Tag Archives: Medal of Honor

9 May 1926

The Byrd Arctic Expedition Fokker F.VIIa/3m at Spitzbergen, Svalbard, 9 May 1927. (Ohio State University Archives)

9 May 1926: Lieutenant Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr., and Chief Aviation Pilot Floyd Bennett, United States Navy, departed Spitzbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway, on a round-trip flight to the North Pole.

Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Byrd, Jr., U.S. Navy
Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Byrd, Jr., U.S. Navy (Library of Congress)
Chief Aviation Pilot Floyd Bennett, U.S. Navy (Photo NH 50611)
Chief Aviation Pilot Floyd Bennett, U.S. Navy. (U.S. Navy)

Their aircraft was a Fokker F.VIIa/3m three-engine, high-wing monoplane, construction number 4900. It was purchased for the Byrd Arctic Expedition by Edsel Ford, and named Josephine Ford in honor of his 3-year-old daughter, Josephine Clay Ford.

Fokker F.VIIa/3m c/n 4900, Josephine Ford. (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)
Fokker F.VIIa/3m, Josephine Ford. (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

With Chief Bennett as the expedition’s pilot and Lieutenant Commander Byrd navigating, they flew approximately 1,600 miles (2,575 kilometers) to the Pole and returned the same day. The total duration of the flight was 15 hours, 44 minutes.

Commander Byrd, President Coolidge, Warrant Officer Bennett.
Secretary of the Navy Curtis Dwight Wilbur, Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr., President John Calvin Coolidge, Jr., Warrant Officer Floyd Bennett and Admiral Edward Walter Eberle, at the White House, 5 March 1927.
Medal of Honor, U.S. Navy, 1919–1942.

For this accomplishment, Lieutenant Commander Byrd was promoted to Commander, and Chief Bennett to Warrant Officer. Both aviators were awarded the Medal of Honor by President Coolidge.

In the years since this event, there has been speculation that the airplane may not have actually reached the North Pole. Professor Gerald Newsom of Ohio State University, an astronomer who taught celestial navigation, analyzed Byrd’s handwritten notes and estimated that because of the inadequacies of the equipment then available to Byrd, Josephine Ford may have flown 21 miles (33.8 kilometers) beyond the North Pole, or fallen 78 miles (125.5 kilometers) short. Professor Newsom pointed out, though, that the fact the Byrd was able to return to Svalbard after nearly 16 hours proves that he knew how to navigate using that equipment under those conditions. (See http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/byrdnorth.htm for additional information.)

Richard E. Byrd holding a Bumstead Sun Compass used for celestial navigation at very high latitudes, 1925. (Maynard Owen Williams/National Geographic Society, Image ID 612617)
Richard E. Byrd holding a Bumstead Sun Compass used for celestial navigation at very high latitudes, 1925. (Maynard Owen Williams/National Geographic Society, Image ID 612617)
Fokker F.VIIa/3m c/n 4900, Josephine Ford (David Horn Collection)
Fokker F.VIIa/3 Josephine Ford (David Horn Collection)

Josephine Ford is the first Fokker F.VIIa/3m monoplane, c/n 4900. It was built by Anton H.G. Fokker’s Nederlandse Vliegtuigenfabriek at Veere, Netherlands in 1925, and made its first flight at Schipol, 4 September 1925. The airplane was disassembled and shipped to the United States. 4900 was flown in the First Annual Aerial Reliability Tour, 28 September–3 October 1925, by Egbert P. Lott.

The United States did not register aircraft prior to 1927. However, various sources attribute several different registration marks to Josephine Ford, e.g., NC267, NC297, NX4204. Though its serial number is generally accepted to be 4900, there are some sources that give the c/n as 600.

And again, sources vary as to the actual dimensions of the Fokker F.VIIa/3m. The Henry Ford, the museum which owns the airplane, gives its dimensions as 49.167 feet (14.986 meters) in length, with a wingspan of 63.5 feet (19.355 meters) and height of 12.75 feet (3.886 meters). Another source says that the airplane is 47 feet, 11 inches (14.605 meters) long with a wingspan of 63 feet, 4 inches (19.304 meters) and height of 12 feet, 8 inches (3.861 meters). Its empty weight is variously given as 4,630 pounds, 5,060 pounds or 6,724 pounds and maximum takeoff weight is 7,950 pounds, 8,800 pounds or 11,464 pounds. It has a cruise speed of 81 knots. Or 90. . . .

Josephine Ford was powered by three 787¼-cubic-inch-displacement (12.901 liter) air-cooled Wright Aeronautical Corporation Model J-4 Whirlwind nine-cylinder radial engines, rated at 215 horsepower at 1,800 r.p.m. The J-4 weighed 475 pounds.

Josephine Ford is in the collection of The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan.

Fokker F.VII/3m Josephine Ford, flown by the Byrd Arctic Expedition, in the collection of The Henry Ford Museum.
Fokker F.VIIa/3m Josephine Ford, flown by the Byrd Arctic Expedition, in the collection of The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan. (The Henry Ford Museum)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 May 1943

Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson presents the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Maynard Harrison Smith, United States Army Air Corps. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

SMITH, MAYNARD H. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Sergeant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 423d Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bomber Group.

Place and date: Over Europe, 1 May 1943.

Entered service at: Caro, Michigan.

Born: 1911, Caro Michigan.

G.O. No.: 38, 12 July 1943.

Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor

Citation: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty. The aircraft of which Sgt. Smith was a gunner was subjected to intense enemy antiaircraft fire and determined fighter airplane attacks while returning from a mission over enemy-occupied continental Europe on 1 May 1943. The airplane was hit several times by antiaircraft fire and cannon shells of the fighter airplanes, 2 of the crew were seriously wounded, the aircraft’s oxygen system shot out, and several vital control cables severed when intense fires were ignited simultaneously in the radio compartment and waist sections. The situation became so acute that 3 of the crew bailed out into the comparative safety of the sea. Sgt. Smith, then on his first combat mission, elected to fight the fire by himself, administered first aid to the wounded tail gunner, manned the waist guns, and fought the intense flames alternately. The escaping oxygen fanned the fire to such intense heat that the ammunition in the radio compartment began to explode, the radio, gun mount, and camera were melted, and the compartment completely gutted. Sgt. Smith threw the exploding ammunition overboard, fought the fire until all the firefighting aids were exhausted, manned the workable guns until the enemy fighters were driven away, further administered first aid to his wounded comrade, and then by wrapping himself in protecting cloth, completely extinguished the fire by hand. This soldier’s gallantry in action, undaunted bravery, and loyalty to his aircraft and fellow crewmembers, without regard for his own personal safety, is an inspiration to the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson reads the Citation for the Medal of Honor awarded to Staff Sergeant Maynard Harrison Smith, 306th Bombardment Group (Heavy). (Imperial War Museum, Roger Freeman Collection FRE 4379)

Sergeant Smith was a ball turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress on his first combat mission. The bomber was so badly damaged that, on landing, the airplane’s structure failed from battle damage and it broke in half. There were over 3,500 bullet and shrapnel holes.

Battle damage to the radio operator's compartment of Boeing B-17F-65-BO 42-29649. The bomber was salvaged 3 May 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Battle damage to the radio operator’s compartment of Boeing B-17F-65-BO 42-29649. The bomber was salvaged 3 May 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Maynard Harrison Smith was born at Caro, Michigan, 19 May 1911. He was the second child of Henry Harrison Smith, a lawyer, and Mary Christine Gohs Smith, a school teacher.

Smith worked as a clerk in a government insurance office. He married Miss Arlene E. McCreedy at Ferndale, Michigan, 31 July 1929. They had a daughter, Barbara Lou Smith. They divorced 22 October 1932. He later married his second wife, Helene Gene Gunsell, at Caro, Michigan, 30 March 1941.

Maynard Smith enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, 31 August 1941. He was trained as an aerial gunner, and on completion, was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant. He was assigned as a ball turret gunner in a B-17 combat crew of the 423rd Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 306th Bombardment Group (Heavy), based at RAF Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, England.

A gunner fires the two Browning .50 caliber machine guns of his electrically-powered Sperry ball turret.

Following the 1 May mission, Staff Sergeant Smith flew only four more combat missions before a medical board diagnosed him with Operational Exhaustion. He was removed from flight status and reverted to his initial rank of private.

While stationed in England, Sergeant Smith met Miss Mary Rayner, a British subject and USO volunteer. They were married in 1944. They would have four children.

Sergeant Smith was released from active duty, 26 May 1945.

Following World War II, Smith worked for the Department of the Treasury. He later founded Police Officers Journal, a magazine oriented toward law enforcement officers.

Based on an examination of certain facts in his life, as well as anecdotes by persons who knew him, it is fair to say the Maynard Smith was a troubled individual. But the extreme courage he displayed on 1 May 1943 cannot be denied.

Maynard Smith died at St. Petersburg, Florida, 11 May 1984 at the age of 72 years. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Staff Sergeant Maynard Harrison Smith, United States Army Air Force, was the first of only five Air Force enlisted airmen to be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. He was also awarded the Air Medal, with one oak leaf cluster (two awards).

This photograph shows SSGT Smith with a Browning .50-caliber machine gun at the left waist position of a B-17 Flying Fortress. (U.S. Air Force)
This photograph shows SSGT Smith with a Browning Machine Gun, Caliber .50, AN-M2, at the left waist position of a B-17 Flying Fortress. (U.S. Air Force) 

Boeing B-17F-65-BO Flying Fortress 42-29649 was assigned to the 423rd Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 306th Bombardment Group (Heavy) at RAF Thurleigh, near Bedford, Bedfordshire, England, 24 March 1943. It was identified by the letters RD-V painted on its fuselage.

On 1 May 1943, 42-29649 was one of 18 B-17s of the 306th Bombardment Group assigned to attack German Kriegsmarine submarine pens at Saint-Nazaire, on the Atlantic coast of France. Another 60 B-17s from three other groups were also part of the mission. Only 12 bombers from the 306th arrived over the target, which was heavily obscured by clouds. Each bomber carried two 2,000-pound (907 kilogram) General Purpose bombs, which were dropped from 25,200 feet (7,681 meters) on a heading of 270°. After a 20 second bomb run, the group released its bombs at 11:26 a.m.

Flying away from the target area, the 306th flew over the city of Brest at low altitude. It was attacked by 15–20 Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. Two bombers were shot down over the city and a third ditched near the coast.

Of the 78 B-17s dispatched, 7 were lost. 73 crewmembers were listed as Missing in Action, 18 Wounded in Action and 2 Killed in Action.

On 1 May 1943, 42-29649 was flown by Captain Lewis P. Johnson, Jr., aircraft commander/pilot; 1st Lieutenant Robert McCallum, co-pilot; 1st Lieutenant Stanley N. Kisseberth, bombardier; J.C. Melaun, navigator (?); Bill Fahrenhold, flight engineer/top turret gunner; Maynard H. Smith, ball turret gunner; Henry Bean, radio operator; Bob Folliard, waist gunner; Joe Bukacek, waist gunner; Roy Gibson, tail gunner. Bean, Folliard and Bukacek were killed in action, 1 May 1943.

This Boeing B-17F-55-BO Flying Fortress, 42-29524. also o fthe 423rd Bombardment Squadron, was very similar to teh one on which Sergeant Smith was the ball turret gunner. The squadron identification markings, "RD", are painted on the fuselage. The second letter "D" identifies this particular airplane. (U.S> Air Force)
This Boeing B-17F-55-BO Flying Fortress, 42-29524, Meat Hound, was also of the 423rd Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bombardment Group. 8th Air Force. It is the same type as the B-17F on which Sergeant Smith was the ball turret gunner. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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24–25 April 1945

First Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight, United States Army Air Corps, (U.S. Air Force)
Aviation Cadet Raymond L. Knight, United States Army Air Corps. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

RAYMOND L. KNIGHT

Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps.

Place and date: In Northern Po Valley, Italy, 24-25 April 1945.

Entered service at: Houston, Texas. Born: Texas.

G.O. No.: 81, 24 September 1945.

Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor

Citation: First Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight on 24 and 25 April 1945 in the northern Po Valley, Italy, piloted a fighter-bomber aircraft in a series of low-level strafing missions, destroying 14 grounded enemy aircraft and leading attacks which wrecked 10 others during a critical period of the Allied drive in northern Italy. On the morning of 24 April, he volunteered to lead two other aircraft against the strongly defended enemy airdrome at Ghedi. Ordering his fellow pilots to remain aloft, he skimmed the ground through a deadly curtain of antiaircraft fire to reconnoiter the field, locating eight German aircraft hidden beneath heavy camouflage. He rejoined his flight, briefed them by radio, and then led them with consummate skill through the hail of enemy fire in a low-level attack, destroying five aircraft, while his flight accounted for two others. Returning to his base, he volunteered to lead three other aircraft in reconnaissance of Bergamo Airfield, an enemy base near Ghedi and one known to be equally well defended. Again ordering his flight to remain out of range of antiaircraft fire, Lieutenant Knight flew through an exceptionally intense barrage, which heavily damaged his Thunderbolt, to observe the field at minimum altitude. He discovered a squadron of enemy aircraft under heavy camouflage and led his flight to the assault. Returning alone after this strafing, he made 10 deliberate passes against the field despite being hit twice more by antiaircraft fire, destroying six fully loaded enemy twin-engine aircraft and two fighters. His skillfully led attack enabled his flight to destroy four other twin-engine aircraft and a fighter airplane. He then returned to his base in his seriously damaged airplane. Early the next morning, when he again attacked Bergamo, he sighted an enemy plane on the runway. Again he led three other American pilots in a blistering low-level sweep through vicious antiaircraft fire that damaged his airplane so severely that it was virtually nonflyable. Three of the few remaining enemy twin-engine aircraft at that base were destroyed. Realizing the critical need for aircraft in his unit, he declined to parachute to safety over friendly territory and unhesitatingly attempted to return his shattered airplane to his home field. With great skill and strength, he flew homeward until caught by treacherous air conditions in the Apennine Mountains, where he crashed and was killed. The gallant action of Lieutenant Knight eliminated the German aircraft which were poised to wreak havoc on Allied forces pressing to establish the first firm bridgehead across the Po River. His fearless daring and voluntary self-sacrifice averted possible heavy casualties among ground forces and the resultant slowing of the drive which culminated in the collapse of German resistance in Italy.

1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight with a battle-damaged Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter bomber. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight with a battle-damaged Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter bomber. (U.S. Air Force)

Raymond Larry Knight was born 15 June 1922 in Houston, Texas. He was the third child of John Franklin Knight, a clerk, and Sarah Francis Kelly Knight. He attended John H. Reagan Senior High School in Houston, graduating in 1940.

Knight married Miss Johnnie Lee Kinchloe, also a 1940 graduate of Reagan High School, 5 June 1942. They had one son, Raymond Jr.

Knight enlisted as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Corps, 10 Oct 1942, and trained as a fighter pilot at various airfields in Texas. He graduated from flight school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant, May 1944. After advanced training, Knight was assigned to the 346th Fighter Squadron, 350th Fighter Group, 12th Air Force, at Tarquinia Airfield, Italy, in November 1944. He was promoted to first lieutenant in March 1945.

Lieutenant Knight flew 82 combat missions. He is credited with 14 enemy aircraft destroyed.

The Medal of Honor was presented to Mrs. Knight by Major General James Pratt Hodges at a ceremony at John H. Reagan Senior High School, 23 October 1945.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Lieutenant Knight was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters (six awards).

The remains of 1st Lieutenant Raymond Larry Knight, United States Army Air Corps, are interred at the Houston National Cemetery, Houston, Texas.

1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight and crew chief Sergeant Marvin Childers, with Republic P-47D-27-RE Thunderbolt 42-26785. This is the fighter bomber that he flew on the final mission. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight (at right) and crew chief Sergeant Marvin Childers, with Republic P-47D-27-RE Thunderbolt 42-26785, marked 6D5. This is the fighter bomber that he flew on the final mission. It was named “OH JOHNNIE” after his wife. (U.S. Air Force)

The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was the largest single-engine fighter that had yet been built. The first P-47D variant was very similar to the preceding P-47C. The Thunderbolt which Raymond Knight flew on his final mission was a P-47D-27-RE, serial number 42-26785. He had named it OH JOHNNIE after his wife. The Thunderbolt’s bubble canopy had been introduced with the Block 25 series, and Block 27 added a dorsal fillet to improve longitudinal stability which had been diminished with the new aft fuselage configuration. The P-47D-27-RE was 36 feet, 1¾ inches (11.017 meters) long with a wingspan of 40 feet, 9-3/8 inches (12.430 meters) The overall height was 14 feet, 7 inches (4.445 meters). The fighter’s empty weight was 10,700 pounds (4,853 kilograms) and maximum gross weight was 17,500 pounds (7,938 kilograms).

The P-47D-27-RE was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged and turbocharged 2,804.4-cubic-inch-displacement (45.956 liter) Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp TSB1-G (R-2800-59) two-row, 18-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The R-2800-59 had a Normal Power rating of 1,625 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. to 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) and a Takeoff/Military Power rating of  2,000 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. to an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). A large General Electric turbosupercharger was mounted in the rear of the fuselage. Internal ducts carried exhaust gases from the engine to drive the turbocharger. This supercharged air was then carried forward through an intercooler and then on to the carburetor to supply the engine. The engine’s mechanical supercharger further pressurized the air-fuel charge. The engine drove a 13 foot, 0 inch (3.962 meter) diameter four-bladed Curtiss Electric or Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propeller through a 2:1 gear reduction. The R-2800-59 was 6 feet, 3.72 inches (1.923 meters) long, 4 feet, 4.50 inches (1.340 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,290 pounds (1,039 kilograms).

The P-47D had a maximum speed in level flight of 444 miles per hour (715 kilometers per hour) at 23,200 feet (7,071 meters) with 70 inches Hg manifold pressure (2.37 Bar), using water injection.¹ The service ceiling was 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). It had a maximum range of 950 miles (1,529 kilometers) with internal fuel, and 1,800 miles (2,897 kilometers) with external tanks.

The Thunderbolt was armed with eight Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, four in each wing, with 3,400 rounds of ammunition. It could also carry external fuel tanks, rockets and bombs. The structure of the P-47 could be described as “robust” and it was heavily armored. The amount of damage that the airplane could absorb and still return was remarkable.

A total of 15,683 Thunderbolts were built; more than any other Allied fighter type. In aerial combat, it had a kill-to-loss ratio of 4.6:1. The P-47, though, really made its name as a ground attack fighter, destroying aircraft, locomotives, rail cars, and tanks by the many thousands. It was one of the most successful aircraft of World War II.

¹  A rebuilt R-2800-63 was run at War Emergency Power (2,600 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m.) for 7½ hours on a test stand, and was in running condition when the test was completed.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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21 April 1942

(Left to right) Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Admiral Ernest J. King, U.S. Navy, Mrs. O'Hare, Lt. (j.g.) Edward H. O'Hare, U.S. Navy.
(Left to right) Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Admiral Ernest J. King, U.S. Navy, Mrs. O’Hare, Lt. (j.g.) Edward H. O’Hare, U.S. Navy.

21 April 1942: Lieutenant (junior grade) Edward Henry (“Butch”) O’Hare, United States Navy, was presented the Medal of Honor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a ceremony at the White House. Also present were Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, and Mrs. O’Hare.

Lieutenant O’Hare received the Medal for his actions of 20 February 1942, the single-handed defense of his aircraft carrier, USS Lexington, in shooting down five of nine attacking Japanese G4M “Betty” bombers with his Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat and damaging a sixth. He was the first Naval Aviator to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, early 1942. This fighter is the same type flown by Lieutenant (j.g.) O'Hare, 20 February 1942.(U.S. Navy)
Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, early 1942. This fighter is the same type flown by Lieutenant (j.g.) O’Hare, 20 February 1942.(U.S. Navy)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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19 April 1967

Lieutenant Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

LIEUTENANT COLONEL LEO K. THORSNESS
UNITED STATES AIR FORCE

Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel (then Major), U.S. Air Force, 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron

Place and date: Over North Vietnam, 19 April 1967.

Entered service at: Walnut Grove, Minn.

Born: 14 February 1932, Walnut Grove, Minn.

Medal of HonorCitation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As pilot of an F- 105 aircraft, Lt. Col. Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lt. Col. Thorsness and his wingman attacked and silenced a surface-to-air missile site with air-to-ground missiles, and then destroyed a second surface-to-air missile site with bombs. In the attack on the second missile site, Lt. Col. Thorsness’ wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the 2 crewmembers abandoned their aircraft. Lt. Col. Thorsness circled the descending parachutes to keep the crewmembers in sight and relay their position to the Search and Rescue Center. During this maneuver, a MIG-17 was sighted in the area. Lt. Col. Thorsness immediately initiated an attack and destroyed the MIG. Because his aircraft was low on fuel, he was forced to depart the area in search of a tanker. Upon being advised that 2 helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew’s position and that there were hostile MiGs in the area posing a serious threat to the helicopters, Lt. Col. Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft defenses to the downed crew’s position. As he approached the area, he spotted 4 MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MlGs, damaging 1 and driving the others away from the rescue scene. When it became apparent that an aircraft in the area was critically low on fuel and the crew would have to abandon the aircraft unless they could reach a tanker, Lt. Col. Thorsness, although critically short on fuel himself, helped to avert further possible loss of life and a friendly aircraft by recovering at a forward operating base, thus allowing the aircraft in emergency fuel condition to refuel safely. Lt. Col. Thorsness’ extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.

Major Leo K. Thorsness and Captain Harold E. Johnson with their Republic F-105F Thunderchief, Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1967. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Leo K. Thorsness and Captain Harold E. Johnson with their Republic F-105F Thunderchief, Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1967. (U.S. Air Force)

AIR FORCE CROSS

CAPTAIN HAROLD EUGENE JOHNSON

Air Force Cross
Air Force Cross

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross

to Captain Harold Eugene Johnson (AFSN: 0-3116556/42372A), United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism as Electronics Warfare Officer of an F-105 aircraft of the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, engaged in a pre-strike, missile suppression mission over North Vietnam on 19 April 1967. On that date, Captain Johnson guided his pilot in attacking and destroying a surface-to-air missile installation with an air-to-ground missile. Through his technical skill, he immediately detected a second missile complex and guided the pilot into visual contact. Diving into a deadly barrage of anti-aircraft fire, his aircraft bombed and successfully destroyed this site. In the attack on this second missile site, a wingman was shot down by the intense anti-aircraft fire, and the crew members were forced to abandon their aircraft. Flying through hostile missile threats, Captain Johnson’s aircraft engaged and destroyed a MiG-17 while attacking a superior MiG force. He aided in the rescue efforts for the downed crew, engaged additional MiGs, and damaged one in the encounter. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness, Captain Johnson has reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

General Orders: Department of the Air Force, Special Order GB-363 (April 19, 1967)

Action Date: 19-Apr-67

Service: Air Force

Rank: Captain

Company: 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron

Regiment: 355th Tactical Fighter Wing

Division: Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam

Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson flew this Republic F-105F-1-RE Thunderchief, 63-8301, on 19 April 1967. It was one of 61 F-105Fs that were upgraded to the F-105G Wild Weasel III configuration beginning in late 1967. It survived the Vietnam War, but was destroyed 20 December 1974 when, assigned to the 35th TFW at George AFB, California, it crashed at the Cuddeback Lake Gunnery Range after an engine failure. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson flew this Republic F-105F-1-RE Thunderchief, 63-8301, on 19 April 1967. It was one of 61 F-105Fs that were upgraded to the F-105G Wild Weasel III configuration beginning in late 1967. It survived the Vietnam War, but was destroyed 20 December 1974 when, assigned to the 35th TFW at George AFB, California, it crashed at the Cuddeback Lake Gunnery Range after an engine failure. (U.S. Air Force)

A description of the air battle follows:

The first MiG kill of the day was recorded by Maj. Leo K. Thorsness, pilot, and Capt. Harold E. Johnson, Electronic Warfare officer (EWO), flying an F-105F. Thorsness’ flight consisted of four F-105F Wild Weasel aircraft, each plane being manned by a pilot and EWO and being specially equipped to locate and attack SAM sites. The flight was ahead of the main strike force and was committed to suppress SAM activity in the target area. About 8 to 10 MiG-17s attacked as the flight prepared to strike a SAM radar site with Shrike air-to-ground missiles. The Thorsness flight split up into three parts: the third and fourth aircraft entered into separate MiG engagements while Thorsness and his wingman continued the attack against the radar. The time was then about 4:55 p.m. Johnson provides an account of the encounter:

“We found and delivered our ordnance on an occupied SAM site. As we pulled off the site heading west, Kingfish 02¹ called that he had an overheat light. He also headed west, and the crew, Majors Thomas M. Madison, pilot, and Thomas J. Sterling, EWO, had to eject from their aircraft. We headed toward them by following the UHF-DF steer we received from their electronic beepers and saw them in the chutes. . .

“As we circled the descending crew, we were on a southerly heading when I spotted a MiG-17 heading east, low at out 9 o’clock position. I called him to the attention of Major Thorsness. . . .”

Thorsness continued the story:

“The MiG was heading east and was approximately 2,500 feet mean sea level. We were heading southeast and at 8,000 feet MSL. I began “S” turning to get behind the MiG. After one and a half “S” turns the MiG had progressed from the foothills over the delta southwest of Hanoi. The MiG turned to a northerly heading, maintaining approximately the same altitude and airspeed. Captain Johnson continued to give me SAM bearings, SAM-PRF [pulse recurrence frequency] status and launch indications as I continued to maneuver to attain a 6 o’clock position on the MiG.

“The first burst of approximately 300 rounds of 20 mm was fired from an estimated 2,000–1,500 feet in a right hand shallow pursuit curve, firing with a cased sight reticle. No impacts were observed on the MiG. Within a few seconds we were in the 6 o’clock position with approximately 75 to 100 knots overtake speed. I fired another burst of approximately 300 rounds of 20 mm. I pulled up to avoid both the debris and the MiG. While pulling up I rolled slightly to the right, then left. The MiG was approximately 100 feet low and to our left, rolling to the right. The two red stars were clearly discernible, one on top of each wing, and several rips were noted on the battered left wing. We continued to turn to the left and after turning approximately 130° again sighted the MiG, still in a right descending spiral. Just prior to the MiG’s impacting the ground, Captain Johnson sighted a MiG-17 at our 6:30 position approximately 2,000 feet back. I pulled into a tighter left turn, selected afterburner, and lowered the nose. I again looked at the crippled MiG, saw it impact the ground in what appeared to be a rice field. After confirming the MiG had in fact impacted the ground I made a hard reversal and descended very near the ground, heading generally westerly into the foothills.”

Thorsness then left the battle area, but returned after refueling to provide rescue combat air patrol during the search for his wingman’s aircrew. Thorsness and Johnson attacked another MiG and scored some damaging hits before they were themselves attacked by other MiG-17s. Although it is highly probable that Thorsness and Johnson destroyed a second MiG, this kill was not confirmed.

— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II at Pages 46 and 47.

Eleven days later, 30 April 1967, Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson were shot down by an AA-2A Atoll heat-seeking missile fired by a MiG-21 fighter piloted by Vũ Ngọc Đỉnh, 921st Fighter Regiment, Vietnam People’s Air Force. They ejected but were captured. Both men were held as Prisoners of War until 4 March 1973.

¹ Radio call sign for aircraft 2.

UPDATE: Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force (Retired) died Tuesday, 2 May 2017, at St. Augustine, Florida. He was 85 years of age.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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