By Honor Bound: Two Navy SEALs, the Medal of Honor and a Story of Extraordinary Courage, by Tom Norris and Mike Thornton with Dick Couch, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2016, $26.99
Winning a hard-fought war against a competent foe feels glorious, though Americans haven’t experienced much of that since 1945 (the pushover Iraqi army notwithstanding). In the intervening seven decades the country has spent a few trillion dollars and tens of thousands of lives in actions ranging from necessary (Korea) to minuscule (Panama, Grenada) to disastrous (Mogadishu, Beirut). Three major wars (two still in progress) remain deeply unsatisfying.
Given the scarcity of brilliant leadership and large-scale victories over oppression, military writers have concentrated on individual acts of heroism, never in short supply. Among the latest accounts are two stories related by veteran special forces writer Couch (The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228).
By 1972 the United States had all but given up on Vietnam. “Vietnamization” was in full flower, most American ground forces were gone and South Vietnam’s army was not doing all that badly. With support from U.S. airpower, the South Vietnamese had brought the invasion to a standstill, although North Vietnamese forces remained south of the border.
That April an American lieutenant colonel was shot down south of the DMZ but behind NVA lines. Initial rescue attempts had failed dismally, with five aircraft lost, 11 aviators killed, two captured and three more down and needing rescue. In the war’s only successful rescue operation using ground forces, SEAL Tom Norris led a team of South Vietnamese Sea Commandos into enemy territory and managed to bring out two of the downed aviators. For his actions he received the Medal of Honor. (That mission was dramatized in the 1988 film Bat*21.)
That fall Norris joined fellow SEAL Mike Thornton and three South Vietnamese soldiers in a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines. The fishing boat inserting them dropped the men on the wrong beach, and their naval fire support was unable to track them after they drew the attention of NVA forces. During their retreat Norris was shot in the head. Although one of the team insisted Norris was dead, Thornton ran almost a quarter-mile under fire to retrieve him. He then led his team, wearing only life jackets, into the ocean beyond small-arms range, where they remained for hours until rescued. Thornton also received the Medal of Honor, the only time in modern history when one Medal of Honor recipient saved the life of another. Norris recovered and had a distinguished postwar career in the FBI.
By Honor Bound marks the ninth book Couch has either written or co-written about the special operations forces. Amid the mission narratives, he delivers a melancholy history of the Vietnam War without too much teeth-gnashing over political machinations on the home front. Concentrating on his subjects, since retired and perhaps unusually willing to talk, he delivers cracking-good minute-by-minute descriptions of two SEAL missions rich in suspense, with technically accurate fireworks, undeniable heroism and largely successful outcomes.