Breakfast With An American Hero

MoH recipient Leo Thorsness with Gwen Pacarro and Douglas Gainer, both of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. Gainer, an Afghanistan veteran, is a major in the Marine Reservesx. Don Chapman photo

One of the most misused words in the English language is hero. That’s especially true in sports, and I say that as a sports fan. As thrilling, for example, as World Series MVP David Freese’s exploits were for his hometown St. Louis Cardinals last month, I would not use the term hero to describe him. According to MidWeek‘s 12-pound office dictionary, a hero is a person “of distinguished courage, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.” I would further stipulate that a “brave deed” means risking your life in the service of someone else, not just risking striking out with the bases loaded on national TV.

A couple of Saturdays ago, on the rear deck of the USS Missouri, I enjoyed the distinct honor of having breakfast with a real hero, Leo Thorsness, Medal of Honor recipient.

It was a private event for about 200 people hosted by Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, which is involved nationally at the corporate level with the Medal Of Honor Foundation, to the tune of about $1 million annually. This was, says Gwen Pacarro, senior VP in the Honolulu office of MSSB, the 58th of 60 such events this year hosted by the company around the country.

To put the eliteness and, no, elite is never a bad word (look it up) of Col. Thorsness’ fraternity into perspective: More than 40 million American men and women have served in our active-duty military. Just 3,459 have been awarded the Medal of Honor, 70 percent post-humously, since it was created by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. (Twenty Hawaii-born men have received the medal.) And there are only 85 living MoH recipients. Seated to my left for breakfast was one of them, along with his wife Gaylee, daughter Dawn and two young granddaughters adopted from China.

“Hi, I’m Leo,” he said and shook my hand as I sat down. And though I was there to write about him, he was the one doing the interviewing, asking about my work and what first attracted me to it. And, “So what exactly does an editor do?”

A more interesting question is what does it take to deserve the Medal of Honor? Over the years I’ve read many MoH commendations, and each one is inspiring, tear-inducing and leaving one to wonder how our country keeps producing such exceptional people. Here is my new pal Leo’s story, with thanks to the folks at Morgan Stanley, Air Force History Support Office, Air University and POW Network:

Thorsness earned the Medal of Honor for one of the epic solo air battles of the Vietnam War, but didn’t know Congress had awarded it to him until years later. It wasn’t announced publicly because he was a prisoner of war to prevent the North Vietnamese from using the information against him.

Born in February 1932 in Walnut Grove, Minn. “I’m just a Minnesota farm boy” he enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 and earned his commission three years later through the Aviation Cadet Program. He flew F84 Thunderstreaks, F-100 Super Sabres and F-105 Thunderchiefs.

By 1966, the air war in Southeast Asia had taken a new turn as the Soviet Union supplied the North Vietnamese with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The Air Force countered the buildup of SAMs with F-105s, flown by aircrews known as “Wild Weasels.” The Weasels’ job was to precede a strike force into a target area, lure enemy SAMs and anti-aircraft radars to come on the air, and knock them out with bombs or missiles that homed on the radar’s emissions. They basically offered themselves as targets for the enemy: Hi there, shoot me!

The presence of Soviet/Russian MiG fighter jets made the job even more dangerous.

Thorsness, then a major, was “Head Weasel” of the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli Air Base in Thailand. On April 19, 1967, he and his backseater Capt. Harry Johnson fought a wild 50minute duel with SAMs, anti-aircraft guns and MiGs. They set out in a formation of four planes. Their target was a heavily defended army compound near Hanoi. Thorsness directed two of the F-105s north and he and his wingman stayed south, forcing enemy gunners to divide their attention.

After initial success destroying two SAM sites Thorsness’ wingman was hit by flak. He and his backseater ejected. Then the two planes he’d sent north were attacked by MiGs. The afterburner of one of the F-105s wouldn’t light, so he and his wingman were forced to return to Takhli, leaving Thorsness to fight solo.

As his F-105 circled the parachutes, relaying their position to the Search and Rescue Center, Johnson spotted a MiG off their left wing. The F-105, though not designed for air-to-air combat, responded well as Thorsness attacked the MiG and destroyed it with a 20-mm cannon, just as another MiG closed on his tail. Low on fuel, Thorsness broke off the battle and rendezvoused with a tanker.

In the meantime, two A-1E Sandys and a rescue helicopter arrived to look for the crewmen. Learning that, Thorsness, with only 500 rounds of ammunition left, turned back from the tanker to fly cover for the rescue force, knowing there were at least five MiGs in the area. As he approached the area, he spotted four MiG-17 aircraft and initiated an attack on them, damaging one and driving the others away from the rescue scene. His ammunition gone, he returned to the rescue scene, hoping to draw the MiGs away from the remaining A-1E.

I asked what he was thinking during all of that.

“There’s no time to think,” he said. “You’re too busy … Well, there was a moment as we went back (to the rescue site). Harry and I knew there was a 50-50 chance we’d get shot. I said, ‘Well …’ Harry said, ‘Let’s go.’”

It could very well have been a suicide mission, but just as they arrived so did a U.S. strike force that hit the enemy fighters.

Again low on fuel, he headed for a tanker just as one of the strike force pilots, almost out of fuel himself, radioed him for help. Thorsness knew he couldn’t make Takhli without refueling, but he quickly determined he could make it to Udorn, 200 miles closer, so he directed the tanker toward the strike fighter. Once across the Mekong Delta, Thorsness throttled back to idle and “glided” toward Udorn, touching down exactly as his tanks went dry.

Eleven days later, on his 93rd mission he’d get to go home after 96 Thorsness and Johnson were shot down by a MiG. Both ejected at high speed more than 600 mph Thorsness suffering a severe back injury, “and both my knees were bent out sideways, my helmet was ripped off.” Both men were captured and spent the next six years in North Vietnam prisons. Because of his “uncooperative attitude,” Thorsness was denied medical attention, spent a year in solitary and suffered further back injuries under relentless torture.

On March 4, 1973, both men were released from prison, Thorsness on crutches. Leo’s first words to Gaylee, whose letters to her husband were always returned by the North Vietnamese, bundled, unread and marked “deceased,” say a lot about the man: “Gaylee, I’d have called home sooner, but I got tied up.”

Thorsness completed 23 years in the Air Force and retired in 1973 as a colonel. He is the author of the book Surviving Hell.

I salute you, sir, and thank you for your service and sacrifice and for a singularly memorable morning at Pearl Harbor.

Incidentally, the Medal of Honor Foundation offers teachers a “character development” curriculum. Go to or