Lt.Col. Leo K. Thorsness
wearing Medal of Honor
For taking on "most of North Vietnam all by himself" Leo would receive the Medal of Honor.
RENDEZVOUS WITH THE RATTLESNAKE
"Leo, we've got MiGs on our.!" The excited, high-pitched alarm from his backseater broke Leo Thornsess's concentration. Just ahead the MiG-17's left wing splintered under his 20mm cannon fire. The MiG pitched violently to the right, and Thorsness could feel the bump of turbulent air as hid F-105 flashed past with scant feet to spare. Thorsness looked back. The two enemy aircraft were no farther than 1,000 feet and he could see their bellies. Kowing they were positioning for a kill Thorsness plugged in his afterburner and dived, skimming over the grain fields and paddies in a run for his life toward the western foothills and mountains of North Vietnam. In split seconds, Thorsness was home free, weaving and turning through the narrow valleys on his way toward Laos and a KC-135 tanker. But the day was just beginning for the 35-year-old major and his electronic warfare officer, Capt. Harold E. Johnson. The fast-paced drama being played out that day in the lazy April skies finally concluded October 15 , 1973 - 10,000 miles away and more than six years later - in the White House where the President carefully placed the pale blue ribbon supporting the Medal of Honor around the shoulders of Lt. Col. Leo K. Thorsness.
April 19, 1967 dawned like most any other day at Takhli Royal Thai Air Base for Thorsness. His Aussie-style Sierra Hotel hat showed almost 90 missions, all carefully recorded with inked "Xs." He was thinking about going home to his wife, Gaylee, and daughter, Dawn, who were living in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Gavlee was teaching school. The 100-mission goal seemed almost within his grasp. He had no idea that today he would, in the words of his strike force commander, Col. Jack Broughton, take on "most of North Vietnam all bv himself."
It was one o'clock In the afternoon when Thorsness's Thunderchief screamed off the runway and headed north and east to Laos. The four- ship flight of Wild Weasels. as usual would be the first ones in and the last ones out on the strike mission. But the new major, now the "old head" among his fellow Weasels, was used to it. The "old head" moniker had not come easily for the 5 foot 10, 170-pound native of Storden, Minn. He had been challenged by MiGs and had counted 53 SAMS (Surface-to-Air Missiles) fired at him. He had experienced "white knuckles" in the target area when he nearly squeezed the control stick in two. And he knew the singular sensation of a flour-dry mouth in combat, when gum stuck to his teeth and to the roof of his mouth.
All of these factors, including the most important -that he could do his job when apprehension bordered on fear - made him the respected Chief Weasel on the base, the training instructor for all the others and their recognized leader. Not bad for an Eagle Scout and Graduate of the University of Omaha with a degree in business administration !
Thorsness, an easy-going veteran pilot with level-straight, piercing blue eyes, had enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 and was commissioned three years later. He took special pride in his Weasels, whose specialty was to lead a strike force into designated target areas. Flak and SAM suppression was a new, and deadly aerial game, and the Weasels were striving to develop their own tactics. "In essence, we would go in high enough to let somebody shoot at us and low enough to go down and get them; then we went in and got them," he explained, letting the implications fall in silence. But the "game" wasn't a one-on-one encounter. Nearly all of the Weasel missions were flown in the Hanoi area, which boasted "the greatest concentration of antiaircraft weapons that has ever been known in the history of defense of any area in the world" according to former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. J. P. McConnell.
In an area smaller than the state of Washington, the North Vietnamese had bunched more than 8,000 antiaircraft guns, nearly 300 SAM sites, uncountable automatic weapons and the ever-present MiGs with their radar-directed intercept capability. The Weasels' job was to keep a lid on that bristling arsenal of firepower, "fonking around" in the strike area for 25 minutes or longer, acting as decoys, to allow the strike force precious seconds to sweep in unmolested to drop their ordnance on the target.
The young major knew the odds - and the score - as he headed toward Laos. Just behind him came a flight of MiG CAP F-4 Phantoms for protection against attacking MiGs and four flights of F-105Ds, one used for continuing flak suppression and the others for bombing. The gaggle would refuel over southern Laos, check its bearings farther north and streak - almost directly east - across the mountains and foothills separating Laos and North Vietnam toward the Xuan Mai army barracks and storage supply area, 37 miles southwest of Hanoi. Thorsness felt a little more comfortable about targets close to the mountains, halfway between the delta and the jungle. There were no big guns in the mountains, the chances of rescue were better if you had to punch out, and the SAM sites were much less concentrated. His headphones had picked up the chilling crackle of the "rattlesnake", indicating SAMs about to launch, and the white blip on the warning scope had confirmed the danger as Thorsness split his flight of four into two elements, his tactical innovation that had proved successful. The Weasels never mentioned the rattlesnake crackle on the air in flight, but it left an eerie, never-to-be-forgotten impression. It meant the trough-like radar antennas atop the enemy van in the center of the SAM complex had "painted" them from as far as 100 miles away. In 1967 the sites were constructed in a classic Star of David pattern with missile launchers positioned at each of the six tips. Roads connected each launching site with the radar van in the center. Three- to fiveman crews armed and aimed the long, slender SA-2 missiles. which had a range of over 18 miles. Earth work, piled 10 feet high, helped protect the launchers and van. At that time, the uncamoufiaged sites formed a distinctive, symmetrical design. A 1/8-inch blip appeared on the screen in Thorsness's Thud. As the F-105s got closer, the blip expanded, crossing the bull's-eye-like circles on the scope.
But Thorsness had still other things on his mind as his flight split into two elements 15 miles - or two minutes - from the target. He and his wingman, Tom Madison, would fly south of the target and swing east toward Hanoi and then back around toward the north. They would form the lower half of a protective circle around the target for the incoming strike force. A strong SAM signal came up southeast of the target, and Thorsness turned into it, launching a Shrike surface-to-air missile designed to home in on enemy radar. He couldn't see the target, seven miles away through the haze, nor the missile as it hit. The enemy radar signal went off the scope within seconds, so he figured the Shrike had done its job. The scope was "growing hair" in an explosion of blips indicating an array of close-in SAMs as Thorsness turned north toward another SAM. Reacting quickly, he dived toward the target, dropped his CBU (cluster bomb unit) at 8,000 feet and bottomed out of the dive at 5,000 feet. He had left himself some margin above the range of small arms fire. The rattlesnake crackled incessantly. Thorsness couldn't tell whether the SAM about to launch was just ahead or just behind him - or whether the signal was false. In the six months he had been fiying Weasel missions, the North Vietnamese had learned to send false radar launch signals. Of the nearly 300 SAM sites in the Hanoi area at that time, fewer than 30 were active simultaneously. Some would try to confuse the Weasels by first sending and then rescinding their launch signal, thus delaying their attack or serving merely as decoys. Right now the North Vietnamese had the upper hand, and Thorsness told his wingman to "take it down" - an evasive maneuver the Weasels well understood - and get hugging close to the deck. The SAM launch signal proved to be phony, but wingman Madison was getting positive signals on his control panel. Enemy flak had torn into Madison's Thud, and engine overheat lights were glowing bright orange. Thorsness told his wingman to put his Thud into burner and head for the western hills. Thorsness quickly put his radio on Guard (emergency) channel, and seconds later he heard a rescue beeper. He knew his wingman had bailed out. Thorsness headed toward the parachute. Seconds later he heard another distress signal, the staccato "cawing" sound that emanated from either an aircrew member's survival radio, or from his parachute, and he knew that Madison's "bear" - his backseater, Tom Sterling - had ejected. Somewhere in the chaos, Thorsness fired another Shrike at yet another SAM site, but he doesn't remember where. The major also didn't know at the time that his Numbers Three and Four men, heading north to form the top half of the circle of protection around the target, were fighting MiGs. Three's afterburner wouldn't light, and he had to outmaneuver two MiGs without it on the way back to Takhli with his escorting wingman. Thorsness, the only strike force pilot now in the target area, saw the chutes of Madison and Sterling and began flying around them. Johnson called weather information, terrain features and coordinates to the HC-130 Crown aircraft, orbiting south of the area to support rescue operations. There were several MiGs reported in the vicinity when Johnson spotted one at nine o'clock. "I wasn't sure whether or not he was going to attack the parachutes," Thorsness said. "So I said, Why not?, and took off after him. I was a little high, dropped down to 1,000 feet and headed north behind him. "I was driving right up his tailpipe at 550 knots. At about 3,000 feet I opened up on him with the 20mm but completely missed him. We attacked again and I was pulling and holding the trigger when Harry got my attention with the MiGs behind us. If I had hit that MiG good, we would have swallowed some of the explosion. But we got him."
After outrunning the MiGs on his tail , Thorsness found a tanker, took on fuel and waited for Brigham Control, a radar site in Thailand, to tell what flight of F-105s would be sent in to help with the rescue efforts for Madison and Sterling. Unexpectedly, Brigham called off Col. Sam Hill's flight of four F-105s that was also refueling. Thorsness knew there were two prop-driven A-1E Sandys, used for rescue support, and rescue helicopters in the vicinity when he topped off his fuel and headed back to fly cover for Madison and Sterling. He gave the Sandy pilots a quick briefing on SAM evasion and, just as quickly, spotted MiGs orbiting at his eleven, one, and three o'clock positions. He also got word there were at least two more in the area, "One of the MiGs flew right into my gunsight at about 2,000 feet and pieces started falling off the [enemy] aircraft. They hadn't seen us, but they did now." Harry shouted the alarm again. Four MiGs were behind them and closing fast. Once again the Chief Weasel dived to 50 feet above the ground and sped into the hills and twisted through the valleys in a desperate attempt to lose his pursuers. Free again, he turned back south, skimmed along the top of a cloud cover and then headed back toward Madison. The MiGs, though, had found a prey. "Sandy Two 's going in," drawled Maj. Jack Cockran on Guard channel. "Okay, Sandy One," Thorsness responded. "Continue to transmit. Just keep that machine of yours turning and they can't get you." Without ammunition, getting low on fuel, and with "no good idea" what he would do when he got there,Thorsness flew toward Sandy One. His plan: "To try to get them on me." The plan was never put into action. Panda flight, a flight of F-105s dispatched by Brigham, picked up the chase, evening the odds. Overall, the Phantoms and Thuds had 17 encounters with MiGs that day. In addition to the MiG Thorsness shot down, four others were reported as probable kills, including the one that flew into his gunsight. The strike, against the heaviest MiG and antiaircraft defenses of the war at that time, had inflicted the greatest damage of the year. At least 22 buildings were destroyed and 13 secondary fires were reported. The 1,000-foot flames and billowing smoke gave pilots a view of the target from more than 40 miles away. Thorsness guided his aircraft into Laos, toward the tanker. In all the exhilaration he felt depressed. A Sandy pilot had been shot down along with his wingman, and the rescue effort for Madison and Sterling had been called off (both were later captured and imprisoned). "Kingfish, this is Panda Three." Then, "Leo !" - the use of his first name on the radio startled Thorsness. "Leo , I'm not with the rest of the flight, and I don't know where I am. I've only got 800 pounds [of fuel]. What should I do?" Thorsness knew the F-105 pilot, one of the four who had just been in the dogfight with the MiGs. "I've never felt so sorry for anyone," Thorsness recalled. "It wasn't unusual to get lost in battle, and any number of things could happen in a fight to use an awful lot of fuel. But it sounded like I would have to do something magic." He didn't, though. Critically low on fuel himself. Thorsness asked the lone tanker in the area to fly toward the lost pilot. Thorsness decided to turn south and try to fly into Udorn. He didn't know whether he could make it, "I knew if we could get to the Mekong River - the Fence - we could coast across. With 70 miles to go, I pulled the power back to idle and we just glided in. We were indicating 'empty' when the runway came up just in front of us, and we landed a little long. As we climbed out of the cockpit, Harry said something quaint like, 'That's a full day's work.'" The citation accompanying the Medal of Honor said something more: 'Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness's extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life were in the highest traditions of the military service..." Sunday wasn't a day of rest at Takhli; in fact, the aircrews didn't try to hide irreverent thoughts about the first day of the week, which somehow had become jinxed. Colonel Broughton didn't mince words: "In our wing, we hated Sundays," he said in his book, Thud Ridge. "It was one of those stupid superstitions... We really didn't believe it and consciously we ignored it, but when we got clobbered it always seemed to be on Sunday. One particular Sunday must certainly have been the longest day in the world for Leo and all the rest of us. It was so long, it finally ran into Thursday."
Sunday, April 30, 1967 had already been a long day for Thorsness and Johnson. They had been up since two o'clock in the morning preparing for what would be a 4.5-hour Weasel mission in the Six Bravo sector that took in the eastern portion of Hanoi, extended east to the Gulf of Tonkin and included the northeastern-most area of North Vietnam. "I had never worked so hard in my life as I did during that period." Thorsness remembered. "I was just about physically 'had.' Harry and I flew back to Takhli from Udorn after the mission on the 19th and went right back to work the next day. I really didn't want a day off."I was running right to the 'max,' and I was thinking more and more about going home. If I had hit 100 missions, I could have slept for a week."' His bush hat, if he had taken the time to update it after the morning flight, would have shown 92 missions. The early morning mission was successfully completed, and the two veteran Weasels were sitting in the cockpit on this bright, sunny, Sunday morning serving as a "spare" aircrew, ready to join the Weasel flight if one of the four designated F-105s aborted on takeoff. Thorsness had seriously thought about going on a tiger hunt on the Burmese border that morning but canceled out. He was more anxious to complete his 100 missions ; travel back and forth to the hunting area figured to be too time consuming, and terrorist activity had been reported on the border. "But I sure wish I had gone tiger hunting," he smiled in retrospect. One of the four Weasels aborted because of radio trouble. and Thorsness and Johnson pulled into takeoff position.The mission - a preplanned Shrike launch in which the strike force would fire at its target from predetermined, standoff ranges and altitudes - was scheduled just south of the Red River. The attacking force would fly basically the same route that Thorsness had flown 11 days before. As Thorsness crossed into North Vietnam, he saw an air-to-air radar signal come up on his scope. Nothing unusual. he knew, to be "painted" by one of your own aircraft. To make sure, he called to the flight of MiG CAP F-4s behind him. Then he and his wingman, Bob Abbott, blew up. Two MiGs, using the same radar band and helped by an accidentally activated chute beeper on one of the strike aircraft that garbled transmissions, had come up undetected from the valley below. As Thorsness and Abbott turned, so did the MiGs-and scored direct hits, "It felt like we took a missile right up the tailpipe.
The plane quivered and shuddered. There was instant knowledge we were out of business." The Thud filled with smoke, and Thorsness put his head against the canopy but couldn't see out. The stick fiopped in his hand. "Go, Harry" he shouted to his backseater, and Johnson - with an obscenity and "I'm gone" - shot out of the aircraft as it began to tumble. Thorsness grabbed for the handles on either side of his seat to release his cockpit canopy, squeezed the exposed seat-ejection triggers and blasted into the windstream at 600 knots. He hurtled into an unflinching wall of air. His legs flew out and his knees bent grotesquely inward, causing severe damage to his knees. His flight suit ripped open. his helmet snapped off and his pockets tore away. His parachute opened, though, but his survival radio stayed with him. The nerve-shattering, ever-persistent chute beeper, annoying on the runway at Takhli where it was first detected. was now a deadly threat. The pilots had tried unsuccessfully to isolate the errant beeper on the fiight north. But cockpit noise and close quarters. which didn't allow a pilot to turn around and check his own parachute, made it impossible to locate the beeper. Descending in his parachute toward the mountains and foothills, Thorsness called to the strike force, but couldn't establish communications. Harry wasn't having any luck either as he floated down about an eighth of a mile from Leo but toward the other side of a ridge. Somehow the left sleeve of his flight suit had been completely torn away, but he had kept his helmet and survival gear. Thorsness's parachute caught a dry limb as he crashed through a tree in a mountainous area, leaving him bobbing on the end of his shroud lines. It took him more than a half-hour to work himself free. Once on the ground, he crawled away to await rescue. Shock had not yet yielded to the searing pain in his knees. Twenty young male villagers, some with guerilla rifies, some with wooden training rifles and some with machetes, were looking at him. The last thing he saw, just before they pulled a bag over his head, was a machete at his chest. "I waited and nothing happened. They took off the bag in a few minutes and cut off my clothes, even my boots. I don't think they knew how to use zippers. I resisted walking, but they insisted and they won." The villagers later allowed him to borrow a machete to cut bamhoo splints which he wrapped in banana leaves and wound tightly around his badly damaged knees with vines.He walked 10 hours, passed out and was later borne on a fishnet litter into six years of hell. Johnson evaded capture for two hours, crawling through the underbrush. He had tried to move toward Thorsness but an enemy search party cut him off. From time to time, the North Vietnamese passed within feet of his position. He had suffered a back injury, he was dazed, and he had "tunnel vision." Harry rooted into a hole after seeing the search party spread out to sweep through the area for him. He could see legs coming toward him. Three uniformed soldiers carrying AK-47s and villagers in loin cloths found him. Although they would get fleeting looks at each other during their years in prison, including a Christmas service in 1969 when Thorsness gave Johnson a quick wave of recognition, the fellow Weasels would not talk again until a little more than a month before their release, nearly six years later. Colonel Broughton described the intense effort to rescue the downed Weasels and one of the strike F-105 pilots as his "longest mission." Bob Abbott, Thorsness's wingman in a single-seat Thud, had parachuted safely. Joe Abbott, in a strike F-105D, was shot down by MiGs on the rescue effort, and both were later captured and put into prison. Rescue attempts did, in fact, continue from Sunday through Thursday, all to no avail.
Thorsness's demeanor changes ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly, when he talks about his prison experiences. He was interned for six years in the now infamous camps in the Hanoi area - the Hanoi Hilton ,Heartbreak Hotel, the Zoo, and others. He was one of 36 prisoners the North Vietnamese considered troublemakers, and he and the others were packed into the notorious country detention camp, Skid Row. He was beaten, tortured, confined for almost a year in solitary and broken by indescribably inhumane treatment. Today he uses a knobby, wooden cane given to him by friends, and has undergone three operations on his back and knees. On March 4, 1973 Thorsness and Johnson walked to freedom, an occurrence that draws a wry comment from Johnson: "For 93 missions, I sat 31 inches behind Leo. On the day we were released, I was put in front of him." Nine men received the Medal of Honor from the President in October 1973 - six Army, one Navy, one Marine, and Lt. Col. Leo K. Thorsness, standing on crutches. He was the last man in line and closed his eyes as the President carefully draped the beribboned medal around his shoulders. He was the 55th Air Force recipient, the ninth in Southeast Asian conflict and he hoped and prayed the last man to receive the Nation's highest decoration for heroism.
The Airman Magazine, 1974