Leo Keith Thorsness

Photo added by William Bjornstad

Leo Keith Thorsness

Walnut Grove, Redwood County, Minnesota, USA
Death 2 May 2017 (aged 85)
Saint Augustine, St. Johns County, Florida, USA
Burial Arlington, Arlington County, Virginia, USA
Plot Section 60 Site 11721
Memorial ID 179022136 · View Source
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Vietnam Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient. He received this award from President Richard M. Nixon at the White House on October 15, 1973 for his actions on April 19, 1967 as a major assigned to the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing at Takhil Royal Air Force Base in Thailand during the Vietnam War. Born Leo Keith Thorsness, he attended South Dakota State College in Brookings, South Dakota before enlisting in the US Air Force in 1951. In 1954 he was commissioned as an officer and received his pilot wings and was assigned to the Strategic Air Command where he flew F-84 Thunderjet and F-100 Super Sabre aircraft. In the Fall of 1966 he completed F-105 "Wild Weasel" training and was assigned to the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand, and was tasked with targeting and destroying North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles. On April 19, 1967, after completing a successful mission near Hanoi, North Vietnam to destroy missile sites, his party was attacked by enemy MIG-17 aircraft and through his efforts he successfully evaded being shot down. Eleven days later, he was shot down over North Vietnam and was captured, and became a prisoner of war at the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" until his release on March 4, 1973. During his captivity, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and later to colonel. Severely injured due to being tortured while a prisoner of war, he was unable to continue flying following his release and he retired from the US Air Force in October 1973 with 22 years of military service. Among his military awards and decorations include the Silver Star (with bronze oak leaf cluster), the Distinguished Flying Cross (with silver oak leaf cluster), the Purple Heart (with bronze oak leaf cluster), the Air Medal (with three oak leaf clusters), and the Prisoner of War Medal. In 1974 he ran unsuccessfully as the Republican nominee for South Dakota's US Senate seat against incumbent Democrat George McGovern and four years later he was narrowly defeated as the Republican nominee for South Dakota's 1st district congressional seat. From 1979 until 1985 he served as the Director of Civic Affairs for Litton Industries, then served in the Washington State Legislative Assembly. His autobiography, "Surviving Hell: A POW's Journey" was published in 2008. He died of complications from leukemia at the age of 85. His Medal of Honor citation reads: "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."

Bio by: William Bjornstad

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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Originally Created by: William Bjornstad
  • Added: 4 May 2017
  • Find A Grave Memorial 179022136
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Leo Keith Thorsness (14 Feb 1932–2 May 2017), Find A Grave Memorial no. 179022136, citing Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Arlington County, Virginia, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .