Leo Thorsness, Col, USAF, Retired

Medal of Honor

                POW 6 YearsOfficial WEb Site


Leo Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1973, not long after he and the other American POWs were released from prison in North Vietnam.

On April 19, 1967, Air Force Colonel Leo Thorsness was on a mission over North Vietnam when his wingman was shot down by an enemy MiG that then lined up for a gunnery pass on the two American pilots who had bailed out. Although his F-105 was not designed for aerial combat, Thorsness immediately engaged the enemy aircraft and destroyed it. When Thorsness spotted four more MiGs, he fought his way through a barrage of North Vietnamese SAMs to engage them too, shooting down one more and driving the others off. For this action, Leo Thorsness would be awarded the Medal of Honor. But he didn’t learn about it until years later—and then only by a “tap code” coming through prison walls—because on April 30 Thorsness himself was shot down, captured and transported to the Hanoi Hilton.



Surviving Hell is Thorsness’ account of a six year captivity marked by hours of brutal torture and days of agonizing boredom, which posed an even greater challenge to the American POWs. With a novelist’s eye for character and detail, Thorsness tells how he and the others kept their humanity through sheer resilience and resourcefulness. Figuring that he was 10,000 miles from his family, for instance, Thorsness decided to spend his days “walking home” from Hanoi by pacing several miles a day in his tiny cell. When he was thrown into solitary confinement for refusing to bow down to his captors, Thorsness disciplined his mind by memorizing long passages of poetry other prisoners sent him by tap code.

Filled with hope and humor, Surviving Hell is an eloquent chronicle of resistance and survival. No other book about American POWs has described so well the strategies these remarkable men used in their daily effort to maintain their humanity. No other book has ever shown how, by refusing to be stripped of their basic dignity, POWs continued to wage war by other means even during the darkest moments of their long captivity.

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Constructed by Friends of Colonel Thorsness