Petty Officer Michael Thornton and Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris were among the comparatively few American sailors left in South Vietnam in October of 1972. The so-called “Brown Water Navy” had been “Vietnamized,” and most of the remaining U.S. Navy personnel were advisors to the Vietnamese Navy (VNN). But being an advisor did not necessarily mean being out of harm’s way, especially when the North Vietnamese invaded South Vietnam in force in the spring of that year.
The two Americans were Navy SEALs serving as VNN advisors when, on Halloween night, they embarked on a reconnaissance mission with a three-man team of LDNNs ( Lien Doi Nguoi Nhia —“soldiers who fight under the sea”—the VNN equivalent to SEALs) near the naval base at Cua Viet, which had fallen into enemy hands. A navigational error by the VNN junk that had inserted them ashore put them in a precarious position, and as dawn gradually dissipated the protective shroud of darkness, they were spotted by a North Vietnamese patrol that immediately opened fire. Pinned down by a force ten times their size, Lieutenant Norris called in naval gunfire from the cruiser USS Newport News (CA-148). He then ordered Petty Officer Thornton and two of the LDNNs to head for the beach while he and the remaining LDNN officer provided cover fire. As the enemy closed in, Norris was hit in the head, and his Vietnamese counterpart, seeing the grievous wound (a gaping hole revealing part of his skull), left Norris and followed the others to the shore.
When Thornton asked where his lieutenant was, the LDNN officer replied that the American was dead. Undaunted by this tragic news or by the intense enemy fire that was raining in from several directions, Thornton broke from cover and returned to Norris. Two enemy soldiers had arrived at the same time, and Thornton killed them both before hoisting Norris over his shoulder and heading back to the shore. Miraculously, neither American was hit despite the heavy fire that followed them to the water’s edge. Chased into the water by North Vietnamese soldiers, Thornton was able to pull Norris out to sea beyond the range of enemy fire, where he kept the lieutenant’s head above water for nearly two hours before the entire team was eventually rescued by friendly forces.
Despite losing an eye and enduring a long and difficult recovery, Tom Norris lived, and despite doctors’ admonitions to the contrary, he attended a ceremony at the White House when Mike Thornton was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that morning.
Amazingly, both men would again attend a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. As it happened, Tom Norris was himself no ordinary Navy SEAL (if that can ever be said), and this time it was he who was the recipient of the nation’s highest honor for an entirely separate and earlier act of heroism, in which he had rescued two American fliers from deep within enemy territory.
Mike Thornton would be the first person in more than a century to receive a Medal of Honor for saving the life of another Medal of Honor recipient. Tom Norris’ heroism was later reenacted in the movie Bat 21 , and today the exploits of both of these extraordinary men—and many others—are commemorated at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida.
Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several Naval Institute Press books, including A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets .