Saturday, April 11, 2009

Surviving Hell: Leo Thorsness

On April 19, 1967, Colonel Leo Thorsness was flying a F-105 (Wild Weasel) on a mission to destroy surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) deep in North Vietnam. After destroying two SAMs, his wingman was hit and radioed Col. Thorsness that he was going to have to eject from the aircraft. Col. Thorsness replied that he would keep him in sight.

As the other plane’s crew ejected from the aircraft, Col. Thorsness noticed an enemy MiG-17 fighter preparing to shoot the parachutists. Although his plane was not equipped for dogfights, Col. Thorsness was able to destroy the enemy fighter with his battling gun.

Low on fuel, Col. Thorsness quickly air-refueled and returned to protect the parachutists. His rear-seat weapons officer spotted four more MiG fighters in the area. He was able to down another one although he never received official credit for it because the film in his gun camera had run out.

Col. Thorsness climbed to an altitude of 35,000 feet on his way back to the nearest U.S. airfield. With his fuel tanks on empty, he glided to the base. As he landed, his engine ran out of gas.

Two weeks later, Col. Thorsness was shot down on his 93rd mission. He spent the next six years in the Hanoi Hilton where he ran into the two crew members that he had tried to save. The officer that wrote up Col. Thorsness’s Medal of Honor citation was also shot down and joined him at the Hilton.

Be sure to read "Our Father" at NRO; it's an excerpt from the recent book by Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness. I was fortunate enough to meet Col. Thorsness when he came to speak at the school where I teach in 2001 (or 2002 - can't remember exactly!). I took lots of pictures of him, none of which I can find at the moment, but he was very gracious and extremely humble. It was a real privilege to meet him.

In the NRO excerpt Thorsness tells the story of the determination of a group of POWs to hold a brief Sunday service. It's heartbreaking.

When the 42nd man said yes, it was unanimous. We had 100-percent commitment to hold church next Sunday. At that instant, Ned knew he would end up in the torture cells at Heartbreak. It was different from the previous Sunday. We now had a goal, and we were committed. We only needed to develop a plan.

Sunday morning came, and we knew they would be watching us again. Once more, we gathered in the far end of the cell. As soon as we moved together, the interrogator and guards burst through the door. Ned stepped forward and said there wouldn’t be a problem: We were just going to hold a quiet ten-minute church service and then we would spread back out in the cell. As expected, they grabbed Ned and hauled him off to Heartbreak for torture.

In these days of weak leaders and a general lack of leadership, I'm finding inspiration and hope from people like Thorsness and Marcus Luttrell; people that have the courage to make sacrifices for a country they believe in. People we can look up to and hope to emulate.

I've ordered his book and can't wait to get into it!

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