Madison home to Medal of Honor recipient - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Madison home to Medal of Honor recipient

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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

There are only 80 living Medal of Honor recipients in the world and one of them lives right here in the Tennessee Valley. On April 30th, it was the 46th anniversary of the day Leo Thorsness was shot down over North Vietnam.

If you walk into his office, you'll notice that pieces of history line the walls of Leo's office. He points to a picture, "Mike Christian is right there, and then that good looking guy right there is Leo Thorsness. I looked at (the picture) and said I know all of those people."

It was over North Vietnam, during a firefight with the enemy that Leo would earn his medal of honor.

"Some MiG's were around there, so I shot a couple of them down and then I went through the area at a high speed and pulled them off the area a little bit," he remembered.

He wouldn't know for years that his actions on April 19th, 1967 would earn him a Medal of Honor. Ten days later, Leo's plane was shot down. He was able to eject from his plane and parachute down.

"I could see muzzle flashers coming at us as we were floating down and that'll get your attention," he said.

He slammed into the ground, severely injuring himself, but he was determined to escape the enemy.

"I couldn't walk. I was climbing on all fours trying to get up the mountain, but they got me," he explained.

Leo was taken to Hanoi, where he would become a prisoner of war for the next six years. He said the first three years were the most difficult.

"The initial interrogation was brutal. Most survived, but sometimes we wished, you would just pass out. It was extreme," said Leo.

The prisoners at Hanoi were not allowed to talk, so they created a type of tapping system to communicate.

"It was kind of like Morse code. If we tapped real quietly, if you put your ear again a wall, you can hear the tap but the guard outside can't," he described.

It was through that system that another POW, who was captured after Leo, was able to tell him that he had been given the Medal of Honor. When Leo was finally released from Hanoi in 1973, he was officially presented with the award from President Nixon.

"It's humbling because you know other guys who should be standing right there beside you," he said.

While thoughts of his time in Hanoi sometimes pop up, Leo said he really only thinks about the lessons he learned.

"Since I've been home, 46 years, I've never had a bad day. Some days are better than others, but I've never had a bad day since I've been home and that's a good lesson," Leo said.

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