 19, 2021, 3:19 pm

    Great article on a namesake Patriot and American Hero.
    From an old salt–Tony Thornton

  • Darrell January 18, 2021, 11:31 pm

    JUST OUTSTANDING

  • B. Ray January 18, 2021, 9:49 pm

    Doc, you mention a Browning pump shotgun but as far as I know Browning didn’t produce a pump shotgun until 1977. Are you referring to maybe the John Browning designed Winchester 97 or model 12 or Ithaca 37??? I’m genuinely curious now.

    • Will Dabbs January 19, 2021, 11:03 am

      Good question and I don’t know. The gent in question was a co-worker from several years back who always referred to his primary counter-ambush weapon as a pump-action Browning. However, I have found that a lot of those old heroes might not be exactly spot-on in describing their firearms. They were warriors, where most of us are just gun nerds. To many of them the guns they carried were just tools. He did say it had a long magazine tube and packed a lot of rounds.

  • John M. Miller January 18, 2021, 7:09 pm

    A bit of clarification, The XM 177E2 used a sound ”moderator” on the 11 1/2 ” barrel in attempts to bring the dB to the level of the M16 / M16A1 rifle. Photos in the book ”THE BLACK RIFLE” show the interior construction.
    The Civilian copies used a hollow tube with the FIFS machined on the muzzle, acting as a flash suppressor &
    to satisfy ATFE requirements of a 16” barrel (only if permanently attached) The M177E2 / GAU 5-A did have some functioning difficulties but further development cleared the way for the M4 Carbine. Maj Dabbs MD is historically correct about the configuration of this carbine. CHEERS, CWO John Miller (RET ORDNANCE), Viet-Nam Vet, 2 tours in mid 60s working on these blasters.

  • william bryant January 18, 2021, 2:24 pm

    Car 15 didn’t have a sound modulator, that was a flash supressor, The ATF decided it was a sound supressor(Silencer) and banned them from use on AR15’s for a long time, enjoy your stories

  • John Bibb January 18, 2021, 1:48 pm

    ***
    Thank you for the excellent article. Great photos of these SEALS–The best of the best for sure!
    ***
    John Bibb
    ***

  • Jim January 18, 2021, 12:52 pm

    I enjoy your topics, Will. Thanks.

  • Dr JDL January 18, 2021, 12:42 pm

    Awesome story! Keep’em coming please!!!

  • Frank Romo January 18, 2021, 11:28 am

    Men of this caliber, are what legends are made of, these type of warriors are what kept the enemy from sleeping…thanks for sharing.

  • Nate January 18, 2021, 11:16 am

    Thank you for not mentioning the name of the third SEAL MOH recipient. We all know he became a POS politician.

    • DELCO January 25, 2021, 12:54 pm

      Stories like this bring a strong realization of how far we have come. Kids today have strokes if the WIFI goes down for an hour. We used to teach kids Gun safety in school now a water pistol draws a suspension. We have come very far from when men like these didn’t just say words like Honor, loyalty, patriotism they truly truly lived and died by them. When we see those Anti American antifa/BLM cowards burning the Flag after men like this gave everything they had including their lives it makes fighting for the same values as them all that much more important. That doesn’t mean taking up arms, but it does mean having the discipline to not use amazon, google, Apple, FB, Twitter, those types who continue to fight against the principles of great men and truly Great Americans like these.

    • Fitz February 6, 2021, 9:23 am

      The third MOH seal was named Kerrey,but not that POS that worked for Obummer. Different first names.

  • OldOutdoorsGuy January 18, 2021, 10:54 am

    What words do I have that would do justice to this story, I am sitting here in tears simply remembering my time in the military in the mid-60’s and how safe I was from the awful scenes in Vietnam at that time, with the worse still to come as the fighting ramped up and more of our men and women were killed in that place. I almost feel that I had shirked my duties to have spent most of my time in Europe working to defend those free countries from the aggression of communism which lurked just across the borders of so many European nations. These men of whom you write did so much more than I could ever have done to keep freedom alive abroad but, as I have been told years ago, “every little bit counts at the end of the day” and that helps to get me along on my own personal journey on this tiny bit of rock we call our home …….

  • Mike USN Ret January 18, 2021, 9:15 am

    Unless my aging eyes deceive me in the photo above, Mike Thornton retired as a LCDR and not a LT.

    • FTG1 January 18, 2021, 11:08 am

      I ditto Mike’s comment – the shoulder boards on his formal white coat picture are of a LCmdr.

    • OldOutdoorsGuy January 18, 2021, 11:28 am

      The 1st photo of him in his dress whites shows his rank as a Lt., the 2nd photo of him in his dress whites, a photo of him with his hand on Tommy Norris’ shoulder, definitely shows his rank as LCDR.

      • Bill January 18, 2021, 12:36 pm

        First picture in dress whites…Ensign, not Lt.

    • kirby fisher January 18, 2021, 12:45 pm

      Yes, the photo shows him as a LCDR, Lt. Commander. They are still called Lieutenant, and not Commander as far as I know.

      • Bill January 18, 2021, 3:14 pm

        Then please “know” more. Even wikipedia knows that a Navy O4 is a Lieutenant Commander and is not called a Lieutenant.
        Would you call a Lieutenent General a “Lieutenant”?

      • Mike USN Ret January 18, 2021, 3:53 pm

        Negative Kirby, as a LCDR, I can assure you we are addressed as commander! We however, never refer to ourselves as commander.

      • Mike USN Ret January 18, 2021, 4:18 pm

        That is incorrect. LCDRs are addressed as “Commander.”

      • Harold Gene Lawrence April 30, 2021, 1:49 pm

        A LCDR is commonly called Commander,not LT.

    • Hershel January 24, 2021, 3:22 pm

      He retired as a LT, I should know have spent many hours with the Bull.

  • Doug Anderson January 18, 2021, 7:58 am

    “… and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.” That I just bet he loves dearly.

  • Clarence E Besch January 18, 2021, 7:41 am

    Vary American , heart warming, thanks for sharing.

  • Daddio7 January 18, 2021, 6:13 am

    Thornton was one of the best of the best, a highly motivated volunteer. At the time Thornton was on his mission I was at MM “A” school in Great Lakes. I had been drafted earlier but got myself into the Navy to avoid the Army. I had a bad knee from a motorcycle accident but the damage did not show on an X-ray so I was deemed fit for duty. Navy boot camp was low impact and I avoided all the calisthenics by joining the marching drill team. Marching I could do.

  • Mike D January 17, 2021, 6:47 pm

    Excellent and amazing story. Thank you.

  • Huleeta Smith January 17, 2021, 5:34 pm

    Always enjoy reading your posts whenever I can find them. Reminds me every time of the first time we met at the reception for incoming residents…….many moons ago! Stay safe and stay well. Hugs.

Leave a Comment

Send this to a friend