Thursday, April 19, 2012

TFH 4/19: Colonel Leo K. Thorsness, USAF

Leo Keith Thorsness was born on February 14, 1932 in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. During the Korean War at age 19, he enlisted in the United States Air Force because his older brother was serving overseas. He earned his wings and an officer's commission through the Aviation Cadet program.

By 1966, he was transitioning to flying the Republic F-105 Thunderchief on "wild weasel" missions, more properly known as suppression of enemy air defenses, or SEAD. SEAD missions are both critical to the success of air offensives and are also among the most dangerous missions an air crew can fly. They don't seek to avoid flak and missiles - they seek them out so they can be destroyed and clear the path for the attacking planes coming behind them.

On this day in 1967, Leo Thorsness led a flight of two F-105s on a defense suppression mission over North Vietnam. After attacking and destroying one enemy anti-aircraft site, the two planes honed in on another. On their bomb run, Thorsness' wingman was shot down by flak. What happened next - well, it was clearly worthy of our Nation's highest honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations for the Vietnam War (M-Z):


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 tile 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. 

Thorsness' Electronic Warfare Officer, Captain Harold E. Johnson, recieved the Air Force Cross for his part in the rescue.

Just eleven days later, Thorsness' luck ran out. He was shot down by an enemy MiG-21 and captured after bailout by the communist forces. He suffered in North Vietnamese captivity under severe torture and abuse until March of 1973. For his wartime service in addition to the Medal of Honor he also received two Silver Stars, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Prisoner of War Medal.

Thorsness retired from the Air Force on October 25, 1973 after being deemed medically unfit to continue flying as a result of the torture he suffered at the hands of his captors. He is still living.

His Vietnam-era unit, the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron, is today just known as the 357th Fighter Squadron and flies the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II on attack missions - including SEAD - from their home of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in New Mexico as part of the 355th Wing.

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