USAFA CLASS OF 2023 EXEMPLAR
COLONEL LEO K. THORSNESS
USAF SERVICE, 1951-1973
PRISONER OF WAR, 1967-1973
MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT
BURIED IN ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
COLONEL LEO K. THORSNESS IN HIS OWN WORDS:
…It’s hard for me to convey how important freedom is. And I didn't appreciate it, and I don't know that anyone can until they've lost it. It takes more realness. But people understand it’s important. And I hope more maybe that they understand that…it doesn't happen automatically. It's gotta be re-earned by every generation or at least every other generation. If you let it slip very long, it's gone.
And I would hope that they would learn that from these experiences that leaders are…made, they're not born. That you can come from any walk of life and become a leader…
I would hope that they learn that one person can make a difference. And it doesn't matter what your status is. You can be the janitor at the local high school, or you can be the guy that jumps in and pulls somebody out of the Potomac river when an airplane crashes there in the dead of winter. Or you can be a general that leads a battle…It’s a phenomenal country in that [if] you stop and think about it…it's not a caste system. It doesn't matter what your wealth and status [is]. You can excel. You can succeed if you work hard.
I hope they learn that life is sacrifice...Most of us don't get something for nothing. You gotta either work hard and learn whatever your job is, but that there's so many rewards if they do that...
I spent about a year in solitary confinement. And I decided what I was gonna figure out is how this nation could keep its freedom ad infinitum. And I started out by thinking well, we have to have a strong military. Well, that's my field… And every so often somebody's gonna test you. But to have a strong military, you've gotta have a strong economy, a strong industrial base, and have the wherewithal and so on. And I just kept going backward and backward and backward…I was there for about several months…milling this around.
And I finally said, I know what it is. In fact, I designed a medallion, a coin and I had some made not so long ago. On the one side it says “freedom”. And I said what is, what can I boil it down to. One word is the flip side of freedom. And I finally came up with it - it's “responsibility”.
If every one of us will accept our responsibilities as best we can - - and if you happen to be in a leadership role and help out those who work with you and for us, we can go on forever. That is…so key to me…I spent a lot of time thinking about that responsibility. And I take that very seriously.
Leo K. Thorsness was born on February 14, 1932 in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Inspired by his brother’s service in Korea, Thorsness enlisted in the US Air Force in 1951 and received his pilot’s wings and officer commission in 1954.
Upon completion of fighter pilot training, Thorsness flew F-84s and F-100s and later earned his BA from the University of Omaha and an MA in Defense Systems Management from University of Southern California.
In 1966, he completed flight training for F-105 Thunderchiefs and was assigned to the 255th Tactical Fighter Wing, “Wild Weasels,” based at Takhli Royal Thai AFB in Thailand. As an aircraft commander, he was responsible for locating and destroying surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites in North Vietnam.
MEDAL OF HONOR MISSION
On April 19, 1957, Major Thorsness and his Electronic Warfare Officer, Captain Harold Johnson, led a flight of four F-105s on a SAM suppression mission targeting the Xuan Mai army training compound near Hanoi.
Thorsness directed two planes from the second element to head North while he and his wingman went south, dividing the defending gunners. Thorsness successfully located and destroyed two SAMs, however, his wingman was hit by anti-aircraft fire and both crewmen ejected. In addition, both planes of the second element were attacked by MiG-17s and were forced to disengage and return to base, leaving Thorsness and Johnson to fight solo.
Thorsness circled the parachutes of the ejected crew continuously, following their descent and relaying their position for search and rescue. Johnson soon spotted a MiG-17 off the right wing. Thorsness attacked and destroyed it with cannon fire as a second MiG closed in. Low on fuel, he outran the MiG and left to refuel.
Upon learning the rescue helicopters were having trouble retrieving the crewmen, Thorsness turned back despite his fuel shortage and destroyed one MiG on the way. With no ammunition left, Thorsness continued to draw multiple MiGs away from the rescue area, encountering multiple SAMs, antiaircraft guns, and MiGs alone for 50 minutes. Finally, four F-105s from Panda flight of the 255th TFW arrived to engage the MiGs in a dogfight and complete the rescue of the crewmen.
Critically low of fuel, Thorsness headed to the closest base at Udorn. Sixty miles out, with his tanks completely empty, he throttled back to idle and glided toward the runway, touching down successfully.
Thorsness received the Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life.” Johnson received the Air Force Cross.
PRISONER OF WAR
Eleven days after the MOH mission, and seven missions short of the end of his tour, Thorsness and Johnson were shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. Despite an extensive rescue attempt, Thorsness remained a POW for six years, including a year in solitary confinement, and three years of intense torture.
“With a wire, strap or rope, the guards would pull your elbows together behind your back. Then they’d tie your hands together at the wrist and pull, cutting off the circulation. They would put a clevis around your feet and run a bar through it…They’d bend you forward and put your head under the bar. Sometimes they’d hoist you off the floor and it felt like your sternum was going to break. Generally, you’d pass out…Most of us had our shoulders dislocated… It was brutal, painfully brutal” --Leo Thorsness
Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor during his captivity, but it was not publicly announced until his release in 1973 so the North Vietnamese could not use it against him.
Fellow POW Senator John McCain later profiled Thorsness in his book, 13 Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War: “[Thorsness] endured unspeakable pain and suffering because of his steadfast adherence to our code of conduct [during captivity] but Leo never let this experience break his spirit, and inspired the rest of us with his patriotism, perseverance, and hope that we would someday be free.”
Due to his extensive injuries, Thorsness was unable to continue flying after his release and retired at the rank of Colonel in 1973.
In 1974, he unsuccessfully ran for the US Senate in South Dakota against incumbent Democrat George McGovern and later ran for an open seat in the US House of Representatives against Democrat Tom Daschle who won by only 139 votes following a recount.
Thorsness later settled in Seattle, WA and was elected to the State Senate in 1988 where he sponsored bills asking the Federal government to declassify information regarding 30,000 missing American servicemen since World War I. He continued to push for MIA and POW causes throughout his life and served on the Board of Directors of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
In 2004, an endowed chair in leadership and ethics was named after Thorsness at the University of Richmond.
He published his autobiography, Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey in 2008.
Thorsness died of leukemia in 2017 and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery in 2017. He is survived by his wife Gaylee, his daughter Dawn and his two grandchildren.