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"Not Without My Lieutenant"

 

The True Story of Navy SEALS

Tom Norris  &

Mike Thornton

Tom Norris and Mike Thornton


After the heroic rescue of BAT-21 Bravo, Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas Norris returned to Da Nang to assist in planning the rescue of Lieutenant Bruce Walker, Covey-282 Bravo.  On the night of April 17, 1972 Walker was attempting to escape and evade to a pick-up point under the watchful eyes of overhead Forward Air Controllers.  Suddenly the enemy moved in, forcing the downed airman to race for cover.  American aircraft tried to cover his flight for life, but the NVA moved in on him.  It was the last that was ever seen or heard of the First Lieutenant.  With contact lost, on April 20th the search was terminated and Walker designated MIA (Missing in Action).  On the ground, one of the NVA  pursuers had crept within six feet of the haggard pilot who had spent ten days eluding them.  From less than 20 feet away the enemy soldier fired multiple rounds into the valiant Airman.

Lieutenant Tom Norris was content to slip into the background of the historic rescue effort of April, 1972 and finish his tour training and running operations with the South Vietnamese LDNN (Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia - literally translated "soldiers who fight under the sea").   These Vietnamese "frogmen" were the native counterpart to the American Naval SEALS, operating frequently with American SEAL advisors and other times independently.  Most were valiant warriors of immense courage who were willing to give their lives to preserve the fragile freedom of their homeland.

Slowly the American presence dwindled to three officers and nine enlisted SEALS, held in reserve for potential POW (Prisoner of War) rescue operations.  The Americans occasionally operated in and around the DMZ on "sneak and peek" missions to surreptitiously observe the enemy and return with intelligence information.  Most such reconnaissance teams consisted of one American SEAL officer who led the team, one enlisted American SEAL, and four LDNNs.   Among the few American SEALS still serving in Vietnam by the fall of 1972 was Engineman First Class MICHAEL EDWIN THORNTON.

Michael Thornton

If an imperiled American in need of a "Rambo" kind of hero would have been initially disappointed by the arrival the short, slender Lieutenant Norris; they would have been overjoyed by the appearance of Mike Thornton.  Big enough to play linebacker for any NFL team, the 23-year old SEAL was not only large and muscular, he was fearless.   Arriving in Vietnam in January, 1970, by the fall of 1972 he was a seasoned veteran.  He was the "recruiting poster" kind of Navy SEAL.  He had the appearance, the knowledge, and the experience to be among the best in arguably the world's finest elite covert fighting force.  For almost two years he had been involved in numerous SEAL missions that, had they not been highly classified, would have marked him a hero.  But Mike Thornton wasn't interested in being a hero anyway, he just wanted to do his job and be among the best.  He did....and he WAS!

October 31, 1972

Six months after Navy SEAL Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris had penetrated a massive enemy force along the Cua Viet and Cam Lo Rivers just south of the DMZ to rescue two downed pilots, the enemy was in firm control of the area.  Near the coast sat the Cua Viet River Base, once a center in American and ARVN defense of the Northern I Corps.  Now it, as well as much of I Corps, was in enemy hands as the North Vietnamese continued to stage their continued invasion of the South.  Information on NVA movement, plans, targets, and strength was needed.  Reports from aircraft that from time to time dared to fly over the heavily armed enemy territory couldn't provide an accurate picture.  To gather the necessary information, a small commando team would need to slip in among the enemy.  The team would involve an inexperienced LDNN officer, two veteran LDNN frog men, an American SEAL lieutenant, and Michael Thornton.  It would be a dangerous, dramatic, Halloween night....


Return to the DMZ!

 

 

 

 

A small raft bobbed silently on the swells of the ocean just off the coast of South Vietnam.  Mike Thornton set himself to the task of paddling towards shore as his lieutenant, the only other American on the raft, directed the team towards their landing point.  Slowly darkness engulfed the Vietnamese junk from which they had launched minutes earlier.   Joining Thornton and his lieutenant in the small raft tediously moving towards the beach were three LDNN's, their South Vietnamese SEAL counterparts.  It was just after four in the morning on October 31, 1972.

Mike Thornton was privy to information regarding Lieutenant Tom Norris' heroic rescue effort only miles from where they would be landing, that had occurred just six months earlier.  He knew that, though landing on the shores of South Vietnam, he would see no friendly faces.  The five men were on their own.  If they got in trouble there would be no air cover or support, only suppressive fire from from a Naval ship miles off the coast.

The five men finally reached shallow water and stepped into the cool waters to tow the raft to the beach, where it was carefully hidden.  Then they began the dangerous trek north towards the Cua Viet river and the old  Naval base now commanded by the enemy.  There was little cover.  In the early morning darkness they silently moved from one sand dune to the next, careful to avoid detection by the numerous enemy encampments they passed.  The hours dragged on but the SEALs were unable to find the river that should have been there.   In fact, there were no identifiable landmarks.  It quickly became apparent that the team was lost.

As streaks of early morning light crept towards them from the ocean, the SEAL lieutenant used silent hand signals to order the team back to the beach.  By radio they were advised of their general location.  The intent had been to insert the team south of the Cua Viet river so their northward movement would put them on a direct course with the river and the old Naval base.  Instead, the Vietnamese had ventured too far north, landing them above the river.  Their movement had taken them away from their target and almost directly into the Demilitarized Zone.

Hearts pounding and time running out as daylight dawned, the team released a silent sigh of relief when at last they saw the waves lapping against the beach where their raft was hidden.  They were almost home.  What could have been a terrible disaster was turning out all right.

Suddenly the sound of gunfire shattered the early morning quiet.  The SEALS went to ground, returning the enemy's volley of leaden death with the staccato beat of their own weapons.  They had been spotted and fired upon by two NVA soldiers, but as the sounds of battle echoed across the shores of South Vietnam, as many as fifty more enemy soldiers rushed their position to rain death on the isolated team.  The team leader put his men into a small defensive position as the enemy probed to with 25 meters of his small force.  One of the LDNNs was hit in the hip, then shrapnel from an enemy grenade pierced both of Mike Thornton's legs and opened wounds in his back.  The lieutenant called for fire from the USS Newport News, but the Naval heavy cruiser couldn't render effective cover fire.  The enemy was so close to the embattled SEAL team, the huge guns of the ship lying offshore would be as deadly to the five commandos as it would be to the enemy.

For forty-five minutes the battle raged, five lone members of a Naval team struggling to survive against 10-1 odds, all the while knowing additional enemy troops would be arriving at any time.   The team leader took a gamble.  He radioed the Newport News with instructions to give him five minutes, then rain their heavy five inch shells on his position.  He ordered Thornton and two of the LDNN to make a desperate race to the hidden raft while he and remaining LDNN covered their withdrawal.  Fire erupted anew as the three men raced across the beach for the last sand dune and the hidden raft.  The team leader and the LDNN met the volley with fire of their own, holding the enemy at bay to cover their team mates.  Then, suddenly, the world went black for the SEAL lieutenant.   His LDNN counterpart looked down at the gaping hole in the left side of the lieutenant's head, turned and ran to join his living team mates.  "Didi...didi, go, go!"  he shouted as finally made the last sand dune.

"Where's my lieutenant?"  Asked Thornton.
"DEAD!"  shouted the LDNN.  It was obvious the LDNN was convinced nothing more could be done as he urged immediate withdrawal.

"Not without my lieutenant,"  Thornton quickly informed them.  No SEAL would ever be left behind by a brother.  Thornton broke from cover, rushing across the sand dunes to his team leader's last known position.  There he searched frantically for the lieutenant.   Two enemy soldiers found the lieutenant's body at the same time Thornton did.   Quickly the SEAL shot them both, then rushed to his "brother's" body.   The head wound was serious, the skin laid back to reveal the white of his broken skull.  The team leader wasn't moving.  He was unconscious, but still alive.

The powerful Thornton lifted his lieutenant's limp body over his shoulder and began to run back across the open sand dunes.  Bullets flew around him and Thornton fired his own weapon on the desperate race to the last sand dune.  Unbelievably, neither he nor his wounded lieutenant was hit.  When at last he reached the last dune, his LDNN team members looked to the towering figure for guidance.  The NVA were moving towards them, trying to encircle the battle-scarred team.  Thornton pointed his comrades to the waves breaking across the beach 250 yards away.  As artillery from the Newport News crashed behind them and hot missiles from the automatic rifles of the pursuing enemy dug trenches in the sand, the team moved out.  Thornton himself, by sheer force of will, covered the entire distance with his stricken lieutenant over his shoulders.

At last he felt the cool water of the ocean tugging at the cuffs of his fatigues.  He plunged into the water dragging his lieutenant behind him and swimming desperately for safety.  The NVA followed the fleeing team into the ocean, then continued to fire at the men until they were beyond the range of their guns.  Thornton then inflated his lieutenant's life vest, towing him further into the ocean and away from danger.  For two hours they bobbed on the swells of the ocean, Thornton doing his best to keep his wounded team leader's head above water.  At last they were spotted and picked up by the same junk that had inserted them earlier that morning.  It was almost noon.  The entire saga had transpired in less than eight hours.

For his refusal to leave the wounded lieutenant behind and his courage in returning under fire to recover the fellow SEAL, Mike Thornton was recommended for the Medal of Honor.  His action was the LAST Medal of Honor action of the Vietnam War, and the last by any living American.


Less than a year later, on October 15, 1973 Navy Lieutenant Michael Edwin Thornton was summoned to the White House to receive his award.  At nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital the gravely wounded SEAL team leader was still recovering from his horrible wounds.  His condition was so serious, his request to be released for Thornton's presentation was denied.  "We had to kidnap him, right out of Bethesda," Thornton recently said.  "But he was there!"

The citation detailing Thornton's heroic action was read, then President Richard M. Nixon stepped forward to drape the Medal of Honor around the Navy SEALs neck for refusing to leave a brother behind.  Standing to the side, the wounded team leader watched with pride and thanksgiving. 

He was Navy Lieutenant (j.g.) THOMAS R. NORRIS!

 

Tommy Norris spent yet another year recovering from his wounds.  On March 4, 1976 President Gerald R. Ford invited two former Prisoners of War to the White House to receive Medals of Honor.   In addition to the awards to Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale and Air Force Colonel George E. "Bud" Day, a posthumous award was presented to the family of Air Force Captain Lance Peter Sijan who had died in a North Vietnamese prison camp.

Then the President turned his attention to the intrepid SEAL.  Despite the Lieutenant's protests, his nomination for the Medal of Honor as a result of his rescue of Lieutenant Mark Clark and Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton had passed through channels.  This time, standing to the side and watching the ceremony with a smile on his face and pride in his heart stood a NAVY seal.  Mike Thornton wouldn't have missed this moment for the world!

bn_red.gif (971 bytes) Read Tom Norris' MOH Citation bn_red.gif (971 bytes) Read Mike Thornton's MOH Citation

 

 

 

BACKGROUND IMAGE by JOSEPH MANISCALO
  (Special Thanks to the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Archives for allowing the use of this artwork, as well as their assistance in providing some of the photographs.   Other photographs courtesy of Tom Norris and Mike Thornton.)

Sources:
Thomas Norris (personal conversations)
Michael Thornton (personal conversations)
Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes, by Edward F. Murphy
Brave Men, Dark Waters, by Orr Kelly
SEALS At War, by Edwin P. Hoyt

 

For Futher Reading you can click on the book below to order from Amazon Books:

THE RESCUE OF BAT 21 by Darrel Whitcomb goes beyond the "Hollywood hype" of the movie to detail the effort to recover Lt. Clark and LTC Hambleton in an accurate and captivating story.   Well researched, it includes maps and photos of most of the participants in the action.  (It is also available in paperback and large print editions). 

Click Here to Order

 

 

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