Leo K. Thorsness flew 92 Republic F-105F “Wild Weasel” missions and was awarded 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 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 a new dimension 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 Air Force strike missions 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 as a Wild Weasel at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and then, in October 1966, was assigned to the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli, Thailand. As an experienced fighter pilot, he became the squadron’s chief Weasel and instructor pilot. Over a period of six months, he not only attacked anti-aircraft 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, Thorsness–on his second sortie of the day–was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. For almost 6 years, he was a prisoner of war (POW) in camps such as the infamous 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 flying hours.
Colonel Thorsness later served as a Washington State Senator from 1988 to 1992, during which time he urged the federal government to release information about 30,000 soldiers listed as either prisoners of war or missing in action in conflicts dating back to World War II.
Colonel Thorsness was first selected as an Eagle by Air Command and Staff College’s Gathering of Eagles program in 1987 and was subsequently honored in 2007, 2012, and 2016 before passing away 2 May 2017.
Years Honored: 1987, 2007, 2012, 2016
Aircraft/Specialty: F-105F Thunderchief, Republic F-105F Wild Weasel
On 19 April 1967, during a Weasel mission in North Vietnam, Thorsness destroyed a SAM radar with a Shrike missile and scored a direct hit against another. His wingman was hit by antiaircraft fire and both crewmembers ejected. While circling the parachutes and relaying information for rescue efforts, Thorsness downed a MiG-17. Low fuel forced him to depart the area to aerial refuel. When no other fighters could support the rescue operation, he braved the intense defenses and returned with only 500 rounds of ammunition. One of three MiGs attacking the rescue force flew into his sight at 2,000 feet where he opened fire and severely damaged the enemy aircraft. Four MiGs now attacked him, forcing him to escape with high speed, low altitude tactics. Out of ammunition and low on fuel, he was again returning but was relieved by a flight of F-105s. Despite being critically low on fuel, he diverted his tanker to another aircraft, which was lost and low on fuel. Thorsness landed at Udorn, Thailand, with the fuel gauge indicating empty after "coasting" 70 miles.
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.
On 15 October 1973, then Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness, a former prisoner of war, received the Medal of Honor for his actions during a Wild Weasel mission over North Vietnam. On 19 April 1967, Thorsness destroyed a surface-to-air missile radar with a Shrike missile, scored a direct hit against another SAM site, downed a MiG-17 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.
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.