Leo K. Thorsness flew 92 "Wild Weasel" missions and earned America's highest military decoration before he was shot down and taken prisoner in North Vietnam. Born in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in 1932, he enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 and earned his commission 3 years later through the Aviation Cadet Program. His first operational flying was in F-84 Thunderstreaks with the 31st Strategic Fighter Wing in Albany, Georgia. He later flew the F-100 Super Sabre before transitioning to the F-105 Thunderchief. In 1966, the airwar in Southeast Asia took on new dimensions as the Soviet Union supplied the North Vietnamese with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). To counter the SAMs, the USAF developed new tactics and weapons, and trained Wild Weasel aircrews to use them.
While USAF strike flights interdicted targets in North Vietnam, the "Weasels" homed on hostile radar signals, launched Shrike antiradiation missiles, dropped bombs, and strafed to suppress enemy SAMs and antiaircraft artillery defenses. Thorsness checked out in the F-105F aircraft and the Wild Weasel mission at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and then, in October 1966, was assigned to the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli, Thailand. As a major and an experienced fighter pilot, he became "Chief Weasel" and instructor. In the next 6 months, he not only attacked antiaircraft defenses, successfully evading 53 SAMs, but also challenged the MiGs.
On 30 April 1967, just 8 missions short of the 100 to complete a combat tour, Thorsness, on his second sortie of the day, was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. For almost 6 years he was a POW in such infamous camps as Hanoi Hilton, Heartbreak Hotel, and the Zoo. In 1973, upon his return home, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic actions on a mission flown just 11 days before his capture. Thorsness completed 23 years in the USAF and retired in 1973. Committed to democracy, he ran for a US Senate seat in South Dakota but the voters were not yet ready for a man who had a clear vision of America's role. He then began second career in business and a stint as technical advisor for the movie production "Hanoi Hilton. "
On 19 April 1967, during a Weasel mission in North Vietnam, Thorsness destroyed a SAM radar with a Shrike missile and scored a direct hit against another. His wingman was hit by antiaircraft fire and both crewmembers ejected. While circling the parachutes and relaying information for rescue efforts, Thorsness downed a MiG-17. Low fuel forced him to depart the area to aerial refuel. When no other fighters could support the rescue operation, he braved the intense defenses and returned with only 500 rounds of ammunition. One of three MiGs attacking the rescue force flew into his sight at 2,000 feet where he opened fire and severely damaged the enemy aircraft. Four MiGs now attacked him, forcing him to escape with high speed, low altitude tactics. Out of ammunition and low on fuel, he was again returning but was relieved by a flight of F-105s. Despite being critically low on fuel, he diverted his tanker to another aircraft, which was lost and low on fuel. Thorsness landed at Udorn, Thailand, with the fuel gauge indicating empty after "coasting" 70 miles.