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Under heavy gunfire from dozens of North Vietnamese soldiers, Navy SEAL Mike Thornton lifted critically injured fellow SEAL Tom Norris onto his shoulders and carried him in the darkness down the beach into the South China Sea surf.
Inflating Norris’ life jacket, Thornton kept him afloat and breaststroked for about two hours to a support boat after that October 1972 beach-landing firefight near the Cua Viet River. Norris — who had been shot in the head — later underwent surgery and endured three years of rehabilitation, but he survived.
Now, this spectacular Vietnam War battlefield rescue will be memorialized in bronze. Saturday, officials will dedicate a 10-foot statue depicting Thornton carrying Norris on his shoulders during the facility’s 28th annual Muster reunion at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Fla.
“It was the only time this century when one Medal of Honor winner was rescued by a person who would eventually get a Medal of Honor for rescuing him,” said Rick Kaiser, executive director of the museum.
Kaiser expects about 10,000 people to attend this weekend’s Muster events, which include a 5K beach race, a music festival, a memorial service, and demonstrations of SEAL sniper, parachute and K-9 teams.
The statue was commissioned by former presidential candidate Ross Perot, who is friends with Thornton. The sculptor is Paul Moore of Norman, Okla., who also crafted a Perot-commissioned bronze statue of Gen. Hugh Shelton at the Airborne and Special Operation Museum in Fayetteville, N.C.
This year’s Muster also commemorates the 70th anniversary of the original Naval Combat Demolition Unit “frogmen.” In 1943, the military took over portions of Hutchinson Island and established a training base at Fort Pierce. Here, frogmen trained to penetrate enemy beach obstacles and defenses. Predecessors of today’s SEALs, these elite fighters trained for D-Day, a possible invasion of Japan and other World War II amphibious assaults.
The war ended in 1945, and the Fort Pierce base closed the following year after about 140,000 men trained there.
The museum was dedicated on Veterans Day in 1985 at the site of the defunct Fort Pierce Treasure Museum, and active and retired SEALs and their families from across the USA have gathered for annual Muster reunions ever since.
Viera resident Amir Pishdad, a retired Army chief warrant officer, has volunteered at the museum since 2004. His son, Amir Pishdad Jr. of San Diego, is a retired SEAL lieutenant commander who served from 1973-96.
The elder Pishdad has attended the past nine Musters with three generations of relatives.
“It’s a family affair for us, because we believe in the cause,” he said. “Freedom is not free unless someone does it for you — you’ve got to pay for freedom.”