Fair Skies and Tailwinds, GBU Colonel Thorsness (MoH)
A tribute to a humble American Patriot and Medal of Honor recipient, Col. Leo Thorsness.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” —John 15:12-14
Every year during the week leading up to our annual solemn observance of Memorial Day, I draft a tribute column to an American Patriot who has departed this life since the previous Memorial Day. I write about someone I have known personally, but it’s always difficult to choose to whom I will devote these words because we lose many great Patriots every year.
Most depart with little or no fanfare — just the undying respect from generations who honor their sacrifice and their steadfast commitment “to Support and Defend” our Constitution for this generation and the next.
In one sense, there is joy in writing this tribute because it celebrates the life of a great American. In another sense, there is grief because of the finality it represents.
Earlier this month, I received news of the passing of Medal of Honor recipient Col. Leo K. Thorsness (USAF Ret.), who departed this life at age 85.
His Medal Citation notes Leo’s valorous actions over Vietnam on 19 April 1967. Eleven days later, he was shot down and captured, becoming a POW from 1967-1973.
Listen to Col. Thorsness tell his story:
Leo, a past president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, was a lifelong faithful Patriot. He was a genuine hero, a humble conservative advocate for family, faith and freedom, and a strong supporter of our Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga, where the first Medals were awarded to members of Andrews’ Raiders for their actions in 1862.
There have been 3,515 Medals of Honor awarded since, for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,” the vast majority awarded posthumously after our nation’s entry into WWII. With Leo’s passing, there are now just 74 living recipients.
Col. Thorsness was the author of “Surviving Hell,” a remarkable testament to all Vietnam POWs and the brutality of their incarceration. His years as a captive overlapped with those of several other friends, including a mentor, Roger Ingvalson.
What do you think of when you see a little American flag in front of a grave marker? Let me tell you a story about one little flag. As a fighter pilot on my 93rd mission over North Vietnam, my F-105 was hit by an air-to-air missile and my Electronic Warfare Officer Harold Johnson and I, were forced to eject. After unsuccessful rescue attempts, we were captured by enemy forces and imprisoned in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for the next six years.
One day in our sixth year of imprisonment, a young Navy pilot named Mike Christian found a piece of cloth in a gutter. After we collected some other small rags, he worked secretly at night to piece them together into a flag. He made red from ground-up roof tiles and blue from tiny amounts of ink, then used rice glue to paste the colors onto the rags. Using thread from his blanket and a homemade bamboo needle, he sewed the pieces together, adding white fragments for stars.
One morning he whispered from the back of our cell, “Hey gang, look here,” and proudly held up that tattered American flag, waving it as if in a breeze. We all snapped to attention and saluted — with tears in our eyes.
A week later, the guards were searching our cells and found Mike’s flag and tore to pieces. That night they pulled him out of the cell and, for his simple gesture of patriotism, they tortured him. At daylight they pushed what was left of Mike back through the cell door.
Despite the torture, the next day Mike gathered the shredded remains of that little flag and pieced it back together.
Today, whenever I see our flag, I think of Mike and the morning he first waved that tattered emblem of our great nation. It was then, thousands of miles from home, imprisoned by a brutal enemy, that he courageously demonstrated the liberty it represents, and that is what I see in every American flag.
(I encourage you to obtain copies of “I’m Your Flag” for elementary school children in your family or community.)
The 19th century libertarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his essay “The Contest In America,” wrote, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. A man who has nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
Col. Thorsness epitomized the antithesis of those thankless “miserable creatures,” whom we find in abundance today among leftist cadres on college and university campuses, in the leftist halls of the Capitol building and in the slums of their leftist media echo chambers.
Leo often signed his letters and books, “When facing fear and tough times, Psalm 23:4.” (Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.)
He then added, “G.B.U. Tailwinds.”
When a POW, Leo noted, “Communication was very important to us. We had worked out a code and would tap out ‘GBU’ for God bless you.”
Fellow POW John McCain noted that Leo endured “unspeakable pain and suffering because of his steadfast adherence to our code of conduct, but Leo never let this experience break his spirit, and [he] inspired the rest of us with his patriotism, perseverance and hope that we would someday be free.”
Indeed, he was an inspiration to countless others in the years which followed, including this fellow Patriot.
Col. Thorsness is survived by his devoted wife and lifelong sweetheart, Gaylee, their daughter Dawn and two grandchildren. He will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Clear skies and tailwinds, Colonel.
On Memorial Day, millions of American Patriots will set aside time to honor all those fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen who have refreshed the Tree of Liberty with their blood, indeed with their lives, so that we might remain free.
Since the opening salvos of the American Revolution, tens of millions of our fellow Americans have served honorably in our Armed Forces, with 1.4 million wounded during their service. But Memorial Day is about a special cohort of American Patriots — the nearly 1.2 million who have paid the ultimate price in defense of Liberty. Their numbers, of course, offer no reckoning of the inestimable value of their service or the sacrifice borne by their families, but we do know that the value of Liberty extended to their posterity — to us — is priceless.
My family, descended from generations of Patriots beginning with East Tennessee Revolutionary War militiamen in 1780, will honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s fallen warriors by offering prayer in thanksgiving for the legacy of Liberty they have bequeathed to us, and by participating in respectful commemorations.
For the fallen, we are certain of that which is noted on all Marine Corps Honorable Discharge orders: “Fideli Certa Merces” — to the Faithful, there is Certain Reward.
For additional information on this Day of Honor, including flag protocols and etiquette, visit our Memorial Day page.
For additional inspiration, visit the following links:
John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen”
Listen to Taps
Listen to Amazing Grace and a 21-Gun Salute
Listen to Charlie Daniels’ Star Spangled Banner
Finally, I encourage you to support the Medal of Honor Heritage Center, now in the process of establishing a permanent visitor center honoring the first recipients of the Medal of Honor, and all who have received it since. For more information on the Center, please contact the Patriot Foundation Trust Administrator or make a donation. Please make checks payable to Patriot Foundation Trust, PO Box 507, Chattanooga, TN 37401-0507 and note MoHHC on the memo line.
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776
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