Retired Lt. Col. Leo Thorsness speaks at the U.S. Air Forces in Europe's Air Force 60th Anniversary celebration Aug. 11 Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Colonel Thorsness is a Medal of Honor recipient. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Kenny Holston)
by Senior Airman Stephen Musal
17th Training Wing Public Affairs
4/14/2009 - GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- While honor is due those brave servicemembers who have passed on, no less deserving are the Medal of Honor recipients still living. Such a recipient is retired Lt. Col. Leo Thorsness, an F-105 Thunderchief pilot during the Vietnam War.
Leo Thorsness was born in Walnut Grove, Minn., in 1932, and enlisted in the Air Force at 19, following his brother who was serving in the Korean Conflict. After completing flight school through the Aviation Cadet Program, the new officer flew F-84 Thunderstreaks and F-100 Super Sabres operationally before being assigned to fly the F-105.
In 1966, then-Maj. Thorsness was assigned to the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Thailand as a "Wild Weasel," an F-105 aircrew charged with destroying enemy surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft radar before the main strike force reached the target, thus protecting the strike force.
On April 19, 1967, it was on one of these "Wild Weasel" missions that Maj. Thorsness earned his Medal of Honor, though it would not be awarded until after his promotion to lieutenant colonel. From his 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, destroying 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."
Though Colonel Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1967, he did not receive it until 1973. This was because, 11 days after the mission which earned the pilot the Medal of Honor, Maj. Thorsness was shot down over North Vietnam and was captured, along with his electronic warfare officer, Capt. Harold Johnson (who had also been with Maj. Thorsness on April 19 and was awarded the Air Force Cross for his part in that mission). Colonel Thorsness and Capt. Johnson were released on March 4, 1973 after six years as prisoners of war. Back injuries received under torture prevented him from flying again, and Colonel Thorsness retired on October 25, 1973.
(This article is fourth in a series on Medal of Honor recipients from Goodfellow)