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Theater of war

“There goes a certified hero.”

Frank Thornton
Frank Thornton

I spot him walking his bike along the avenue, downtown Coronado, Sunday morning. Blue and white Hawaiian shirt, jeans, spikey gray hair, Beach Cruiser bike, heading for a coffee at Café 1134. I’d asked to meet him after my buddy Eric had pointed him out the night before at a bar. “There,” he said, “goes a certified hero.”

We set down at an outside table and start to talk.

Frank Thornton wearing his full set of decorations.

And wow. Frank Thornton, Navy Seal, is about as bona fide a hero as you could get. Silver Star, Bronze Star with combat V five times, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V twice, Purple Heart twice, on and on. His 1969 Silver Star citation describes one of his hundreds of patrols in wartime Vietnam. “As patrol leader of an eight-man combat patrol which was taken under heavy fire, Thornton risked his life while leaping in front of a seriously wounded man and killing the Viet Cong directly in front of him. While still under heavy fire, he carried the injured man to an open area for evacuation. Again hit by heavy automatic weapons fire from an enemy bunker, he unhesitatingly assaulted the bunker with small arms and hand grenades, resulting in three Viet Cong dead and one captured.”

See his official US Navy picture and the left side of his chest is weighed down with an astonishing array of medals.

It turns out Lieutenant Commander Frank Thornton has been a SEAL since before there were SEALs. He started off in the Coast Guard, in an icebreaker that was almost lost in a storm on its way back from Antarctica. He joined the Underwater Demolition Teams and helped form the SEALs. From then on, the action never stopped. He’s no way a boastful man, but he grips you with his stories like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

“We were in Cambodia, trying to snatch a cadre, when suddenly, Tet (the 1968 Communist assault on South Vietnam) broke out. There were attacks everywhere, so we didn’t have any helicopters or PBRs [riverboats] to get us out of there. All we could do was head back into Vietnam and the city of Chau Doc. But between us and Chau Doc was the Bassac river. And when we stopped to sit and listen, we heard, then saw, these columns going by. Pith helmets! North Vietnamese. My buddy Harry Humphries and I were sitting back-to-back in the tall grass, waiting to be discovered. We couldn’t use our radios. But in my earpiece I could hear an incredulous voice counting ‘another 20, another 30, another 20!’ until he stopped counting.”

They finally got a Navy PBR boat to snatch them away, and spent the next few days hiding inside the captured city, making forays to rescue trapped Americans, Filipino workers, USAID nurses.

“For me, it was all a great adventure. It was like being a pianist, playing a concert. A performance. I love Vietnam. I love the food, I love the French flavor. My sympathies are for the people. They were stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

I have one question.

“How come they’ve never made a movie about you?”

“Guess I haven’t been at the right place at the right time.”

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Frank Thornton
Frank Thornton

I spot him walking his bike along the avenue, downtown Coronado, Sunday morning. Blue and white Hawaiian shirt, jeans, spikey gray hair, Beach Cruiser bike, heading for a coffee at Café 1134. I’d asked to meet him after my buddy Eric had pointed him out the night before at a bar. “There,” he said, “goes a certified hero.”

We set down at an outside table and start to talk.

Frank Thornton wearing his full set of decorations.

And wow. Frank Thornton, Navy Seal, is about as bona fide a hero as you could get. Silver Star, Bronze Star with combat V five times, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V twice, Purple Heart twice, on and on. His 1969 Silver Star citation describes one of his hundreds of patrols in wartime Vietnam. “As patrol leader of an eight-man combat patrol which was taken under heavy fire, Thornton risked his life while leaping in front of a seriously wounded man and killing the Viet Cong directly in front of him. While still under heavy fire, he carried the injured man to an open area for evacuation. Again hit by heavy automatic weapons fire from an enemy bunker, he unhesitatingly assaulted the bunker with small arms and hand grenades, resulting in three Viet Cong dead and one captured.”

See his official US Navy picture and the left side of his chest is weighed down with an astonishing array of medals.

It turns out Lieutenant Commander Frank Thornton has been a SEAL since before there were SEALs. He started off in the Coast Guard, in an icebreaker that was almost lost in a storm on its way back from Antarctica. He joined the Underwater Demolition Teams and helped form the SEALs. From then on, the action never stopped. He’s no way a boastful man, but he grips you with his stories like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

“We were in Cambodia, trying to snatch a cadre, when suddenly, Tet (the 1968 Communist assault on South Vietnam) broke out. There were attacks everywhere, so we didn’t have any helicopters or PBRs [riverboats] to get us out of there. All we could do was head back into Vietnam and the city of Chau Doc. But between us and Chau Doc was the Bassac river. And when we stopped to sit and listen, we heard, then saw, these columns going by. Pith helmets! North Vietnamese. My buddy Harry Humphries and I were sitting back-to-back in the tall grass, waiting to be discovered. We couldn’t use our radios. But in my earpiece I could hear an incredulous voice counting ‘another 20, another 30, another 20!’ until he stopped counting.”

They finally got a Navy PBR boat to snatch them away, and spent the next few days hiding inside the captured city, making forays to rescue trapped Americans, Filipino workers, USAID nurses.

“For me, it was all a great adventure. It was like being a pianist, playing a concert. A performance. I love Vietnam. I love the food, I love the French flavor. My sympathies are for the people. They were stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

I have one question.

“How come they’ve never made a movie about you?”

“Guess I haven’t been at the right place at the right time.”

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