Tags: leo thorsness | john gizzi | patriot | politicians | vietnam war | air force

Remembering Col. Leo Thorsness — Patriot and Politician

Remembering Col. Leo Thorsness — Patriot and Politician
Medal of Honor recipient Leo K. Thorsness. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad 

By    |   Saturday, 06 May 2017 10:06 PM

Following the news that retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Leo K. Thorsness died last Thursday at age 85, most news stories focused on his heroism in the Vietnam War. As lead pilot of the “Wild Weasels” F-105 fighter bombers whose mission was to destroy North Vietnam’s Surface-to-Air (Sam Missiles), Thorsness was shot down, captured, and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese Communist enemy in 1967.

Held in solitary confinement and later in a cell with Navy pilot and future Arizona Sen. John McCain, Thorsness was tortured daily for nearly a year. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism but it was kept secret by the U.S. out of concern he would be punished even more severely.

That was the Leo Thorsness most of the world heard about following his death.  For this political reporter, the strong memories were of his later bids for office—four campaigns in two states, only one of them a victory.

Thorsness’ first race was national news. That was in 1974, when he became the Republican nominee to oppose Sen. George McGovern, the losing 1972 Democratic nominee for president known for his vigorous opposition to the Vietnam War.

While in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison, Thorsness had been forced to listen to anti-war speeches by McGovern and actress Jane Fonda broadcast on Radio Hanoi. He later recalled that McGovern’s vow in 1972 to “beg for peace” from Hanoi if elected President helped convince him to oppose the South Dakotan in a future campaign.

The Minnesota-born Thorsness had minimal ties to South Dakota — he had attended South Dakota State College shortly in the early 1950’s before joining the Air Force and met future wife Gaylee in the registration line.  But that didn’t bother Mount Rushmore State Republicans. In June, 1974, barely a year after he was released from the Hanoi Hilton and settled in South Dakota, Thorsness handily won the Republican Senate primary over two opponents.

Lyn Nofziger, former press secretary to California Gov. Ronald Reagan, was his campaign consultant.  27-year-old Pierre (S.D.) attorney Jim Stockdale (who would be an operative in all of Reagan’s future presidential campaigns) was campaign manager.  Contributions poured into the Thorsness campaign coffers from all fifty states.

“I thought [Thorsness] was an impressive fellow and quite a contrast to McGovern,” recalled Hal Daub, then Republican chairman of Douglas County (Omaha, Nebraska) and a future congressman.  He wrote a small check.

Another future congressman, John LeBoutillier (R.-NY), was a sophomore at Harvard when Thorsness ran.

“I raised a quarter of a million dollars for Col. Thorsness,” LeBoutillier recalled to Newsmax, “And in June, when the semester was over, I moved to Sioux Falls [S.D.], shared a trailer home with the press secretary, and became national financial chairman for the campaign.”

Thorsness was drawing big crowds and attracting volunteers. Mary Jean Jensen, future Republican National Committeewoman of South Dakota, recalled when he came to her hometown town of Lemmon.

“I distinctly remember his speech at a luncheon in the Bank of Lemmon basement,” she said, “He walked with a cane as he was still limping. His thoughts were from the heart.  He said the prisoners heard the speeches of George McGovern condemning the war over and over night and day....he said it made him realize that the American spirit was being lost and that if possible he was going to run against McGovern.”

But McGovern — a gentleman and himself a decorated fighter pilot who flew 35 combat missions in World War II — knew what he was doing. He never criticized Thorsness and claimed vindication for opposing Richard Nixon, who resigned over the Watergate scandal.  He won by a margin of 53 to 47 percent.

Leo Thorsness went on to become his state’s unpaid Republican chairman in 1976. Flying to nearly every county in South Dakota and frequently going door-to-door with candidates, Thorsness led his party to a takeover of the state senate.

Two years later, an open U.S. House seat seemed his for the taking. But a young protégé of McGovern outworked him and with help from the senator’s organization, raised a substantial amount of money.  Tom Daschle, future U.S. Senate majority leader, edged Thorsness for the House seat by 105 votes.

After moving to Washington State, Thorsness finally achieved his dream of winning office. In 1988, he won a seat in the state senate.  Four years later, however, his attempt to win the Republican primary for U.S. Senator fell short.

 “Leo was in politics before our friend John McCain,” Orson Swindle, a fellow POW with Thorsness and McCain, told Newsmax, “If he’d made it to the Senate in ’74, he might easily have been on a national ticket.  It didn’t work out that way, but he served his country so honorably.  I loved him, and I will miss him.  A lot of people will.”

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Following the news that retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Leo K. Thorsness died last Thursday at age 85, most news stories focused on his heroism in the Vietnam War.
leo thorsness, john gizzi, patriot, politicians, vietnam war, air force
Saturday, 06 May 2017 10:06 PM
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