Michael Thornton enlisted in the Navy in 1967 after graduating from high school at the age of 18. Upon successful completion of BUD/S training, Thornton was assigned to SEAL Team ONE, and served several tours in Vietnam and Thailand between October 1968 and January 1973.
On his last tour to Vietnam, at the age of 23, Thornton heroically saved the life of his senior officer on an intelligence gathering and prisoner capture operation. The small team of two Navy SEALs and three South Vietnamese commandos was discovered by a larger North Vietnamese Army force, and a fierce firefight ensued. SEAL LT Thomas Norris, who had himself earned the Medal of Honor just months earlier, was shot in the face and believed dead.
Thornton ran into a hail of enemy fire to retrieve Norris’ body, and found him badly wounded and unconscious, but alive. He dragged Norris to the beach, inflated his life vest, and swam both Norris and a wounded South Vietnamese commando seaward for two hours before they were rescued by a comrade in a support craft, who had refused to give them up for dead.
In 1982, Michael Thornton received his commission as a U.S. Navy Ensign, after which he served 10 years as an officer in the diving and salvage community. In April 1990, he reported as Bravo Company Commander where he coordinated a rapid response deployment in support of Desert Shield/Desert Storm (the first U.S. invasion of Iraq).
Lieutenant Thornton retired in 1992. He was the last Congressional Medal of Honor recipient on active duty at that time.