Right Hooks

Col. Thorsness, Job Well Done Good and Faithful Servant

Mark Alexander · May 4, 2017

Col. Leo K. Thorsness (USAF Ret.) was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions over Vietnam on 19 April 1967. Two weeks later, he was shot down and captured, becoming a POW from 1967-1973. He departed this life Wednesday at age 85.

Col. Thorsness, a past president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, was a lifelong 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 Andrew’s Raiders for their actions in 1862.

There have been 3,515 Medals of Honor awarded since the first, for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,” most awarded posthumously. With Leo’s passing, there are now 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 of my friends, including a mentor, Roger Ingvalson. Closer to home, Leo also wrote “Mike’s Flag,” the preface to our children’s book, “I’m Your Flag So Please Treat Me Right.” It should be mandatory reading for every American of any age:

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 Campbell 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. 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.

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.

Leo is survived by his devoted wife and lifelong sweetheart, Gaylee, and their family. After Leo was shot down, DoD would not tell Gaylee for some time if he was alive or dead. She led the charge to ensure that the families of all POWs would never again be left in the dark about the fate of their loved ones. Col. Thorsness will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Clear skies and tailwinds, Colonel.

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