Skip Navigation and Jump to Page Content    The Library of Congress >> American Folklife Center  
Veterans History Project (Library of Congress) ABOUT  
SEARCH/BROWSE  
HELP  
COPYRIGHT  
Home » Text Transcript

Interview with Leo K. Thorsness [n.d.]

Unknown interviewer:

For the editor state your name, spell your last name and tell me where you're from.

Leo K. Thorsness:

Leo Thorsness. T-h-o-r-s-n-e-s-s. And I currently live in Tucson, Arizona.

Unknown interviewer:

And what is your final military rank?

Leo K. Thorsness:

Colonel, 06.

Unknown interviewer:

Tell me where you were raised and a little bit about your hobbies. Were you into sports -

Leo K. Thorsness:

I was raised in Minnesota. And little house on the prairie, there is a Walnut Grove, Minnesota. That's where I went to school, grew up, farm kid. And mom, dad, sister, brother, typical poor family. But we didn't know we were poor because you know the Depression but everybody had a lot of food because we were farmers. Hobbies, that's chores. When you're live - living on a farm, but eventually we moved into town. And not much to do there except I became a eagle scout. And school was my, my majors were baseball, football, basketball and girls. And I forgot studies for quite a while. But, but I had a good childhood.

Unknown interviewer:

Who were your heroes back then and who did you look up to?

Leo K. Thorsness:

I looked up to I guess mom and dad. Dad was an entrepreneur. He was a faermer and then he got into the gas business and then the trucking business and he was a good businessman. He was - he was a good businessman. But uneducated but - so he was just a - I got my entrepreneur, I'm sure I got my take a little bit of a chance mentality from him. My mom was a negotiator. I went to her if I wanted something and she went to my dad and I learned negotiating skills there. And I guess my heroes were - were family. But I had a brother who served in Korea. I had a cousin who was killed in World War II. All 4 of my brothers in law were World War II guys. One was killed. So those were my heroes. The family and good role models for me.

Unknown interviewer:

When did you enlist and what made you decide to enlist?

Leo K. Thorsness:

Started college, I wasn't ready. Because I hadn't majored in studies. And so I, I enlisted in the air force and said I'll go, I'll - I'll serve - join the air force, I'll get the GI bill, I'll grow up, I'll come back. And then I'll know what I'm doing. And turned out that while I was in the air force, they needed pilots and so I went through an aviation cadet program, got my commission and my wings. Flying came kind of easy to me. So I have that particular motor skills. And so I totally enjoyed it and air force became my career as a fighter pilot.

Unknown interviewer:

When you joined the air force, did you think about it as close to the navy and the army. Was there a choice -

Leo K. Thorsness:

My brother's in the army so I thought he can handle that. And I didn't particularly like boats. People get sick all the time and so I thought I'll go fly airplanes. So I - so it was just, I ended - in that era, around 1950 or so, it was expected you were gonna serve your tour in the military. It was just kind of the thing to do if you grew up in that type of an attitude in the home. So I said I'll do that. And I'll, I will mature and I'll come back and go to school and go on with my life. And it turned out that military was my life.

Unknown interviewer:

Was the country at war at that time?

Leo K. Thorsness:

No - well yes it was. Country was about to go to war and that was Korea. So - but when I got my wings and my commission which was in 1954 so Korean war was about over. So I was in a peacetime air force for quite a while and then Vietnam became my war.

Unknown interviewer:

Do you remember anything in particular about boot camp, about the people who you met there and any experiences.

Leo K. Thorsness:

Yeah. We went to Texas. I was - left Minnesota. I didn't know in January - it was minus 25 degrees the day I got on a train in Sioux Falls. In those days you went on trains rather than airplanes. And I didn't know for those first 18 years of my life that you had to be cold in the winter time. And we - we got to San Antonio, Lackland air force base and it was wonderful. Green grass, but we lived in tents. It was a big, big enlistment time and so I remember getting shots and getting knocked around and my arm was all swelled up. And that was just part of being a, going through boot camp and learning all those things that I didn't know. But it was, it was a good time in my life. I was exposed to things that I'd never been exposed to. And I liked the military. It fit okay. And so I found my home.

Unknown interviewer:

Do you remember the first time that you were shipped out and you actually went into an engagement.

Leo K. Thorsness:

You're talking about combat in Vietnam, you bet. Went to - I was in a thing called Wild Weasels. Air force has gotta have a code name for everything. And those are the Wild Weasels. Vietnam was the first time there was surface to air missiles that could shoot down airplanes. So our military industrial complex very quickly and very efficiently got together and said we need some defenses. And so they took a 2 place fighter, put some fancy electronic gear in it. I was a pilot so I sat in the front seat and I'd always flown single place fighters. Now I got a crew guy. Got EWO in the back seat, electronic warfare officer, teach him how to work all that and they sent us to southeast Asia to - our job was to find and kill SAM sites. Surface to air missile sites. And so first time I flew a mission over North Vietnam why people said well you know your mouth gets kind of dry, so better chew some gum. Well I thought that sounds reasonable. Well your mouth gets so dry it sticks to your teeth. [LAUGHTER]

Leo K. Thorsness:

But then I got to do that to the next guy you see. [LAUGHS] The first mission was pretty easy. They don't take you in too high a threat area. I don't know of anybody that got shot down on their very first mission. But you're far enough in where you - you see some flack. And you hear some radar, the radar that directed the SAMs. They call - it sounded like a rattlesnake. You're far enough up that you see that on your scope and so on. So yeah, I, I'll always remember that first mission.

Unknown interviewer:

Do you think that boot camp prepared you for that first -

Leo K. Thorsness:

Well, boot camp, that was for my enlisted time. I was an enlisted guy for about 2 and a half years. I went through a cadet program. More marching and learning how to do things and plus fly airplanes, plus be an officer. And then I was a pilot for 15 years before I - - what, 10 years before I went to combat. So did my training to prepare me how to be a pilot. Yes, I got good flying training. How to be a weasel guy. No. We were so new in the program that - that what they taught was theory. Unproved theory unless that's - is that an oxymoron, unproved theory. At any rate, it was wrong. And so we got over there. And then we - a quick short story. There were 5 Weasel crews, F105s, pilot EWO. 5 of them went to Takli[?] Thailand. 45 days later, they were all gone. They were shot down or they were killed or they were prisoners or airplanes were hit so bad - damaged so badly, they limped home a couple of them and never flew again. My backseater, Harry Johnson and I flew in there to Takli. Said here we are to help you out. Well, they no more wanted us than nothing. Because they had to give a pilot, a Weasel a wing man. Wing man is a guy that normally would be carrying iron bombs and hitting the target. Now he's gotta be our wing man and they just, they said why do we want to lose, lose him, a good wing man. But we did learn from the mistakes made by the first ones. And we finally learned how to do the job well. We became a valuable asset. And I was shot down - 100 missions was the full tour and I was shot down on my 93rd mission. So I was -very few Weasels finished 100 missions simply because we would go in first, come out last. And so we were in the target area 12 to 20 minutes. The guys carrying iron bombs just dink, dink, dink, out, out. Through in 3, 4 minutes. So just - statistically exposure time to the high threat area. Our loss rate was about 3 times as much.] And so - so we finally learned how to do our mission. That was pretty simple. You go in high enough, we called it trolling. WE'd go in high enough to coax them into firing their missiles at us. And then if you got good enough, you evaded the missiles. And you plugged it and burned - you're all inverted, you pointed your nose at the ground, unloaded the Gs and went as fast as you could. 500, 600 knots. And those missiles were coming over the - I shot them sort of arcing upward. They'd come down at you. You're headed to the ground and there's - - if you're not focused now, you're in trouble. The missiles are coming at you a mile, 2 seconds a mile. 3000 feet per second. And literally at the last second, first - you had to miss the ground. But you wanted a lot of speed - - close to the ground and then you'd haul back on the airplane as hard as you could. The missile couldn't make the corner with you. it would go under you. Explode - and they always fired 3, every 6 seconds, 12 seconds first - - and usually you ended up back here and you could miss all 3. Then you just kept grabbing the altitude and then you roll in and you kill them. And you had a wing man with you and you hoped he was still hanging on good enough to - to start up his own bomb run. But it was a very exciting mission. Because no one had done it. We set our own rules. We learned how to do it and the first 5 didn't learn how to do it. And we slowly evolved to that.

Unknown interviewer:

Tell me about the things that led up to your medal.

Leo K. Thorsness:

It was pretty much of a typical Weasel mission. There would be 4 airplanes that would go in first. Normally it was a Weasel and 3 wing men that were single place airplanes carrying iron bombs. That day we had a Weasel - - had ended up with 3 double place airplanes. My wing man was a Weasel, the number 3 was a Weasel and we went in and I - I as the leader, I was splitting my flight of 4 into two elements. We'd cover north and south with a target. East or west we said. And twice, we tried to give them twice as much plea - - pleasure, the SAM guys, the guys on the ground shooting at us. And we had destroyed one SAM site and we rolled in on another one and my wing man got hit. And he called me. He was behind me because - during bomb runs. And I told him to head for the mountains. And we were over the flatlands south of Hanoi - to get close enough maybe in the mountains you can have a chance of rescue. He got fairly - he got in the foothills and the airplane quit. And both he and his wing man ejected, both of them dead. I could hear the beepers. I homed in on the beepers. You got an automatic direction finder. So I could, I could find them. And about the time I picked up their chutes, a Mig was rolling in one of them. So I rolled in on the Mig and he and I got into it and I ended up shooting that Mig down. And then some - we had Migs on us. And long story, but we - we outran them. A 105 couldn't turn hard for long because it was a heavy airplane with little bitty wings. But it sure could go fast. 800 knots. And we outran these Migs right on the deck. And it's going supersonic at 20 feet. You know with the rice fields, that's exciting in itself. Especially when you're leaving them, that's more fun. But we went out, we - we came back in, ended up with another engagement. Ran out of fuel, went out to get tapped off with a tanker. Mixup. Nobody came back in with us. That was my job. So Harry and I, my back seater and I just discussed the odds of being shot down were significant. But that was our job. And there were rescue airplanes coming in. And so I briefed them on these two World War II prop guys that would make contact and shoot rockets and the people around them - the pilots in the helicopters. And there was a full load of - [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Unknown interviewer:

These guys are shot down and then the Migs come in and you shoot down this one -

Leo K. Thorsness:

I shoot down a Mig.

Unknown interviewer:

So at this point you're ready to go home because the helicopters are coming in to pick up your guys.

Leo K. Thorsness:

No. So after I shot down a Mig and we outran the others, we're by ourselves. And mostly out of fuel and ideas and altitude and ammo. I go out and I get some fuel. And two airplanes, World War II props Cosairs, we called them Sandys, they're coming in.] And I, they'd never been that far north to try to rescue before. Close to Hanoi. So I briefed them. I said there's Migs in the area. You're also in range of surface to air missile sites. And I kind of gave them a briefing over the air. I'm going out and they're coming in. And I said be careful you know. So I get fuel and Harry - so we, nobody's there unfortunately. They come back in with us [ ? ] a flight. So we come back in and I'm headed back towards that shootdown site, that area and Sandy 2 which is a call sign says - - Sandy 1's going in, Sandy 1's going in. The Mig's got him. He's going in. He just hit the mountain. And so he said help in essence. And not believing it would work, but I said Sandy 2, you turn that airplane as hard as you can, right on the deck. It's slow down - as slow as you can get and they'll never stay with you. And I'll come in to you, I'll, I'll run through you and I'll pick them up. And we did that. And somehow the guy survived. And we ran through them and all the Migs jumped on me. He got out. We outran them again. Came back in the second time and still the flight wasn't in to help us. But the second time we came back in - [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC] END SIDE A BEGIN SIDE B LEO CONTINUED [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Leo K. Thorsness:

There were two Sandys that came in. Migs shot down lead, Sandy 1. Sandy 2 called help. I said keep turning hard. Stay at a real low altitude and fly slow, they can't turn with you. And I'll home in on you. Keep talking. And he kept talking. He had a southern drawl. High pitch. And but we did it. We were able to get in there, surprise the Migs - they jumped on us for a little while. And Sandy 2 got out of there. So we did not rescue my, my wing man or the two wing men I had. The two guys in the airplane. And - but when we came back in the third time, trying to make contact to see if we could raise them on the radio or whatever. It was getting close to dark. All of a sudden, we ended up, we surrounded 5 Migs - that was kind of a wagon wheel and we ended up somehow in the middle of. But - and the one up in front of me a couple thousand feet out, he just kind of flew into my gun sights and I hosed off the last of my ammo. And some pieces came off. But it wasn't confirmed because I had no film - gun film left. And - and then we - about that time, there's a little bit more to the story -another flight finally came back in. A flight of 4. I'm headed out, my backseater and I, Harry and I are headed for a tanker over Laos and in about 10 minutes I get this radio call that you never hear in combat over enemy territory, you always use call signs. Cadillac one, this is Green - - he said Leo, boy that gets your atten - he said I got 600 pounds, it's about 6 minutes, I got 600 pounds of fuel. I'm not sure where I am. And I've lost my fight. Can you help me? So - so I call this over the guard emergency channel and I said call my tankers. Let's go to guard. Call my tank and I ordered him to come further north than they're supposed to over Laos and I said you got six minutes to hook up Green 4 or whatever his call signal - and - and they did. They called it tobagganing. You're out of fuel, you pull it back to - - I keep a little fuel in the tankard, you try to match speeds and you hook up to Sandy and they did. My backseater and I thought - we weren't sure about when we gave our tanker up. We thought we could make it to Thailand and eject at the Mekong river. Laos, bad country, Thailand, good country. And so we climbed to 35,000 feet and when we hit 70 miles from the river, you can glide 2 miles per thousand feet in that old airplane. Pulled it back to idle, indicating zero fuel. And - and not only did we make the river, we made Udon which is 8 miles past it. And we ran out of fuel as we were - hit the ground. So that was just a long day. But that was the essence of the - of the medal of honor mission.

Unknown interviewer:

When did you hear about your medal of honor?

Leo K. Thorsness:

About 3 years later I was in prison. And with the - maybe 2 years later. I was - do you know what the tap code is? Prison tap code. And you - it's like morse code only it's all dots. Because you can't send a dash through a foot of concrete. And with the tap code about 2 years later, I got a message, said Leo, did you know that you had been submitted for the medal of honor. And I didn't. And the guy that - a guy came into the squadron shortly after I was shot down and the mission was discussed and they went up and they sent back. And they said submit this as a medal of honor mission. So this guy was tasked to write the citation and so the research. He did that but then he got shot down. So he ended up in Hanoi also. And so through him, I learned that. And it was, it was a big secret because it was approved up through, to the president. In that time it was Johnson. And rather than -they weren't sure if I was dead or alive then. They didn't know if I was still - I was a prisoner. So rather than giving it to my wife in case I was alive - it would be much more difficult for me. So they just held it. And then - so when I came home a total of six years that I was a prisoner, rather than just saying here, let's have a ceremony and give it to [ ? ] and I understand why, and this was for a mission I flew before I was shot down. But there were 7 collaborators. 7 American collaborators in prison. And the then administration, the Nixon administration in essence said, let's make sure Leo did okay as a prisoner before we embarrass ourselves by giving him a medal of honor in case he might have been not too good. So it went through the system again I guess I'm saying. And my wife who's Swedish claims it had to go through two administrations because I'm Norwegian. And [LAUGHS] but it did go through two administrations. And so I must be safe and all approved because that's how it happened. So six years after the action or so, a little over that, I was -received the medal of honor.

Unknown interviewer:

Talk about being shot down. You had had gone over 90 missions without being hit. Talk about what happened on that particular mission.

Leo K. Thorsness:

I'd flown the mission in the morning. Successful. Came back and we always tried to have a spare airplane in case one of 4 aborted. [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Leo K. Thorsness:

11 days after I flew that mission in which I finally received the medal of honor for, I was shot down. And there were - I'd flown a mission that morning which is a full day by itself. And then I filled in as a spare. So if somebody aborted an airplane, you wanted 4 airplanes to go. And so I filled in as spare in the afternoon and we were getting ready to launch a - launch a shrike which was a radar seeking missile. We fired it from our 105. It would home in on the radar that controlled the SAM. And we were getting ready to fire a shrike and I accelerated to 600 knots - - which is 675 miles an hour and just then, I picked up an air to air signal. And my back seater said Leo, somebody's painting us. And so I called Mig flight. There was - the second, first flight was Weasels, about 5, 7 miles in. That would be called a Mig cap flight. They were F4s. We were 105s. F4s and their job was to try to - my job was to suppress SAMs. Their job was try to hold down the Migs. And then behind them was about 4 more flights of 4 airplanes each with iron bombs to hit the POL or the barracks or whatever. So I called the Mig cap flight and I said, hey, you know whatever you got, Fort, Fort Leed, Cadillac 2 here. I got - I got air to air. Saying in essence, I'm worried about Migs. And he said have no fear, it's our radar. Have no fear, we're here. Big deal you know. And so like a dummy I set straight and level and about 15 seconds later, I took a missile right up the tail pipe. And we churned over to the mountain peak, bellied down here. Mig cap flight's back here. So their radar's not painting the little valley. And I roll out and my wing man rolls out and there are two Migs orbiting down there and they just happened to roll out, pointed the same direction we are. And there's 2 fat big 105s up there doing 600 knots. They couldn't catch us. They both hosed off a Russian copy of our sidewinder. And we both blew out of the sky about the same time. Did nothing. The only evasive act - that was the first, but anyway we were so badly hit, we knew we were out of business. I, I put my -my helmet against the side of the canopy, had a visor. I couldn't see out, the smoke was so - so thick. Just - and the stitck was just flopped. The rudders were gone, the engine -everything was gone and we knew instantly we were out. So I said to my back seater, go had been our signal. If we're ever hit badly, I'll just say go and you go. Back seater is supposed to go first because the canopies blow off and if you go before he does, the rocket from your seat burns him. So I said go, and Harry goed, Harry went. And we hadn't been 2 seconds since we're hit. So we ejected about 600 knots. They say, they advertise you can eject to 525 knots safely. And he was injured some and both my knees - I was still in the seat but as soon as I hit the air strip, they - it went, my feet went straight out up to my knees. So real badly torn up, but I got out. And the second after you, your seat's out of the airplane, you're a butt snapper. People used to hang on and they'd never let go. Fear. So they put a big wide strap underneath both thighs and metal. And a second after the seat's out of the airplane, it pulls taut and throws you out of your seat. And tied to the seat is your land [ ? ] which opens your chute. So ding ding ding. And - but when the chute opened, it was a nice feeling. But we were still doing probably, well over 500 knots and several panels broke out of the parachute. I lost my helmet. My zippers were gone. But the chute opened. And that's -well the end of the story is I was floating down. And when you, when you're going straight down in a parachute except for the wind and a 105 comes within about 50 feet of you, close to supersonic, it's loud. And you're sick because you know you're not in that airplane. You're going down and he's going home. But I looked down and we were probably 8000 feet, maybe 4 by then over the mountains. And clear and I could see muzzle flashes, rifles. It's hard to hide in a parachute. That's -it's really hard. We landed and we were probably a mile apart, Harry and I. We were both captured. They strip you of your clothes. My knees - I couldn't walk. They put bamboo up and down both sides and beat you, so you tried to walk and then you'd collapse and they'd finally put you in a net. And they had - that night they put us in - we were in the mountains. These people had never seen electricity. They'd seen it but they don't have it. I mean this - it's tribal area. And it's - I call it, we went from - a fighter's high tech. Whatever, air. We went from absolute high tech to abject no tech. And it was just surreal but it was happening and it was hard to believe. And we were stripped to our underwear, we were bloody. They had us spread eagled, tied down, this bamboo floored kind of big old building up there on stilts. And the men, women and children outside. You could hear these voices. The men were all hunkered around inside. The lights were flickering from bamboo fires. Just burning in there, smoking their opium. And I said to Harry, it went on for quite a while. And I said, I think they're having a trial. We may be executed. I tried to stay as bravely as I could but I wasn't - Harry - good old Harry said, Leo, either they are or they aren't. There's no sense in worrying about it. And that sounds kind of - but that was such a wonderful statement. I'd been so - but anyway, we, we survived it obviously and 18 days and nights of torture at the Hanoi Hilton and they break you and it's the worst day of your life. Because you thought you could outlast them and you don't. And - and then - - then you get in the system and then you come home. And live happily ever after. [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Unknown interviewer:

Let's talk about the Hanoi Hilton - [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Unknown interviewer:

So they decided they don't know what to do with you, so they bring you to Hanoi. [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Leo K. Thorsness:

First - when we were captured, we were - at night they would transport you because the during the day there was - our guys were bombing. They got us to the edge of the foothills, and we stayed there that day and they interrogated Harry and I separately in a pig pen. LIterally pig pens. They take you out and beat you and I was able to stick with my name, rank, serial number, date of birth. So was Harry. And then that night a truck came and they took Harry first about dusk. And a couple thousand, a thousand people - I don't know, a lot of people. And they're all waving sticks at you. And the guards were kind of -[ ? ] cranking them up. They're hate hate hate. And maybe that's understandable. But by the time I got there, I was the second one, and they were - they hated a little bit more. And all of a sudden the guards [ ? ] they wanted to get me there. And you're down on the ground, you're trying to crawl. And you're trying to get up and you're trying to get into that truck. And the guards are now trying to protect you because I think there's a reward. We heard there was. Dead - I mean for live people. But I finally made it in there. And then into Hanoi and they stripped you of your name and your rank. They gave you a Vietnamese name. They used your rank, they beat you. [ ? ] tricks in a suitcase. And they'd bend you and hang you upside down -ceiling and stuff. And I was up. Very brutal time. And it's very difficult the first time I broke and went past name, rank, serial number. Because I thought I was the weakest man, it was the worst day of my life. My whole -worse than being shot down is when I broke. Because I thought, I bet nobody else did. And the second best day of my life in prison was when I finally survived 18 days and nights and you hallucinate and you hurt so bad, you quit hurting I think finally and you make it in with a couple other guys for - they put me in with two other guys for a while. And then later, I had about a year of solitary. Which is typical. That was pretty routine. But when I got in with the other guys, I found out they too had broken. And then with the tap code, I found out everybody that survived eventually went past name, rank, and that was very comforting. Not that I was - made me strong but it made them more equal in my eyes. And I found out I wasn't the worst guy. I wasn't the weakest guy. And that was, that was a real relief. But we get into the prison system and you, you work your way through it. 3 years were brutal, 3 years were boring was, was a good summary. Torture was normal for 3 years. [ ? ] propaganda tapes, dumb stuff. You couldn't see how it would be of any value to them. But they kept doing it. And then Ho Chi Minh died. And our wives, along with other people then started writing letters - POW bracelets, bill boards, Hanoi - release, free our prisoners right. And finally they realized that they were, we were expected to come home. There was only 350 of us for a long time. No one alive in the system. And we memorized all the names and we had our own code of conduct there. And we changed the Geneva convention a little bit. Our code of conduct and said, you have to take physical torture to the point you think you'll lose your mental capacities to be rational before you give anything. And we all have, every one of us in this room have a different threshold of pain. If they said we'll give you a million dollars if -we'll - we'll make this, that bench right there red hot, put your hand out at the same time. Whoever pulls it off last gets the million dollars, we'd all come off at a different time. It's - we're, but - so well, if you did your best, whatever that was, it was good enough. So - but it took a lot of adjusting to get used to that routine of not having your freedom. And that's why freedom turned out to be no doubt the most precious commodity we have.

Unknown interviewer:

LEt's talk about that a little bit - what does the medal mean to you.

Leo K. Thorsness:

Well it means I'm a - you receive the medal for - for something you did in the past. But significantly - it has a significant influence of what you do in the future to me. And I think most people feel they have an obligation to kind of live up to it. And that's [ ? ] and that's okay. But also, I and I think most feel we're just temporary guardians of this. We happen to be the guy that was recognized and it could have been one of many people that did as much or more. They weren't recognized. They were killed, there was nobody witnessed it. We happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And - and I think we were for all veterans and really I think we were for any American civilian or military, that does the job they're assigned, no matter what it is, the best they can do it. And they're responsible. I think that's what makes the country is - and the military - the civilians don't have a medal of honor. They get medal - I mean they get medal of freedom and things and it's nice they do. But the medal of honor, quite a bit is made of it. Because I guess it's the highest award in the military. And it got me some notor - but it's - it represents someone who did the job the best they could.

Unknown interviewer:

What does it mean to the country?

Leo K. Thorsness:

It means that - hopefully it means that when times get real serious and we're tested as a nation that they have someone they can look to in the past and say, if we can, if we got people like that, and there will be, they can it's an example. It's an example for a country that you do your best, you, you - I happened to be born in a -my family's patriotic. Not overly so but loved their country. And going in, I grew up with that. It wasn't born in me, I was taught that. And then I ended up in the military - so you raise your hand and you take an oath - I'm left handed. Raise your hand, you take an oath. And then I had an opportunity, happened to - to - I was called. And I had an opportunity to see if I could do the job. And so - so I'm not sure where I'm going with this. [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Unknown interviewer:

Let's talk about how the medal has changed your life if at all. Do you think it changed the course of your life?

Leo K. Thorsness:

Yeah, the medal changed my life in that I have, I feel that obligation to not embarrass it. To live up to it the best I can. It's not the most significant thing that's happened to me. More significant are being a Christian. Being a Christian - more significant is being a prisoner of war. I learned a lot more from that. More significant is my marriage that I happpened to luck out and marry the right young lady. And six years I was gone, a good chunk of that she didn't know if I was dead or alive. She hung in there, raised our daughter. And so it's significant - being a medal of honor recipient is significant but by far, it's not the most significant.

Unknown interviewer:

Let's talk about that aspect, your faith. How much did that help you through your military service and to achieve what you've achieved with the medal.

Leo K. Thorsness:

My faith - I was brought up in a, in a Christian home. I had to go to Sunday school if I wanted to or not. Well my wife and I, we were married, had a daughter. We were living on base. Went to the chapel. Daughter in Sunday school. But - and I speak not for my family or for my daughter or for my wife but for me, now I know in hindsight, all that time I was practicing to be a Christian. Took combat for me. Watching the airplanes blow up and people - be killed. It took combat for me to become a practicing Christian. I guess I'd say it that way. But in Hanoi, my back seater and he knows I would say this, Harry Johnson -wonderful person. I have the highest regard for. He - I'm not sure he knew, he's either an atheist or agnostic when he was shot down. Boy, did he come home a devout Christian. And - and I, I say that kind of jokingly but it's true. And he still is. And I don't know of anybody in Hanoi who claimed there was not a God. It's kind of like, I think it was Ernie Pyle in World War II said there are no atheists in fox holes. Kind of the same is true for prison. And when times got better, maybe people weren't quite as [ ? ] in their views. But you know Sunday morning was a big deal because you had church on Sunday morning. And when we were in solitary, the senior ranking office, the SRO who's total boss in a prison -and it's right he should be. And if he disappears, then the next guy - rank. But there's SRO on this - on this prison wall would tap CC. So the guards couldn't hear it and we'd - we'd spread that out through -throughout that entire prison block however big it was. And that stood for church call. And whatever your church was.] It might be reciting the Lord's Prayer or -everybody learned the 23rd Psalm within a year when you're there. And - and some had extensive and others you know - but then we lived in a big cell and we - we started having church service. And they came in and broke it up and we protested with the Lord's Prayer. Put 5 people back in Heartbreak, the torture cells. But we finally won. And so that was significant too. Yeah, it was - I'm - one of the advantages of being a prisoner is I found out - - I learned Leo a lot more than I - I will ever. I was tested as severely as I'll ever be tested. And if you draw a bell shaped curve, I'm right there. Some people are smarter than I, some aren't. Some have better recall, some don't. Some have a higher threshold of pain, some don't. Some are tougher, some are weaker. But it's nice to know because since then, I've been able to work on my weaknesses or maximize my strengths so if I got into any civilian job or any - anything I did, and so it's an advantage to know yourself that well.

Unknown interviewer:

You have kids right.

Leo K. Thorsness:

One daughter. We have one daughter.

Unknown interviewer:

And grandchildren?

Leo K. Thorsness:

Two.

Unknown interviewer:

Two.

Leo K. Thorsness:

Yeah.

Unknown interviewer:

What do you tell them or what are you planning to tell your grandchildren and your children about the medal.

Leo K. Thorsness:

Well my, my daughter knows because my daughter was, she was 11 when I left, she was 18 when I came home. And here was this 11 year old driving a car when I came home. You remember your people as they were. But anyway - so she, and it was a difficult time. Because that was a very anti war time. I was shot down in 67, came home in 73. And my - our daughter had to be pro war just about. Or couldn't be anti war with her dad in a prison camp. So it was difficult for her in those high school years. But - so she was aware of what was going on. And I got involved in politics and some other stuff. So all that stuff came out. And my daughter - my daughter and I are still very close. She's a single mom, she's got two little adopted Chinese kids. She went to China to get them. My wife and I went with her on the second one. And I'm fortunate in that I don't have to tell my daughter - - she tells me things. But we have a very wonderful relationship. And she knows the degree of which I love my country. And so does she. And I, I'm - we're not any better than anybody else. We just were brought up that way. And I think she was too. So it was not a difficult transition when we came home except our daughter initially had me kind of on a pedestal. Because - just read about me and remembered me because she was 11 and all this I was going through. And they heard about it. So the first time I ever had a cross word with her when we came home - some time after I was home, oh it was difficult for her. But - but we have, we have a wonderful relationship.

Unknown interviewer:

Good. [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Unknown interviewer:

What lessons does your experience and others that you've heard about from other recipients - what lessons do you want that to leave for the kids today.

Leo K. Thorsness:

Well I would hope the kids today if they look at it now or some distance out, it's hard for me to convey how important freedom is. And I didn't appreciate it and I don't know that anyone can until they've lost it. It takes more realness. But people understand it's important. And I hope more maybe that they understand that -that it doesn't happen automatically. It's gotta be reearned by every generation or at least every other generation. If you let it slip very long, it's gone. And I would hope that they would learn that from these experiences that leaders are -leaders are, are made, they're not born. That you can come from any walk of life and become a leader or that - I would hope that they learn that one person can make a difference. And it doesn't matter what your status is. You can be the janitor at the local high school or you can be the guy that jumps in and pulls somebody out of the Potomac river when an airplane crashes there in the dead of winter. Or you can be a general that leads a battle and it's - it's a phenomenal country in that you stop and think about it doesn't matter, it's not a caste system. IT doesn't matter what your wealth and status - you can excel. You can exceed if you work hard. I hope they learn that life is sacrifice. You don't - you know most of us don't get something for nothing. You gotta either work hard and learn or whatever your job is, but that there's so many rewards if they do that. And I don't know how you - I spent about a year in solitary confinement. And I decided what I was gonna figure out is how this nation could keep its freedom ad infinitum. And I started out by thinking well, we have to have a strong military. Well that's my field. And you did. Because you're - - every so often somebody's gonna test you. But to have a strong military, you've gotta have a strong economy, a strong industrial base. And have the wherewithal and so on. And I just kept going backward and backward and backward. And I'd think about it for a day or two and then I'd - but I was there for - about several months I was milling this around. And I finally said, I know what it is. In fact I designed a medallion, a coin and I had some made not so long ago. On the one side it says freedom. And I said what is, what can I boil it down to. One word is the flip side of freedom. And I finally came up with it - it's responsibility. If every one of us will accept our responsibilities as best we can - - and if you happen to be in a leadership role and help out those [ ? ] for those who work with you and for us, we can go on forever. But the problem I, the thing I forgot to do is, and I had the time, I forgot to figure out how do you teach responsibility. That's where I failed. You know if we could teach that to all our young kids, to everybody but it's easier to teach something when they're young - but that is, is so key to me. And I just - I spent a lot of time thinking about that responsibility. And I take that very seriously.

Unknown interviewer:

When you go around the country and talk to kids at their school groups, what do you tell them?

Leo K. Thorsness:

Some of the same things we're talking about but I, I try to challenge them. And give them a little background and you start out, he's kid of a poor kid and - every individual can, can make - make a difference. It's gonna take some effort to try. Be good at what they do, be honest. The ethics, the character that - that most of us think is a requirement to - to be just a good citizen.

Unknown interviewer:

At the time the country was divided about the war, were you aware of those feelings when you were in Vietnam and if so, did you talk to your fellow service men about it.

Leo K. Thorsness:

When I went to Vietnam which was 1966, it wasn't a big deal yet and I - am extremely critical of our then secretary of defense McNamara and our President Johnson. The country didn't really know about that war for a long time so they didn't care. And I came back half - I had about 50 missions and came back and we were stationed at Nellis airforce base, Las Vegas, Nevada. And I went downtown and my wife went shopping and I noticed people had no idea where Vietnam was and there was no more concern about we had people over there getting shot down every day than nothing. People sat in a prison camp. And McNamara said this. I'll never forget the quote. He said one of the things we're learning in Vietnam is how to fight a limited war without arousing the public's ire And you can go back thousands of years and if the people aren't supportive of what the government does going to war, you're not gonna, you're not gonna be winning. And he said that one of the advantages we're learning is how to fight a - - and Johnson said all those generals, all they want are bombs and bullets and they can get promoted. And I cannot think of a - of a more inept pair to lead our nation in war if they wanted to be so involved as they were. And McNamara, I contribute directly to him, deaths of some of my friends. He would dictate, the Pentagon would dictate what route we should fly into Vietnam, North Vietnam. If you fly this, this, this one day, you fly this, this, this the next day, guess where the guns are on the third day. They're right here and they're right here and they're right here. And that was being dictated right out of McNamara's office. And it was, and then, and then several years - not many years ago, a couple years ago he said well, I knew we couldn't win the war but we kept going at it. And that was treasonous I thought. He was sending people over there and they were dying. But let's, let's change subjects. [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Leo K. Thorsness:

I feel strongly about that. It was just so inept, those two men in war. Now they may have been - McNamara was the logistician. He's a won - he was one of the 7 whiz kids. In World War II remember the whiz kids. They were, you've heard stories. Tex Thornton one time, McNamara, I forget -but anyway he was, he was a great logistician. He knew how to put supplies around the world in case we needed them. He knew nothing about leadership. Zippo. -1- "CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR" INTERVIEW WITH LEO THORSNESS [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC]

Unknown interviewer:

Okay, now looking back, okay, what age were you when, you know, you won that Medal of Honor?

Leo K. Thorsness:

I was--when I was shot down I was 35--yes, I was 35.

Unknown interviewer:

35, okay. And you've done a lot of living since then. In retrospect, was it worth it?

Leo K. Thorsness:

Oh, absolutely. Well no--let's back up. Would you define--was it worth it? I'm being serious.

Unknown interviewer:

Well, was going to war--meaning yourself--enlisting, going to war and then doing what you had to do in that particular action--was it all worth it, in that respect?

Leo K. Thorsness:

Oh, if I were to do it over--I'd do it over. If I had the opportunity. And sure, it was worth it. For a couple reasons--one is--and see, to me it's hard to separate receiving the Medal of Honor from being a Prisoner of War. It happened so close, and it's the same job-- But the--as a Prisoner of War, as I mentioned, I learned who Leo is better than I ever would have before. My strengths, my weaknesses, and how strong and weak I am. But I also--and I can look back now and say--I did the job the very best I could, under stress, in combat. And a lot of people never have that opportunity to know if they would or not--and most would. But I'm comfortable with myself. I'm not proud necessarily or bragging, I'm just--I'm comfortable with myself. So, for me it was worth it. For--for--for Thailand, it was worth it. There was such a philosophy as this domino theory, where the Communists would take one country and then the next one. They really wanted Thailand and Southeast Asia. That was the breadbasket. We hung in there ridiculously long--what? Seven years, eight years--depends on when you count--we put advisors in there. And Thailand never--and Thailand would have gone had we not been there--gone right through. And so, there's a lot of Thais that are very happy with America. When I came home from--in 1973 from--when the war quote was over--Thailand was a lot happier with the United States than the United States was happy with the United States for being involved over there. So, from their perspective it was worth it. But--had we not been so inept of how we--ran that war, I think our attitude had been diff--number one, it would have been shorter. Number two, if we want--either go to win or don't go at all. Fortunately, at least from that war we learned that. And the Gulf syndrome, well we should have gone more than 100 hours. So that, you know, we would have gotten rid of Hussein. But--the north--the lesson there was--let the military do it. Don't let the McNamara's of the world run--civilians make the decisions. And say--military--you make the military decisions. And that's how it should be. We learned those lessons.

Unknown interviewer:

Good. And you feel the country has learned the lessons from Vietnam?

Leo K. Thorsness:

I think so. I just hope we don't forget them. Cause we do have a short memory, as a nation--our memory's short.

Unknown interviewer:

Good. Now talk about the--the brotherhood within your squads.

Leo K. Thorsness:

Well, the brotherhood has never been--the strongest brotherhood ever is stronger than the military, I guess. It's stronger in combat. And it's the strongest in a prison. In a prison, literally your life and death could depend on what someone said in an interrogation. And they came back to the cell and as fast as they could get to that wall, when a guard wasn't there and quickly tap--what did I say? If he was tortured to give a name, try to make--I, for example, one time lived with a guy whose name came up and several people later was tortured so much, one of them finally nodded yes--Jack was on the escape committee. Well, it's just about a death sentence. I lived with Jack. But Jack knew before he was called out to that interrogation that night what it was going to be about. He was able to concoct some--he was better prepared than he would have been otherwise. You never like to--anticipate torture. That's even worse sometimes than--but--so--the comradeship was so deep there, and you were so dependent upon one another--and I guess I should say--maybe in combat flying wing [????] as dependent--you're a team and you survive if the other guy survives, I guess. But the friendships I developed there, for example--in combat and in prison, they were much deeper than I'll ever develop in a civilian life. Although, they were very much narrower. The only thing we had in common really was prison or combat. But that was enough that, you know, 30 years from now if I'm still living and Jack says--I need a hundred dollars--causing a phono [???]--I say--what's the address? You know, rather than why? But they were strong, strong bonds.

Unknown interviewer:

We're about one year from September 11th. Tell me what your thoughts are on that.

Leo K. Thorsness:

My thoughts today are similar--only deeper I guess than what I had the day it happened. Watched the airplanes hit, like a lot of us did--at least the second one. I saw somebody whisper in Bush's ear and he walked up to the podium at that school in Florida. And by that time, I was so angry--I was so seething. I had a very human reaction--I said--c'mon Presidency [???]--we're going to get you bastards! And he did. I mean--that's why he's President and I'm not. He said it eloquently. And not only said it--but not only you but anybody who supports you. And I hope that we have the mental, the psyche on our country to stick with that. It's time to draw the line and as we all know, there are ample examples of appeasement-- That we know what happens when you appease. The Chamberlains, I guess, are the good example--and so on. It is so difficult to take preemptive action and say--had they done that we may not--had Chamberlain not, you know, signed away--we may not have had World War II. We may not have wiped out 7 million Jews and on and on and on. But when you do something ahead of time and stop it from happening, how do you prove it would have happened? See--for the rest of history you're second guessed. I hope that we as a nation--and I think we got the right leader now--I hope we'll stick with the leader and that he sticks by those guns--that we say-- If there's enough evidence then let's go ahead and take out whoever it is. Be it the Philippines or Iraq or--wherever it is. I hope that we have the wherewithal and the attitude and the guts to do it.

Unknown interviewer:

Good. Have I not ask you--?

Leo K. Thorsness:

You've asked way more than-- [LAUGHTER] No, you did a nice job, I appreciate that.

Unknown interviewer:

Well, no--I've enjoyed this. This is has been really great.

Leo K. Thorsness:

I hope that you--I hope you get a lot of these and tomorrow you have--you're going to double up tomorrow? Double your pleasure?

Unknown interviewer:

--crew right downstairs--

Leo K. Thorsness:

1401-- [OFF-MIKE OFF TOPIC] [End of Interview]

 
Home » Text Transcript
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
  Legal | External Link Disclaimer Need Help?   
Contact Us