Thirty-six years ago this month I was a 13-year-old junior high school student: playing a little soccer, chasing a few girls, listening to Black Sabbath albums, and pestering my parents to buy me a motorcycle (which Mom refused). Meanwhile, on the other side of the earth, 23-year-old U.S. Navy SEAL Michael Thornton was running a series of high-speed missions against the enemy in the final days of America’s involvement in Vietnam.
On one such mission – Oct. 31 (Halloween), 1972 – Mike; his commanding officer, SEAL Lt. Thomas R. Norris; and three South Vietnamese Naval commandos were conducting what the official report reads as “an intelligence gathering and prisoner capture operation” against the enemy-held Cua Viet River Base.
The five men launched from a Vietnamese junk under cover of darkness, paddled toward the coast in a rubber boat, and, about a mile offshore, eased out of the boat and swam the rest of the way in.
Once on the beach, things quickly degraded from difficult to bad to utterly desperate: First, it was determined that the initial objective point had been missed and that the U.S.-South Vietnamese team had been inserted into far-more-dangerous North Vietnam. Second and worse, the team was discovered and quickly came under fire from a huge enemy force that outnumbered them at least 10 to one. Third, a fierce five-hour firefight ensued between the two forces, the enemy closing to within a few yards of the team, and Mike was struck in the back.
Naval gunfire was called in, and Norris ordered the team to begin a fighting withdrawal back to the waterline hoping to escape by sea and prevent the overwhelming enemy force from encircling them.
Near the water’s edge, Mike – wounded but still fighting – was informed by one of the South Vietnamese commandos that Norris had been killed.
Dead or alive, Mike was not going to leave his commander behind.
Through a hailstorm of enemy fire, Mike raced back toward Norris’s last known position There he found Norris’s lifeless form, shot in the head, and two enemy soldiers standing over him.
Mike quickly killed the two soldiers, lifted Norris onto his shoulders, and began the several-hundred-yard dodge-and-sprint back toward the beach under heavy fire.
An incoming round from USS Newport News exploded nearby, the blast-concussion blowing both men into the air. Mike scrambled to his feet, again hoisted Norris onto his shoulders and made for the surf.