Leo Thornsess
Combat pilot spent six years as Vietnam POW

With the help of an old nail, Air Force Col. Leo Thorsness, a Vietnam prisoner of war captured in 1967, was able to make a peephole in the mortar of his cell wall.

That peephole not only provided Thorsness with a sense of the world outside his cell, but also gave him a new insight about his captors that sustained him through his torturous imprisonment.

Catching a glimpse of one of his guards through the peephole, Thorsness realized "With a flip of a coin, my parents were American. His were Vietnamese.

"If he lives to be 100, he won't experience half of what I had in my 35 years just because I was an American. He represents two-thirds of the people in the world that don't live in freedom ... When I was born I was handed a platter of rights and freedoms and opportunities that he will never experience. We are just very blessed as Americans."

With that thought, Thosness was able to face his captors, and endure solitary confinement and torture.

"I was ahead of the game," he recalled. "It changed my attitude about my condition. I didn't like being in prison, but that realization made it more bearable."

Thorsness, who spent six years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam, shared some of his experiences with servicemembers, veterans and civilians as the guest speaker at the Veterans Day Breakfast on Nov. 11.

In April 1967, Thorsness was flying an F-105 Fighter on his 93rd mission when he was shot down by a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 over North Vietnam. During his captivity, he was imprisoned with Sen. John McCain and Huntsville native Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mike Christian, who has since died. Christian is known for making an American flag out of bits and pieces of clothing that fellow POWs used when saying the pledge of allegiance. When the flag was discovered, Christian was beaten by his captors. But once he recovered from the beating, Christian immediately made another flag for his fellow POWs.

Referring to the military in his audience, Thorsness said anyone who has raised their hand and made an oath to serve their country "knows they might have to give their life ... understands the cost and value of freedom.

"I didn't really learn the ultimate value of freedom until I lost it ... It's hard to understand what happened to me. But it did."

During his first three years of captivity, Thorsness was brutally and repeatedly beaten, and left in the silence of solitary confinement. He spent a year in a 5-by-6 cell. He endured the Vietnamese "form of intimidation, degradation and humiliation."

The day he found the nail was a turning point for Thorsness.

"I was naked, but somehow I found a way to hide the rusty nail. There was a lot of value in that nail," he said. "With the nail and time, I bored a hole in the mortar between two bricks. I would spend hours at that little peephole. I hid the peephole by filling it with dirt."

Thorsness' last three years in captivity were better. He was kept in a cell with other POWs and they were allowed to talk to each other. In 1973, Thorsness was among 591 Americans released from Vietnamese prisoner of war camps. Injuries he sustained during his capture and as a POW caused him to be medically disqualified from further flying and he retired from the Air Force in October 1973.

Thorsness is the recipient of the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, six Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts and 16 Air Medals for his service in Vietnam. His post-military career has included service as a state senator from Washington and as vice chairman of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. He recently moved to Madison and was inducted into the Madison County Hall of Heroes at the 2008 Veterans Day Dinner.

Madison County has quickly become home to Thorsness.

"I've never lived in a community that's more patriotic and more appreciative of veterans, and that understands the cost of freedom," he told the audience at the Veterans Day Breakfast.

Page last updated Thu November 20th, 2008 at 17:02