Remembering Leo Thorsness

Power Line observes its twenty-first anniversary this Memorial Day weekend. I am taking the liberty of looking back by pulling out three of my favorite posts of the past twenty-one years. This is the third.

Stephen Spender wrote in his most famous poem: “I think continually of those who were truly great.” Today I am thinking of Leo Thorsness. He was truly great. When Leo died on May 3, 2017, this is what I had to say.

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I am sad to report that Leo Thorsness has died at the age of 85. Meeting him was perhaps the most awesome experience I owe to writing for Power Line. I had the great good fortune of meeting him in the summer of 2008 through the offices of McCain campaign spokesman Tom Steward (now with Center of the American Experiment).

When Tom invited me to meet with Leo (as I came to know him) in St. Paul as he toured on behalf of Senator McCain, I vaguely recalled him as a Vietnam veteran who had narrowly lost a 1974 Senate race to George McGovern in the toxic aftermath of Watergate. That recollection proved accurate, but his record contained a few other items of interest.

Leo was 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-and-a-half Wild Weasel missions over North Vietnam. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on a Wild Weasel mission on April 19, 1967, 11 days before being shot down. His Medal of Honor citation provides the outline of the heroics for which he was recognized.

I found it almost unbelievable that the heroics he displayed on his Medal of Honor mission were followed by further displays of heroism approximating the valor he displayed on the mission. When he was shot down by an air to air missile in late April 1967, he ejected from his exploding fighter doing 690 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 nomination for the 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. “It took them 18 days to break me,” he told me when I first met him in the summer of 2008. Eighteen days! As I sat listening to him, I thought someone has to write up this story.

Fortunately, someone did — Colonel Thorsness himself. His memoir Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey was published in late 2008 by Encounter Books. After I raved about it on Power Line, Encounter Books publisher Roger Kimball invited me to write the introduction for the paperback edition.

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 wrote, “my mind has worked to process what happened.” Through the book he meant 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.”

Regarding the torture he endured upon his capture, Leo wrote: “I would say that my 18 days and nights of interrogations were unendurable if I hadn’t endured.” He observed that “[t]here was nothing particularly imaginative about the North Vietnamese techniques. They hadn’t improved much on the devices of the Spanish Inquisition.”

He was distraught when he was 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 was assured that everyone who is subject to such an interrogation “has one of two things happen: either they broke or died — some did both.”

When he reached Camp Punishment, Leo wrote, his interrogator told him several times: “You must learn to suffer.” He drily records: “This I had already done.”

Leo offered the resources to “survive hell” in the three f’s around which he oriented his life: faith, family and friends. (He gave up a fourth f — flying — as a result of his injuries.) He admonished 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,” Leo nevertheless heightened our awareness of it. He reflected, 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.

One could not leave the company of Leo — either on the page or in person — without renewed gratitude for our freedom, but also especially for the bravery and magnanimity of men such as he. Their sacrifices, it cannot be recalled often enough, make us the land of the free because we’re also the home of the brave.

Leo told me that he appreciated the introduction I contributed to the paperback edition of his 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 with 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 was active.)

“You were exercising your rights,” Leo told me, which is not the way I would put it. As I said, he was a magnanimous man.

I was surprised to learn when I met him that Leo was a native Minnesotan. 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 noted, “I would discover that we were poor.”

When Leo 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 concluded 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 wrote, “I thanked God once again for having brought me home to this country, these people, and this life.” RIP.

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[Two days later I followed up the obituary above with this addendum.]

Leo Thorsness died of cancer at the age of 85 earlier this week. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for the actions he took on his 93rd Wild Weasel mission over North Vietnam. He tells the story of his Medal of Honor mission in the first chapter of Surviving Hell. Richard Goldstein also tells the story in his excellent New York Times obituary.

Eleven days after his Medal of Honor mission Leo was shot down over North Vietnam. He “survived hell” for six years as a prisoner of war. Leo recounted his experiences several times in videos that are accessible on YouTube, all of which are worth watching. The American Legion recorded the video below (about 10 minutes). He speaks in telling detail about his work as a Wild Weasel pilot in the first of four videos of a speech posted here (highly recommended).

I thought readers who may not have heard Leo tell his own story, or who may want to take a few minutes to pause over it again, would appreciate this video. As you can see, he was a living example of character and courage combined with pride and modesty in just the right proportion.

Quotable quote: “It was just a full day’s work.”

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