The Medal of Honor Society convened its annual meeting in Gettysburg earlier this month. Nearly half of the 79 living Medal of Honor recipients attended this year’s meeting. Several of them stopped off for an appearance at the Gettysburg Middle School to share their thoughts. Among them was my friend Leo Thorsness, author of the incredibly powerful memoir Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey. Stars and Stripes leads off its report with Leo and his lesson for the students at the in-school appearance:
Do what’s right. Help others. And never forget four things of utmost importance in life: Family, friends, faith and fun.
That was the sort of wisdom students at Gettysburg Area Middle School heard on Friday as several Medal of Honor recipients stopped in to share their advice — and their unique stories of wartime bravery — during a 10 a.m. history class.
Retired Air Force Col. Leo K. Thorsness recounted how he was awarded the nation’s highest military honor for his actions as a pilot of an F-105 aircraft that was outnumbered by enemy MiGs. In that April 19, 1967, air battle, Thorsness repeatedly engaged the enemy aircraft to distract MiGs threatening other U.S. aircraft and to protect other aircrew who had been shot down and were parachuting to the ground.
On April 30, 1967, flying his 93rd mission in Vietnam, Thorsness was shot down and spent the next six years as a prisoner of war.
The Gettysburg students were intrigued to hear Thorsness, 81, recount how he communicated with fellow prisoners by tapping on the floor or on the walls to send coded messages to each other.
He also told how his wife was presented with his Medal of Honor in secret by President Richard Nixon in 1971 while he was still a prisoner, and how he learned of the award only after he was released from the Vietnamese prison on Feb. 18, 1973.
I was surprised to learn when I met him in the summer of 2008 that Leo is a native of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. How can it be that the local press has taken so little interest in his story, his book, his appearances in Minnesota? I felt a bond with him as a Minnesota native when I met him and know his story would be of interest to many Minnesotans. In the book, as a matter of fact, he writes briefly about his family and his childhood in the hard old Minnesota. He grew up on a farm where his family subsisted on what they grew. “Later on,” he writes, “I would discover that we were poor.”
On his Medal of Honor mission Leo was seriously injured during ejection from the F-105 he had been flying at 690 miles per hour. His Communist captors then deprived him of sleep and tortured him continuously for the first 18 days of his captivity. “It took them 18 days to break me,” he told me when I first met him, as he also says in the book. Eighteen days!
Leo went to college in South Dakota, where he enlisted in the Air Force. When he was released from captivity in 1973 he returned to his family in South Dakota. John Hinderaker’s family had a great idea. They offered their cabin on Lake Kampeska, just outside Watertown, for Leo to spend time alone with his wife after their six years apart. Leo and his wife took the Hinderakers up on their offer.
Leo concludes his book on a grace note. When he left for combat, his brother John had been running a garage in Storden, Minnesota. While Leo was in captivity John had decided to become a minister, finishing four years of college and Lutheran seminary. When he met up with his brother at the Scott Air Force Base hospital upon his return to the United States, Leo asked John to give him communion. “As I took the wafer into my mouth,” Leo writes, “I thanked God once again for having brought me home to this country, these people, and this life.”