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Michael Thornton
 
Michael Thornton
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Michael Thornton Interview (page: 9 / 9)

Medal of Honor

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  Michael Thornton

You both were awarded the Medal of Honor, but not at the same time. Can you explain how that came about?

Michael Thornton Interview Photo
Thomas Norris: My action occurred in April of 1972 about six months prior to when Mike and I operated together. This action was the result of the North Vietnamese Easter offensive push into South Vietnam. The United States retaliated with B-52 strikes and during one of those strikes an Air Force electronics plane was shot down. The only survivor was the navigator, Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton. When he came up on a survival radio an effort was immediately instituted to try and rescue him. A Huey helicopter was shot down with a three-man crew. Two of them were killed and one of them was captured.

On the second day, two more helicopters went in and were so badly shot up they had to abort the mission, and a forward air controller aircraft was shot down, putting two more individuals on the ground. One was captured and one became just like Hambleton. They went in with one more rescue attempt. They were shot down and lost a six-man crew. The day after that another forward air control aircraft was shot down with two men aboard. One was killed and the second one, First Lieutenant Bruce Walker, was missing on the ground. After five days effort, we had 14 people killed, we had lost eight aircraft, we had two people captured, and we had three on the ground to be rescued. That's when I became involved.

The Joint Personnel Recovery Center was following that operation. They thought a pick up could be made on the ground. I was briefed on the operation. The pilots were near a river called the Mu Gang. They thought we could float down, and we could pick them up. I had a team of five people, a Vietnamese officer and three Vietnamese soldiers and myself to attempt this rescue. We were taken to a forward base where we worked from, an old French cement bunker. There was a Vietnamese tank unit there, with three American tanks with no ammo for their main guns. And the guard force was under orders to retreat any time that they felt unsecure. So that was our protective force.

My team started out the first night. The pilots had been told by code to float down the river and they'll be rescued. They didn't know where or when or anything else. Only one of the pilots could make it to the river and that was First Lieutenant Mark Clark. We went through numerous North Vietnamese units, but we got to a position where we thought we would intercept Clark. About two in the morning we heard him in the water; he was breathing very heavily. But at the same time we had a North Vietnamese patrol passing through our position. We couldn't take the chance to intercept Clark at that time. As soon as the North Vietnamese unit passed through us, I slipped into the water and swam downstream to try and intercept Clark, but I couldn't find him. Boy, that was a devastating feeling.

I gave the base a call and let them know that Clark got by us, and that the next radio check that Clark makes, tell him to just find a hiding position on the south bank of the river and we'll pick him up. I gathered my team and sent them over ground. I went back in the water, worked all the way back downstream again. I saw movement behind an old sunken sampan and I knew it was Clark. The relief in his eyes was just inexpressible. We worked our way back to our forward camp and got him in the bunker.

A little bit later that day we got hit very heavily by North Vietnamese mortar rocket and small arms fire. So my team started grabbing bodies and throwing them under cover. Just pulling in the ones we knew we could do something with. By the time we finished we had Med Evac'd almost half of the guard force. Either they were killed or wounded during that assault. So we lost the majority of our support unit.

I was now left with three Vietnamese personnel to continue this rescue operation. We went out the next night and ran a mission to try and pick up Hambleton. That evening I had some problems with two of my Vietnamese. They normally had an officer, their chief. They knew what we were going through and they said, "We don't want to do this." I had to convince them. So they finally thought okay, but once they went back I was not going to use them again.

Michael Thornton Interview Photo
The third day an attempt to drop a survival package was made to Hambleton and it was dropped within 50 meters of him. He saw it but he couldn't get to it. As the day went on it was reported from the forward air controllers that he was sounding very weak. They didn't think he was going to survive much longer. That evening I told Kiet, the only Vietnamese there that was still working with me, that I was going to make an attempt to pick up Hambleton and he said that he would go if I would. He was a very brave man. We were going after an American and there was nobody there telling him to do that. His command was gone.

So that evening Kiet and I patrolled to an area where we had seen some sunken sampans and we found one that was floatable. A sampan is like a little canoe. We paddled upstream towards where Hambleton was. We ran into a fog bank and got turned around. By the time we busted out of the fog, it was early the next day. We came out just a little below the Cam Lo bridge, and there were troops on the bridge. From that position I knew exactly where I was, and I knew the general location where they thought Hambleton was. We found him fairly quickly in some shrubbery off the river bank. He was not in good shape. We loaded him in the sampan and covered him up with bamboo to make him look like a load of vegetation. Kiet and I were dressed like Vietnamese fishermen. We jumped in the sampan and started downstream.

We were seen by a North Vietnamese patrol, which had weapons. We kind of ignored them and looked like we didn't hear them. At that time you try to paddle as hard as you can without looking like you're paddling as hard as you can. I was aiming for a curve in the river which would have put a bank between me and them, and they started chasing us. The vegetation kept them from staying along the bank. They couldn't stay with us and they just let us go. I headed further downstream and we took heavy fire from a bunker complex at a bend in the river. We drove the sampan into the bank to give us some protection. I was on the radio with the forward air controller aircraft. I asked them to strafe both sides of the bank and to lay in a smoke trail to give us protection in case the fellow in that bunker made it through that assault. We pushed off in the sampan and by the time we came out of the smoke screen we were not that far from our base camp.

Once we had Hambleton back, we came under heavy mortar and rocket fire again, as we did every day. It was extremely bad that day. We had to call in aerial support. They did a tremendous job and we Med Evac'd Hambleton out of there. My next concern was Bruce Walker, who was still up there. Being a Marine, he did a superb job. He called in fire on a lot of positions, and he moved well, but he moved during the daylight and he was seen. A couple of bombers tried to come in and give him support but he was killed by the North Vietnamese. That whole effort was very costly to us. A lot of courageous people gave their lives to try and recover our own folks.

So both of you were given the Medal of Honor for a similar act of saving someone, someone you wouldn't give up on.

Thomas Norris: Yes, sir.

When did you get your Medal of Honor?

Michael Thornton Interview Photo
Thomas Norris: My medal was not given to me until 1976. That's a long time between action and medals.

Michael Thornton: It goes through these different boards. We've had guys that have gone seven years without getting medals. Tommy received his with Admiral Jim Stockdale and Colonel Bud Day at the White House in March of 1976.

So you were there?

Michael Thornton: Of course I was there.

Thomas Norris: Part of the delay was when the teams wanted to have it reviewed because they thought that it was worthy of a higher award. I didn't believe it was. I did what I had been trained to do and I was very fortunate in being successful. To me it didn't rate that type of an award. The Awards Bureau disagreed with me and because of that I was a recipient of the medal.

I feel much like Mike does. That medal does not belong to me. It belongs to all the soldiers over there that fought and lost their lives and were part of a conflict that they gave their lives for, or they worked for, as well as the teams. That medal was not mine. It belongs to everybody.

Gentlemen, thank you both, for everything you've told us and everything you've done.

Michael Thornton: Thank you so very much for having us here.

Thomas Norris: Thank you, sir.

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