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Stirring Up a Hornet's Nest of MiGs: Maj. Leo Thorsness and Capt. Harold Johnson

DAYTON, Ohio - Items on display in the First In, Last Out: Wild Weasels vs. SAMs exhibit: 1) Thorsness and Johnson were shot down eleven days after their decorated mission, spending the rest of the war as POWs in North Vietnam. This POW bracelet for Johnson was worn by another Wild Weasel, Bob Dorrough. 2) Maj. Leo Thorsness' "boonie hat." On it are marks showing his combat missions, his two MiG victories and several missile radars and sites that he destroyed. 3) Capt. Dethlefsen wore these gloves and dogtags and carried the Bible and fingernail clippers on this mission. 4) One of Maj. Bell's K-2B flying suits. While this one has unit patches and his name badge, aircrews flew "sanitized" flying suits on missions over North Vietnam. Note "SAM Slayer" patch. 5) "SAM Slayer" patch donated by Col. Mike Gilroy, USAF (ret.). These patches were given to aircrews who destroyed a SAM site (a hit from a Shrike alone would not qualify). The patch depicts an "Iron Hand" crushing an SA-2. The patch was designed by Mike Gilroy and George Metcalf at Takhli RTAFB in July 1966. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio - Items on display in the First In, Last Out: Wild Weasels vs. SAMs exhibit: 1) Thorsness and Johnson were shot down eleven days after their decorated mission, spending the rest of the war as POWs in North Vietnam. This POW bracelet for Johnson was worn by another Wild Weasel, Bob Dorrough. 2) Maj. Leo Thorsness' "boonie hat." On it are marks showing his combat missions, his two MiG victories and several missile radars and sites that he destroyed. 3) Capt. Dethlefsen wore these gloves and dogtags and carried the Bible and fingernail clippers on this mission. 4) One of Maj. Bell's K-2B flying suits. While this one has unit patches and his name badge, aircrews flew "sanitized" flying suits on missions over North Vietnam. Note "SAM Slayer" patch. 5) "SAM Slayer" patch donated by Col. Mike Gilroy, USAF (ret.). These patches were given to aircrews who destroyed a SAM site (a hit from a Shrike alone would not qualify). The patch depicts an "Iron Hand" crushing an SA-2. The patch was designed by Mike Gilroy and George Metcalf at Takhli RTAFB in July 1966. (U.S. Air Force photo)

(l to r) Harold Johnson, Leo Thorsness, Larry Waller and Jim Padget at Nellis AFB, in October 1966, just before they boarded their aircraft to deploy to Takhli. (U.S. Air Force photo)

(l to r) Harold Johnson, Leo Thorsness, Larry Waller and Jim Padget at Nellis AFB, in October 1966, just before they boarded their aircraft to deploy to Takhli. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Maj. Leo Thorsness (l) and Capt. Harold Johnson (r) at Takhli in early 1967. By this time, Thorsness was the “chief Weasel” at Takhli. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Maj. Leo Thorsness (l) and Capt. Harold Johnson (r) at Takhli in early 1967. By this time, Thorsness was the “chief Weasel” at Takhli. (U.S. Air Force photo)

F-105F used by Thorsness and Johnson on the decorated mission. By then, they had already dodged fifty-three SAMs and nearly completed their 100 missions. (U.S. Air Force photo)

F-105F used by Thorsness and Johnson on the decorated mission. By then, they had already dodged fifty-three SAMs and nearly completed their 100 missions. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Pictured here is Col. Thorsness receiving the Medal of Honor from President Nixon after repatriation in 1973. Also pictured are his mother and his wife Gaylee. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Pictured here is Col. Thorsness receiving the Medal of Honor from President Nixon after repatriation in 1973. Also pictured are his mother and his wife Gaylee. (U.S. Air Force photo)

On April 19, 1967, Maj. Leo Thorsness (pilot) and Capt. Harold Johnson (EWO) led a Wild Weasel formation on a mission against the Xuan Mai army barracks about 30 miles southwest of Hanoi. After they silenced one SAM site and destroyed another, enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) shot down the accompanying F-105F carrying Majs. Tom Madison and Tom Sterling. Now alone, Thorsness and Johnson remained behind to cover them and radio rescue forces. Johnson spotted a MiG-17, and Thorsness shot it down with 20mm fire.

Low on fuel, they sped off to a tanker to fill up. Returning to cover the rescue forces, Thorsness and Johnson engaged three MiG-17s, damaging one of them. Then Johnson spotted four MiGs coming up behind them, and Thorsness evaded the MiGs by speeding away at low altitude through nearby mountain passes. Despite being out of ammunition, Thorsness and Johnson yet again returned to draw the MiGs off the rescue forces, but fighter support arrived to take over. Unfortunately, in spite of their heroic efforts, the rescue had to be called off due to the overwhelming enemy defenses, and Madison and Sterling were captured.

As they headed toward the only KC-135 tanker in the area, an F-105 pilot radioed he was lost and nearly out of fuel. Although dangerously short of fuel himself, Thorsness convinced the only tanker in the area to fly to the F-105. By giving up the chance to refuel, the other F-105 was saved. With no time to spare, Thorsness idled the aircraft to Udorn, the nearest friendly base. When they landed, the fuel indicator read "empty." As he left the cockpit, Johnson understatedly commented to Thorsness: "That's a full day's work."

For valor in combat above and beyond the call of duty, Maj. Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor, and Capt. Johnson was awarded the Air Force Cross.

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Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17F
Medal of Honor Awards in the Air Force
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Col. (Ret.) Leo K. Thorsness: "Getting Through Tough Times" (00:42:18)
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