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Cotton Remembers Leo Thorsness on the Senate Floor

May 11, 2017

I'm speaking tomorrow at an Air Force ROTC commissioning ceremony at the University of Arkansas. As I've been preparing my remarks, I've been thinking a lot about the airmen who left more than contrails behind them-the men and women who served with such distinction that we still remember them to this day-those great Americans, the heroes of the sky. And the first name that came to mind, the name that resounded louder than almost any other was the great Leo Thorsness.

So you can imagine how saddened I was to hear of his passing last week. Whenever you hear such a legend has left the earth, it's like a sudden crack of thunder in the dead of night. It wakes you up. It sobers you. It reminds you of what we've lost.

Because Leo Thorsness was an American classic. Born in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, his childhood sounds as idyllic as his hometown. He joined the Boy Scouts-and later rose to become an Eagle Scout. He met his wife Gaylee in the freshman registration line at South Dakota State College. They married three years later and had one daughter, Dawn. He joined the Air Force, went to flying school, and became a pilot.

Soon, he was a fighter pilot in both the Strategic and Tactical Air Command. Looking back on his life, you can see Leo Thorsness was part of an era-those burly, self-confident middle-class families, who after a great depression and the greatest of wars put down roots and built the booming America of the mid- to late-20th century.

But, of course, Leo Thorsness was not simply a part of his generation; he inspired it-with his courage and self-sacrifice. For many Americans, the only number they remember from the Vietnam years is their draft number. But for Leo Thorsness, there are two numbers that stick out: 88 and 93. It was on his 88th mission for the Air Force that he performed the noble deeds for which he would later receive the Medal of Honor.

He was flying a F-105 Thunderchief-with his weapons specialist Harold Johnson. They were escorting fighter bombers targeting a North Vietnamese Army barracks. They shot down a MIG, roughed up another, and hit two missile batteries. They were low on ammo and fuel, but they fought on.

He continued to scare off MIGs and instructed a tanker plane to refuel another fighter. When he finally landed 70 miles south in Thailand, the fuel tank was on empty. It was a stunning act of bravery.

It was on his 93rd mission-just seven shy of completing his tour of duty-that Leo Thorsness was shot down. He was captured and spent six years in the Hanoi Hilton-six years in the darkness. It was there that he met his cellmate, our colleague and future senator John McCain. Imagining six days in such a terrible place is more than most people could handle-never mind six years. But Leo Thorsness endured. He saw the mission through. And when he returned in 1973, it was to an astonished and grateful nation.

But the man himself was unfazed. He called his wife after being released and said, "Gaylee, I would have called sooner, but I've been all tied up."

He later went on to serve in the Washington state senate and run for other offices. But his legacy is not one of the titles he won; it's the example he set.

He was quite a man, Leo Thorsness. And though we've lost him, we'll keep his memory-for a good long time to come.

Leo Thorsness, rest in peace.