MADISON, Ala. - U.S. Air Force Colonel and Madison resident Leo Thorsness has passed away at the age of 85. He was a U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.
He died on Tuesday at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.
Thorsness was born in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, on February 14, 1932, and enlisted in the United States Air Force in January of 1952. He applied for fighting school and became an officer and Air Force pilot. He served as a fighter pilot in the Strategic Air Command.
During the Vietnam War, Thorness flew Wild Weasel missions over North Vietnam. His mission was to destroy enemy surface sir missile sites. Enemy fire brought down the airman's fighter jet during the a surveillance mission in 1967. Col. Thorsness tried rescuing others wearing the American Uniform. He spent six years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.
After regaining his freedom, Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Thorsness also served as a Washington State senator from 1988 to 1992.
Those who knew him well say he will be missed. "He was the best man I will ever know," said Jay Town, Assistant District Attorney for Madison County.
Sen. John McCain considered Thorsness to be a dear friend and exemplary service man. He offered condolences from his family to the family of Lt. Col. Leo Thorsness:
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend and fellow POW, Lt. Col. Leo Thorsness. One of the greatest honors of my life was serving with Leo, a man whose service exemplified selfless duty and devotion to others. Leo earned the Medal of Honor for his heroism in a daring combat mission in North Vietnam in 1967 when he flew directly into hostile territory on dangerously low fuel in an attempt to rescue his comrades who had been downed in an attack. Just two weeks after that courageous mission, Leo’s aircraft was shot down and he was taken captive by North Vietnamese soldiers. Leo would spend the next six years imprisoned, including a full year in solitary confinement, and endure unspeakable pain and suffering because of his steadfast adherence to our code of conduct. But Leo never let this experience break his spirit, and inspired the rest of us with his patriotism, perseverance, and hope that we would someday be free."
“After returning home, Leo continued to live a selfless life of service – as a volunteer, state senator, and public speaker with a simple message: ‘Do what’s right—help others.’ I am forever grateful for Leo’s generosity, friendship and example, and along with Cindy, send my heartfelt condolences to Leo’s wife Gaylee and their entire family as we bid farewell to a genuine American hero.”
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle had the privilege of meeting and working with Thorsness on community activities. He offered the following remarks and condolences:
"We are deeply saddened at the loss of Leo Thorsness. An icon for our country and community, Leo was a patriot, a hero, and most of all, a truly great person. After giving so much through his service in the military, Leo continued to play an active role as mentor and volunteer. He will be missed - our hearts and prayers are with his family."
Leo K. Thorsness is survived by his wife Gaylee and family. Funeral services are pending. There are 74 medal of Honor recipients alive today.