Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Leo Thorsness, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during a dogfight over North Vietnam and who later spent six years in the enemy prison camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” died May 2 at a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. He was 85.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society announced his death. The cause was not disclosed.
During the Vietnam War, Col. Thorsness was one of only 13 members of the Air Force to receive the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor. The award was not announced during the six years he was held in North Vietnam, to keep his captors from inflicting additional torture on him and his fellow POWs.
Col. Thorsness was held in the same prison as another downed pilot, John McCain, now a Republican senator from Arizona. In a statement, McCain said Col. Thorsness “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.”
Col. Thorsness joined the Air Force in 1952 and was sent to Vietnam in 1966 as a member of a squadron known as the Wild Weasels, whose mission was to destroy surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) based in North Vietnam.
On April 19, 1967, Col. Thorsness was the lead pilot in a strike force of four U.S. F-105 fighter-bombers attacking SAM positions near Hanoi. He and his electronic warfare officer, Harold Johnson, knocked out one site with a missile and scored a direct hit on another with bombs.
But they soon realized that one plane in their group had been hit, and the crew members had ejected. While flying in circles over the parachuting airmen, Col. Thorsness spotted an enemy MiG-17 fighter jet and shot it down.
As U.S. rescue helicopters approached, Col. Thorsness heard through his radio that another MiG formation was nearby. Despite being low on fuel and ammunition, he flew through antiaircraft fire and single-handedly engaged four MiGs in aerial combat for 50 minutes.
Col. Thorsness pursued one MiG, “flying right up his tailpipe,” he said later, and damaged it with cannon fire. Flying as low as 50 feet above the ground and as fast as 900 mph, he chased the other MiGs from the area.
As he returned to his base, he was about to refuel from an airborne tanker when he learned that another F-105 in his group was in even greater need of fuel. Col. Thorsness let the other plane go to the tanker, hoping he could glide back to safety on fumes. When he touched down, his fuel tanks were empty.
Eleven days later, on April 30, Col. Thorsness was shot down over North Vietnam on his 93rd mission. Ejecting from his plane at 600 mph, he suffered serious leg injuries before he and Johnson were taken prisoner.
For the first year, Col. Thorsness was held in solitary confinement and tortured almost every day. His back was broken in four places.
Another Air Force pilot, Fred Cherry, was tortured for teaching Col. Thorsness and other POWs a system of communication by tapping on walls.
While at the Hanoi Hilton, Col. Thorsness shared a tiny cell with McCain and two other men.
“Other than when they took you out to beat you or interrogate you, you were together 24 hours a day,” Col. Thorsness told the Huntsville Times in Alabama in 2008. “You get to know each other so well, talking about your families, failures, weaknesses, hopes and dreams, everything.”
He and McCain were released in 1973. Later that year, Col. Thorsness received the Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon; he then retired from the military.
Leo Keith Thorsness was born Feb. 14, 1932, in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and grew up on a family farm. After joining the Air Force, he graduated in 1964 from what is now the University of Nebraska at Omaha and later received a master’s degree in systems management from the University of Southern California.
In 1974 he was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in his wife’s home state of South Dakota. His opponent was incumbent Sen. George S. McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. He lost by six points.
Four years later, Col. Thorsness lost a race for the U.S. House of Representatives by 139 votes to Tom Daschle, who later became a senator from South Dakota.
After working as an executive for Litton Industries in California, Col. Thorsness moved to a suburb of Seattle. He served in the Washington state senate from 1988 to 1992, then retired to Arizona and later Florida.
In 2015, he condemned President Donald Trump’s campaign comment that McCain was “not a war hero” because “I like people that weren’t captured.”
“Trump owes us an apology,” Col. Thorsness said.
Survivors include his wife since 1953, the former Gaylee Anderson; a daughter; and two grandchildren.
While at the Hanoi Hilton, Col. Thorsness and other prisoners measured their cell, calculating that one mile equaled 225 laps around the cell’s 23-foot circumference.
By walking 60 miles a week, Col. Thorsness figured that he could cover the distance to the United States – 10,000 miles – in about three years.
“All of a sudden it became 100 percent real to us,” he said in 1992. “If we could walk home in our cell, we knew whatever had to happen in the world would happen, and we really would get home.”