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What You Don't Know About American Indians in the Navy

05 November 2020

From MC1 Mark D. Faram, Chief of Naval Personnel Public Affairs

On Oct. 31, 1972, Engineman 2st Class Michael E. Thornton was one of two Navy SEALs on a reconnaissance patrol with three Vietnamese special forces members in Vietnam's Demilitarized Zone.

On Oct. 31, 1972, Engineman 2st Class Michael E. Thornton was one of two Navy SEALs on a reconnaissance patrol with three Vietnamese special forces members in Vietnam's Demilitarized Zone. 

Thornton, a Spartanburg, South Carolina ,Native of Cherokee decent, joined the Navy in 1967 after completing high school. 

Thornton initially went to the fleet as a gunner's mate and served on destroyers, until November 1968 when he entered Basic Underwater Demolition School class 49 along with 129 other special warfare hopefuls. Thornton was one of only 16 Sailors who would graduate.

Assigned to Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) Team ONE, Thornton would deploy on a series of combat tours to Southeast Asia between 1969 and 1972.

He was on what would be his final tour when he became part of the patrol, which was led by SEAL Lt. Thomas Norris. 

The five special operators launched initially from a Vietnamese navy junk in a rubber boat off the coast. Once a mile from shore, the patrol abandoned the boat and swam to the beach. 

Once ashore, the patrol continued its mission on foot -- looking to gather intelligence and possibly capture prisoners behind enemy lines.

Suddenly, the small patrol came under heavy fire from a numerically superior force of roughly 150 North Vietnamese. 

During a four-hour firefight, the patrol engaged the enemy while changing positions often in an attempt to fool their enemy into thinking that they were a larger force. 

Eventually, they headed back to the waterline to prevent encirclement and seek extraction. Norris covered the group's movement to the waterline and was severely wounded by a round through his head. One of the South Vietnamese saw Norris get shot and assumed he was dead. 

Hearing the news, Thornton ran an estimated 400 yards to Norris' last location to recover his body. 

Enemy troops were about to overrun the position, Thornton shot several before putting Norris on his shoulders and ran back towards the beach. 

At the waterline, Thornton discovered that Norris was still alive, but just barely.

Thornton carried Norris into the surf and inflated his UDT lifejacket and began to swim with him. Thornton then saw that one of the Vietnamese had been shot in the buttocks and couldn't swim. 

Inflating the Vietnamese' life jacket, too and with bullets hitting the water around them, Thornton swam both out to sea. In the water, Thornton bandaged Norris' wounds as best he could.

The patrol was initially given up for dead, but after about three hours in the surf, they floated out near the South Vietnamese Navy Junk and Thornton fired his weapon to draw the attention of the junk. 

Transferred to the cruiser Newport News. Thornton carried Norris to the operating room himself. Though his condition was grave, Norris would survive and is alive today.

Thornton stayed in the SEALs and was selected as a limited duty officer and commissioned an Ensign in 1982. He would retire in 1992 with the rank of lieutenant.

It's the service of Sailors like EM2 Thornton why we celebrate the service of past and present American Indians and Alaska Natives in our ranks.

Currently, there are 567 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and more than 100 state recognized tribes across the United States.

Each have their own unique history, beliefs, governance structure and culture.

Though one of the smallest minorities in our country, these Americans serve in the Armed Forces at five times the national average according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.  

The population of the United States is roughly 1.4 percent Native American. However, the percentage of known Native Americans in uniform is 1.7 percent, the highest per-capita participation of any population. 

In the Navy, as of March 31, American Indians and Native Alaskans were 2.04 percent of the total force end strength.

Since 1776, when Gen. George Washington began enlisting American Indians for his Army, Navy, and Marines, American Indians have contributed significantly to the defense of our nation. 

During the Civil War, 20,000 American Indians served with Union forces both at sea and on the land. During World War I, although not yet eligible for the draft, 15,000 American Indians volunteered to fight. 

Although American Indians have been an integral part of our country long before its birth, American Indian veterans weren’t awarded citizenship and voting rights. That changed in 1924, when voting rights were extended to all American Indians through a series of laws being passed. 

World War II saw 44,000 in service, including 1,910 in the Navy and 874 in the Marines. 

For the Navy, two Oklahoma Cherokees distinguished themselves. Rear Adm. Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark, who in 1917 was the first Native American to graduate from the Naval Academy, commanded aircraft carriers and later a task force. 

Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans as the commanding officer of the destroyer Johnston (DD-557) was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle off Samar, Philippines on Oct. 25, 1944 as he and other "small boys" held the line against a far superior Japanese Force of four Japanese battleships, eight cruisers, and 11 destroyers. His actions helped protect Gen. Douglas McArthur's beachhead in the Philippines. 

Between 10,000 and 15,000 American Indians fought in the Korean War and more than 42,000 during Vietnam -- including Williams. 

In the early 1970s, Chief of Naval Operations Adrm. Elmo Zumwalt sought to reduce racism and sexism in both the Navy and Marine Corps with Z-Gram #66 -- Equal Opportunity, which benefited American Indians immensely. 

Rear Adm. Michael L. Holmes and Cmdr. John B. Herrington are notable examples of the new opportunities for American Indians as a result of Zumwalt’s Z-Gram. 

Holmes served 32 years as a naval aviator, and Herrington flew for the Navy and later NASA, becoming the first enrolled member of an American Indian tribe to fly in space. 

Stay tuned to MyNavy HR's Facebook page as we highlight the service of American Indians and Native Alaskans in our Navy. 

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