In 1967, a 35-year-old Air Force pilot from Minnesota risked his life in a mission over North Vietnam, defending a downed air crew.
Maj. Leo Thorsness died last May, and flags will be at half-staff at state and federal buildings on Wednesday as a birthday remembrance of the Medal of Honor pilot.
Thorsness grew up on a farm in southwest Minnesota near Walnut Grove. Before he passed away, he was the state's only living Medal of Honor recipient.
He was always humble about receiving the nation's highest military honor. He told MPR News in 2007 there were many other soldiers, pilots and sailors who deserved the medal but were never recognized.
"Those of us who have the Medal of Honor, we wear that for those who can't," said Thorsness.
In April of 1967, Thorsness in an F-105 fighter plane was on a mission to attack surface to air missile sites in North Vietnam. When a U.S. plane nearby was shot down, Thorsness covered the crew as they parachuted to earth. He refused to leave even as his fuel and ammunition ran low, hoping to protect the airmen until a U.S. rescue team could reach them. At one point he lured enemy aircraft away from the downed crew, flying at treetop level at more than 900 miles an hour.
"That's very exciting to be zipping along at about 20 or 30 feet supersonic," said Thorsness. "It's kind of a blur, kind of a blur."
Eventually Thorsness had to glide the last 70 miles to safety at a U.S. airbase in Thailand after his fuel ran out. Less than two weeks later, on another mission, he was shot down and captured; spending six years as a prisoner of war.
John Kraemer is chairman of the Minnesota Medal of Honor Memorial. He said Thorsness should be remembered for his heroism.
"I know how revered a figure he was," said Kraemer.
The memorial Kraemer's group is putting up honoring all Minnesota Medal of Honor recipients is expected to be completed next year on the state capitol grounds.