Saturday, September 26, 2009

TOP STORY >> A POW’s heroic story

Retired Col. Leo Thorsness, who flew an F-105 fighter jet when he was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, spoke at the dedication of another F-105 at the Jacksonville Museum of Military History on Friday. He was a POW for six years, two of them with John McCain. A crew from the air base repainted the plane. Sherwin Williams donated more than $5,000 worth of paint.

Leader senior staff writer

Friends, family, faith and fun were grist for stories that sustained prisoners of war at the Hanoi Hilton for long years during the Vietnam War, according to retired Col. Leo Thorsness. He addressed a packed house Friday at the Jacksonville Community Center.

In a 36-minute, rapid-fire, off-the-cuff talk, the motivational speaker and Medal of Honor recipient with war-hero credentials, spun homilies, recounted tales of torture, bravery, humility and humor during the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council luncheon.

During his six years as a “guest” of the North Vietnamese, he said he was tortured for the first three years and dealt with boredom for the last three. He spent two years in a cell with John McCain.

Thorsness received his Medal of Honor for valor for shooting down and holding off MiG aircraft attacking his wingman and rescue helicopters over North Vietnam in April 1967, even though the F-105 he was piloting was critically low on fuel.

Imprisoned in a windowless cell, Thorsness, who was then 35, told of finding a rusty nail in a nasty shower and using it to pick away at the mortar in his bricked-over window until he could look out through a pinhole.

He would look for hours on end — what else was there to do? — at his tiny window toward the outside world. Thorsness noticed a guard.

“I saw myself flipping a coin. I slapped it down on my wrist. I had heads, the guard had tails.”

“Neither the guard nor I had any control over who our parents were,” the colonel said. “In 35 years of freedom, I’d done more than that kid would ever get to do. We are so blessed just by birthright. About two-thirds of the world lives under some sort of dictatorial government — at least in 1967. I’m ahead of the game.”

Thorsness said since being released from that prison camp, “I’ve never had a bad day.”

Of his first 18 days and nights of never-ceasing torture, he said he was determined to never tell more than name, rank, unit and serial number as required by the Geneva Convention.

He said he finally broke down and told them more, much to his shame.

Returned to his cell, he told a cellmate of his failure.

“You broke or you died,” the man told him. Thorsness said he’d never been so proud to be average.

Thorsness recounted being shot down 11 days after the actions for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

“The F-105 is a big, strong place, but what it won’t take is a missile up the tailpipe,” he remembered.

He and Harry Johnson, his navigator in his backseat, ejected, and as they parachuted toward earth, he saw people shooting at him.

“My thought was ‘I failed my family,’” he said.

All the way down, he said he heard the Lord whispering in his ear, “Leo, you’re going to make it. Leo, you’re going to make it.”

“I’d never had a prayer preemptively answered before,” he said. The entire experience was one of intimidation, degradation and humiliation. Prisoners were not allowed to talk, and often communicated in code by tapping on the concrete walls between cells.

“Air Force captives could tap and decode 15 words a minute,” he recalled. “Navy airmen 12 words a minute and the Marines…we didn’t teach them,” he said to laughter.

Thorsness told of a Navy lieutenant named Mike Christian found a grimy scrap of cloth about the size of a handkerchief.

He cleaned and cleaned it. Then he improvised red ink from ground-up roof tile and blue from some medicine and cobbled together a makeshift American flag.

When the guards found it, they beat and tortured him, breaking bones. Within about two weeks, Christian had recovered sufficiently to start looking for a new cloth, to make a new flag, Thorsness said.

“Getting through tough times — people asked how did you do it?”

“You have to have the will to succeed and the will to survive,” he explained. “You have to take it a day at a time. And you have to have love for you fellow humans. If you truly care it makes a big difference.”

He said that of the 36 people he was imprisoned with, “we were blessed with more than our share of good people. Don’t be too proud to accept help and prayer.”