Back from 'hell' and still serving

  • Published
  • By Brian Shreve
  • Robins Public Affairs
When Lt. Col. Leo Thorsness is asked how his longtime friendship with Sen. John McCain began, he remembers the circumstances all too vividly.

"People ask how I met him, and I tell them 'No, John met me because I was there first,"
he said.

And the "there" Thorsness - retired Air Force pilot, Vietnam Veteran and Medal of Honor recipient - is referring to couldn't be farther from the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

The year was 1967, and the there was Hoa Lo Prison, known more infamously as the Hanoi Hilton.

As prisoners of war at Vietnam's most notorious confinement, the two men, along with several others, learned the true meaning of the word endurance.

Thorsness shared his story of service, patriotism and survival at the Museum of Aviation March 12 during a discussion with local educators as part of the Medal of Honor Foundation's Character Development Program.

"I don't know if I'd call myself a hero," he said. "We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Weeks prior to his capture, Thorsness was flying a mission over North Vietnam when his wingman was shot down by the enemy.
Though his F-105 was low on fuel and not even designed for aerial combat, Thorsness engaged the enemy aircraft, destroying it before taking on a barrage of Vietnamese planes.

In the ensuing fight, he shot down a second enemy plane, driving the rest to retreat while allowing friendly aircraft to return to base.

For that action, Thors-ness was awarded the Medal of Honor, though he was one of the last to hear about it.

On April 30, 1967, Thorsness's own plane was shot down over enemy territory, forcing him to spend the next six years as a prisoner of war.

He first learned about his honor years later while still in captivity by a "tap code" communicated through the prison walls by fellow POWs; he didn't receive his medal until 1973, shortly after his release.

After serving 23 years in the Air Force, Thorsness - originally from Minnesota - retired to pursue various endeavors, including one term as a Washington State Senator. He is currently on the Board of Directors and Vice Chairman of the Medal of Honor Foundation. His autobiography, "Surviving Hell: A POW's Journey," was published in 2011.
Thorsness said for anyone facing trying times, he often shares four things that helped him through years of daily physical pain and grueling boredom 10,000 miles from home.
"It was hard to be optimistic while being tortured," he said. "The first thing it takes is a strong will to survive, then the ability to concentrate on your heartbeat and take it one day at a time, telling yourself you can last another minute ... and the other guys, some of whom would take torture for one another. Last but not least, I had to believe that prayers are answered."