THORSNESS, LEO KEITH
Name: Leo K. Thorsness
Rank/Branch: O4/United States Air Force
Unit: 357th Tactical Fighter
Date of Birth: 14 February 1932 Walnut Grove MN
Home City of Record: Storden MN
Date of Loss: 30 April 1967
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 211830N 1045940E
Status (in 1973): Returnee
Other Personnel in Incident: Johnson, Harold E. Returnee
Source: Compiled by P.O.W. NETWORK 03 March 1997 from one or more of the
following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with
POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews, quotes from "And Brave Men,
Too" by Timothy S. Lowry.
REMARKS: 03/04/73 RELEASED BY DRV
All Thorsness' missions were Wild Weasel Missions, sometimes called "Iron
Hand Missions". The plane had a Trained Bear - an electronic warfare officer
[EWO] - in the back seat, and as much state-of-the-art equipment that was
available mounted in the two-seat F-105.
Their job was to "seek and destroy" SAMs [Surface to Air Missile] sites The
idea was "to troll high enough to let them shoot at you, yet low enough so
you could get down to the deck and out-maneuver the SAMs." The loss rate was
very heavy. A hundred missions completed the tour of duty instead of a year
for the ground people. The Wild Weasel was a very high-threat job and few
people completed a hundred missions.
Leo Thorsness was piloting the plane and Harry Johnson was the back seater.
It was Johnson's job to spot the active SAM sites on the ground at the same
time he watched the skies for MIG attacks.
A typical Wild Weasel mission would go in with four planes. On April 19,
Thorsness' wingman, was shot down over the foothills west of Hanoi. Search
and rescue attempts failed to locate the men.
On April 30, 1967, while flying his ninety-third mission just seven shy of
going home, Maj. Leo Thorsness and his back seater, Harry Johnson, were shot
down over North Vietnam. They were captured and, as prisoners of war, joined
the two airmen who Thorsness had directed rescue efforts for on April 19.
Thorsness was captured by a mix of militia and regular army soon after
arriving on the ground. He was in interrogation for nineteen days and
eighteen nights, without sleep. His torture did not end there. Of the
beatings, Thorsness says, "Oftentimes they would take a fan belt, cut it in
half, and beat you with it. It's like a rubber hose, but, unlike a hose, the
fan belt is solid. Finally, after so much the mind begins to hallucinate and
that saves the body. The pain dissolves and you can't feel it anymore.
You're beyond that point. The North Vietnamese didn't know when to stop as
far as trying to get information. They were brutal, but they just weren't
sophisticated. Oftentimes they didn't know when to stop. They either broke
you, or you died."
Thorsness was in captivity when a Cuban team came in 1968 and stayed for a
year. They taught the North Vietnamese how to extract information. Thorsness
was not among the eight tortured by the Cubans, but they systematically
tortured another in the camp, Earl Cobiel, to death. Corbeil was struck
along the brow with a hose and didn't blink. And they took a rusty nail and
carved a bloody X across his back.
"With a wire, strap, or rope, the guards would pull your elbows together
behind your back. Then they'd tie your hands together at the wrist and pull,
cutting off the circulation. They would put a clevis around your feet and
run a bar through it. It was hardest if they put the clevis behind because
they'd bend you forward and put your head under the bar. Sometimes they'd
hoist you off the floor and it felt like your sternum was going to break.
Generally, you'd pass out. It didn't bother them if they dislocated your
shoulders; most of us had our shoulders dislocated. We called it the
Suitcase Trick. It was brutal, painfully brutal," Thorsness related.
After time in interrogation, Thorsness was put into a cell with another
prisoner, and then into solitary. He was held six years. Three years were
brutal and the second three years were "boring" as torture eased because of
pressure in the U.S. from family members.
Thorsness received the Medal of Honor while in captivity, prior to the Nixon
inauguration. The announcement was kept secret, so the Vietnam could not use
the information against him. It was one of many awards and decorations he
received when he came home.
Leo K. Thorsness retired from the United States Air Force as a Colonel.
After his release, he pursued prosecution for those he felt collaborated
with the enemy while in captivy. His efforts failed, but only because of the
political climate at the time.
He and his wife Gaylee reside in Washington state. They have been married
more than 40 years and have one daughter. Thorsness has previously served as
a Washington State Senator.
Medal of Honor
THORSNESS, LEO K.
Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel (then Maj.), U.S. Air Force, 357th
Tactical Fighter Squadron.
Place and date: Over North Vietnam, 19 April 1967.
Entered service at: Walnut Grove, Minn.
Born: 14 February 1932, Walnut Grove, Minn.
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,
Lt. Col. Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over
North Vietnam. Lt. Col. 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 tile attack on the
second missile site, Lt. Col. Thorsness' wingman was shot down by intensive
antiaircraft fire, and the 2 crewmembers abandoned their aircraft. Lt. Col.
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. Lt. Col. 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 2 helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew's position and
that there were hostile MlGs in the area posing a serious threat to the
helicopters, Lt. Col. Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to
return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and
antiaircraft defenses to the downed crew's position. As he approached the
area, he spotted 4 MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on
the MlGs, damaging 1 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, Lt. Col. 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. Lt. Col. 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.
"Truth Bill" has Washington State Legislature Backing 03/09/90
The Legislature of the State of Washington passed a bill which urges the
Federal Government to release information on about 30,000 U.S. soldiers
listed as either prisoners of war or missing in action in conflicts dating
back to World War II.
The measure SJM 8020, passed unanimously in both the state House and
Senate, is an effort tohelp find the "truth" about soldiers who vanished
while serving in the Vietnam War, the Korean Conflict, and World War II. It
urges the Congress of the United States to pass the "Truth Bill," HR3603,
which would force the federal government to declassify information
pertaining to over 30,000 missing American servicemen.
The measure's sponsors, Sen. Leo Thorsness, R-Seattle, said the
government keeps the information classified to protect intelligence sources.
But Thorsness, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for six years and
Medal of Honor winner, said the sources are no longer useful because the
conflicts occurred decades ago.
"To leave American prisoners of war behind after the war ends is
unconscionable," said Thorsness. "It is contrary to the most fundamental
beliefs on which this country was founded."
Delores Alfond, sister of Major Victor J. Apodaca, USAF, missing from the
Vietnam War since 1967, and a member of Washington State POW/MIA Concerned
Citizens, celebrated the bill's passage by pledging to help lobby the "Truth
Bill" in the U.S. Congress.
Mrs. Alfond played a key role in helping Thorsness push SJM 8020 to a
successful conclusion in the Washington State Legislature.
Katy resident meets Vietnam vet at Astros game
As a teen, Ellis had worn Thorsness' POW for two years
By Mary L. Hamilton
Special to the Times
Jane Ellis of Nottingham Country never suspected that
accepting a friendís invitation to an Astros game would
bring her face-to-face with her hero of the past four