April 19, 1967.
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Major Leo Thorsness had been fortunate. Skilled too, without a doubt, but other equally experienced fighter pilots and electronic warfare officers had been lost around the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
Dozens of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) with thousands of anti-aircraft guns, and the enemy had fighter jets of their own: MiG-17s and MiG-21s. They all combined to make the sky over Hanoi a lethal place for American combat aviators where 600 mile-per-hour duels were fought and decided in seconds.
Thorsness and his wingman were Wild Weasels; specially trained men flying uniquely equipped F-105F Thunderchief fighters. Their mission -- to pick fights with enemy missiles and guns then kill them.
Flying as Kingfish One and Two, the pair attacked and destroyed two SAM sites when Kingfish Two, flown by Majors Tom Madison and Tom Sterling, was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Madison desperately tried to nurse the mortally damaged "Thud" to the border of Laos; fifty miles farther west and just six minutes of flying time.
But he couldn't make it.
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Leo watched the two parachutes come down near the Black River thirty miles from Hanoi and deep within enemy territory. Low on fuel himself, he refused to leave without doing everything possible to save the two men.
Circling overhead, he was trying to initiate the Search and Rescue (SAR) operation when a flight of four North Vietnamese MiG-17s, attracted by the downed fighter's smoke, appeared over the low peaks. Reacting instinctively, Thorsness shot one down with his 20 mm cannon, and scattered the others long enough to escape.
Now critically low on fuel, he diverted to an air refueling tanker, filled up with gas and immediately headed back into North Vietnam. Arriving over the Black River just as the SAR aircraft, two A-1 Skyraiders, were jumped by MiGs, Thorsness never hesitated and pitched into the fight at four-on-one odds. Damaging one enemy jet, he forced the others away from the rescue aircraft. Inbound U.S. fighters then pounced on the remaining North Vietnamese, allowing Leo to disengage and limp back through a line of thunderstorms to the Royal Thai Air Base at Udorn.
Despite truly heroic efforts, Madison and Sterling were captured, but Leo had been as lucky as he was good. Two SAMs destroyed, one MiG shot down, another damaged, and yet he had returned alive.
Eleven days later fate caught up with him.
During his second mission on April 30, 1967, Leo and his electronic warfare officer, Captain Harry Johnson, were ambushed by a MiG and shot down fifty miles west of Hanoi. Ejecting at nearly 600 miles-per-hour, both men were captured immediately and would spend nearly six years as prisoners of war.
Refusing to cooperate with the enemy, Leo was starved, beaten, and tortured repeatedly.
Placed in solitary confinement for a year, he was told he had been abandoned by Washington, his comrades had all gone home, and his wife had forgotten him. With no news from the outside world, he had only his extraordinary depths of inner strength. And faith.
Leo kept the faith.
He never doubted his family, his God, and those at home who were trying to set him free.
Despite his destroyed knees and badly injured back, after some 2,100 lonely days of captivity Leo Thorsness walked out of the infamous Hanoi Hilton, a proud man with his head high.
On March 4, 1973, he left North Vietnam the same way he got into it; by plane.
Leo flew to freedom, landing in Illinois on March 10 and stepping off the transport into his wife's arms.
The unbroken officer would recover and go on to become a state senator, successful executive, author; an inspiration to generations of fighter pilots, myself included.
Despite everything that had happened, the lost years away from a family he adored, his extensive injuries, and memories that would never completely fade, he refused to permit his past to dictate his future.
This is a lesson we can all share and is the true legacy of an American hero; Leo Thorsness, fighter pilot, father, husband and proud American passed away on May 2, 2017, in St. Augustine, Florida, at the age of 85.
Godspeed and tailwinds.