A Hero’s Long Journey Without Despair Roy Thompson the British Press Lord once said, “What makes a hero truly great is that they never despair.” Such a man is Leo Thorsness, a former Air Force fighter pilot who endured six long years of constant torture and mind numbing boredom with unflinching courage and gritty determination. The experiences of this remarkable man are chronicled in his recently published book, Surviving Hell, A POW’s Journey. 

On April 19, 1967, Thorsness secured a place in Air Force history when he and his backseater, Harry Johnson, came to the rescue of a fellow F-105 crew who had been shot down by a MIG and were encircled by four or five more MIGs as they dangled in their parachutes.  In the ensuing battle, Thorsness shot down two of the MIGs and then, in a courageous act of sheer bluff, drove the remainder away even though he was out of ammo.

Years later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. Meanwhile, he and Johnson needed just twelve more missions to reach the magic number of one hundred, which would allow them to return home. But it was not to be. Less than two weeks later, Thorsness and Johnson were shot down while attacking a SAM site in North Vietnam and were subsequently taken prisoner. Like many downed American airmen, Thorsness was badly injured during his high speed ejection.  Severe damage to both knees plus back injuries made it virtually impossible to walk when he was captured.  But this seemed to matter little to his captors who kicked, beat, and half dragged him through the long journey to Hoa Lo prison, otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton. 

It was there that his journey through hell truly began. Many of the details of his POW life I had read in other books. I was familiar with the tap code, the way POWs communicated with each other without speaking; and had read several descriptions of the filth, disease, inhumane living conditions; and of course, the brutal torture the North Vietnamese subjected their prisoners to every day of their lives.

What impressed me about this book, however, is how simply and elegantly Thorsness tells his story.  Surviving Hell is a sparse 127 pages, yet in it he manages to describe his experience in rich detail, naming names when appropriate, defining unfamiliar terms when necessary and providing vivid descriptions of the things he saw and did as a POW. At the same time, he did not dwell on the details of his torture nor was he judgmental of his fellow prisoners. 

Instead, his focus seemed to be on explaining how he managed to maintain his dignity and his sanity during his ordeal, especially during long periods of solitary confinement. Surviving Hell was released in December 2008.  Ironically, this is the same month that Jane Fonda, the actress turned antiwar protestor who once famously declared that American POWs were being treated humanely, was inducted into the California Museum’s Hall of Fame.

Readers will draw their own conclusions about this coincidence, but my feeling is that genuine heroes like Leo Thorsness will be remembered long after Ms. Fonda’s image fades to a fuzzy, pink image on the cover of an exercise video.  “Surviving Hell” is published by Encounter Books and can be purchased at most good book stores or online bookstores including amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and encounterbooks.com for $25.95. 

(Reviewed by Ron Standerfer for Blogger News Network, Feb. 2009.)

Ron Standerfer is a freelance writer and novelist who is a frequent contributor to Blogger News Network as well as numerous other online news sites. His latest novel, The Eagle’s Last Flight chronicles the life of an Air Force fighter pilot during the Cold War and Vietnam years. Details of his book can be found at http://www.theeagleslastflight.com 

Be Sociable, Share!