WESTBROOK, Minnesota (STPNS) -- By Tom Merchant

Sentinel Tribune

    Jacksonvile Florida —  Last week Leo K. Thorsness died last week at Mayo Clinic Care Center in Jacksonville, Florida at the age of 85. Thorsness was born on February 14, 1932, to  Bernice and Emil Thorsness of Rural Walnut Grove. Thorsness also had a brother John and a sister Donna.

    Thorsness grew up in Walnut Grove where he attended school, participating in several sports, and graduated from Walnut Grove High School. He attended South Dakota State University in 1950 and enlisted in the United States Air Force a year later. He married his wife Gaylee in 1953, they had one daughter Dawn.

    He graduated from the Aviation Cadet Program with a commission earning his wings. He served as a fighter pilot with Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command before he was sent to Vietnam with the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron. He and his wingman were shot down in April 1967.

    The U.S. Air Force veteran was shot down over North Vietnam and subsequently held captive by the North Vietnamese at the Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton." He was released on March 4, 1973, almost six years after he was shot down. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon on Oct. 15, 1973. He retired from the Air Force in 1973.

    Thorsness is survived by his wife Gaylee, and daughter Dawn, along with a host of relatives and friends.

    Last year Medal of Honor recipient Thorsness and his wife Gaylee returned to Walnut Grove along with fellow  Medal of Honor recipient  Gordon Roberts for a special ceremonies held at both WWG schools.

    The following is excerpts from the story of the event printed in the Sentinel Tribune.

    Much planning had taken place prior to the arrival of the Medal of Honor recipients coming to the schools. It is a part of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation‚ Character Development

Program, aimed at teaching both elementary and high school aged students how to make difficult choices based on what the Medal of Honor represents, including: courage,

commitment, sacrifice, patriotism, integrity, and citizenship.

    Upon arrival at the Walnut Grove School, Thorsness and his Wife Gaylee were greeted by members of the Walnut Grove American Legion and Auxiliary, as well as some childhood friends and classmates. Upon entering the school they were taken to the Walnut Grove History Center for some time to refresh and visit with other classmates and childhood friends.

    Thorsness was taken into the main gym, the same gym that he had played and watched basketball while a student there. He addressed the  elementary students and talked about

how he enjoyed the speed and rush of being a fighter  pilot, commenting it‚ was  the most fun job I could have had.

    He talked about how he grew up on a farm south of Walnut Grove, and going to school with Janice Wiggins. He talked about his time serving in Vietnam and how he was shot down, and captured by the North Vietnamese and taken to a Vietnamese prison camp, where he spent the next six years in captivity.

    In his youth Thorsness joined the Boy Scouts, and eventually he attained the highest rank in Scouting the Eagle Scout Award. He said, I learned a lot from my time in scouting it gave me a good path for living, as I went through life.

    Thorsness told the kids he was not trying to promote religion, but I tried  to live by four words‚ Friends, Faith,

Family and Fun, these are important to have some spirituality in your life!

    Leo then visited with members of the press while waiting for the re-naming of the city park.

     The park dedication Ceremony

The program started with the elementary band performing the National Anthem. Pastor Chuck Swanson of English and St. Olaf Churches gave the invocation. The official party for the ceremony were:  Retired Air Force Colonel Leo Thorsness, his wife Gaylee Thorsness, Jay Towne, John Doubler, Sandy Alcorn, Donald Johnson, Walnut Grove Mayor Greg Hansen, Randy Tietz, sons of American Legion and Pastor Chuck Swanson.

    Mayor Greg Hansen extended a welcome and thanks to special guests and to Jill  Mortenson (granddaughter of the Walter Stern family) as well as the Walnut Grove Legion Auxiliary, Loggers, Development Corporation and Area Foundation. He also welcomed the Medal of Honor recipients, and their special guests.

    After the ceremony  Thorsness visited with old friends and signed several of his books before going to Country View Estates for dinner before leaving for the Twin Cities. All in all it was a grand and historic day for Walnut Grove and the area.