Born and raised on a family farm near Spartanburg, South Carolina, Michael Edwin Thornton enlisted in the Navy in 1967. After successfully completing basic training at the Naval Training Center in San Diego, California, Thornton completed SEAL training. After starting with a class of 129 recruits, he was one of 12 to graduate.
On Oct. 31, 1972, Thornton accompanied Lt. Thomas Norris and a three-man South Vietnamese Navy team on his fourth tour in Vietnam. Near the Cua Viet River Base in South Vietnam, the men went on an operation to gather intelligence and capture prisoners. During the course of the mission, his patrol faced heavy fire from a numerically larger force and sustained multiple injuries. For the next several hours, the patrol fought their way to the water line, with Thornton leading the patrol and Norris providing cover fire. Upon learning Norris was shot in the head, Thornton charged back to Norris’s position. Thornton carried a severely wounded and unconscious Norris to the water’s edge. Inflating Norris’s life jacket, Thornton towed Norris to sea and swam for approximately three hours before rescue.
For his valor and heroism, Thornton received a Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon Oct. 15, 1973. His best friend, Lt. Thomas Norris received the same award three years later. In By Honor Bound: Two Navy SEALs, the Medal of Honor, and a Story of Extraordinary Courage, co-authored by Thornton and Norris, Thornton described the meaning of the medal and why he wears it.
“As for the medal, we wear it for those who served with us who are no longer with us, or whose sacrifice and service went unnoticed,” he said, “We wear it for all Americans who served with honor. And at times, it can be a burden, but that’s the nature of receiving this distinguished award. None of us like being held up as an example for others. I sure don’t, but it comes with the medal. You not only have to live up to it, you have to grow into it.”
Thornton went on to receive numerous medals and personal decorations, including a Silver Star Medal and Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart.
In May 1992, Thornton retired as a lieutenant. Thornton and Norris remained best friends and visited each other often.
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