Medal of Honor recipient Col. Leo K. Thorsness, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran died Tuesday in Jacksonville, Florida at the age of 85.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society announced his death, but the cause of his death was not disclosed.
Thorness was awarded the Medal of Honor for a mission that took place 11 days before he was shot down over North Vietnam and taken prisoner. He was held captive by the North Vietnamese for six years at the Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Col. Thorsness was held in the same prison as Senator John McCain.
In an op-ed article for the New York Times in 2008, Col. Thorsness recalled some of the time he spent with McCain.
“I still see us sitting on a bed slab in a 6-by-7-foot cell talking about the questions we always talked about: When would the war end? Would we ever be able to catch up with our peers, our families, our faith and our friends?,” Thorsness wrote.
In a statement, McCain said Col. Thorsness “never let this experience break his spirit, and inspired the rest of us with his patriotism, perseverance, and hope that we would someday be free.”
Col. Thorsness was one of only 13 members of the Air Force to receive the Medal of Honor, but it wasn’t announced that he had received it until after he was released due to fears that additional torture would be inflicted on him.
In 1952, Col. Thorsness joined the Air Force and was sent to Vietnam in 1966 as a part of a squadron known as the Wild Weasels, whose task was to destroy surface-to-air missiles.
As per Col. Thorsness’ Medal of Honor Citation:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As pilot of an F-105 aircraft, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness and his wingman attacked and silenced a surface-to-air missile site with air-to-ground missiles and then destroyed a second surface-to-air missile site with bombs. In the attack on the second missile site, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness’ wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the two crewmembers abandoned their aircraft.
Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness circled the descending parachutes to keep the crewmembers in sight and relay their position to the Search and Rescue Center. During this maneuver, a MIG-17 was sighted in the area. Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness immediately initiated an attack and destroyed the MIG. Because his aircraft was low on fuel, he was forced to depart the area in search of a tanker.
Upon being advised that two helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew’s position and that there were hostile MIGs in the area posing a serious threat to the helicopters, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft defenses to the downed crew’s position. As he approached the area, he spotted four MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MIGs, damaging one and driving the others away from the rescue scene. When it became apparent that an aircraft in the area was critically low on fuel and the crew would have to abandon the aircraft unless they could reach a tanker, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness, although critically short on fuel himself, helped to avert further possible loss of life and a friendly aircraft by recovering at a forward operating base, thus allowing the aircraft in emergency fuel condition to refuel safely.
Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness’ extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.”
Eleven days later, Col. Thorsness was shot down over North Vietnam forcing him to eject and suffer severe leg injuries. He and his electronic warfare officer, Captain Harold Johnson were taken prisoner.
During his first year being held captive, Col. Thorsness was held in solitary confinement and tortured constantly. He had his back broken in four places.
After being released on March 4, 1973 Col. Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon on Oct. 15, 1973. Ten days later, he retired from the Air Force.
Col. Thorsness is survived by his wife, their daughter and his two grandchildren.