Thorsness’s themes

Leo Thorsness came to town this past week. On Tuesday night he spoke at a father-son dinner at St. Thomas Academy. On Wednesday morning he spoke about the Medal of Honor at a Center of the American Experiment breakfast program. On Wednesday evening at the Minneapolis Club, at the invitation of Minneapolis attorney (my friend) Kirk Kolbo, Thorsness spoke about his personal experience surviving torture and tough times as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton and other North Vietnamese hellholes between 1967 and 1973.

Although Thorsness is a Minnesota native who has indisputably distinguished himself as a great American hero, the local media somehow missed Thorsness’s presentations this week. I know that the Minneapolis Star Tribune was advised of one or more of his appearances and invited to cover them. I’m not exactly surprised that they chose not to. The paper’s lack of interest is only illustrative of the media’s general lack of interest in martial heroism.

Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor as the result of his performance in aerial combat over North Vietnam on April 19, 1967. The heroics that earned Thorsness the Medal of Honor were followed by further displays of heroism that approximate the valor he displayed on that mission.

Within a matter of days, he was shot down on his ninety-third combat mission of the war. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor while in prison, though it was kept a secret for fear that the North Vietnamese would aggravate the conditions of his captivity. Thorsness recounts his experiences in the memoir of Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey. I wrote about Thorsness and the book at length when the book was published late last year here.

The book is in its second printing. It 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.”

I attended both of Thorsness’s presentations on Wednesday. From the photo below, you might get the idea that I was happy to get a photograph with him before he spoke Wednesday night. In this case the camera doesn’t lie.


Before McCain campaign Midwest spokesman Tom Steward asked me if I wanted to meet a Medal of Honor recipient who was in town speaking on behalf of McCain last summer, I was unfamiliar with Thorsness’s story. Listening to this incredibly brave and tough man talk about how the North Vietnamese “broke” him after he had been tortured for eighteen days, I wondered why he isn’t a celeberity. Surely he deserves a national audience. The story of his service is an inspiration several times over. We should attend to it.

Thorsness’s story is represenative of the stories of those whose service has brought them the Medal of Honor. Thorsness is active with the Medal of Honor Foundation, trying to convey these stories to a wider audience. One of its projects was the production of Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, a book that depicts and briefly tells the stories of living Medal of Honor recipients. (The book’s profile of Leo is here. Since the book was published a few years ago some of the recipients have died.)

The text is by Peter Collier, who donated his services to the project. Peter drew on his experience writing the book for the 2006 Wall Street Journal Memorial Day column “America’s honor.” In the column Collier notes our inattentiveness to heroes such as Thorsness, but also our decreasing ability to understand them.

He explains that the “notion of sacrifice today provokes puzzlement more often than admiration. We support the troops, of course, but we also believe that war, being hell, can easily touch them with an evil no cause for engagement can wash away. And in any case we are more comfortable supporting them as victims than as warriors.” Collier quotes Thorsness talking about one of his fellow prisoners of war:

One of Mr. Thorsness’s most vivid memories from seven years of imprisonment involved a fellow prisoner named Mike Christian, who one day found a grimy piece of cloth, perhaps a former handkerchief, during a visit to the nasty concrete tank where the POWs were occasionally allowed a quick sponge bath. Christian picked up the scrap of fabric and hid it.

Back in his cell he convinced prisoners to give him precious crumbs of soap so he could clean the cloth. He stole a small piece of roof tile which he laboriously ground into a powder, mixed with a bit of water and used to make horizontal stripes. He used one of the blue pills of unknown provenance the prisoners were given for all ailments to color a square in the upper left of the cloth. With a needle made from bamboo wood and thread unraveled from the cell’s one blanket, Christian stitched little stars on the blue field.

“It took Mike a couple weeks to finish, working at night under his mosquito net so the guards couldn’t see him,” Mr. Thorsness told me. “Early one morning, he got up before the guards were active and held up the little flag, waving it as if in a breeze. We turned to him and saw it coming to attention and automatically saluted, some of us with tears running down our cheeks. Of course, the Vietnamese found it during a strip search, took Mike to the torture cell and beat him unmercifully. Sometime after midnight they pushed him into our cell, so bad off that even his voice was gone. But when he recovered in a couple weeks he immediately started looking for another piece of cloth.”

At his presentation Wednesday morning, Thorsness related several of the Medal of Honor stories found in the book. Among these stories were those of the incredible Jack Lucas (“he wore his red coat to black tie functions,” according to Leo) and Lewis Millett. Thorsness let the stories speak for themselves. In his Journal Memorial Day column, Collier eloquently explained why we should be listening:

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.


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