Medal of Honor recipient passes away at 85

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (AFNS) -- Retired Col. Leo K. Thorsness, Medal of Honor recipient, passed away May 2, 2017, in St. Augustine, Florida, at the age of 85, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Thorsness was born Feb. 14, 1932, in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where he attended school and earned the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouts. He attended South Dakota State College in 1950. A year later, he enlisted in the Air Force and went on to graduate from the Aviation Cadet Program with a commission earning his wings.

He served as a fighter pilot with Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command before being assigned to Vietnam with the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron. While flying a mission in April 1967, his wingman was shot down. Thorsness, critically low on fuel, circled their parachutes and engaged four MIG-17 aircraft in a dogfight damaging one and driving the others away. Eleven days after this dramatic mission he was shot down over North Vietnam and subsequently captured and interned by the North Vietnamese at the Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. He was released March 4, 1973, almost six years after he was shot down.

He was awarded the MOH by President Richard M. Nixon at a White House ceremony Oct. 15, 1973. Thorsness retired from the Air Force in 1973 at the rank of colonel.

He is survived by his wife, Gaylee, and family. Funeral services are pending. There are 74 MOH recipients alive today.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society was chartered by Congress in 1958 and consists exclusively of the living recipients of our nation’s highest award for bravery in combat, the Medal of Honor. Those who wear this light blue ribbon and medal around their neck are recipients of this prestigious award; they are not winners. Although it is common to refer to the medal as the Congressional Medal of Honor, it is simply named the Medal of Honor; however, Congress did establish the society as the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.