Leo K. Thorsness flew 92 Republic F-105F Wild Weasel missions and earned America's highest military decoration before he was shot down and taken prisoner in North Vietnam. Born in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in 1932, he enlisted in the Air Force (AF) in January 1951 and earned his commission three years later through the Aviation Cadet Program. His first operational flying was in F-84 Thunderstreaks with the 31st Strategic Fighter Wing in Albany, Georgia. He later flew the F-100 Super Sabre before transitioning to the F-105 Thunderchief. In 1966, the air war in Southeast Asia took on new dimensions as the Soviet Union supplied the North Vietnamese with surface-to-air missiles (SAM).
To counter the SAMs, the Air Force developed new tactics and weapons, and trained Wild Weasel aircrews to use them. While AF strike flights interdicted targets in North Vietnam, the Weasels homed on hostile radar signals, launched Shrike anti-radiation missiles, dropped bombs and strafed to suppress enemy SAMs and antiaircraft artillery defenses. Thorsness checked out in the F-105F aircraft and the Wild Weasel mission at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and then, in October 1966, was assigned to the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli, Thailand. As a major and an experienced fighter pilot, he became the squadron's chief Weasel and instructor pilot. Over a period of six months, he not only attacked antiaircraft defenses, successfully evading 53 SAMs, but also challenged the enemy MiG aircraft that patrolled the sky.
On 30 April 1967, just eight missions short of the required 100 missions to successfully complete a combat tour, Thorsnesson his second sortie of the daywas shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. For almost 6 years, he was a prisoner of war in such infamous camps as the Hanoi Hilton, Heartbreak Hotel, Skid Row and the Zoo. In 1973, upon his return home, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic actions on a mission flown just 11 days before his own shoot-down and capture. Thorsness completed 23 years in the Air Force and retired as a colonel in 1973 after accumulating nearly 5,000 hours of flying time. Firmly committed to the ideals of democracy and public service, he ran for a US Senate seat in South Dakota; however, the voters were apparently not yet ready for a man who had a clear vision of America's role in the world.
Thorsness later served as a Washington State Senator from 1988 to 1992, during which time he urged the federal government to release information on about 30,000 soldiers listed as either prisoners of war or missing in action in conflicts dating back to World War II. Thorsness and his wife of 53 years, Gaylee, have one daughter and currently reside in Saddlebrooke, Arizona, where he is involved in corporate leadership forums.
On 19 April 1967, during a Wild Weasel mission in North Vietnam, then-Major Thorsness destroyed a surface-to-air missile radar with a Shrike missile, scored a direct hit against another SAM site, downed a MiG-17 aircraft and severely damaged another enemy aircraft while providing rescue support to his downed wingman. Despite being critically low on fuel, he diverted his assigned tanker to another aircraft, which was lost and low on fuel. Thorsness finally landed at Udorn, Thailand, with the fuel gauge indicating empty after "coasting" 70 miles.