By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffJanuary 22, 2009
There's a print of a black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall in the office of Leo Thorsness that recalls the day he regained his freedom as an American.
In the picture, a group of American prisoners of war dressed in civilian clothes and carrying overnight bags are being led by a North Vietnamese guard from a bus and across an airfield. The men's faces - including Thorsness seen toward the back of the group -- are etched with dismay, disappointment, exhaustion, sadness, confusion and ambivalence.
The expressions are not surprising when a viewer realizes these men have endured the worst torture ever imaginable for the longest period of military imprisonment in modern day history.
But what is surprising is that the men are just minutes away from freedom. And yet, there is no joy or hope on any of their faces.
The picture is stark, emotionally moving and thought provoking.
"We had been moved so many times, and our hopes had been up and down so much, that we didn't have much hope that we were really going to be released on that day. This could have all been a trick," Thorsness said.
"We didn't smile or celebrate when we saw the C-141 on the tarmac or when we saluted the Air Force colonel waiting for us. We didn't get our hopes up when the best looking nurses we'd ever seen took us on the plane. But when our plane left the tarmac, we exploded with cheers."
Thorsness discovered the worn print while visiting POW prison sites in North Vietnam some 17 years after his release from captivity. The trip included a visit to the Hoa Lo Prison, known to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton and Hell on Earth, for six POWs and Thorsness' wife, Gaylee, and a production crew that had plans to turn the experience into a documentary.
"It wasn't a fun trip. But I was free and I had my wife with me," he said. "I visited a small cell block that was designed and built for torture. It was all clean and white-washed. I had some tough memories from that cell block."
An Air Force fighter pilot, Thorsness was shot down during his 88th mission over North Vietnam by an air-to-air missile fired by an enemy MiG fighter. He was imprisoned as a Vietnam POW from April 1967 to February 1973.
This 76-year-old retired colonel, whose own history includes a Congressional Medal of Honor, two unsuccessful runs for Congress in South Dakota and service as a state legislator in Washington, recently moved to Madison to be closer to family.
Just a month ago, his book "Surviving Hell: A POWs Journey" was released by Encounter Books. This Friday, Thorsness will be autographing copies of his book from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Post Exchange and from 5-8 p.m. during a reception in his honor at the Woody Anderson Ford showroom in Madison Square Mall.
"When I first came home, there were 10 or 12 guys who wrote POW books," Thorsness said. "I've had a lot of time to reflect on what we went through. I've asked the questions 'What did I learn' What was the value of those six years'' Initially, I wanted to put those things down in a letter to my granddaughters."
But his letter to Sara and Anna grew longer and longer as Thorsness recalled his POW experience. He decided it was time to write his own POW book.
"One thing I did not want to do was mention anything about torture," Thorsness said of his initial writings. "But my editor told me if I didn't mention what happened then the book would be too much about flying. He reminded me that Vietnam happened a long time ago and there is a new batch of readers out there who don't know what torture is in a real sense."
Thorsness' time as a POW can be broken down into two periods - the first three years were marked by solitary confinement and horrible brutality while the second three years included living in groups of 15 to 45 POWs in a cell and slightly better treatment.
"In the first two months I was there, I had to endure the heartbreak of mass torture. I learned tap code and asked another POW 'How long have you been here'' He tapped back 'A year.' I remember thinking that nobody can survive this for a year."
Thorsness was among 591 POWs - two-thirds Air Force, one-third Navy and a few Marines -- who survived the North Vietnam POW camps, which were mostly scattered in and around the capital city of Hanoi. Besides the Hanoi Hilton, there was also Alcatraz, Briarpatch, Dirty Bird and the Zoo. POWs were also held in Cambodia, China, Laos and South Vietnam. Hundreds of American POWs were imprisoned by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong between 1961 and 1973, and they were subjected to isolation, starvation, beatings and countless hours of torture as the North Vietnamese worked to make the POWs tools for use in anti-American propaganda.
Today, 350 POWs are still living, and about 100 of those gather annually for POW conventions. They have overcome countless physical, emotional and mental injuries, and have gone on to live productive lives.
"Mentally when we returned we were in pretty good shape," Thorsness said. "If we had come back after those first three years, we would have all been as loony as a bat. But during the last three years we were in big cells and torture wasn't as often. We became our own therapists. Our average age was 30, and most of us were married and had kids. We would talk about our families and wonder about how things were at home."
During World War II and the Korean War, POWs were, in general, 19 to 20 years old, and straight out of high school. Compared to these younger POWs, the Vietnam POW's age, experience and knowledge gave them better coping skills.
"I'm not saying we were smarter," Thorsness said. "But we were older and college graduates. We were highly trained and well-educated aviators. We had seen the world and had been exposed to a lot more knowledge. We were not physically as strong as earlier POWs, but we were mentally stronger."
While in solitary confinement, Thorsness remembers walking home to his family in his head while physically walking the paces out in his cell. In the group cells, he remembers the ways the POWs would encourage and support each other, and find countless things to talk about. They would use mental games to challenge themselves and each other.
"I decided to keep track of what everybody talked about," Thorsness said. "In my head, I had a little filing cabinet with folders for each topic. I kept track for about a week. The number one topic was family. Then there were friends, fun and faith. There's not a better job than being a fighter pilot, but the job came in at number 17 of the things we talked about."
The POWs also studied Spanish together and made up various "Top 10" lists.
"We only knew so much Spanish among ourselves, so we made up words," Thorsness said. "Maybe 40 percent of our words were good. We were so good we could carry on whole conversations in our version of Spanish.
"We made lists of 10 - the list of the top 10 people we never want to talk to for the rest of our lives, the list of the top 10 things we would do when we got home, the list of the top 10 pieces of clothing we would buy. It was infectious. Everyone wanted to create a list of the top 10."
Thorsness' book recalls countless stories about how he and other POWs survived their ordeal. One poignant story recounts how the now deceased Mike Christian, a POW from Huntsville, found scraps of fabric and sewed them into a U.S. flag that was used by the POWs to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. When his first flag was discovered by guards, Christian was beaten mercilessly. But after recovering, Christian took up the task again to make another flag for his fellow POWs.
It also tells stories about how the POWs won a battle with their captors over holding church services and how the POWs were able to teach three enlisted servicemembers everything they needed to know from the Air Force Academy and Naval Academy so they could be promoted to second lieutenant while in captivity. Those promotions were formalized by the military once the POWs were released.
Thorsness and Sen. John McCain, who Thorsness campaigned for during the recent presidential election, spent time together in the Hanoi Hilton. Thorsness and his wife were in the audience when McCain gave his acceptance speech at the Republican convention.
"It was a moving moment," he said. "I tried to listen to what he was saying. But I kept remembering John sitting on a slab in a small cell in the Hanoi Hilton. He was our preacher and he's a good man of character. It was just phenomenal to see him go from a war prison to being just one election away from the presidency of the United States. But it's also just as phenomenal to see a black American elected president. That is certainly history that we can all be proud of."
When the POWs returned to the U.S., they received a hero's welcome, unlike the angry welcomes that most Vietnam veterans received upon their return from war.
"Overall, we were a group of military people who had never been treated so well," Thorsness said. "The typical Vietnam veteran was treated terrible while we were treated like heroes. We weren't heroes. It doesn't take a lot of skill to be a POW. The U.S. didn't win a victory in Vietnam. So, we replaced the victory. Whenever I was recognized as a hero in public, I would ask other Vietnam veterans to stand with me to also receive that recognition. They are my heroes."
The POWs, he said, "came back to a country that was very changed. We lived in the bowels of communism for six years. We came back much more patriotic than we left. We bled red, white and blue."
Because of his injuries and his long absence from flying, Thorsness decided to not resume his service as an Air Force pilot. He did consider a military attachAfA position in Paris. But once he recovered from three surgeries to repair his back and knees, Thorsness and his wife immersed themselves in the South Dakota political scene. He lost two very close congressional races before moving to the state of Washington, where he served in the state legislature.
"I wanted to help influence the country. I started campaigning almost immediately. Gaylee and I were so busy. We didn't have time to fight or adjust," Thorsness said. "Before I was shot down, we had already been married 15 years. That gave us a solid foundation.
"When we were campaigning, we would be apart and then meet again at various places. I think those who took time off to recuperate made a mistake. Jumping right into something turned out to be the right thing to do."
Now, Thorsness is enjoying a much quieter life in Madison and Huntsville. He has quickly come to love and appreciate the community's support for the military. His calendar is filling up with speaking engagements, both locally and nationally.
"People are more receptive now toward the Vietnam veteran," he said. "The attitude toward the military is better. Vietnam veterans are being appreciated, and some people are feeling guilty about the way they treated them all those years ago."
Thorsness hopes readers of his book will learn from his experience that "people are stronger than they think they are and there are many things people can do to help themselves survive tough times. I hope they realize the resourcefulness of the human mind. If you don't dwell on those tough times, you can come out of them stronger, smarter, harder and better prepared to handle other things life throws at you.
"The book provides lessons in focusing on goals, communications and teamwork, things that we all need to learn about regardless of what we are going through in life."