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Decorated Vietnam Airman, McCain's Cellmate Dies at 85

Col. Leo Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor for his deeds
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted May 4, 2017 3:50 PM CDT

(Newser) – Col. Leo Thorsness survived six years of captivity and torture at the "Hanoi Hilton," cellmates with John McCain. He died Thursday in Florida at the age of 85 from leukemia, the New York Times reports. With two Silver Stars, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Medal of Honor, Thorsness was one of the most decorated members of the Air Force during the Vietnam War. According to the Washington Post, Thorsness was given the Medal of Honor for a 1967 mission in which he knocked out two surface-to-air missiles, shot down an enemy fighter while protecting two airmen who had ejected from their plane, and fought four more enemy fighters for nearly an hour while low on fuel and ammunition. He was commended for "extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery."

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Eleven days after that mission, Thorsness was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese while only seven missions shy of being able to end his tour. He was kept in solitary confinement and tortured nearly daily for the first year of his captivity; his back was broken in four places. "Sometimes, it was more important to take that beating to prove you still had something in you." AL.com quotes Thorsness as saying in a 2013 speech. He would later be cellmates with McCain. "Leo never let this experience break his spirit, and inspired the rest of us with his patriotism, perseverance, and hope," McCain said in a statement on Thorsness' death. Thorsness retired from the Air Force after returning home in 1973—the injuries he sustained during his ordeal preventing him from flying a plane. (Read more obituary stories.)

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