Leo K. Thorsness was an F-105 Thunderchief pilot in the Vietnam War, who won the Medal of Honor for heroic actions during a mission in 1967. He was shot down afterwards and spent the rest of the war as a POW.
Leo Keith Thorsness, a native of Minnesota, enlisted in the US Air Force in 1951 at the age of 19, and earned his commission three years later. He first flew the F-84 Thunderstreak and later the F-100 Super Sabre before converting to the F-105. During his service in Vietnam, then-Major Thorsness flew with the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron, based at Takli Air Base in Thailand. Thorsness’ specialty was the Wild Weasel mission, strikes in specialized two-man planes against SAM sites. Wild Weasel missions consisted of allowing enemy radars to detect the planes, then using the radar beam to guide their missiles back to the target. It was a game of chicken, and the North Vietnamese got better and better at it as the war went on. Wild Weasel pilots had one of the most dangerous jobs in the Air Force, and were considered the best of the best.
Thorsness was awarded the MOH for his 90th mission, on April 19, 1967. His friend and fellow Thud driver, Col. Jack Broughton, later described it as a day in which “Leo took on most of North Vietnam all by himself.” It started when Thorsness led a four ship flight in support of a raid on a North Vietnamese Army barracks southwest of Hanoi. Arriving at the target five minutes ahead of the strike planes, Thorsness detected a radar and destroyed it with a Shrike missile. Other radars came on and lit the planes up as Thorsness found another SAM site and took it out with cluster bombs. Thorsness ordered his flight to go to the deck, below radar coverage, but his wingman, Major Tom Madison, was hit. Both he and his backseater punched out safely, but then the two other Thuds in the flight were attacked by MiG-17s. They managed to out-maneuver their opponents, but one of the F-105 pilots couldn’t get his afterburner working, so he had to egress with his wingman, leaving Thorsness all alone to cover the downed pilots. Thorsness destroyed another SAM radar with a Shrike, and his backseater, Major Harold Johnson, transmitted the position of the shoot-down. Rescue helicopters were soon on the way. MiGs were still in the air, and Thorsness, fearing that they might try shooting his comrades while hanging from their chutes, attacked and downed one with a burst from his cannon. He engaged afterburner to escape the remaining MiG-17s as the shot-down pilots landed in the jungle, and headed to Laos to meet with an airborne tanker to refuel.
When he returned, he found helicopters and two A-1 fighter-bombers on scene. MiGs were still in the area, and Thorsness covered the rescue planes as best as he could, shooting up another MiG with the last of his ammunition. Now unarmed, he used his superior speed to escape the North Vietnamese jets, but returned when one of the A-1s was shot down, hoping to distract his foes and buy the rescue effort enough time to succeed. Four more F-105s showed up to provide air cover, and they dealt with the MiGs while Thorsness returned to the tanker. The F-105s scored three probable kills, but the mission had to be aborted, and Madison and his backseater were captured. On the way back, Thorsness was able to help another Thud pilot who was lost, guiding him to the tanker in spite of being low on fuel himself. Thorsness was able to make it back to an American base, and was credited with an aerial victory (the first MiG) and a probable in the air-to-air action. The strike turned out to be one of the most successful of the war to date, and for his bravery and persistence in the face of the enemy, Leo K. Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor (although he wouldn’t find this out until 1973).
Eleven days later, Thorsness and Johnson were flying their 93rd mission when MiG-21s attacked and shot down three F-105s, including Thorsness and his wingman. A massive rescue effort was launched, with all of the strike planes flying cover, but it was hampered by poor communications, and all of the airmen were eventually captured. Thorsness spent the rest of the war as a POW, but in spite of injuring his back in the ejection, he kept up the fight, and was considered a troublemaker by his captors. He and Johnson were finally released, along with the other POWs, on March 4, 1973. On October 15 of that year, Thorsness was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon. In addition, he had earned the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Purple Heart.
Leo Thorsness retired from the Air Force in 1973 as a colonel. He later served as a Washington State Senator. He and his wife Gaylee have one daughter, and currently live in Arizona.
Col. Thorsness' mission of April 19 was depicted in an episode of the History Channel series, Dogfights. (see link, below)
- Rolling Thunder: Jet Combat from World War II to the Gulf War, by Ivan Rendall, Dell Publishing, 1997.
- Bio at the POW Network
- Leo K. Thorsness at the Air Force website
- Rendezvous with the Rattlesnake, article in The Airmen Magazine
- Colonel Leo K. Thorsness, USAF, Ret.
- Medal of Honor citation
- Computer-generated re-creation of Thorsness’ MOH-winning mission, on YouTube, with some narration by Colonel Thorsness.