Gathering of Eagles Foundation

Honored as an Eagle in:

1987 2007 2012 2016

Eagle Biography

Leo K. Thorsness

Leo K. Thorsness is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and one of the founding fathers of the “Wild Weasel” mission. He flew 92 Wild Weasel missions over Vietnam, ultimately receiving the Medal of Honor, before being shot down on a separate mission and serving almost six years as a prisoner of war (POW). Born in 1932 in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, he enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 and earned his commission three years later through the Aviation Cadet Program. His first operational flying was in the F-84 Thunderstreak with the 31st Strategic Fighter Wing in Albany, Georgia. He later flew the F-100 Super Sabre before transitioning to the F-105F Thunderchief. In 1965, the air war in Southeast Asia took on new dimensions as the Soviet Union supplied the North Vietnamese with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). To counter the SAMs, the USAF founded the covert Wild Weasel program which brought new tactics and weapons to bear. Using his aircraft as bait to lure North Vietnamese SAMs away from targeting other aircraft, Thorsness and his Wild Weasel brethren routinely dodged incoming SAMs while returning fire with their Shrike air-to-ground missiles, bombs, and cannons. On 19 April 1967 while assigned to the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli Air Base, Thailand, Thorsness flew one of the most storied missions in Wild Weasel history. On this flight he destroyed two SAM sites, downed a MiG-17, and damaged another, all while providing rescue support to his downed wingman. Additionally, while running low on fuel, he directed his assigned air refueler to another aircraft in need. He then diverted to a back-up base and touched down as his fuel tanks ran dry. For his efforts that day, Thorsness received the Medal of Honor. Eleven days later and just eight missions short of his tour-concluding 100th mission, Thorsness was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. He and his back-seater, Captain Harold Johnson, ejected at over 600 knots suffering severe injuries. For almost six years he was a POW in such infamous camps as the Zoo and the Hanoi Hilton. On 4 March 1973 he left the prison on crutches and returned home receiving his Medal of Honor from President Nixon on 15 October 1973. Thorsness could not return to a fighter cockpit because of the injuries suffered during his high-speed ejection and inflicted during torture as a POW. He retired as a colonel in 1973 after accumulating nearly 5,000 flight hours and completing 23 years in the Air Force. After retirement Thorsness served as a state senator in Washington State from 1988 to 1992. During that time he urged the US government to release information on approximately 30,000 soldiers listed as either prisoners of war or missing in action during conflicts dating back to World War II. Since then he has been involved in corporate leadership forums and served on the board of directors for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. He currently resides in Florida with his wife, Gaylee.

See the Lithograph
2016
Lithograph Setting

Colonel Leo K. Thorsness is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and one of the “Wild Weasel” founding fathers. As an F-105F pilot, he deployed to the 357th Tactical Flying Squadron at Takhli Air Base, Thailand. He flew 92 Weasel missions over Vietnam before he was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. He served almost 6 years as a prisoner of war, returning with honor in 1973. For his actions, Thorsness received the Medal of Honor.

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