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If you like Michael Thornton's story, you might also like:
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Tom Clancy,
David Halberstam,
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MOH: Thornton
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Michael Thornton
Michael Thornton
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Michael Thornton Interview (page: 6 / 9)

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  Michael Thornton

Thomas Norris: We're leap frogging out of here. We're going to have to make our own way to the water and swim our way out. So I called for an extraction, which means we started leap frogging back. The last ship that I talked to was the Newport News. It was a battleship. I just gave them a coordinate and said, "Fire for effect. Blow this place away. We're extracting."

I was cover firing for the group that was coming back. There was a group of about 15 or 20 VC or North Vietnamese coming up on our position and I had a LAW rocket. That's a pretty devastating weapon when it's used, and I thought that would give us some time to make a run for it. I had set up this LAW rocket to shoot at this group, and that's when I got hit.

Michael Thornton: I had leap frogged back to the sand dune, which was approximately 400 yards away. Tommy picked the sand dune because it gave us 400 yards of open beach. Then behind us to the north was a full mile of nothing but open beach that we could see.

The radioman comes back -- Dang was the radioman. He comes back by himself. Like I said, I had already been hit and he comes back and he has two bullet rounds in through the back of the radio where he had shrapnel in his back, and he says, "Mike, Da Wei's dead! Da Wei's dead!" And I just remembered -- you know, I said, "Are you sure?" And he said, "Yeah." And I just remembered the last position I saw Tommy when I left. So I jumped, grabbed my gun and I went running back up there and I saw Tommy laying on the side and I thought Tommy was dead. The bullet had entered the side of his head over here and came out -- Thomas Norris: Blew out this whole portion of my head. Michael Thornton: -- and the whole side of his head was completely gone. I grabbed Tommy. At this time we were being overrun at the position. So I got down in a kneeling position and I shot several guys right there. When they saw me -- that I was there, they stopped and they started firing and I grabbed Tommy and put him on my shoulders and started to run with him. Well I didn't know that Tommy had told the Newport News to fire for effect. Well, the first round came in, and the concussion hit and it blew me like 20 feet in the air! And I'm watching Tommy's body fly off my shoulders and he hits the ground like a "kabloop!" Like that. And I get up, and I'm dazed, but luckily the round hit behind me a little bit to the south, and it really got these guys' attention. So I went over and I grabbed Tommy to pick him up. I'm dazed from the concussion and he says, "Mike, buddy." And I knew he was still alive.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

I grabbed him and I picked him up -- half his head is hanging out you know -- and I pick him up, and I put him back on my shoulders and I started running, and then another eight-inch round came in. Well this forward observer, they said, "What's going on up there?" And he said, "All we do is see all these people jumping around and we don't see anybody." When I got back to the sand dune, this young Vietnamese officer had already left and started swimming away. The other two guys that I hand-picked got behind that sand dune and they gave us fire support as I was running back, because when they saw me running back with Tommy, they started chasing us.

We got to the sand dune and I laid Tommy down. I turned around and I opened fire. They said, "Mike, what do we do?" I said, "We swim for it." I said, "When I say 'go' we go." So while they were covering me, I got Tommy situated on my back in a fireman's carry, and I was holding him like that. Tommy had an AK-47. I picked up his AK and I had my gun. Tommy still had all his web gear on, and I knew he still had rounds. I was worried about ammunition.

So I said, "Ready, go." And we started running. They saw us running and they turned around and started shooting, so we started running to the beach. We got to the beach and I stumbled and fell and Tommy rolled over, and I said, "Gosh, if they didn't kill him I'm going to kill him dropping him all these times."

So I picked him up and I stick him underneath of my arms because I was fine like that, and I stuck his head underneath the water and I feel all this flapping going like that and it was him! And I took him and I grabbed him and I put him in front of me and I started swimming. Well, when I started swimming with Tommy, the young Vietnamese, Kwan, which was one of the Vietnamese that I had picked, comes flying by me. The surf has pushed him in. He got shot through his right buttocks and he couldn't use his leg. So I grabbed him. I put him on my back. He was on my shoulders. I had Tommy in front of me like this with his arms --I had him wrapped and I told Dang to hold his arms. And I'm breast stroke swimming like that. And I'm swimming and all I could do is see all these bullets just flying into the water. After we got past the surf zone they just kept flying past us. And after we got out of the range of fire, the Newport News -- I saw them turn around and leave. I said, "Where in the hell are they going?" You know. Well I guess this forward observer had told them all they saw was a bunch of people jumping up and down, and they were called off the line, and they thought we all were dead.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

When I got out there I put my life jacket over Tommy's head. He said, "What if you get shot through your life jacket?" I said, "Tommy, if you get shot through the chest you're dead anyway. Who cares about your damn life jacket." So I give him my life jacket.

I put my life jacket over his head and then I took a 4X4 -- which is a gut patch about like this -- and I stuffed it in his head, and I took another one and wrapped it around his head. And I tied -- there's an H harness so I took that H harness and put it around my neck and kept him on top of my neck where -- on my back. And then I brought the other guy around and put him in front of me, and then I started to breast stroke. And we were in the water for approximately three hours. Thomas Norris: I gave him a fit though, because I mean I could see -- and the blood would wash off -- or the water -- I could wash the blood off my face just for seconds, and I could see two of our Vietnamese, and I knew Mike obviously was with me, and the other one was hanging on, and I could see the other one. But I couldn't find the last one and I kept asking Mike, "Do we have everybody? Do we have everybody?" And he kept telling me, "Yeah, we've got everybody. We've got everybody."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

But I couldn't see him. I finally turned around and put my hands on Mike's shoulders and pushed myself off. Mike probably thought, "What's this nut doing?" And I see this little head way out to sea, and I just relaxed after that. Once I realize we had everybody.

Michael Thornton: I never saw the guy because of the way the swells were going.

The Vietnamese, the young officer which was way ahead of us was picked up by Woody Woodruff and said, "Where is everybody? Where is everybody?" And he says, "Mike -- I don't know." He says, "Tommy's dead. Mike's missing in action." And he said the only two people he saw were still alive were the two Vietnamese he had left there. So Woody radios in to the Newport News. The Newport News radios back in to our headquarters back there that Tommy was dead, I was missing and only the Vietnamese got out, which was all wrong. And finally the -- I took Tommy's AK-47, which I had hanging on me, and started shooting in the air when I saw the junk, and the other junk came over to me and picked us up. Then we called the Newport News and we got us to the Newport News, which I knew was a cruiser. In September that year is when the center gun turret blew up and killed those 11 sailors back in 1972. And they had just come back on the line that day, and it was them that gave us the capability to be able to break contact. I carried Tommy down to the operating room. I wouldn't let him go and the doctor said, "He can't make it." He said, "Mike, there's no way he's going to make it."

The water -- the warmness and the cleanness of the water and the salt helped cleansed his wound, things like that, and his body next to my body with the heat. They said, "That's what kept him from going into deep shock." Because we had that layer of water and I was swimming so hard and my body heat went to his body heat too, and with the hot sun, and they said, "That's what probably kept him from going into deep shock."

Well we called for a Med Evac and the Med Evac came out and picked Tommy up and flew him back to Da Nang. And like we said, there were no medical teams in Vietnam, and they had to fly a 141 medical aircraft out to Da Nang. They picked up Tommy with two medical teams. They flew him back to Clark Air Force Base.

What were you thinking while all this was happening?

Michael Thornton: When I was in the water swimming I was saying, "God, let me--" When I saw the bullets, I was saying, "God, don't let it hit me now," because I knew if I went down Tommy was going to go down. And also the other guy would be going down with me, because he couldn't swim at all. And then after I had all my guys taken care of, I was the last one. Because it was really funny -- after 30 years -- this guy was asking for information about me. He thought Tommy was dead, and he was actually on the Newport News. And he says, "There's Mike Thornton holding Tommy and lying him on the operating table," and I said, "Take care of my men." And he said, "Are you all right?" And I kept saying, "All right." And he said, "There I see Thornton standing in two big puddles of blood," which was my own that I was -- But then my concern went to Tommy because -- I mean, like you say, the camaraderie and the love that you feel for each other -- because I know if that had been me on that beach that Tommy would have done the same thing for me. And that's what type of commitment you have to have in each other, and belief you have to have in each other, to do something like that.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

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This page last revised on Mar 04, 2011 18:17 EST
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