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If you like Michael Thornton's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Tom Clancy,
David Halberstam,
Daniel Inouye,
William McRaven,
David Petraeus,
Neil Sheehan,
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Colin Powell and
Norman Schwarzkopf

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MOH: Thornton
MOH: Norris

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Michael Thornton
Michael Thornton
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Michael Thornton Interview

Medal of Honor

May 5, 2001
San Antonio, Texas

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  Michael Thornton

(Michael Thornton and Thomas Norris were interviewed together.)

We'd like to start by recalling what each of you were like growing up. Mr. Thornton, at age ten, where are you living, what are your family circumstances?

Michael Thornton Interview Photo
Michael Thornton: I'm living in a very small town north of Spartanburg, South Carolina, growing up in the woods, about 560 acres. My brother and I are playing cowboys and Indians in the woods and my mother has a bell that rings us to come to dinner. There's no TV, so you were just outside all day enjoying nature and life itself.

I went to Spartanburg high school, and when I graduated I had been suspended more than anyone in the history of the high school. My father believed in having a good time but he believed in rules and regulations and discipline, too. He disciplined me. I know one time I was playing basketball and we were supposed to be playing for the county championship and the coach wouldn't let me play. They had the whole team out there and he said, "That's it." My father knew that was important to me, but he knew what was more important was going to school and getting an education. And he believed you never talked back to your mother. You showed her respect at all times. You always showed respect to your elders and especially your mother and father. If my brother and I got in a scrap he'd let that work itself out. But we learned you protect your little sister at all times.

Mr. Norris, take me back to your ten year-old self. Where are you?

Thomas Norris: Ten years old, my family had just moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, from Wisconsin. I have two brothers and my mother and father. Like any ten year old kid, I was going to school and involved in the normal activities that ten year-old boys are.

Are you in the country? Are you in the city?

Thomas Norris: We are in the rural suburbs, I guess you would say, which was a little bit of change from Wisconsin. My dad was in the military. My mother and father were both school teachers. When World War II broke out my father went into the military and after the war he went to work for the Veterans Administration. I think the country at the time was much more patriotic, much more involved in world events and the love of God and country. Just like Mike, discipline was a major factor in growing up. There was a lot more respect for adults, for your elders. I think you learned a lot more responsibility then.

Did any movies influence your thinking when you were growing up?

Michael Thornton: I know the first movie I ever saw was Old Yeller and I remember crying. At that age that you cry at Old Yeller. John Wayne was someone I saw a lot. My father could never swim and when we were young he made sure we went to swimming lessons at the Y. Back then they had state swimming pools and we swam on the swim teams, because he could never swim and he wanted to make sure his boys could swim.

I saw the movie The Sullivan Brothers about the five brothers who died during World War II, and those family values that my dad had always said, "Your family," you know, "were to die for," you know, basically. And I saw how those five brothers died trying to save the one. And that was a big influence, so I said, "Well, I'm going to join the Navy," when I saw that movie. Then I saw the movie The Frogmen with Richard Widmark. I said, "Well, I'm a good swimmer. I want to be a Navy frogman." Because I loved the excitement. I loved what they were doing and stuff like that. And when I did finally get out of high school -- because when I got out of high school, you were only allowed to miss 30 days and I missed 78 days, and they still graduated me. So I didn't think they wanted me back.

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Vietnam was hot and heavy. This is around 1967 and the draft was big and I had already been selected 1A so I knew I was going, but I wanted to be a Navy frogman, and if you got drafted you went straight into the Army. I wasn't worried about going to Vietnam. That didn't bother me one way or the other. Actually I wanted to go. I knew my father was in World War II. He joined the service in '36 and got out in '46 after the war. My dad taught me this is the greatest country in the world and he had been able to travel during his time in the military. I'll not say I was ignorant about Vietnam because every country I've ever traveled to, I've always tried to read about it, learn about where they come from, their religion.

My father said, "You need to understand the people." My father lived in the Philippines for four years and he said, "You need to understand the people and their religion and their way of life. I'm not saying it's good, bad or indifferent, but that's their way and you're going into their country, and you need to try to understand it to be able to communicate." Tommy and I both, being in the SEAL team in Vietnam, I lived with the people almost all the time. I didn't live on an American base. I came very close to the people.

How did you become a SEAL? What was the process?

Michael Thornton Interview Photo
Michael Thornton: I wanted to be a Navy frogman; back then it was called "underwater demolition recruit training." I joined the Navy and went to boot camp. After boot camp back then you had to go to a ship before going into the training. I went aboard a ship for just a very few months. The ship was decommissioned and I started training in Coronado, California. We started off with 129 students in my class. We actually graduated with 16 but four of them were injured and they were rolled back to the next class.

Did you know what the odds were of making it through? Did they tell you only some of you are going to make it?

Michael Thornton: Oh, yeah. They were constantly saying, "You're worthless. You're not worthy of being here. You're dirt." Your shoes are so spit shined you can see your face in the thing, and this guy walks up and takes his boot and rubs it across saying, "You call that a shine job?" All you do is turn around and jump in the water and say, "What am I going through this for?"

What were you going through it for?

Michael Thornton Interview Photo
Michael Thornton: Because my father taught me to never give up. I was there for a reason. It's something I wanted. I wanted to be successful and I had set my goal. I was going to make it through this training no matter what. I had been on a ship for just a couple of months. I knew what a ship was like. Every time I'd do an about face and those ships across there in the bay I'd say, "I don't want to go back there." It was kind of like Jim Stockdale not wanting to go back to the Hanoi Hilton. You've been there, don't want to do that again. They said, "You can't do it," and I'm telling myself, "I can do it." Everything was different back then than it is to now. Everybody says, "Was training harder back then?" They used to hang us from pull-up bars and use us for punching bags!

Mr. Norris, you came to the SEALs through a different route, didn't you?

Thomas Norris: I did. Mike went into the service right out of high school. I went into college. It was 1962 when I graduated from high school. A majority of the students at that time were college oriented. You know, get your college degree and go on to whatever career you had chosen. I'd work three jobs during the summers. I'd go from one job to another job and the next job. I'd work 12 to 16 hours a day to earn enough money to go to school. I had a scholarship as well, but my value system was to achieve your goals. Set one and go for it, and that's what I was doing.

I graduated from college. I wanted to go to law school. Unfortunately, like Mike said, the draft was a major factor back. Draft boards had the option to exempt where they wanted to. They could cut off when they wanted to. As a student you were exempt from the draft. Once you graduated from college, they exempted medical students, but I was caught up with the draft, so going to law school wasn't an option. The Vietnam war was going then. It's 1967, I guess. We were heavily engaged in it. There was more troop involvement, so the draft was a major factor. It interrupted my career path. It wasn't that I didn't want to go in the service. I very much believed in serving my country, so that really wasn't a factor. I would have liked to complete my education and then gone in the service but I didn't have a choice.

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