This Day in History: A former prisoner-of-war receives his Medal of Honor
On this day in 1973, the Medal of Honor is presented to Air Force pilot Leo K. Thorsness. His Medal had been delayed for years. It couldn’t be awarded earlier because Thorsness had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The Medal nomination had to be kept secret while he was there. Think about it. If the Vietnamese learned that they had a potential Medal of Honor recipient in captivity, then they would treat Thorsness even worse than before.
Thorsness earned his Medal while flying a so-called “Wild Weasel” mission.
Wild Weasel pilots had a challenging task: They were to go before an attack force into enemy territory and take out surface-to-air missile sites. It was risky, both for the pilots and the EWOs (Electronic Warfare Officers) who rode in the rear of the plane.
On April 19, 1967, Thorsness was flying one of these missions. Two Weasels, along with their wingmen, were to attack together: Thorsness was to go in from the south while the other pilot went in from the north.
The situation deteriorated rapidly. The planes on the northern route were attacked and had to leave. Meanwhile, Thorsness took out one SAM site, but then his wingman got hit. That pilot tried to flee, but he didn’t make it quite far enough before he and his EWO were forced to eject.
Thorsness soon spotted a MiG headed toward the American airmen, apparently determined to take them out as they parachuted to the ground. “So I rolled in on the Mig and he and I got into it,” Thorsness would later describe, “and I ended up shooting that MiG down.”
By then, Thorsness had more MiGs on his tail. He was faster than they were, but the chase left him running low on fuel. He radioed in the location of the downed airmen, then left to find a refueling tanker.
“As we broke off from the tanker,” Thorsness later wrote, “Harry [the EWO] and I had a very serious, very short conversation . . . . ‘Harry, if we go back, we go it alone,’ I said. He was thinking the same thing that I was: Bad odds. But our two buddies were on the ground. The longer we waited before giving them cover, the greater the odds they would be captured or killed.”
Naturally, Thorsness went back. When he arrived, multiple MiGs were circling the downed Americans. Thorsness attacked the enemy planes, damaging one MiG and driving the others away.
He used lots of fuel—and he ran out of ammunition.
Despite Thorsness’s best efforts, rescue attempts ultimately failed. Just as he was leaving, Thorsness learned that one of the other rescue aircraft was critically low on fuel. The refueling tanker couldn’t get to both aircraft. Thorsness gave up the opportunity to refuel, deferring to the other pilot.
Thorsness mostly hoped that he would make it far enough to eject over friendly territory. He climbed to a high altitude to maximize fuel. When the fuel tanks hit empty, he pulled the throttle to idle and began gliding.
Would you believe he made it to an airfield just inside friendly territory? The engine shut off for lack of fuel just as the plane touched down.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t get to end on that happy note. Thorsness was shot down in a different engagement several days later. He would spend 6 years in the Hanoi Hilton.
“[I]t’s hard for me to convey how important freedom is,” Thorsness later said. “And I didn’t appreciate it and I don’t know that anyone can until they’ve lost it. . . . 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.”
Leo Thorsness, POW who shared cell with John McCain in Vietnam, dies at 85 (Chicago Tribune; May 5, 2017)
Leo Thorsness, Surviving Hell: A POW’S Journey (2008)
Medal of Honor citation (Leo K. Thorsness; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Leo Thorsness; Vietnam)
Peter E. Davies, F-105 Thunderchief MiG Killers of the Vietnam War (2014)
Richard Goldstein, Leo Thorsness, Decorated Veteran Held Captive with McCain, Dies at 85 (NY Times; May 3, 2017)
The Library of Congress: Veterans History Project (Interview transcript; Leo Thorsness)