Air Force Col. Leo K. Thorsness, an F-105 pilot awarded the Medal of Honor for multiple feats of bravery in an aerial engagement who was later shot down and held as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton for six years, died May 2 at the age of 85.
His death was announced by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which did not disclose the cause of death.
Thorsness was deployed to Vietnam as a Wild Weasel, an aircrew that deliberately baited enemy missile and radar sites with their own jets. Once the site gave itself away by tracking the American plane or firing on it, the Weasels or accompanying aircraft would bomb the site.
Thorsness was leading a flight of four F-105s on April 19, 1967, when the dangerous mission went sideways. Thorsness and his electronic warfare operator had taken out two sites when another member of the flight was hit by an enemy missile.
The two-man crew was able to eject, but the pair was descending into hostile territory. Thorsness flew circles so that he could pinpoint where they landed to facilitate a rescue, but spotted an enemy MiG as he maneuvered.
Rescue crews were en route and Thorsness quickly attacked and killed the first MiG before flying to the tanker for fuel. Immediately after he refueled, he heard that the helicopter crews attempting the rescue were being threatened by a flight of four MiGs, and Thorsness flew through enemy anti-aircraft fire to reach the fight.
Thorsness and his EWO were on their own when they initiated the attack against the four MiGs. Thorsness quickly downed one and engaged the other three in aerial combat for 50 minutes, outnumbered and low on ammo but flying fiercely enough to drive them off.
Once again low on fuel, Thorsness headed back to the tanker but learned that another plane was lower than his. He gave up his fueling spot to allow the other to dock and so ran out of gas, forcing him to glide his aircraft back to friendly lines.
Only 11 days later, Thorsness and his EWO were shot down during a mission and became prisoners of the Hanoi Hilton. Thorsness was kept for years with another famous POW, Arizona Senator John McCain, a Navy pilot at the time.
Thorsness spent six years in the prison, three of them under nearly constant and brutal torture before international pressure relieved the conditions somewhat. His Medal of Honor was approved during that time, but it wasn’t announced until after his 1973 release for fear that the North Vietnamese would torture him worse if they knew about the medal.