Air Force Lt. Col. Leo Thorsness, who was the only living Minnesota recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, died this week at age 85.
During a visit to his hometown last year Thorsness told people in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, the memories of his boyhood there helped him get through his six years at the "Hanoi Hilton," the St. James Plaindealer reported.
His Medal of Honor citation recognizes Thorsness "For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty." Thorsness, who was a Major at the time, was honored for a dangerous flight into enemy territory on low fuel to rescue fellow airmen whose plane had been downed.
His Prisoner of War years
Less than two weeks after his gallant and intrepid actions, Thorsness himself was shot down during his 93rd mission over North Vietnam.
After his capture on April 30, 1967, he was taken to Hỏa Lò prison – a notorious prisoner of war camp and torture center that American service members had sarcastically nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton."
One of Thorsness' cellmates there was John McCain. The U.S. Senator from Arizona issued a statement Wednesday that says in part: "One of the greatest honors of my life was serving with Leo, a man whose service exemplified selfless duty and devotion to others."
Walnut Grove memories
Walnut Grove renamed a park in honor of Thorsness last fall. During his remarks Thorsness called his youth in the town "wholesome" and said becoming an Eagle Scout in 1947 was a highlight, the Plaindealer reported.
He also shared how that came up again more than two decades later in Hanoi, where prisoners had just enough space beneath their cell doors to tap out messages in code:
"We decided to find out how many Eagle Scouts there were there. Out of the 100 or 150 cells, five of us were Eagle Scouts. After that, the others would say, ‘Leo, I didn’t know you were an Eagle Scout.’ That was important. Even to people in the prison. It’s something that sticks with you all of your life," Thorsness said.
Thorsness was among 350 prisoners who were finally released from North Vietnam in March of 1973, nearly six years after he was captured.