POW survived hell, and became an inspiration

Kevin Ferris - The Philadelphia Inquirer

Air Force Maj. Leo Thorsness waited more than six years for the Medal of Honor he was awarded for his actions over North Vietnam on April 19, 1967.

On that day, Thorsness and his wingman had successfully taken out two surface-to-air missile sites. But the second plane was hit by antiaircraft fire. The crew ejected, and when an MiG-17 took aim at the descending parachutes, Thorsness turned his F-105 on the enemy jet and destroyed it with his gatling gun.

After a midair refueling, Thorsness returned to the area where the crew had landed safely, although in enemy territory. Now there were four MiGs. Outnumbered, almost out of ammo, and the target of a missile barrage from below, Thorsness engaged. He took down a second MiG and drove off the rest. Again dangerously low on fuel, he saved another crew by allowing them to refuel from a nearby tanker while he, from 35,000 feet, essentially glided to the Udorn Royal Thai Air Base 70 miles away, his engines shutting down just as they landed.

Lt. Col. Thorsness received his medal from President Richard Nixon during a White House ceremony on Oct. 19, 1973. With him were his wife, his daughter, and his mom, brother, and sister.

The reason for the long delay? Just 11 days after saving the lives of the parachuting crew, Thorsness was himself shot down by an air-to-air missile from a MiG.

“It was the beginning of an ordeal that would brutalize me,” he wrote in “Surviving Hell,” “and, paradoxically for anyone who didn’t share the unique experience of the POWs, also allow me to become a better and fuller person.”

He would spend the next six years as a POW, enduring torture — they broke his back — solitary confinement, and malnutrition. Yet the horrific conditions did not break his spirit, nor that of his fellow Americans. The North Vietnamese had their bodies, but not their minds or their souls. They inspired each other to resist, and came to appreciate their country even more.

At one point, Thorsness had used a rusty nail to painstakingly drill a small hole through the mortar of his cell wall. Spotting a guard outside led him to reflect on the many opportunities he’d been granted just by being born an American.

“Here I was, locked in a grimy, tiny five-by-six-foot cell, and he was walking around unrestrained outside,” Thorsness wrote. “But I knew I was the lucky one. In my 35 years of freedom, I have had a better, fuller life and had done and seen more than he ever would. A thought stuck in my mind that never left me in the years I was a prisoner: If I die now, I am way ahead of the game.”

Later in his captivity, when he was among the POWs moved from smaller cells to one holding 42 men, the Americans decided to hold a church service on their first Sunday together. But when they gathered at one end of the long rectangular cell, guards burst in, refusing permission for any large gatherings and unequivocally forbidding any kind of worship service.

The Americans backed down then, but devised a plan to push back the following Sunday. That day they again all gathered at one end of the cell, and guards rushed in. The senior ranking officer, Ned Shuman, explained that they would hold a 10-minute service and then disperse. “As expected,” Thorsness wrote, “they grabbed Ned and hauled him off … for torture.”

But that did not end of the matter.

“The second ranking man … walked to the center of the cell and in a clear firm voice said, ‘Gentlemen,’ our signal to stand, ‘the Lord’s Prayer,’” Thorsness continued. “We got about halfway through the prayer, when the guards grabbed (him) and hauled him out the door.”

The third ranking man then stood. “Gentlemen, the Lord’s Prayer.” They got as far as “Thy Kingdom come” before he was dragged away.

The number four man rose.

“I have never heard five or six words of the Lord’s Prayer — as far as we got before they seized him — recited so loudly, or so reverently,” Thorsness wrote. “The guards were now hitting POWs with gun butts and the cell was in chaos.”

The fifth man, too, was taken out mid-prayer, but this time all the guards left with him. When the sixth man stood to lead them, the Americans were able to complete the prayer.

“Five courageous officers were tortured, but I think they believed it was worth it,” Thorsness wrote. “From that Sunday on until we came home, we held a church service. We won. They lost. Forty-two men in prison pajamas followed Ned’s lead. I know I will never see a better example of pure raw leadership or ever pray with a better sense of the meaning of the words.”

Leo Thorsness, 85, died on May 2, survived by his wife of 64 years, Gaylee, his daughter Dawn, and two grandchildren. Like many of his fellow POWs, he made the most of his life after liberation. The better and fuller person he’d become was unfailingly good-humored, loyal and a source of inspiration.

The humor came through in the way he spoke about life after captivity: “If the doorknob is on the inside, it’s a good day.”

The inspiration took many forms, but is clear from this motto he often shared — one he more than lived up to:

“Do what’s right, and help others. If people live by those words, their life is going to be OK.”

Kevin Ferris

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Kevin Ferris is The Philadelphia Inquirer’s commentary editor and co-author of “Vets and Pets: Wounded Warriors and the Animals That Help Them Heal” (Skyhorse, September, 2017). Readers may send him email at kf@phillynews.com.

Kevin Ferris is The Philadelphia Inquirer’s commentary editor and co-author of “Vets and Pets: Wounded Warriors and the Animals That Help Them Heal” (Skyhorse, September, 2017). Readers may send him email at kf@phillynews.com.