Gov. Mark Dayton has ordered all United States flags and Minnesota flags be flown at half-staff at all state and federal buildings in the state of Minnesota, from sunrise until sunset, today in honor and remembrance of Col. Leo Thorsness.
Thorsness was born Feb. 14, 1932, in Walnut Grove. As an active duty fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, he was awarded the United States’ highest distinction for valor in action against an enemy force, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Colonel Thorsness died May 2, 2017, at the age of 85.
“His legacy will be honored for generations to come by everyone inspired by his story of bravery and his dedication to his family, faith, friends, and country,” according to a news release from the governor’s office.
Thorsness visited his hometown of Walnut Grove in October of 2016 and spoke at Westbrook-Walnut Grove Schools as part of an MOH Character Development Program.
“Thorsness, one of the most highly decorated American airmen of the Vietnam War and a belated recipient of the Medal of Honor for his heroism on a mission that took place 11 days before he was shot down and taken prisoner,” according to a New York Times article written after Thorsness’ death. Colonel Thorsness had been brutalized during his six years of captivity at the notorious North Vietnamese prison known as the Hanoi Hilton, where he was a cellmate of John McCain’s.
His wife, Gaylee, said the cause of death was leukemia. He died at a Mayo Clinic. They had been living in St. Augustine, Fla.
The skies some 40 miles southwest of Hanoi were filled with North Vietnamese MIG fighters, surface to air missiles (known as SAMs) and antiaircraft fire on the afternoon of April 19, 1967, when Major Thorsness — he was promoted to colonel on his retirement — carried out his 88th mission for the Air Force piloting an F-105 Thunderchief, according to a New York Times story.
He and his weapons specialist, Captain Harold Johnson, shot down one MIG, damaged another and struck at least two SAM batteries as they accompanied fighter-bombers attacking a North Vietnamese Army barracks.
Although running out of ammunition and low on fuel, Major Thorsness hovered in the area to ward off MIGs and shot one down as airmen sought to rescue his wingmen, two F-105 crewmen who had parachuted from their craft when it was struck by enemy fire. They were later captured.
Major Thorsness passed up a chance for aerial refueling, instead directing a tanker plane to replenish another fighter whose pilot had become lost in the skies amid the chaos.
He finally headed to the nearest airfield in Thailand, 70 miles to the south.
“I pulled the power back to idle and we just glided in,” he told Air Force Magazine in 2005. “We were indicating ’empty’ when the runway came up just in front of us and we landed a little long. As we climbed out of the cockpit, Harry said something quaint like ‘that’s a full day’s work.'”
Eleven days later, on Major Thorsness’ 93rd mission, with only seven remaining to make him eligible to end his tour, a MIG hit his plane with an air-to-air missile. He bailed out with Captain Johnson, suffering severe knee injuries as he ejected, and both were captured.
Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson were held captive at the same prison camp, sarcastically labeled the Hanoi Hilton by prisoners, where Mr. McCain, later a United States senator and presidential candidate, was held. Guards there routinely beat and tortured POWs.
Major Thorsness was in captivity when he learned that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor, for aiding fellow airmen while in great peril on that 88th mission. Word of it came from the officer who had written the recommendation; he had later been shot down and taken to the Hanoi Hilton as well.
But no announcement was made by American military officials until Major Thorsness’ return home in March 1973 out of fear that his captors would retaliate with even greater brutality.
He received the medal from President Richard M. Nixon in a White House ceremony on Oct. 15, 1973, for “extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice and personal bravery.”
He was also awarded two Silver Stars and five Distinguished Flying Crosses for his exploits in the war. Captain Johnson was awarded the Air Force Cross.
In an op-ed article he wrote for The New York Times in September 2008, Colonel Thorsness recalled how Senator McCain, whose Navy plane had been shot down in October 1967, was among his cellmates.
“I still see us sitting on a bed slab in a 6-by-7-foot cell talking about the questions we always talked about: When would the war end? Would we ever be able to catch up with our peers, our families, our faith and our friends?”
After graduating from Walnut Grove High School in 1950, he enrolled at South Dakota State University in Brookings, then enlisted in the Air Force a year later.
In fall 1966, he was assigned to a fighter wing based in Thailand as one of the airmen who became known as Wild Weasels for their prime missions: knocking out SAM batteries, an especially hazardous operation, to protect fighter-bombers during raids.
He could not resume flying after he returned home because of his damaged knees and the injuries he suffered as a prisoner. He retired from the Air Force 10 days later and was promoted to colonel.
While living in South Dakota, he entered politics as a Republican and waged an unsuccessful bid in 1974 to capture the United States Senate seat held by George S. McGovern, a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, who had been defeated by Nixon when the president won a second term two years earlier. Mr. McGovern was re-elected to a third term.
In a 1978 race to fill a vacant South Dakota seat in the House of Representatives, Colonel Thorsness lost narrowly to Tom Daschle, a future Senate majority leader.
Colonel Thorsness was later director of civil affairs for Litton Industries in Beverly Hills, Calif., then moved to the Seattle area and was a Washington State senator from 1988 to 1992.
He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 1964 and a master’s degree in systems management from the University of Southern California while working at Litton.
In addition to his wife, Colonel Thorsness is survived by their daughter, Dawn Thorsness; a sister, Donna Martinson, and two grandchildren.
Senator McCain issued a statement at the time of his death saying that Colonel Thorsness had endured “unspeakable pain and suffering because of his steadfast adherence to our code of conduct” during his six years in captivity, including a year in solitary confinement, “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.”
McCain profiled Colonel Thorsness in “13 Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War” (2014), written with Mark Salter.
Thorsness wrote a book called “Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey” in which he says, “…in the 35 years since my release from prison I’ve never really had a bad day.”