American Valor
Stories of Valor
History of the Medal
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Leo ThorsnessLeo Thorsness

Born: February 14, 1932
Walnut Grove, Minnesota

War: Vietnam

Rank: Lieutenant Colonel (then Major), U.S. Air Force, 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron

Location of action: Over North Vietnam

Date of action: April 19, 1967

Medal received from: Richard Nixon, October 15, 1973

Official Citation:
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 tile 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.

Thorsness received his Bachelors degree from the University of Omaha, and his Masters degree from the University of Southern California. He served 23 years in the United States Air Force, at duty stations including Turner AFB, Albany, GA; Seymour Johnson AFB, Goldsboro, NC; Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany; Nellis AFB, Las Vegas, NV, and Takhli Air Base in Thailand.

From 1979 to 1985, Thorsness was Director of Civic Affairs for Litton Industries in Beverly Hills, CA. He was a Washington State Senator from 1988 to 1992. Thorsness served as Technical Advisor on American Valor, a role he previously played on the production of the motion picture The Hanoi Hilton. He presently serves on the Board of Directors and is Vice Chairman of the Medal of Honor Foundation.

Read an except from Leo Thorsness' interview.

©2003 GWETA