Society of Wild Weasels

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Medal of Honor - April 19, 1967

On April 19, 1967, Major Thorsness and his Electronic Warfare Officer, Captain Harold E. Johnson, flying F-105F AF Ser. No. 63-8301, led Kingfish flight (three F-105F Weasel aircraft and an F-105D single-seater) on a Wild Weasel SAM suppression mission.[8] The strike force target was JCS target 22.00, the Xuan Mai army training compound, near heavily defended Hanoi.[9] Thorsness directed Kingfish 03 and 04, the second element of F-105s, to troll north while he and his wingman maneuvered south, forcing defending gunners to divide their attention. Thorsness located two SAM sites and fired a Shrike missile to attack one, whose radar went off the air. He destroyed the second with cluster bombs, scoring a direct hit.

After this initial success, matters turned for the worse. Kingfish 02, crewed by Majors Thomas M. Madison and Thomas J. Sterling,[10] flying aircraft F-105F AF Ser. No. 63-8341, was hit by anti-aircraft fire and both crewmen had to eject. Unknown to Thorsness, Kingfish 03 and 04 had been attacked by MiG-17s flying a low-altitude wagon wheel defensive formation.[11] The afterburner of one of the F-105s wouldn’t light and the element had disengaged and returned to base, leaving Kingfish 01 to fight solo.

As their F-105 circled the parachutes of Kingfish 02-Alpha and 02-Bravo, relaying the position to Crown, the airborne search and rescue HC-130 command aircraft, Johnson spotted a MiG-17 off their right wing. 8301, though not designed for air-to-air combat, responded well as Thorsness attacked the MiG and destroyed it with 20-mm cannon fire, just as a second MiG closed on his tail. Low on fuel, Thorsness outran his pursuers and left the battle area to rendezvous with a KC-135 tanker over Laos.

Thorsness described the incident:[12]

It appeared the MiG was going after the chutes so I took off after him. I was a little high, dropped down to about 1000 feet, and headed north after him. We were doing about 550 knots and really catching up fast. At about 3000 feet (range) I fired a burst but missed. I lined him up again and was closing very fast. I was a bit below him now. At 700 feet or so I pull my trigger and pulled the pipper through him. Parts of his left started coming off. Suddenly I realized that Harry Johnson was frantically trying to get my attention. There were a couple of MiGs on our tail! If I had hit that MiG dead on, we probably would have swallowed some of his debris. But we got him! I lit the burner, dropped down as low as possible, and ducked into the hills west of Hanoi. The MiGs could not keep up with us.

The F-105F, AF Ser. No. 63-8301, flown by Maj Thorsness and Capt Johnson on April 19, 1967.

As this occurred, the initial element of the rescue force—a pair of A-1E “Sandies”—arrived to locate the position of the downed crewmen before calling in the waiting HH-53 Jolly Green helicopters orbiting at a holding point over Laos. Thorsness, with only 500 rounds of ammunition left, turned back from the tanker to fly RESCAP (rescue combat air patrol) for the Sandies and update them on the situation and terrain. As Thorsness approached the area, briefing the Sandies, he spotted MiG-17s in a wagon wheel orbit around him and attacked, probably destroying another that flew across his path.

He commented:[13]

One of the MiGs flew right into my gunsight at about 2000 feet (range). I pulled the trigger and saw pieces start falling off the aircraft. They hadn’t seen us, but they did now! Johnson shouted at me that we had four more MiGs on our tail and they were closing fast. I dropped down on the deck, sometimes as low as fifty feet, hit the burner, and twisted through the hills and valleys trying to lose them.

Pairs of MiGs attacked each propeller-driven Sandy as it came out of its turn in search orbit, shooting down the leader (Maj. John S. Hamilton in A-1E 52-133905) with cannon fire when he failed to heed warnings from Sandy 02 to break into the attack, and forced the wingman into a series of repeated evasive turns.[10] Sandy 02 reported the situation and Thorsness advised him to keep turning and announced his return.

Although all of his ammunition had been depleted, Thorsness reversed and flew back to the scene, hoping in some way to draw the MiGs away from the surviving A-1. However, as he re-engaged, Panda flight from the 355th TFW strike force arrived back in the area.[14] It had dropped its ordnance on the target and was en route to its post-strike aerial refueling when Kingfish 02 went down. Panda had jettisoned its wing tanks, making the rescue radar controller reluctant to use it to CAP the rescue effort, but it filled its internal tanks and returned to North Vietnam at high altitude to conserve fuel.

Panda’s four F-105s burst through the defensive circle at high speed, then engaged the MiGs in a turning dogfight, permitting Kingfish 01 to depart the area after a 50-minute engagement against SAMs, antiaircraft guns, and MiGs. Panda 01 (Capt William E. Eskew) shot down a MiG, during which the surviving Sandy escaped, and he and his wingman Panda 02 (Capt Paul A. Seymour) each damaged one of the others. Two other MiGs were shot down by members of a third F-105 strike flight, Nitro 01 (Major Jack W. Hunt) and Nitro 03 (Maj Theodore G. “Ted” Tolman), in another of the 17 MiG engagements on this mission.[15]

Again low on fuel and facing nightfall, Thorsness was headed towards a tanker when Panda 03 (Capt Howard L. Bodenhamer), an F-105 of the flight that had rescued Sandy 02, transmitted by radio that he was critically low on fuel. Thorsness quickly calculated that Kingfish 01 had sufficient fuel to fly to Udorn, near the Mekong River and 200 miles closer, so he vectored the tanker toward Panda 03. When within 60 miles of Udorn, he throttled back to idle and “glided” toward the base, touching down “long” (mid-runway) as his fuel totalizer indicated empty tanks.

The mission was recreated by The History Channel as part of Episode 12 (“Long Odds”) of its series Dogfights, and first telecast on January 19, 2007.