b. 14/02/1932 Walnut Grove, Minnesota. d. 02/05/2017 St Augustine, Florida.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 19/04/1967 near Hanoi, Vietnam.
Thorsness was born in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where his family had a farm. There, he earned the Eagle Scout award from the Boy Scouts of America. He is one of only nine known Eagle Scouts who also received the Medal of Honor. The others are Aquilla J. Dyess and Mitchell Paige of the U.S. Marine Corps, Robert Edward Femoyer and Jay Zeamer, Jr. of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Arlo L. Olson, Benjamin L. Salomon of the United States Army, and Eugene B. Fluckey and Thomas R. Norris of the United States Navy. In 2010, Thorsness received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.
He attended South Dakota State College in Brookings, South Dakota, where he met his future wife, Gaylee Anderson, also a freshman. They married in 1953 and had a daughter, Dawn.
Thorsness enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 at the age of 19 because his brother was then serving in the Korean War. In 1954, he received his commission as an officer and his wings with a rating of pilot through the USAF Aviation Cadet program in Class 54-G. He later earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Omaha in 1964, and a Masters in Defense Systems Management from the University of Southern California. His initial assignment was as a pilot in the Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command, but he completed training as a fighter pilot and flew both F-84 and F-100 jets before transitioning to the F-105 Thunderchief.
In the autumn of 1966, after completing F-105 "Wild Weasel" training at George AFB, California, he was assigned to the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, flying as aircraft commander in F-105F's, tasked with locating and destroying North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites.
On April 19, 1967, Major Thorsness and his Electronic Warfare Officer, Captain Harold E. Johnson, flying F-105F AF Ser. No. 63-8301, led Kingfish flight (three F-105F Weasel aircraft and an F-105D single-seater) on a Wild Weasel SAM suppression mission. The strike force target was JCS target 22.00, the Xuan Mai army training compound, near heavily defended Hanoi. Thorsness directed Kingfish 03 and 04, the second element of F-105s, to troll north while he and his wingman maneuvered south, forcing defending gunners to divide their attention. Thorsness located two SAM sites and fired a Shrike missile to attack one, whose radar went off the air. He destroyed the second with cluster bombs, scoring a direct hit.
On April 30, 1967, on their 93rd mission (seven shy of completing their tours), Thorsness and Johnson were shot down by a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 over North Vietnam while flying aircraft F-105F, AF Ser. No. 62-4447. He had flown the morning mission to the Hanoi area as Wild Weasel leader, then assigned himself as a spare aircraft for the afternoon mission because of a shortage of crews. One of Carbine flight aborted with radio problems, and Thorsness filled in as Carbine 03, leading the second element.
While still inbound over northwest North Vietnam, communications were disrupted when an ejection seat emergency beeper went off aboard one of the F-105s. Despite being observed by early warning radar locations, two MiG-21s approached Carbine flight from behind and unseen. Just as Thorsness got an instrument indication that the flight was being painted by airborne radar, he saw an F-105 going down in flames that eventually was identified as his own wingman, Carbine 04 (1st Lt Robert Abbott, in F-105D, AF Ser. No. 59-1726), shot down by an Atoll missile. Within a minute, his own aircraft was also hit with a heat-seeking missile fired by the MiGs.
Thorsness and Johnson ejected. Separated from each other by a ridge, they were the object of a three-hour rescue effort involving the entire strike force as a covering force. His uncooperativeness towards his captors earned him a year in solitary confinement and severe back injuries due to torture. The Medal of Honor was awarded by the United States Congress during his captivity, but not announced until his release in 1973 to prevent the Vietnamese from using it against Thorsness, as was the Air Force Cross awarded to Capt Johnson for the same mission. Capt. Abbott was released from captivity on February 18, 1973, while Thorsness, Johnson, and 1st Lt Abbott were released on March 4, 1973, during Operation Homecoming.
Injuries incurred during the ejection and aggravated by the torture Thorsness was subjected to disqualified him medically from further flying in the Air Force and he retired on October 25, 1973 at the rank of Colonel. In the 1974 U.S. Senate elections, Thorsness was the Republican nominee against the incumbent Democrat George McGovern in South Dakota. McGovern won re-election in November 1974 with 53 percent of the votes cast. From 1979 to 1985, Thorsness served as Director of Civic Affairs for Litton Industries. He then served as a State Senator in Washington. Following his retirement, he served on the Board of Directors of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. He moved from Catalina, Arizona, to Madison, Alabama, with his wife in early 2008 to be close to family.
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.
BURIAL LOCATION: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA.
Section 60, Site 11721
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