April 19, 1967 – Leo Keith Thorsness Medal of Honor recipient (February 14, 1932 – May 2, 2017) was a Colonel in the United States Air Force who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Vietnam War. He was awarded the medal for an air engagement on April 19, 1967. He was shot down two weeks later and spent six years in captivity in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war.
Thorsness was born in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where his family had a farm. There, he earned the Eagle Scout award from the Boy Scouts of America. He is one of only nine known Eagle Scouts who also received the Medal of Honor. The others are Aquilla J. Dyess and Mitchell Paige of the U.S. Marine Corps, Robert Edward Femoyer and Jay Zeamer, Jr. of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Arlo L. Olson, Benjamin L. Salomon of the United States Army, and Eugene B. Fluckey and Thomas R. Norris of the United States Navy. In 2010, Thorsness received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.
He attended South Dakota State College in Brookings, South Dakota, where he met his future wife, Gaylee Anderson, also a freshman. They married in 1953 and had a daughter, Dawn.
Thorsness enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 at the age of 19 because his brother was then serving in the Korean War. In 1954, he received his commission as an officer and his wings with a rating of pilot through the USAF Aviation Cadet program in Class 54-G. He later earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Omaha in 1964, and a master’s degree in Defense Systems Management from the University of Southern California. His initial assignment was as a pilot in the Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command, but he completed training as a fighter pilot and flew both F-84 and F-100 jets before transitioning to the F-105 Thunderchief.
On April 19, 1967, Major Thorsness and his Electronic Warfare Officer, Captain Harold E. Johnson, flying F-105F AF Ser. No. 63-8301, led Kingfish flight (three F-105F Weasel aircraft and an F-105D single-seater) on a Wild Weasel SAM suppression mission. The strike force target was JCS target 22.00, the Xuan Mai army training compound, near heavily defended Hanoi. Thorsness directed Kingfish 03 and 04, the second element of F-105s, to troll north while he and his wingman maneuvered south, forcing defending gunners to divide their attention. Thorsness located two SAM sites and fired a Shrike missile to attack one, whose radar went off the air. He destroyed the second with cluster bombs, scoring a direct hit.
After this initial success, matters turned for the worse. Kingfish 02, crewed by Majors Thomas M. Madison and Thomas J. Sterling, flying aircraft F-105F AF Ser. No. 63-8341, was hit by anti-aircraft fire and both crewmen had to eject. Unknown to Thorsness, Kingfish 03 and 04 had been attacked by MiG-17s flying a low-altitude wagon wheel defensive formation. The afterburner of one of the F-105s wouldn’t light and the element had disengaged and returned to base, leaving Kingfish 01 to fight solo.
As their F-105 circled the parachutes of Kingfish 02-Alpha and 02-Bravo, relaying the position to Crown, the airborne search and rescue HC-130 command aircraft, Johnson spotted a MiG-17 off their right wing. 8301, though not designed for air-to-air combat, responded well as Thorsness attacked the MiG and destroyed it with 20-mm cannon fire, just as a second MiG closed on his tail. Low on fuel, Thorsness outran his pursuers and left the battle area to rendezvous with a KC-135 tanker over Laos.
As this occurred, the initial element of the rescue force—a pair of A-1E “Sandies”—arrived to locate the position of the downed crewmen before calling in the waiting HH-53 Jolly Green helicopters orbiting at a holding point over Laos. Thorsness, with only 500 rounds of ammunition left, turned back from the tanker to fly RESCAP (rescue combat air patrol) for the Sandies and update them on the situation and terrain. As Thorsness approached the area, briefing the Sandies, he spotted MiG-17s in a wagon wheel orbit around him and attacked, probably destroying another that flew across his path.
Pairs of MiGs attacked each propeller-driven Sandy as it came out of its turn in search orbit, shooting down the leader (Maj. John S. Hamilton in A-1E 52-133905) with cannon fire when he failed to heed warnings from Sandy 02 to break into the attack, and forced the wingman into a series of repeated evasive turns. Sandy 02 reported the situation and Thorsness advised him to keep turning and announced his return.
Although all of his ammunition had been depleted, Thorsness reversed and flew back to the scene, hoping in some way to draw the MiGs away from the surviving A-1. However, as he re-engaged, Panda flight from the 355th TFW strike force arrived back in the area. It had dropped its ordnance on the target and was en route to its post-strike aerial refueling when Kingfish 02 went down. Panda had jettisoned its wing tanks, making the rescue radar controller reluctant to use it to CAP the rescue effort, but it filled its internal tanks and returned to North Vietnam at high altitude to conserve fuel.
Panda’s four F-105s burst through the defensive circle at high speed, then engaged the MiGs in a turning dogfight, permitting Kingfish 01 to depart the area after a 50-minute engagement against SAMs, antiaircraft guns, and MiGs. Panda 01 (Capt William E. Eskew) shot down a MiG, during which the surviving Sandy escaped, and he and his wingman Panda 02 (Capt Paul A. Seymour) each damaged one of the others. Two other MiGs were shot down by members of a third F-105 strike flight, Nitro 01 (Major Jack W. Hunt) and Nitro 03 (Maj Theodore G. “Ted” Tolman), in another of the 17 MiG engagements on this mission.
Again low on fuel and facing nightfall, Thorsness was headed towards a tanker when Panda 03 (Capt Howard L. Bodenhamer), an F-105 of the flight that had rescued Sandy 02, transmitted by radio that he was critically low on fuel. Thorsness quickly calculated that Kingfish 01 had sufficient fuel to fly to Udorn, near the Mekong River and 200 miles closer, so he vectored the tanker toward Panda 03. When within 60 miles of Udorn, he throttled back to idle and “glided” toward the base, touching down “long” (mid-runway) as his fuel totalizer indicated empty tanks.
Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness official 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.