Surviving Hell

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I had the great good fortune of meeing Leo Thorsness last summer through the offices of McCain campaign midwest spokesman Tom Steward. When Tom invited me to meet with Colonel Thorsness in St. Paul as he toured on behalf of Senator McCain, I vaguely recalled Colonel Thorsness 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 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.

Unbelievably, the heroics that earned Colonel Thorsness the Medal of Honor were followed by further displays of heroism that approximate the valor he displayed on this mission. When he was shot down by an air to air missile in late April 1967, he ejected from his exploding fighter doing more than 600 miles per hour, injuring both knees and sustaining multiple fractures of his back. Like John McCain, he was “tied up” for the next six years. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton and several other North Vietnamese hellholes, including the one known as Camp Punishment, reserved for especially “difficult” cases.

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, after which he finally provided something more than name, rank and serial number. As I sat listening to him, I thought someone has to write up this story.

Fortunately, someone has. Colonel Thorsness himself has done so. His memoir Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey has been published this month by Encounter Books. (The Encounter Books page on the book is here.)

At 127 pages, the book is brief and understated. In its own modest way, though, it is a great book. “For the past 35 years,” Thorsness writes, “my mind has worked to process what happened.” Through the book he means to make his experience of use to others: “With the benefit of perspective, I wanted to write a book that would be helpful to people going through tough times.” For more reasons than one, this book deserves a wide audience.

Regarding the torture he endured upon his capture, Thorsness writes: “I would say that my 18 days and nights of interrogations were unendurable if I hadn’t endured.” He observes that “[t]here was nothing particularly imaginative about the North Vietnamese techniques. They hadn’t improved much on the devices of the Spanish Inquisition.” Nevertheless, he relates that he received a sampling of the innovations in torture practiced by a team of three Cubans who had been dispatched to assist the North Vietnamese.

He is distraught when he is broken on day 19 of his initial captivity. “I tried to cry. But I was past tears.” Upon his return to his cell, however, he is reassured that everyone who is subject to such an interrogation “has one of two things happen: either they broke or died — some did both.”

The book is broken into short chapters that alternately elicit tears and laughter (at least from me). The mistreatment and degradation that he and his fellows prisoners of war — our fellow Americans — endured are by turns enraging and heartbreaking. At one point Thorsness relates his discovery, for example, that the North Vietnamese essentially left to die those airmen who had lost limbs upon ejection from their aircraft. To the North Vietnamese their burden was deemed to outweigh their potential benefit.

When he reaches Camp Punishment, Thorsness writes, his interrogator told him several times: “You must learn to suffer.” Thorsness drily records: “This I had already done.”

The book is also shot through wth the black humor that Thorsness and his fellow prisoners directed at their captivity. The black humor appears regularly throughout the book, but In this respect I especially commend chapters 13 (“Boredom”), 17 (“The Home Front”) and 18 (“Prison Talk”).

Even wives, girlfriends and the families left behind at home could become the subject of such humor. When the prisoners of war finally are allowed to receive brief letters from home, for example, they not only reread them as long as they are allowed to hold onto them, they turn them into a group activity. Thorsness recalls from memory the worst-ever letter from home received by one of his fellow prisoners, a particulary tough middle American farmboy who had survived his original captivity in Laos and deserved better:

Dear Raymond, this has been a bad year. Hail took our crops — no insurance. Your brother-in-law borrowed your speedboat, hit a rock, it sank. Aunt Clarice died suddenly last August. Dad tipped the tractor but only broke his leg. Your 4-H heifer grew up, became a cow, but she died calving — calf too. We think of you often. Mom and Dad.

“There was dead silence for perhaps a minute,” Thorsness relates, as the assembled POWs absorbed the letter:

Finally, someone said, “Ray, read it again, maybe there’s a hidden meaning.” He shook his head. After more encouragement, he read it again. When he got to the part “your speedboat sank,” a POW in the back could no longer hold his muffled laugh. When Ray read, “she died calving,” the snickers turned into open, uncontrolled laugter.

In six years of prison, there was never a more genuine slap-your-thighs, roll-on-your-side laughter. We were in stitches and couldn’t stop. Ray, bless him, realized how ridiculous, how totally inappropriate it was for family to write that letter to someone in prison. He joined in the hilarity.

Thorsness ultimately finds the resources to “survive hell” in the three f’s around which he orients his life: faith, family and friends. (He gave up a fourth f — flying — as a result of his injuries.) He admonishes readers in his prefatory author’s note: “Time heals most things, and we are stronger than we think.”

Without expressly highlighting the role of gratitude in helping us come to terms with our personal “tough times,” Thorsness nevertheless heightens our awareness of it. He reflects, for example:

In my nearly six years in prison, not a day went by when I didn’t think about and hope for freedom. I daydreamed about it, and I night-dreamed about it. I dreamed about it in the indistinct moments that separate sleep and waking. I dreamed about the physical sensation of freedom: how it felt on the body. I dreamed about how freedom might happen: by a daring rescue, by the military defeat of North Vietnam, by a POW exchange.

I came away from Surviving Hell with renewed gratitude for our freedom, but also especially for great-souled men such as Thorsness. The sacrifices of such men, it cannot be recalled often enough, make us the land of the free because we’re also the home of the brave.

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