12 March, 2012

Profile 64: UPDATE II "Kingfish One" as flown by Leo Thorsness

"Kingfish One" is nearing completion.  I've got a long list of tiny details to work through - it'll go fast from here but you'll notice a big difference between now and finish.  So don't look too close.

But very soon, this F-105F will be brought back to life as she flew on April 19, 1967 - the day that would afford Leo the chance to earn our nation's highest military award - the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Whoever designed the actual Medal, nailed the design.  It's at once, awesome and awkward, capturing the true spirit of the kind of gallantry and selflessness its intended to mark.

Wrapped close around the neck, the muted blue ribbon and hefty gold star leave no mistake of its importance.  But no photograph I've seen shows anyone quite comfortable wearing it - which makes total sense considering the circumstances that justify its presence.  No one has an easy-time of getting a Medal of Honor.  And since the Medal of Honor is never part of a "goal," those that are so awarded are struck with a "why me?" that compels them to share it - at least spiritually - with others.

Believe me, my writer's ego would love the chance to assert itself in trying to describe April 19th's mission.    However,  I'm afraid I'd look like the drunk no one invited to the party.  The official citation does it well enough...

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 the 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.
For me, the inspiring gleam in this stunning story is Leo's leadership.  This mission was not a single act of bravery but a long chain of do-die decisions that made the needs of others the supreme priority.  And on that afternoon, Leo was the urgent thing that saves the soul - hope.

Ok.  Fast-forward to October, 1973 and the photo below.  It's Leo's Medal of Honor ceremony with President Nixon.

For those of you who are quick with numbers, you'll notice the six-year span between 1967 and 1973.  That's a long time to wait to get a medal.

For those of you who are observant, you'll notice the crutch.

And that's Leo's mom and his wife.  They've just put six very hard years behind them.

Stay tuned...

Photo via Minnesota Public Radio, used with permission of Leo Thorsness.