Medal of Honor

 

THORSNESS, LEO K.

 

Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel (then Maj.), U.S. Air Force, 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

 

Place and date: Over North Vietnam, 19 April 1967.

 

Entered service at: Walnut Grove, Minn.

 

Born: 14 February 1932, Walnut Grove, Minn.

 

Citation:

 

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As pilot of an F-105 aircraft, Lt. Col. Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lt. Col. Thorsness and his wingman attacked and silenced a surface-to-air missile site with air-to-ground missiles, and then destroyed a second surface-to-air missile site with bombs. In the attack on the second missile site, Lt. Col. Thorsness' wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the 2 crewmembers abandoned their aircraft. Lt. Col. Thorsness circled the descending parachutes to keep the crewmembers in sight and relay their position to the Search and Rescue Center. During this maneuver, a MIG-17 was sighted in the area. Lt. Col. Thorsness immediately initiated an attack and destroyed the MIG. Because his aircraft was low on fuel, he was forced to depart the area in search of a tanker. Upon being advised that 2 helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew's position and that there were hostile MlGs in the area posing a serious threat to the helicopters, Lt. Col. Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft defenses to the downed crew's position. As he approached the area, he spotted 4 MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MlGs, damaging 1 and driving the others away from the rescue scene. When it became apparent that an aircraft in the area was critically low on fuel and the crew would have to abandon the aircraft unless they could reach a tanker, Lt. Col. Thorsness, although critically short on fuel himself, helped to avert further possible loss of life and a friendly aircraft by recovering at a forward operating base, thus allowing the aircraft in emergency fuel condition to refuel safely. Lt. Col. Thorsness' extraordinary heroism, self_sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.

 


 


Valor Magazine

April, 1985

Wild, Wild Weasel

by John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor

 

Leo Thorsness fought most of North Vietnam in one of the epic solo battles of the SEA war.

The Wild Weasel crews, flying two-seat F-105Gs, took on the most dangerous and demanding mission of the air war in Southeast Asia. Their job was to precede a strike force into the target area, entice enemy surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft radars to come on the air, and knock them out with bombs or with missiles that homed on the radar's emissions. Often they were in a high-threat area for half an hour while the strike force attacked its targets and withdrew. The business of offering themselves as targets for enemy gunners was made even more hazardous by the presence of MiG fighters. Only the top pilots were selected to fly F-105Gs.

Head Weasel of the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli Air Base in Thailand was Maj. Leo Thorsness. On April 19, 1967, he and his backseater, Capt. Harold Johnson, fought one of the epic solo battles of the war in a wild 50-minute duel with SAMS, AAA, and MiGs.

The target that day was an army compound near Hanoi, the most heavily defended area in the history of aerial warfare. Thorsness, leading a flight of four Weasels, heard the rattling in his headset that signaled enemy radars coming on long before they reached the target. Directing two of his F-105s to the north, Thorsness and his wingman stayed south, forcing enemy gunners to divide their attention. Johnson's scope in the back seat showed many SAMs in the area. Thorsness fired a Shrike missile at one of the sites, and moments later its radar went off the air. He then silenced another with a direct bomb hit.

Things quickly began to go sour. First, Thorsness's wingman, Tom Madison, was hit by flak. Both he and his backseater, Tom Sterling, ejected. Thorsness flew toward their chutes, somehow finding time to fire at another SAM site along the way. Then the two Weasels he had sent north were attacked by MiGs. The afterburner of one F-105 wouldn't light; the element was forced to return to Takhli, leaving Thorsness alone in a hornet's nest of SAMS, AAA, and MiGs.

As Thorsness circled the two chutes, Johnson spotted a MiG off their left wing. The big F-105, designed for delivering nuclear weapons at low altitude, was never intended for air-to-air combat. But never mind that. Thorsness attacked the MiG, destroying it with 20-mm cannon fire as another MiG closed on his tail. Low on fuel, he broke off and rendezvoused with a tanker.

In the meantime, two prop-driven A-1E Sandys and a rescue helicopter had arrived to look for Madison and Sterling. Thorsness, with only 500 rounds of ammunition left, turned back from the tanker to fly cover for the rescue force, knowing there were at least five MiGs in the area. Using the last of his ammunition, he hit and probably destroyed one of them. Then, in a wild supersonic dash at 50 feet, he shook off four more MiGs that had come up fast behind him.

Once more, Thorsness started for the rescue scene, where MiGs had downed one Sandy. Out of ammunition, he hoped at least to draw the MiGs away from the remaining Sandy in what might well have been a suicidal maneuver. In the nick of time, an element of the strike force, which had been delayed, arrived and hit the enemy fighters.

It wasn't over yet. Again low on fuel, Thorsness headed for a tanker just as one of the strike force pilots, lost and almost out of fuel, called him for help. Thorsness knew he couldn't make Takhli without refueling. Rapidly calculating that he could stretch it to Udorn, some 200 miles closer, without taking on fuel, he directed the tanker toward the lost pilot. Once across the Mekong, he throttled back to idle and "glided" toward Udorn, touching down as his tanks went dry. That four-hour mission had been, as Johnson said, "a full day's work."

Eleven days later, while Thorsness was on his 93rd mission, a MiG popped up from behind a mountain and put a missile up the tailpipe of his F-105. He and Johnson ejected at 600 knots, Thorsness suffering severe injuries. Both men spent almost the next six years in North Vietnam's prisons. Because of his "uncooperative attitude," Thorsness was denied medical attention, spent a year in solitary, and suffered severe back injuries under torture. On March 4, 1973, both men walked away from prison, Thorsness on crutches. No one could ever say that Leo Thorsness hadn't paid his dues in full.

On Oct. 15, 1973, President Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Lt. Col. Leo K. Thorsness for extraordinary heroism on that April day in 1967. Maj. Harold Johnson was later awarded the Air Force Cross. No longer able to fly fighters because of his back injuries, Leo Thorsness retired as a colonel. He is now Director of Civic Affairs for Litton Industries.

 


Honoring the American Flag

 

From a speech by Leo K. Thorsness, recipient of The Congressional Medal of Honor.

 

You've probably seen the bumper sticker somewhere along the road. Itdepicts an American Flag, accompanied by the words "These colors don't run."

I'm always glad to see this, because it reminds me of an incident from my confinement in North Vietnam at the Hao Lo POW Camp or the "Hanoi Hilton," as it became known. Then a Major in the U.S. Air Force, I had been captured and imprisoned from 1967-1973. Our treatment had been frequently brutal.

After three years, however, the beatings and torture became less frequent. During the last year, we were allowed outside most days for a couple of minutes to bathe. We showered by drawing water from a concrete tank with a homemade bucket.

One day as we all stood by the tank, stripped of our clothes, a young Naval pilot named Mike Christian found the remnants of a handkerchief in a gutter that ran under the prison wall. Mike managed to sneak the grimy rag into our cell and began fashioning it into a flag. Over time, we all loaned him a little soap, and he spent days cleaning the material. We helped by scrounging and stealing bits and pieces of anything he could use.

At night, under his mosquito net, Mike worked on the flag. He made red and blue from ground-up roof tiles and tiny amounts of ink and painted the colors onto the cloth with watery rice glue. Using thread from his own blanket and a homemade bamboo needle, he sewed on the stars.

Early in the morning a few days later, when the guards were not alert, he whispered loudly from the back of our cell, "Hey gang, look here."

He proudly held up this tattered piece of cloth, waving it as if in a breeze. If you used your imagination, you could tell it was supposed to be an American flag. When he raised that smudgy fabric, we automatically stood straight and saluted, our chests puffing out, and more than a few eyes had tears.

About once a week, the guards would strip us, run us outside, and go through our clothing. During one of those shakedowns, they found Mike's flag. We all knew what would happen. That night they came for him. Night interrogations were always the worst.

They opened the cell door and pulled Mike out. We could hear the beginning of the torture before they even had him in the torture cell. They beat him most of the night.

About daylight, they pushed what was left of him back through the cell door. He was badly broken; even his voice was gone.

Within two weeks, despite the danger, Mike scrounged another piece of cloth and began another flag. The Stars and Stripes, our national symbol, was worth the sacrifice to him.

Now whenever I see the flag, I think of Mike and the morning he first waved that tattered emblem of a nation. It was then, thousands of miles from home, in a lonely prison cell, he showed us what it is to be truly free.


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