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“One Person Can Make A Difference”: The Medal of Honor

Still from video interview with Leo K. Thorsness. Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/89790.

Next week, to commemorate Veterans Day, the Veterans History Project (VHP) will release a new online portal to the digitized collections of over 150 recipients of the Medal of Honor. The nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor has been awarded to a very select group of individuals—since 1861, less than 3,500 members of the military have received it—for acts of heroism shown under fire. Thanks in part to an agreement with the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, which has designated VHP as their archival repository, VHP holds the stories of many of these individuals—including that of Leo K. Thorsness.

The son of a farmer from Walnut Grove, Minnesota, Thorsness spent his adolescence pursuing the same passions as many teenage boys: “baseball, football, basketball, and girls.” After starting college and realizing he’d fallen short in his studies, he joined the Air Force. It turned out to be a natural fit, and he received his commission as an officer in 1954. A little over a decade later, assigned to the “Wild Weasels,” part of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing based out of Thailand, he was flying missions to locate and destroy North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. On his 88th mission, Thorsness had just taken out one SAM site and damaged another when his wingman was hit. To protect the downed fliers, Thorsness dodged Vietnamese MIG planes, shooting down one, and foregoing the chance to refuel, eventually landing safely just as he ran out of gas.

Eleven days later, on his 94th mission, Thorsness was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. He spent the next six years as a prisoner of war.

Two years after his arrival at the infamous POW camp the Hanoi Hilton, he learned via the prison “tap code” that his name had been submitted for the Medal of Honor. In a twist of fate, the airman who wrote the citation recommendation had later been shot down and imprisoned, and thus was able to transmit the message. Released from captivity in March 1973, Thorsness was finally awarded the Medal of Honor on October 15, 1973.

Listening to Thorsness relate his story, I was struck not only by what he accomplished and endured, but also by his comments on the meaning of the Medal of Honor in his life. With characteristic humility, he emphasized that his story was distinctive only in that he was recognized, while so many of his equally heroic comrades were not. To him, the Medal of Honor represented “someone who did the job the best they could.”

The new portal, titled “Stories Above and Beyond: The Medal of Honor,” will provide access to digitized collections of Medal recipients who, without question, did the best job that anyone could. Searchable by conflict, it will also link to related content, including a series of blog posts (starting with this one) highlighting connected themes and individual collections.

Asked what lessons he would want others to learn from his experiences, Colonel Thorsness stated,

I would hope that they would learn that from these experiences that… leaders are made, they’re not born. That you can come from any walk of life and become a leader or that – I would hope that they learn that one person can make a difference. And it doesn’t matter what your status is. You can be the janitor at the local high school or you can be the guy that jumps in and pulls somebody out of the Potomac River when an airplane crashes there in the dead of winter.

For more stories of individuals who made a difference—often in extreme conditions and at great risk to their own lives—be sure to take a look at “Stories Above and Beyond” when it launches next Tuesday, November 7, and keep checking this space for additional blog posts relating to the Medal of Honor.

James P. Leary and Folksongs of Another America

The following post introduces James P. Leary, a researcher who has published extensively on Library of Congress collections in the American Folklife Center. Most of the quotations from Leary in this article come from an email interview we did in July 2015, but I also quote occasionally from a lecture he gave at the Library […]