Today is the official publication date of the paperback edition of Surviving Hell by Leo Thorsness. I’ve been writing about Leo and the book for the past week. I want to conclude this series on a personal note.
Leo was awarded the Medal of Honor for a mission he flew over North Vietnam in April 1967 the week before he was shot down and captured by the Communists. He was seriously injured during his ejection from the F-105 he had been flying at 690 miles per hour. He was then deprived of sleep and tortured continuously at the outset 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!
When I spoke with him by phone last month, Leo told me that he appreciated the introduction I contributed to the paperback edition of the book. I responded with an expression of my gratitude for the opportunity, adding that I was not proud of the interests I had pursued as a high school and college student while he was “tied up” for the six years of his captivity. “Oh, you’re like Peter,” he said gently, referring to Peter Collier, the radical antiwar colleague of David Horowitz whose “second thoughts” led him to Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement in the 1980’s.
Comparing me to Peter, Leo was granting me absolution. Peter contributed the individual profiles of the living Medal of Honor recipients whose stories are told in Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Above and Beyond the Call of Duty. (The book was a project of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, with which Leo is active.) “You were exercising your rights,” Leo said, which is not the way I would put it. He is a man of great magnanimity.
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.”
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 had also been engaged in other pursuits in college while Leo was in captivity, but John’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.”
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