Monday, August 10, 2015

A Full Day’s Work.

There was a lot of hubbub a week or two ago about one of the candidates for the Republican nomination calling into question whether or not a serving Senator was a combat hero or not.  IMHO, the Senator is a war hero, not because he was shot down and captured, but because of his actions after that event.  That having been said, I believe the Senator is a lousy politician and I will not shed a tear when he is no longer in office.  End rant.

So, Juvat, if getting shot down does not automatically make someone a war hero in your book.  What does?

Funny, you should ask.

Back when I was a kid, and the Vietnam War was going on, my Dad was a T-38 IP and Flight Commander at Webb.  Back in those days, Big Spring was pretty much a cattle and oil town without a lot of social activities.  The Officer’s Club was a big attraction, but so were Dinner Parties.  The guys in Dad’s Flight were either FAIPs (first assignment IPs) or had been Fighter Pilots before.  The Fighter Pilots had been in Vietnam on previous assignments.  The Students and IPs next assignment was almost guaranteed to be in Vietnam.  Discussion at the Dinner Parties was about the war.

I would make myself useful by “tending bar”.  Running for Beer, Making Old Fashions, Gin and Tonics and Martinis.  As an aside, this training stood me in good stead in college, as I worked as a bartender.

Stay on target.  I didn’t mind tending bar as I got to eavesdrop on some pretty fascinating conversations.  I remember hearing one of the guys who’d just got back from a tour in Thuds  (getting back from a tour in Thuds was an all too rare occurrence).  He was talking about a Wild Weasel Pilot named Leo Thorsness.

After hearing the story, I was convinced that this was a “War Story”; I mean it was too wild to be possibly true.  Sometime later, as I was graduating from High School and the POWs were released, Air Force Magazine published an article confirming the story. 

Sarge has his Pantheon of Heroes on the Masthead, all deserving.  Col Thorsness is one of mine.

April 19, 1967, Major (at the time) Thorsness is leading a flight of 4 Wild Weasels against a target near Hanoi.  Splitting the flight into two elements, he and his wingman attack a SAM site, killing it with a Shrike.  He then attacks a second site with bombs and destroys it also. 

As he’s pulling out of the dive, he hears two emergency locator beacons go off on guard. 
He looks and his wingman has been hit by AAA and both have ejected.  As he turns towards the chutes, he fires another Shrike at a third SAM Site.   

He calls for the other two ship to rejoin and help with the rescue.  In the interim, they had been attacked by MIGs, and while they had eluded them, one of the F-105s AB would not light.

The primary advantage the F-105 had in combat was its ability to get very fast, very fast.  However that advantage required two things,  plenty of Fuel, and a functioning Afterburner.

Alone, Major Thorsness is circling the two chutes when he notices a Mig-17 approaching.  From the Mig’s nose position, he deduces that the Mig does not see him and is about to attack the guys in the chutes.

While the F-105 has a 20mm cannon, it is not designed to engage in Air to Air combat.  Its high wing loading will not allow it to turn well, and a Mig-17 will eat its lunch in a turning engagement.

Nevertheless, Major Thorsness, pulls the nose of his Thud out in lead of the Mig and cuts across the circle.  In his words, he pulled the trigger at about 600’.  That sounds like a long way, but in actuality, in Air to Air that’s very close.  But it’s also very effective, the Mig explodes.   

Fortunately, his back seater is filling his role in the two seat fighter and warns Major Thorsness of another Mig-17 approaching their 6 o’clock.

Major Thorsness, unloads the jet (stops turning and pulling Gs which increase drag and slow the jet down) and accelerates away from the fight.  He rendezvous with a tanker and gets topped off. 

Let’s recap the game so far.  He’s penetrated the most heavily protected airspace in the world at this point in time.  Destroyed 2 possibly 3 SAM Sites and 1 MIG.  His wingman has been shot down, and his other element is RTB with mechanical problems.  He’s alone.  He’s got 500 rounds of 20mm left, no bombs or missiles.  There would be no shame in RTBing.

As he’s refueling, he hears two A-1 Sandys check in along with a Jolly Green.  There is no support for them.  Knowing there are Migs airborne, he drops off the Tanker and returns to the crash site.  As he arrives, the Migs have shot down one of the Sandy’s and are engaging the remaining one.  Advising the pilot to continue turning and get as low as possible (much like the Mig can outturn the 105, the A-1 can do the same to the Mig).  He then sets up to attack the 5 Migs that are attacking the Sandy.

Again, he pulls lead and races across the turn circle to close for a slashing gun attack.  He won’t stay and try to saddle up.  One, he can’t, two, that’s dumber than dirt.  So, it’s shoot and scoot.   

In gun range, shoots off the last 500 rounds (a 5 second burst), rolls out of bank, lights the AB and hightails it out of Dodge.  The remaining 4 Migs start into pursuit.

He leaves them in the dust.

So, at the end of the third quarter, the score is now, Leo Thorsness, 2 possibly 3 SAM Sights Sites (silly spell checker) and 1 possibly 2 Mig-17s, North Vietnam, 1 F-105 and 1 A-1.

As he loses the Migs, he realizes that the rescue operation is still being harassed by Migs, so he pitches back.  Even though he has no ordnance, he intends to make a disrupting high speed pass to draw them off.  As he sets up to make the pass, another flight arrives on the scene and engages them.

Needing to refuel again, he is headed towards the tanker when he gets a call from a member of the strike force.  The other Thud is lost and critically low on gas.  Major Thorsness gets him to the tanker but the tanker does not have enough gas to refuel both.

Doing some quick math, he determines he can make it across the Mekong River into Thailand, but not much farther than that.  Still ejecting over friendly territory is a positive.  He climbs to 35K and pulls the throttle to Idle.  Evidently the Thud glide ratio is 1 mile/1000’.  (I think the F-4 was 1 mile/2000’ aka a Brick.)  He’s 70 miles from Udorn and manages to touchdown on the runway just as the jet flames out.

As they’re being towed in to parking, the GIB says “That was a full day’s work.”

That, my friends, is a hero.  Regardless of the risk to himself, he never abandoned his comrades.  

Here he is telling the story in his own words.

Unfortunately, less than two weeks later on his 93rd mission, he crosses a ridgeline behind which two Migs were hiding.  Before he sees them, both he and his wingman are hit by Atolls.  

Instantly, he recognizes that the aircraft is doomed and punches out at 600K.  Severely injured, he is captured almost immediately and spends 6 years under the kind care (the PC term for torture) of the North Vietnamese.  

His book, Surviving Hell, details that experience.  I’ve just started rereading it, which prompted this post.  I highly recommend it.

The USAF recommends him for the Medal of Honor which is approved, although kept secret until his release in order to prevent it from being used against him.  Upon repatriation, President Nixon presents the Medal to him.   

Unfortunately, injuries incurred in the bailout, compounded by the kind care of the North Vietnamese result in his permanent grounding and he retires shortly thereafter.

This is the History Channel's Dogfight Series version of the battle.  His segment starts at ~30 minute marker. 

 The prior segments are worth your time, a Dauntless vs 3 Zeros and a B-17 vs 17 Zeros.


  1. Great story.

    Weasel crews had brass ones. Colonel Thorsness is a true warrior.

    And a true hero in anyone's book.

    1. Thanks. I agree about Brass Ones. I think, given the advanced technology of defense systems today, Weasel drivers have even bigger ones.

  2. Wow. Coupla thoughts came to minkd - his actions reminded me of those Navy Divebomber pilots with the defective bomb release triggers at Midway - unarmed they still pressed on to draw fire away from those who were still armed.

    And I'm always amazed at the attitudes of some pilots towards meeting an overwhelming numbers foe - to the ace that is a "target rich environment"

    We just passed the 50th anniversary of a raid in Vietnam that was a first - first time there was an air to ground raid on a SAM site.

    1. Yeah, that first segment of the second YouTube video was similar to what you described. 5 SBD's sent out to defend the fleet against any torpedo bomber attacks. They get bounced by a bunch of Zeros and 4 are shot down fairly quickly. The last guy is fighting 1 v 1, then 1 v 2 then 1 v 3 then 1 v 2 then 1 v 1 and finally 1 v 0.

      I'll have to do a little research on the Sam Site raid.

    2. Here's an animated documentary juvat

    3. Very Cool, Thanks! Something to look forward to this evening.

  3. Really well written. Thanks juvat.
    Hard to believe that it has been fifty years (YES, YEARS!) since we flew around, getting all shot up, but not shot down. Thank you LORD!

  4. After he retired he was living In Renton, WA and was persuaded to run for State Representative against Gene Lux, the incumbent. Gene was a friend and I work on his campaigns. Gene lost, and I remember him saying, "How do you run against the Medal of Honor"? On Election night gene tried to call to offer congratulations and wasn't successful. Instead, Col. Thorsness drove over to Gene's party to give Gene credit for running a clean campaign based on issues. Great man.

    1. Knew he'd run for office after retiring. I'd even heard about the question Mr Lux asked, but I hadn't heard about the visit in person. My respect for the Col Thorsness just went higher. I've never met him, but watching the videos of speeches he's given seem to indicate he's a very classy guy.

  5. Replies
    1. Yes, awesome is an overused word in our culture. If applied to the Colonel, very few others qualify.

  6. Holly crud! I think I was classmates with his daughter in elementary through high school! (Newport High?) That, or his Doppleganger lives in Bellevue.

    1. I believe he lives in that vicinity. Assuming you're talking Bellevue WA.


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