Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

TOP STORY >> Hero who returned from hell

Retired Col. Leo Thorsness (middle), a Medal of Honor recipient and former Vietnam POW, meets with retired Col. Bill Kehler (left), president of the LRAFB Community Council, and Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay at the luncheon.

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader executive editor

Leo Thorsness spoke at the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council luncheon and dedicated a Vietnam-era F-105 bomber in front of the Jacksonville Museum of Military History on Friday.

The plane was just like the one he’d flown over Vietnam more than 90 times on missions that were so dangerous that half of those planes were lost during the war.

Thorsness, who spent six years at the Hanoi Hilton, wore his Medal of Honor during his appearance here, but he’s so unassuming — “I’m so average,” he insists — you get the feeling he would have been more comfortable without it.

He didn’t get into the details about how he’d earned his Medal of Honor: How he helped save the lives of a crew in another plane that was accompanying him on a mission over North Vietnam while he kept attacking the Soviet MiGs coming at him and then landed at a base as he ran out of fuel.

He didn’t even mention Sen. John McCain, the most famous POW in Hanoi Hilton, until I brought up his name after Thorsness dedicated the F-105.

“Were you and John McCain in the same prison together?” I asked.

“We were in the same cell for two years,” Thorsness answered.

We were standing near a tree in front of the military museum on a warm fall afternoon, and his medal shone as brightly as the torch from Lady Liberty on a bright day.

He’s so down-to-earth, you could call it upper-Midwest Scandinavian modesty. He grew up on a farm in Walnut Grove, Minn., in the 1930s and 1940s. Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the “Little House” series, lived in the area for a while with her family. (“On the Banks of Plum Creek” is about Walnut Grove.)

It’s all in his book, “Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey,” which sold out before he left the luncheon.

Born in 1932, Thorsness enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 19, hoping to join his brother in Korea. Leo wasn’t sent to Korea, but he became an officer and in 1966 joined an elite squadron that flew specially modified F-105 Wild Weasel aircraft.

They specialized in knocking out surface-to-air-missile batteries that the Soviets had placed in North Vietnam, as well as other important military targets. It took special skills to fly those two-seat planes because, as Thorsness said in his talk to the community council, “Vietnam was the first war with SAMs.”

There was a little black box that helped pilots guide them toward the SAMs, but it was a primitive system, and you were petty much on your own. You had to make up your own rules. You had to rely on your instincts. You outsmarted the enemy and you made sure no one was lost in combat.

Thorsness was a major back then. He was 35 years old, a bit older than the other pilots, and there was suddenly trouble on his 92nd mission. It was April 19, 1967, when another F-105 flying alongside him — called the wingman — was hit just after they had knocked out a bunch of SAMs and were trying to destroy another one.

The men in the other plane ejected and were fired on by a MiG-17. According to his Medal of Honor citation, “Thorsness circled the descending parachutes to keep the crew members in sight and relay their position to the search-and-rescue center.

“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.”

He faced one crisis after another: He was running low on fuel, but he realized another plane also needed to refuel. He directed the other plane to “a forward operating base, thus allowing the aircraft in emergency fuel condition to refuel safely,” the citation reads.

“Just as Thorsness landed, his fuel ran out and the engine shut down.”

Two weeks later, on his 93rd mission, he was shot down over North Vietnam. “There were two MiGs we didn’t see,” he said, referring to his navigator, Capt. Harry Johnson.

The plane was hit in the back with a missile. A deeply religious man, Thorsness didn’t mind telling his audience what his navigator said behind him when they were hit.

“S***!” Johnson yelled, and they both bailed out.

As he was floating down in his parachute, he saw missiles coming at him “the size of a telephone pole.”

He prayed he would make it. The answer came almost immediately: Leo, you’re going to make it. Thorsness and Johnson were captured and held for six years. Thorsness was tortured for 18 days and nights.

“I knew prisoners were abused,” he said. “It was very brutal. We were in a small cell block. I was heartbroken. I thought, I hope I die. What a failure I was. I’ve let my family down.”

They broke him at the end and he told the torturers what they wanted to hear.

“You either broke or you died,” he said.

The prisoners helped each other make it through their long ordeal. They communicated through walls with knocks. They prayed and shared jokes and reminisced and hoped one day they’d get home.

“We were blessed with more than our share of good people,” he recalled.

His hero was a young Navy lieutenant whom everyone looked up to, even though he was not the senior officer. His name was Mike Christian, and he made a small U.S. flag out of a discarded handkerchief and colored it with pieces of roof tile and blue medicine.

The prisoners saluted the flag, until the North Vietnamese found it and beat Christian, who made another flag when he recovered.

Thorsness is good friends with John McCain — he, of course, endorsed him for president — but they disagree on whether water-boarding is torture. McCain says it is, while Thorsness calls it “enhanced interrogation.”

He says there’s a point where a prisoner will share truthful information with his interrogators, but beyond a certain point, he’ll say whatever you want him to say. He hopes the CIA knows what that point is when interrogating Al Qaeda.

Thorsness didn’t know he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor two years after he was shot down near Hanoi because the U.S. government didn’t want the North Vietnamese to punish him for getting the medal. (President Nixon gave him the medal in 1973, after the POWs had come home.)

He was released in March 1973, along with McCain and hundreds of other POWs. Thorsness was presented his Medal of Honor on Oct. 15, 1973. Because of his injuries, he retired from the Air Force 10 days later as a colonel.

“Since I’ve been home, I’ve never had a bad day,” he said.