Colonel Leo K. Thorsness

Lieutenant Colonel (then Maj.), U.S. Air Force, 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron
Over North Vietnam, 19 April 1967

“While a POW in Hanoi for six years, I put into conscious thinking a ‘plan for life.’ My formula is very basic. It is this: Life = Goals + Commitments + Plans. My definition of life is: living a full, productive Christian life.

“GOALS: Goals take a lot of cerebration—a lot of deep thinking. I’m talking about two or three major goals in life. For most, that includes the spiritual life. Also, most will include family, security, and success. Success, unfortunately, is often measured in dollars instead of integrity.

“COMMITMENTS: These are the hardest as they must come from the heart and are life changing. A simple example is a goal to be healthy. In essence, that requires exercising more and eating less and better—a struggle every day for many people. Likewise, a com-mitment to live as Christ wants us to live is a major change for the majority of us. Commitments are hard.

“PLANS: Plans are the easy part. If you keep your commit-ments, the plans fall into place.

“For much of my time as a POW and in my years since release from Hanoi in 1973, this simple formula has served me well.”


For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As pilot of an F-105 air-craft, Lt. Col. Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lt. Col. Thorsness and his wingman attacked and silenced a surface-to-air missile site with air-to-ground missiles, and then destroyed a second surface-to-air missile site with bombs. In the attack on the second missile site, Lt. Col. Thorsness’ wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the 2 crewmembers abandoned their aircraft. Lt. Col. Thorsness circled the descending parachutes to keep the crewmembers in sight and relay their position to the Search and Rescue Center.

During this maneuver, a MIG-17 was sighted in the area. Lt. Col. Thorsness immediately initiated an attack and destroyed the MIG. Because his aircraft was low on fuel, he was forced to depart the area in search of a tanker. Upon being advised that 2 helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew’s position and that there were hostile MIGs in the area posing a serious threat to the helicopters, Lt. Col. Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft defenses to the downed crew’s position.

As he approached the area, he spotted 4 MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MIGs, damaging 1 and dri-ving the others away from the rescue scene. When it became ap-parent that an aircraft in the area was critically low on fuel and the crew would have to abandon the aircraft unless they could reach a tanker, Lt. Col. Thorsness, although critically short on fuel himself, helped to avert further possible loss of life and a friendly aircraft by recovering at a forward operating base, thus allowing the aircraft in emergency fuel condition to refuel safely.

Lt. Col. Thorsness’ extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.

I taxied with two F-105s fighters to the end of the runway at Takhli, Thailand, in January 1967. I had about 50 Wild Weasel mis-sions over North Vietnam in my assigned mission to seek out and destroy Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites.

We had the standard wait at the end of the runway while the ground crews armed our guns, bombs, and air-to-ground missiles. The wait was especially long as several aircraft were landing. As we waited to take the runway, my backseater and I talked about the Thai peasants who were working at the end of the runway. It seemed the women were doing most of the work while the men were hunkering and smoking cigarettes. We couldn’t hear the con-versation, of course, but it was obvious that none were working too hard and were having a good time as they laughed, pointed, and ex-changed lots of banter. Harry, my backseater, and I commented that it was nice they were enjoying life.

Normally all North Vietnamese SAMs were kept within a hun-dred miles of Hanoi or so. Occasionally they would sneak one down by the DMZ to get a shot at a B-52 or refueling tanker. There were overnight reports from electronic intelligence aircraft that the North Vietnamese may have sneaked a SAM just north of the DMZ. Our early morning mission was to see if it was there and destroy it.

My wingman and I made the 40 minute flight to the southern part of North Vietnam. We crisscrossed several times the narrow span of North Vietnam between Laos and the Gulf of Tonkin without picking up any electric signals of the SAM’s radar.

We stayed at least 10,000 feet above a low, solid cloud cover so if they quickly launched a SAM, we would have time to see and out-maneuver it. We saw no SAMs and heard no signals and were get-ting close to our low fuel depart time. Just then, faster than I’d seen, the solid but thin, low cloud layer quickly burned off from the early morning sun. I dropped down to about 5,000 feet for a better visual inspection of the suspected SAM site. What I saw instead were hundreds of North Vietnamese working to repair the previous day’s bomb damage to Highway 1, the North Vietnamese main route for supplies from Hanoi to the South. The workers were out in the open; a perfect target for my CBU bombs. CBUs are mother bombs that, when dropped, have a shell that opens and about a thousand hand grenade sized bomblets spew out and explode when hitting the ground. CBUs are perfect weapons for thin-skinned things like missiles and people.

It was nearly time to head home and we found a perfectly legiti-mate target—North Vietnamese helping get supplies to their troops in South Vietnam to fight and kill Americans. I looked over the area and about a mile north of the peasants were several trucks and busses—obviously transport for the workers.

I made a radio call, “Cadillac two, afterburner NOW; go bomb mode.” I pulled my nose up and climbed for 18,000 feet to roll on a bomb run. In the few seconds it took to climb, my wingman called, “Cadillac lead, what’s the target?”

We had two legitimate targets—people or trucks—and we had the right weapons for either. While reaching for 18,000 feet, the image of happy Thai workers we had watched just an hour ago flashed in my mind. Here were similar people, living under commu-nism, forced to work in an open area filling bomb craters and fearing they were about to be bombed. My mind said the best target was the peasants; my heart said it was the trucks. The Thai peasants image stayed in my mind. The entire thought process lasted the few seconds I had before deciding the target: people or trucks.

As vividly as if it were yesterday, I recall turning my head and looking at my left shoulder. There sat Jesus Christ. I asked, “People or trucks?” As quickly as I asked, He answered, “Trucks.”

As we rolled over inverted and started pulling our nose earth-ward into a bomb run, I called, “Cadillac two, we hit the trucks!”
—Leo Thorsness