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First Name: Leo

Last Name: Thorsness

Birthplace: Walnut Grove, MN, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Air Force (1947 - present)

Middle Name: Keith

Date of Birth: 14 February 1932

Rank: Colonel

Years Served: 1951-1973
Leo Keith Thorsness

•  Vietnam War (1960 - 1973)


Leo Keith Thorsness
Colonel, U.S. Air Force
Medal of Honor Recipient
Vietnam War

Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and pilot who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for an air engagement on 19 April 1967. Two weeks later he was shot down and spent six years in captivity in North Vietnam as a Prisoner of War. After his military service, Thorsness served one term in the Washington State Senate.

Leo Keith Thorsness was born on 14 February 1932 in Walnut Grove, MN, where he earned the Eagle Scout award from the Boy Scouts of America. He is one of only seven known Eagle Scouts who also received the Medal of Honor. The others are Aquilla J. Dyess and Mitchell Paige of the U.S. Marine Corps, Robert Edward Femoyer and Jay Zeamer, Jr. of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Benjamin L. Salomon of the U.S. Army, and Eugene B. Fluckey of the U.S. Navy. In 2010, Thorsness received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.

Thorsness enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 19 because his brother was then serving in Korea. Through the Aviation Cadet program, Class 54-G, he received his commission and his wings with a rating of pilot. He earned a Bachelor Degree from the University of Omaha, and a Masters in Systems Management from the University of Southern California. Thorsness completed training as a fighter pilot and flew both F-84 and F-100 jets before transitioning to the F-105 Thunderchief.

In the autumn of 1966, after completing "Wild Weasel" training, he was assigned to the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, flying as aircraft commander in F-105F's, tasked with locating and destroying North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites.

Medal of Honor Mission

On 19 April 1967, Major Thorsness and his Electronic Warfare Officer, Capt. Harold E. Johnson, flying F-105F 63-8301, led Kingfish flight (three F-105F Weasel aircraft and an F-105D single-seater) on a Wild Weasel SAM suppression mission. The strike force target was JCS target 22.00, the Xuan Mai army training compound, near heavily defended Hanoi. Thorsness directed Kingfish 03 and 04, the second element of F-105s, to troll north while he and his wingman maneuvered south, forcing defending gunners to divide their attention. Thorsness located two SAM sites and fired a Shrike missile to attack one, whose radar went off the air. He destroyed the second with cluster bombs, scoring a direct hit.

After this initial success, matters turned for the worse. Kingfish 02, crewed by Majors Thomas M. Madison and Thomas J. Sterling, flying aircraft F-105F 63-8341, was hit by anti-aircraft fire and both crewmen had to eject. Unknown to Thorsness, Kingfish 03 and 04 had been attacked by MiG-17s flying a low-altitude wagon wheel defensive formation. The afterburner of one of the F-105s wouldn't light and the element had disengaged and returned to base, leaving Kingfish 01 to fight solo.

As their F-105 circled the parachutes of Kingfish 02-alpha and 02-bravo, relaying the position to Crown, the airborne search and rescue command HC-130, Johnson spotted a MiG-17 off their left wing. Their aircraft, 8301, though not designed for air-to-air combat, responded well as Thorsness attacked the MIG and destroyed it with 20-mm cannon fire, just as a second MiG closed on his tail. Low on fuel, Thorsness outran his pursuers and left the battle area to rendezvous with a KC-135 tanker over Laos.

Thorsness described the incident:

It appeared the MiG was going after the chutes so I took off after him. I was a little high, dropped down to about 1000 feet, and headed north after him. We were doing about 550 knots and really catching up fast. At about 3000 feet (range) I fired a burst but missed. I lined him up again and was closing very fast. I was a bit below him now. At 700 feet or so I pull my trigger and pulled the pipper through him. Parts of his left started coming off. Suddenly I realized that Harry Johnson was frantically trying to get my attention. There were a couple of MiGs on our tail! If I had hit that MiG dead on, we probably would have swallowed some of his debris. But we got him! I lit the burner, dropped down as low as possible, and ducked into the hills west of Hanoi. The MiGs could not keep up with us.

As this occurred, the initial element of the rescue force-a pair of A-1E "Sandies"-arrived to locate the position of the downed crewmen before calling in the waiting HH-53 Jolly Green helicopters orbiting at a holding point over Laos. Thorsness, with only 500 rounds of ammunition left, turned back from the tanker to fly RESCAP (rescue combat air patrol) for the Sandies and update them on the situation and terrain. As Thorsness approached the area, briefing the Sandies, he spotted MiG-17s in a wagon wheel orbit around him and attacked, probably destroying another that flew across his path.

Thorsness commented:

One of the MiGs flew right into my gunsight at about 2000 feet (range). I pulled the trigger and saw pieces start falling off the aircraft. They hadn't seen us, but they did now! Johnson shouted at me that we had four more MiGs on our tail and they were closing fast. I dropped down on the deck, sometimes as low as fifty feet, hit the burner, and twisted through the hills and valleys trying to lose them.

Pairs of MiGs attacked each propeller-driven Sandy as it came out of its turn in search orbit, shooting down the leader (Maj. John S. Hamilton in A-1E 52-133905) with cannon fire when he failed to heed warnings from Sandy 02 to break into the attack, and forced the wingman into a series of repeated evasive turns. Sandy 02 reported the situation and Thorsness advised him to keep turning and announced his return.

Although all of his ammunition had been depleted, Thorsness reversed and flew back to the scene, hoping in some way to draw the MiGs away from the surviving A-1. However as he re-engaged, Panda flight from the 355th TFW strike force arrived back in the area. It had dropped its ordnance on the target and was enroute to its post-strike aerial refueling when Kingfish 02 went down. Panda had jettisoned its wing tanks, making the rescue radar controller reluctant to use it to CAP the rescue effort, but it filled its internal tanks and returned to North Vietnam at high altitude to conserve fuel.

Panda's four F-105s burst through the defensive circle at high speed, then engaged the MiGs in a turning dogfight, permitting Kingfish 01 to depart the area after a 50-minute engagement against SAMs, antiaircraft guns, and MiGs. Panda 01 (Capt. William E. Eskew) shot down a MiG, during which the surviving Sandy escaped, and he and his wingman Panda 02 (Capt. Paul A. Seymour) each damaged one of the others. Two other MiGs were shot down by members of a third F-105 strike flight, Nitro 01 (Major Jack W. Hunt) and Nitro 03 (Major Theodore G. "Ted" Tolman), in another of the 17 MiG engagements on this mission.

Again low on fuel and facing nightfall, Thorsness was headed towards a tanker when Panda 03 (Capt. Howard L. Bodenhammer), an F-105 of the flight that had rescued Sandy 02, transmitted by radio that he was lost and critically low on fuel. Thorsness quickly calculated that Kingfish 01 had sufficient fuel to fly to Udorn, near the Mekong River and 200 miles closer, so he vectored the tanker toward Panda 03. When within 60 miles of Udorn, he throttled back to idle and "glided" toward the base, touching down "long" (mid-runway) as his fuel totalizer indicated empty tanks.

The mission was recreated by The History Channel as part of Episode 12 ("Long Odds") of its series Dogfights, and first telecast on January 19, 2007.

Prisoner of War

On 30 April 1967, on his 93rd mission (seven shy of completing his tour), Thorsness was shot down by a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 over North Vietnam while flying aircraft F-105F 62-4447. He had flown the morning mission to the Hanoi area as Wild Weasel leader, then assigned himself as a spare aircraft for the afternoon mission because of a shortage of crews. One of Carbine flight aborted with radio problems, and Thorsness filled in as Carbine 03, leading the second element.

While still inbound over northwest North Vietnam, communications were disrupted when an ejection seat emergency beeper went off aboard one of the F-105s. Despite being observed by early warning radar locations, two MiG-21s approached Carbine flight from behind and unseen. Just as Thorsness got an instrument indication that the flight was being painted by airborne radar, he saw an F-105 going down in flames that eventually was identified as his own wingman, Carbine 04 (1LT Robert Abbott, in F105D 59-1726), shot down by an Atoll missile. Within a minute, his own aircraft was also hit with a heat-seeking missile fired by the MiGs.

He and his backseater, Capt. Harold Johnson, ejected. Separated by a ridge, they were the object of a three-hour rescue effort involving the entire strike force as a covering force. Two F-105D aircraft were directed by Crown to provide RESCAP (as Tomahawk flight) until the search and rescue (SAR) forces could arrive on station. Both aircraft were hit by Atoll missiles from MiG 21s, with F-105D 61-0130, piloted by Capt. Joe Abbott being shot down, and wingman Maj. Al Lenski limping back to Thailand. In addition, one of the A-1 "Sandy" aircraft was hit while one of the rescue Jolly Greens developed hydraulic problems and had to abort, thus ending the SAR mission. Poor communications, heavy MiG engagements and standard operating procedures which did not allow only one SAR helicopter to remain on station, made the effort futile and all the men were captured. SAR forces were again launched the next day but none of the downed airmen were located. The mission is described in great detail, including verbatim transcripts of radio transmissions, in both Thud Ridge and Thud, written by Col. Broughton, member of Waco flight and another of the RESCAP crews involved in the incident.

His uncooperativeness towards his captors earned him a year in solitary confinement and severe back injuries due to torture. The Medal of Honor was awarded by the United States Congress during his captivity, but not announced until his release in 1973 to prevent the Vietnamese from using it against Thorsness, as was the Air Force Cross awarded to Capt. Johnson for the same mission. Capt. Abbott was released from captivity on 18 February 1973, while Thorsness, Johnson, and 1LT Abbott were released on 4 March 1973. Injuries incurred during the ejection and aggravated by the torture Thorsness received, medically disqualified him from further flying and he retired on 25 October 1973.

Medal of Honor

The President of the United States in the name of the Congress takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor to


for service as set forth in the following 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, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lieutenant Colonel 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, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness' wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the two crewmembers abandoned their aircraft. Lieutenant Colonel 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. Lieutenant Colonel 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 two helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew's position and that there were hostile MIGs in the area posing a serious threat to the helicopters, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft defenses to the downed crew's position. As he approached the area, he spotted four MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MIGs, damaging one 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, Lieutenant Colonel 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. Lieutenant Colonel 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.

Post-Military Life

Thorsness served as Director of Civic Affairs for Litton Industries from 1979 to 1985. He then served as a State Senator in Washington. He is currently retired and serves on the Board of Directors as Society President for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. He moved from Catalina, AZ, to Madison, AL, with his wife in early 2008 to be close to family.

He is married to the former Gaylee Anderson. They are the parents of a daughter, Dawn.

In 2004, the University of Richmond announced the establishment of an endowed chair in leadership and ethics named in honor of Thorsness. The Colonel Leo K. and Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership was funded by a $1,000,000 gift organized by W. Thomas Matthews, President and CEO of the Global Private Client Group at Smith Barney. Thorsness is currently serving as Distinguished Leader in Residence at the Jepson School. The Thorsness chair is held by John Donelson Forsyth, a social psychologist with expertise in group dynamics.

Thorsness' autobiography, Surviving Hell: A POW's Journey, was published in December 2008.

Political career

In 1974, he made an unsuccessful race as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against the incumbent Democrat, Senator George S. McGovern. In 1978, Thorsness was the Republican nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in a race for an open seat in the First District of South Dakota. Democratic nominee Tom Daschle won the Congressional race by a margin of 139 votes, following a recount, out of more than 129,000 votes cast.

Thorsness settled in Seattle, Washington, and was elected on 8 November 1988, to the state legislature as a senator from District 11 to serve the unexpired term of Avery Garrett, who died in April 1988. He was elected in 1989 to a full term, which he served from 1989 to 1992. In 1992, he was an unsuccessful candidate in the Republican primary election for the United States Senate. He sponsored a bill dubbed the "Truth Bill" on 3 March 1990. The legislature unanimously passed the measure, SJM 8020, urging the Federal government to release information about 30,000 U.S. soldiers listed as either prisoners of war or missing in action in conflicts dating back to World War II. It further urged the United States Congress to pass a similar measure, HR3603, that would force the federal government to declassify information pertaining to over 30,000 missing American servicemen. In sponsoring the bill, Thorsness said that the government kept the information classified to protect intelligence sources, but that the sources are no longer useful because the conflict occurred decades ago. After a single term, Thorsness retired to Indianola, Washington.

Medals and Awards

Medal of Honor
Silver Star Medal with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster
Distinguished Flying Cross with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters
Purple Heart with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster
Air Medal with 15 Oak Leaf Clusters
Prisoner of War Medal
Combat Readiness Medal
Good Conduct Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Vietnam Service Medal
Air Force Longevity Service Award with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters
Armed Forces Reserve Medal
Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Medal
Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal

Honoree ID: 1100   Created by: MHOH




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