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Authors: Leo Thorsness

Surviving Hell

BOOK: Surviving Hell
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Table of Contents
 
 
 
Praise for
Surviving Hell
For three years I lived in cells with or near Leo Thorsness at the Hanoi Hilton, and I vouch for his account of captivity in that hellhole. It was especially bad for Leo because his back was fractured from torture, which required him to be strung up by the feet to sleep. Yet in our many POW conversations, we were optimistic that we would someday be free and upbeat about how we would use our freedom. The most important thing was to return home with honor; and that, Leo has certainly done.
—
Col. Bud Day, USAF (ret.); Medal of Honor recipient; fellow
POW with Leo Thorsness; author of
Return With Honor
 
In a brisk and vivid style, Leo Thorsness transports us into the darkness of the POW's world without ever succumbing to despair. His story is a saga of uncommon valor, told with humility and good humor.
 
I first met this extraordinary American hero—who cleverly dis guises himself as “just another guy”—on the set of
The Hanoi Hilton
, where he served as my technical advisor and became my friend. To watch Leo relive his experiences with those who would portray him and his comrades-in-arms was an inspiration to us all. Now, in
Surviving Hell,
he makes that journey accessible to everyone in a way that brings hope.
 
Freedom is certainly not free, and here's a chance to understand why some people are willing to pay the price, yet never lose their humanity.
—
Lionel Chetwynd, filmmaker; Oscar and Emmy nominee;
writer and director of
The Hanoi Hilton
 
How can a simple man have so much to say to every reader? Leo Thorsness grew up “average,” as he says, but then decided to serve our country in the Air Force, a commitment that led him into the horrors of a North Vietnam prison. His story will inspire you to do more. This book conveys the message that Leo has been taking to corporate executives, “Do What's Right—Help Others (DWR-HO),” and the lesson he teaches America's children about the “4 F's: Faith, Family, Friends, Fun.”
Surviving Hell
shows how to frame your life for the better, regardless of the hand you've been dealt. Leo did it; you can too!
—
Tom Matthews, president, Medal of Honor Foundation; former
president and CEO, Smith Barney Global Private Client Division
 
The human spirit is amazingly resilient! In this incredible story of one man's deliverance from “hell on earth,” Leo Thorsness shows that he truly understands these words from the Bible: “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” Your heart will be stirred to sadness, then anger, then despair, and finally to hope as the journey home for Leo becomes a reality. This is an astounding account of God's faithfulness to one man.
—
Rev. Dale Seley, pastor, Downtown Baptist Church,
Alexandria, Virginia
 
It is my high honor and privilege to be a close friend of the Thorsness family. Leo is a genuine hero who always demonstrates his love for America.
Surviving Hell: A POW's Journey
is a reminder that freedom isn't free, and an enduring tribute to those who made supreme sacrifices under the most intolerable conditions. After reading this book, you will never again think you are having a bad day.
—
Bruce N. Whitman, president and CEO,
FlightSafety International
 
One never knows the tests that the road of life will bring, but
Surviving Hell
demonstrates that the virtues of honor, courage, sacrifice—undergirded by an unshakable faith and the love of family—enable one to triumph even in the most unthinkable circumstances. As one who is privileged to know Col. Leo Thorsness and his wife, Gaylee, I am grateful for their willingness to share this story so that it may provide a beacon of hope and a guidebook for the rest of us on our life's journey.
—
David McIntyre, president and CEO,
TriWest Healthcare Alliance
 
Leo Thorsness describes the combat mission of a lifetime, which would earn him our nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor. But the exhilaration of aerial victories over enemy MiGs and coaxing the last measure of performance out of his fuel-thirsty “Thud” was followed in an instant by a low-tech experience that would deprive him of his freedom for six years. Thorsness will make you cry and make you laugh as he describes the highs and lows of his extended visit to a hell that most of us can hardly imagine. It would change his life forever.
—
Lt. Gen. Nick Kehoe, USAF (ret.); president,
Medal of Honor Foundation
Gaylee, you are the love of my life. Thank you for your intelligence, grit, support, loyalty, beauty, and humor; for being my best friend; and for filling in as both mom and dad for our daughter, Dawn, from age 12 to 18.
 
Dawn, you turned out so beautiful, so moral, and so bright. I'll work hard to make up the seven years I missed in your life.
AUTHOR'S NOTE
My experience in Southeast Asia was often traumatic. For the past 35 years, my mind has worked to process what happened. With the benefit of perspective, I wanted to write an account that would be helpful to people going through tough times. Time heals most things, and we are stronger than we think. I thank all who volunteer to serve in the military. During the swearing in, as you raise your hand pledging allegiance to the United States, you do not know the future: Your service may be anything between a hitch in Hawaii and years as a POW in a Hanoi hellhole.
A day never passes without a thought of one or more of the outstanding Americans I had the privilege of serving with as a POW in the most trying of times. Even harder to think about are the families who never found out about a missing-in-action husband or father or son. For some, it is 40 years, and they are still waiting. Bless you and may you find peace.
The years since prison were worth the wait. America, my family, and my friends have allowed me to be a corporate executive, a state senator, a husband of a wonderful woman for 55 years, the father of an outstanding daughter, and a grandfather of two bright, beautiful little girls. I've retired a couple of times. We have moved several times and found true friends each time. Most importantly, in the 35 years since my release from prison, I've never had a really bad day.
CHAPTER 1
MEDAL OF HONOR MISSION
O
n April 19, 1967, my backseater, Harry Johnson, and I took off from the Takhli Air Base in Thailand and headed for North Vietnam. We were counting down the few missions we had to go before reaching the magic number of 100, which provided a ticket home from Vietnam. We had about a dozen to go. By this time, we were the lead F-105F “Wild Weasel” crew.
The two-man Weasels were designed to deal with the Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) installations. Originally, the plane was called the Mad Mongoose, but the Air Force discovered that this name was already taken and so it became the Wild Weasel. We affectionately referred to the F-105 as the “Thud” because it was unwieldy and lumbering, but reliable with a strong heart. The guys in the bombers were particular fans because we took out the SAM sites so they made it out alive after dropping their loads.
Just a few weeks earlier, a Weasel flight usually involved a two-man crew, like Harry—the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO)—and me, in an F-105F, and three wingmen in the single-seater F-105D. But more F-105Fs were arriving and, on the way back home after a successful mission, Harry and I came up with the idea of having two Weasels in our flight and splitting the four planes into two elements just before entering the target area. If we put one two-man Weasel along with a single seat F-105D on each side of the target, we could attack two SAM sites simultaneously instead of just one. By this point in the war, the entire North Vietnamese defense system—flak gunners, MiG pilots, SAM site operators—had set reactions when an attack—24 American planes—headed
their way. Under the new scenario Harry and I worked out, by the time the Weasel flight split, they would have their game plan set and would not be able to make last-minute adjustments.
Of course, there was a down side to the plan. Splitting the flight meant that each half would have only one leader and one wingman to watch for surprise SAM launches and sneaky MiGs. And we would have less firepower. We would have just two planes with bombs to wipe out the SAMs, destroy their radar and control van, and kill the launch crew.
On April 19, our target was the Xuan Mai army barracks and a storage supply in the flat delta area 30 miles southwest of Hanoi. As we refueled over Laos, we had a flight of four F-4 Phantoms to defend us against MiGs and four flights of four F-105D strike aircraft—Thuds heavily loaded with bombs to hit the SAM installations.
The second Weasel crew in my flight was Jerry Hoblit and his EWO, Tom Wilson: both experts at their job. Jerry and I had known one another for years and had the “split-the-Weasel-flight” system down pretty good.
We were still about 80 miles from the target area when Harry radioed me, “It's going to be a busy day, we've already got two SAMs looking at us with acquisition radar, and there are bound to be more.”
The closer we got, the more SAM sites were tracking us. A SAM's practical range was about 17 miles. We carried an AGM- 45 SHRIKE missile that homed in on the SAM's radar, but its range was about seven miles. They got to shoot first. That was their advantage. Ours was that if they missed, we had a window of opportunity to kill them. The camouflage on their sites was useless once they launched, as the SAM kicked up debris and often left a smoke or vapor trail that we could home right onto.
As we approached our preplanned split, about 25 miles southwest of the target, our SAM scope was overflowing; no less than four sites were tracking us, plus several 85mm flak radars. To keep from alerting the enemy on the radio, we used visual signals. I gave a large fast rock of our wings, and Jerry and Tom split off.
In our pre-flight briefing, we had decided that Jerry and his wingman would take the north side of the target area, Harry and I the south.
Airborne electronic intelligence aircraft, B-66s mostly, circled at a relatively safe distance and alerted us when MiGs were airborne. They transmitted on Guard frequency—the emergency channel. When our channel and Guard transmitted at the same time, both became garbled and hard to understand. That garble added to the age-old axiom: “more combat, more confusion.”
BOOK: Surviving Hell
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