USAF Medal of Honor Recipient Leo Thorsness Dies at 85

Retired Col. Leo Thorsness receives the Medal of Honor from President Nixon after repatriation from a North Vietnamese prison in 1973. Also pictured are his mother and his wife Gaylee. US Air Force photo.

Medal of Honor recipient retired USAF Col. Leo Thorsness died Tuesday in Florida, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. He was 85.

On April 19, 1967, then-Maj. Thorsness—an F-105 pilot—was on a Wild Weasel mission over North Vietnam. He and his wingman successfully took out an enemy surface-to-air missile site with air-to-ground missiles and a second with bombs, but on the second round, his wingman was shot down by “intensive antiaircraft fire” and the two crewmembers ejected.

While circling his Thunderchief above the descending parachutes and relaying their position to the Search and Rescue Center, Thorsness sighted a nearby MiG-17. He “immediately initiated attack and destroyed the MiG,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.

By this time, his fighter-bomber was running low on fuel. Thorsness went off in search of a tanker and two helicopters took over the job of monitoring the downed crew, but before he could refuel Thorsness was informed that “hostile MiGs in the area” posed “a serious threat to the helicopters.” So, “despite his low fuel condition” Thorsness returned “alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft defenses to the downed crew’s position,” according to the citation.

Once again he “immediately initiated attack” on four MiG-17s, damaging one and driving the others away.

Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life” in 1967, but he wouldn’t actually receive the award until 1973 because he and his electronic warfare officer, Capt. Harold Johnson, who was awarded the Air Force Cross for the April 19 mission, were shot down and captured on another mission in North Vietnam 11 days after the Wild Weasel mission for which he was awarded the nation’s highest military honor.

Thorsness spent six years as a prisoner of war, including a full year in solitary confinement. Both he and Johnson were released on March 4, 1973, according to an Air Force release.

Sen. John McCain, who shared a cell with Thorsness at the notorious North Vietnamese prison known as the Hanoi Hilton, said in a statement that Thorsness endured “unspeakable pain and suffering because of his steadfast adherence to our code of conduct. But Leo never let this experience break his spirit and [he] inspired the rest of us with his patriotism, perseverance, and hope that we would someday be free.”

Because of an injury obtained during his time as a POW, Thorsness could no longer fly so he retired on Oct. 25, 1973. He was also awarded two Silver Stars and five Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Thorsness later served as a Washington state senator from 1988 to 1992.

“After returning home, Leo continued to live a selfless life of service – as a volunteer, state senator, and public speaker with a simple message: ‘Do what’s right—help others,’” said McCain in the statement.

Thorsness was an honored guest at the Air Force Association’s 2010 Air and Space Conference. (See AFA statement on his death.)

Read more of Air Force Magazine’s coverage of Thorsness’ exploits during the war in Valor: Wild, Wild Weasel; Take it Down! The Wild Weasels in Vietnam; and Full Day.