PIERRE, S.D. – Flags at the State Capitol will fly at half-staff on Monday, May 8, 2017, to honor the life of Leo Thorsness, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, who passed away on May 2.
Thorsness, 85, was born in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in 1932. He attended South Dakota State College, and served in the United States Air Force from 1951-73.
On April 19, 1967, Thorsness took part in a mission for which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. A description of the mission from his Medal of Honor citation is included at the conclusion of this release.
Eleven days later, on April 30, 1967, Thorness’ plane was hit and, after ejecting from the plane, he was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. Among his fellow prisoners was future U.S. Sen. John S. McCain. Thorsness was released nearly six years later, in March 1973.
Thorsness returned to South Dakota, where he was a candidate for U.S. Senate in 1974, losing to incumbent Sen. George McGovern, and then for an open U.S. House seat in 1978, losing to Tom Daschle by 139 votes out of more than 129,000 cast. Thorsness later served in the Washington State Senate, and was living in St. Augustine, Florida at the time of his death.
Congressional Medal of Honor citation
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 aircraft, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lieutenant Colonel 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, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness’ wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the two crewmembers abandoned their aircraft.
Lieutenant Colonel 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. Lieutenant Colonel 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 two 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, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft defenses to the downed crew’s position. As he approached the area, he spotted four MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MIGs, damaging one and driving the others away from the rescue scene. When it became apparent 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, Lieutenant Colonel 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.
Lieutenant Colonel 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.