Monday, November 27, 2006

Mike and his flags

I got pointed to this story by happenstance or serindipity because a friend emailed me a question about John McCain. As I read up on this story, the connection to John McCain became less important. It is because of men like Mike and Leo that we do get to celebrate Thanksgiving and even 'suffer' to rush the barricades at 5AM on the Friday after for the Christmas deals.

Lt Col Leo Thorsness is one of those guys who has cajones the size of beachballs, to be very frank. He was a Wild Weasel pilot with the 357th out of Tahkli AB, Thailand. His mission would be to go in before the strike package and troll for SA-2 sites to fire at him, kill them if he could or at least keep them silent, and then stick around until after the strike package egressed back to Tahkli or Udorn. On April 19th, 1967 was another Wild Weasel mission into Route Pak Six for Thorsness. A four ship of Thuds took off to supress enemy air defenses with Major Thorsness leading. Thorsness' section went south while the other two Thuds went further north. Thorsness and his wingman proceeded to kill two SA-2 sites[Shrike and bombs respectively] before the wingman was hit by AAA. Both crew ejected safely from the stricken Thud and landed. Meanwhile the other section had RTB'd because one plane's afterburner would not work. So that left Major Thorsness alone covering his downed wingman amidst heavy enemy fire. Then things got exciting, a MiG-17 showed up; instead of abandoning his post Thorsness attacked and shot the MiG down. Now Thorsness' F-105 was running low on fuel and he has to hit a tanker to stay on station. As he heads out to refuel he hears the rescue force of A-1s and helicopters is being threatened by further MiGs; so Thorsness turns around - still low on fuel - and goes to chase off the bandits. He manages to damage one MiG and escape the others. So again Thorsness tries to hit a tanker when one of the rescue planes comes on the radio to announce they are low on fuel. Maj. Thorsess vectors the lost rescue plane to hit the tanker instead of him. After doing some calculations Thorsess figures he can get his F-105 home, just not back to Tahkli. Finally leaving North Viet Nam Thorsess makes it into Thailand and throttles that big thirsty J-75 back until he is gliding to Udorn which is 200 miles closer than Takhli. He recovers at Udorn with empty tanks but saves himself, his EWO, and his plane. For this mission Major Thorsess would be awarded the Medal of Honor, but the ceremony would have to wait until after 1973. On April 30th, 1967 on yet another Wild Weasel mission Thorsess was jumped by a MiG and shot down. Him and his EWO would spend the rest of the war in prison being abused by the North VietNamese. It was during this time his path would cross that of Naval aviator Lt. Michael D. Christian, BN, of VA-85 shot down on April 24, 1967.

The following is a condensed version of a speech Leo Thorsness gave:

You've probably seen the bumper sticker somewhere along the road. It depicts an American Flag, accompanied by the words "These colors don't run." I'm always glad to see this, because it reminds me of an incident from my confinement in North Vietnam at the Hao Lo POW Camp, or the "Hanoi Hilton," as it became known.

Then a Major in the U.S. Air Force, I had been captured and imprisoned from 1967-1973. Our treatment had been frequently brutal. After three years, however, the beatings and torture became less frequent. During the last year, we were allowed outside most days for a couple of minutes to bathe. We showered by drawing water from a concrete tank with a homemade bucket.

One day as we all stood by the tank, stripped of our clothes, a young Naval pilot named Mike Christian found the remnants of a handkerchief in a gutter that ran under the prison wall. Mike managed to sneak the grimy rag into our cell and began fashioning it into a flag. Over time we all loaned him a little soap, and he spent days cleaning the material. We helped by scrounging and stealing bits and pieces of anything he could use. At night, under his mosquito net, Mike worked on the flag. He made red and blue from ground-up roof tiles and tiny amounts of ink and painted the colors onto the cloth with watery rice glue. Using thread from his own blanket and a homemade bamboo needle, he sewed on stars.

Early in the morning a few days later, when the guards were not alert, he whispered loudly from the back of our cell, "Hey gang, look here." He proudly held up this tattered piece of cloth, waving it as if in a breeze. If you used your imagination, you could tell it was supposed to be an American flag. When he raised that smudgy fabric, we automatically stood straight and saluted, our chests puffing out, and more than a few eyes had tears. About once a week the guards would strip us, run us outside and go through our clothing. During one of those shakedowns, they found Mike's flag.
We all knew what would happen. That night they came for him. Night interrogations were always the worst. They opened the cell door and pulled Mike out. We could hear the beginning of the torture before they even had him in the torture cell. They beat him most of the night. About daylight they pushed what was left of him back
through the cell door. He was badly broken; even his voice was gone.

Within two weeks, despite the danger, Mike scrounged another piece of cloth and
began another flag. The Stars and Stripes, our national symbol, was worth the sacrifice to him. Now, whenever I see the flag, I think of Mike and the morning he first waved that tattered emblem of a nation. It was then, thousands of miles from home in a lonely prison cell, that he showed us what it is to be truly free.

Some background information on Mike Christian. He was raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Joined the Navy as enlisted in 1958. He then got commisioned and became a Naval aviator. He was serving aboard USS Kitty Hawk with VA-85 when he was shot down. After his release in 1973 Lt. Cmdr. Christian stayed in the Navy until he resigned his commision on February 1, 1978. He resigned to protest President Carter granting amnesty to all the Viet Nam draft dodgers. He died in 1983 in a house fire. During his Navy career Mike Christian earned 2 Silver Stars, 3 Bronze Stars, 4 Air Medals, the Legion of Merit, and the Navy Commendation Medal.

As for Leo Thorsness, he was released along with Mike Christian, John McCain, Bud Day, and 500+ other POWs in 1973. During the ejection from his stricken F-105, Thorness badly injured his back. Since his captors never gave him medical treatment for these injuries, after release he never flew an Air Force fighter again. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Nixon.

These are the true brave men who have stood guard upon the battlements protecting America from those who want to do greivous harm to this country. In the worst of times they have kept faith and endured, these are not dilletante soldiers who at the first frost head back to the warm comfort of bed and pub. They have earned our respect and their sacrifice makes the American flag something more than just bits of material, they make it a potent symbol of what America is about - ordinary people doing extraordinary things because they can freely do those things.


Anna said...

Thank you for sharing that story, Anna! Those are true heroes! What Mike suffered for our flag is absolutely amazing!

Anna said...

I know, those guys operated under the original Code of Conduct that did not allow any wiggle about 'resist to the best of my ability' as it now reads.

James Sockdale's book 'When Hell Was In Session' gives a glimpse of the torture routine the NVA practised. Or 'Five Years to Freedom' is another excellent read. Hanging someone from the ceiling by their arms, just dangling there feeling joints dislocate. Or the more physcial beating with rubber hoses or bamboo. Sleep deprevation. That and more were done to these men. NVA did not care about the Geneva Conventions. In the book 'On Yankee Station' the authors talk about a special training camp the Navy developed to teach pilots how to resist this brutality. How? The Navy proceeded to use as many of the techniques as they could humanely use on their own pilots. The pilots who broke in that crucible never got posted WestPac.

Those POWs are incredible people.

Mike's America said...

Well now that we passed the new detainee interrogation law we can be assured that no one will torture US military personnel... right?

Amazing how some people when deprived of all else cling to the flag as a symbol of freedom and hope. Too bad more people could not benefit from that example.

Anna said...

Too many people live in a bubble called suburban America and think its the norm for the whole world. Some even feel guilty for being so blessed and actively try to make amends, in all the wrong ways; instead of helping others achieve the American dream, they try to tear America down.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing that story, it has been a while since I have had a chance to see Mike Christian's story repeated.

I live in HSV and met him when he came to speak at Butler HS not to long after he had been released. I can still remember him as he stood in front of us talking about freedom in his formal dress blues.