Before leaving the subject of the McCain campaign behind, I want to revisit my own personal highlight. Through the offices of McCain campaign midwest spokesman Tom Steward, I was invited to meet with Leo Thorsness in St. Paul this past July. When Tom invited me to meet with Colonel Thorsness, I vaguely recalled him as a Vietnam veteran who had narrowly lost a 1974 Senate race to George McGovern in the toxic afermath of Watergate. That recollection proved accurate, but his record contains a few other items of interest.
He is a native Minnesotan, having been born into a farm family near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and graduated from Walnut Grove High School in 1950. He attended South Dakota State College, where he met his wife in the freshman registration line. In January 1951 he enlisted in the Air Force and graduated from pilot school in 1954. He was a career fighter pilot, reaching the rank of colonel and accumulating 5,000 hours of flying time.
Colonel Thorsness flew 92 S Wild Weasel missions over North Vietnam. He earned the Medal of Honor for a Wild Weasel mission he flew on April 19, 1967, 11 days before being shot down. His Medal of Honor citation tells the story, but the Air Force account of his heroics makes a somewhat more readable narrative:
Thorsness, then a major, was “Head Weasel” of the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli Air Base in Thailand. On April 19, 1967, he and his backseater, Capt. Harold Johnson, fought a wild 50-minute duel with SAMs, antiaircraft guns and MiGs. They set out in a formation of four planes. Their target was an army compound near Hanoi, heavily defended. Thorsness directed two of the F-105s north and he and his wingman stayed south, forcing enemy gunners to divide their attention. After initial success at destroying two SAM sites, things turned for the wors[e]. First, Thorsness’ wingman was hit by flak. He and his backseater ejected. Then the two Weasels he had sent north were attacked by MiGs. The afterburner of one of the F-105s wouldn’t light, so he and his wingman were forced to return to Takhli, leaving Thorsness alone to fight solo.
As the F-105 circled the parachutes, relaying their position to the Search and Rescue Center, Johnson spotted a MiG off their left wing. The F-105, though not designed for air-to-air combat, responded well as Thorsness attacked the MIG and destroyed it with a 20-mm cannon, just as another MiG closed on his tail. Low on fuel, Thorsness broke off the battle and rendezvoused with a tanker.
In the meantime, two A-1E Sandys and a rescue helicopter arrived to look for the crewmen. Upon being advised of that fact, Thorsness, with only 500 rounds of ammunition left, turned back from the tanker to fly cover for the rescue force, knowing there were at least five MiGs in the area. As he approached the area, he spotted four MiG-17 aircraft and initiated an attack on them, damaging one and driving the others away from the rescue scene. His ammunition gone, he returned to the rescue scene, hoping to draw the MiGs away from the remaining A-1E. It could very well have been a suicidal mission, but just as he arrived, so did a U.S. strike force and hit the enemy fighters.
But his day wasn’t over yet. Again low on fuel, he headed for a tanker just as one of the strike force pilots, almost out of fuel himself, radioed him for help. Thorsness knew he couldn’t make Takhli without refueling, but he quickly determined he could make it to Udorn, 200 miles closer, so he directed the tanker toward the strike fighter. Once across the Mekong Delta, he throttled back to idle and “glided” toward Udorn, touching down as his tanks went dry.
Colonel Thorsness didn’t find out about his receipt of the Medal of Honor, however, until 1973. He was shot down by an air to air missile in late April 1967. He ejected from his exploding fighter doing nearly 700 miles per hour and injured both his knees. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton. Like John McCain, he was “tied up” for the next six years. His Medal of Honor was kept a secret so that the North Vietnamese would not use the citation against him and aggravate the conditions of his captivity. As it was, he was tortured unmercifully for the first three years.
Upon his capture, he was tortured in interrogation for 19 days and 18 nights, without sleep. He mentioned to me in passing that he didn’t break for 18 days, at which time he finally provided something more than name, rank and serial number. Reading the Medal of Honor link above, it is noted that he was in captivity when a Cuban team came in 1968 and stayed for a year. They taught the North Vietnamese how to extract information. Colonel Thorsness was not among the eight tortured by the Cubans, but they systematically tortured POW Earl Cobiel to death: “Corbeil was struck along the brow with a hose and didn’t blink. And they took a rusty nail and carved a bloody X across his back.”
As for his own treatment, he has recalled:
With a wire, strap, or rope, the guards would pull your elbows together behind your back. Then they’d tie your hands together at the wrist and pull, cutting off the circulation. They would put a clevis around your feet and run a bar through it. It was hardest if they put the clevis behind because they’d bend you forward and put your head under the bar. Sometimes they’d hoist you off the floor and it felt like your sternum was going to break.Generally, you’d pass out. It didn’t bother them if they dislocated your shoulders; most of us had our shoulders dislocated. We called it the Suitcase Trick. It was brutal, painfully brutal.
Speaking of Senator McCain, Colonel Thorsness vouched for his intelligence, character and devotion to country. He recalled how on “film night” at the Hanoi Hilton, when the POWs would entertain each other with accounts of their favorite movies, McCain was by far the best storyteller. McCain’s favorite movie was “African Queen.” McCain meticulously noted the gun emplacements, provided descriptions of the plot that grew more elaborate and entertaining with each telling, and generally told the story with gusto. Colonel Thorsness testified to McCain’s appropriation of Thorsness’s own story about killing a horse with a shotgun on a dare in Walnut Grove. According to Thorsness, McCain told Thorsness’s own story better than Thorsness did.
Colonel Thorsness briefly discussed the tap code by which the POWs kept in contact with each other even when in solitary confinement. He explained the code and tapped out “GB” (God Bless) and “GN” (Good Night) for me on the table. He said Air Force men could tap out 15 words a minute, humorously ascribing somewhat lower rates to Navy and Marine POWs.
I asked him how he kept up hope for release during the years of captivity. He said that optimism was mandatory among the POWs, although the mask would occasionally slip in their conversations. On those occasions they might talk about doing something “if we get out.” The required formulation was “when we get out.” He recalled that the most encouraging event of his captivity, by far, was the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi.
Colonel Thorsness related the story of his captivity while applying genial black humor to virtually every element. What he couldn’t leaven with humor, he omitted. He bragged, for example, about never having had a cross word with his daughter. He added as a footnote that of course he wasn’t around from ages 11 to 17.
I asked Colonel Thorsness about his political experience. In addition to his race against McGovern, he recalled that he ran against a talented young man for a South Dakota congressional seat in 1978 (South Dakota then had two congressional districts) and won by 16 votes out of more than 129,000 votes cast. Unfortunately, he recalled, Tom Daschle was declared the winner by 110 votes months later after the recount.
Colonel Thorsness is one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. He is one of the few (fewer than 150) living Medal of Honor recipients. His name should be known and his story should be told. He may be one of the “great-souled” men at the summit of human excellence of whom Aristotle speaks in the Ethics.
Listening to Colonel Thorsness talk about his experience as a prisoner of war, I thought to myself that someone has to write this up. I have since learned that someone — Colonel Thorsness himself — has done so. His memoir Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey is to be published presently by Encounter Books. (The Encounter Books page on the book is here.) Based on my interview with Colonel Thorsness, I look forward to reading the book and commend it to your attention.
Peter Collier also took note of Colonel Thorsness’s story in Peter’s 2007 Wall Street Journal Memorial Day column on living Medal of Honor recipients. The column recapitulates a few of the stories he discovered in researching his book Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty on the subject. Peter’s column reflects on the elite disdain for martial heroism of the kind exhibited by Leo Thorsness. The column concludes:
We impoverish ourselves by shunting these heroes and their experiences to the back pages of our national consciousness. Their stories are not just boys’ adventure tales writ large. They are a kind of moral instruction. They remind of something we’ve heard many times before but is worth repeating on a wartime Memorial Day when we’re uncertain about what we celebrate. We’re the land of the free for one reason only: We’re also the home of the brave.
It’s a reminder that bears repetition in the immediate aftermath of the campaign that concluded on Tuesday.
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