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Leo Thorsness - FU Hero

Posted by aaron on March 20, 2009

Leo K. Thorsness


Leo Thorsness was born in Walnut Grove, Minnesota in February, 1932. He enlisted in the US Air Force in 1951 when he was 19. Through the Aviation Cadet program he received a commission and went to pilot training. Identified early as fighter pilot material he would fly the F-84 and the F-100 before flying the F-105 Thunderchief. In 1966 Leo was assigned to the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing at Takhli, Thailand where he would fly the F-100 in Wild Weasel missions, search and destroy missions against North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles (SAM) sights.
 
F-105 Thunderchief Wild Weasels awaiting refuelingOn 19 April 1967, Thorsness, as Kingfish 01, led four Thunderchiefs north on a SAM suppression mission near heavily defended Hanoi. After splitting off Kingfish 03 and 04 to search north, Thorsness took his element south where they found two SAMs, forcing one to shut down and destroying the second with cluster bombs. That's when things started to go bad. Leo's wingman was hit by anti-aircraft fire and both pilot and EWO had to eject. Unknown to Thorsness, Kingfish 03 and 04 had been jumped by MiG-17s and since one of these F-105's afterburner wouldn't light they were forced to egress and return to base. Kingfish 01 was on his own.
 
Spotting the open parachutes of his downed wingmen, Thorsness circled overhead to provide whatever support he could. He called Seach and Rescue assets to pass position reports. Then spotting a MiG-17 approach threateningly close to his wingman still under chutes, Leo attacked. Though his F-105 was no formidable air-to-air threat, Thorsness closed on the MiG and destroyed it with 20mm cannon fire.  At that point, two more MiGs, now at his six, caused Kingfish 01 to light his afterburner, drop to the deck and out run the MiGs into the hills west of Hanoi. Low on fuel, Thorness began an egress for a tanker rendezvous over Laos.
 
At this same time, the first member of the SAR forces were arriving in the area in the form of two, Sandy, A-1E Skyraiders. Hearing that, Thorsness turned back to provide overhead cover for the Sandies. As he reentered the area, Leo spotted MiGs over the Skyraiders and immediately attacked. Surprising the MiGs he closed and fired his cannon within 2000 feet of one and saw impacts and flying debris. Four MiGs jumped Thorsness causing him again to egress low and fast. But, now hearing that the Sandies were under direct MiG attack, with Sandy 01 already shot down, Leo once again turned back into the fight. Although out of ammunition, Kingfish 01, reengaged the MiGs. Luckily, another flight of F-105s from the 355th showed up and was able to assume the cover role for the remaining Sandy, allowing Thorsness to finally depart after 50 minutes of battling SAMs, anti-aircraft fire and MiGs.
 
Approaching the tanker again, very low on fuel, Thorsness heard another F-105 call out lost and critically low on fuel. Leo directed the tanker to the more fuel needy Thunderchief. Kingfish 01 would land at Udorn, 200 miles closer than Takhli. When he landed his fuel tanks registered empty.
 
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Leo Thorsness would eventually receive the Medal of Honor for his feats on 19 April but that would have to wait. Eleven days later, on his 93rd mission, he was shot down by a MiG-21 and spent the next six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He would finally be released from Hanoi jails in February 1973 and retired from the Air Force in October that same year.
 
Thorsness made a failed run for the US Senate against George McGovern in 1974 and again was unsuccessful in a run for the US Congress against Tom Daschle in 1979 being defeated by only 139 votes. Beginning in 1988, he would serve a single term in the Washington state senate.
 
Here at Fighter Pilot University we are proud to put Colonel Leo Thorsness on our list of FU Heroes. We're proud of his bravery and courage in the air over Southeast Asia and as a POW in the hands of brutal North Vietnamese captors. And, once home, we're proud that he took on the liberal likes of McGovern and Daschle. To Colonel Leo Thorsness we say thank you for your service, a real FU Hero.

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