By BONNIE BARTEL LATINO
Below is a story told by America’s most recently departed Medal of Honor recipient, Lt. Col. Leo K. Thorsness, USAF, (Retired), who died on May 2 of this year at age 85. More about Colonel Thorsness, can be found online at http://www.military.com/daily-news/2017/05/03/medal-honor-recipient-leo-k-thorsness-dies-age-85.html.
In early May, an Air Force friend of Tom’s and mine shared on Facebook the below story that Lt Col Thorsness had written before his death about a fellow POW in the “Hanoi Hilton” and what the US flag means to him:
“What do you think of when you see a little American flag in front of a grave marker? Let me tell you a story about one little flag. As a fighter pilot on my 93rd mission over North Vietnam, my F-105 was hit by an air-to-air missile and my Electronic Warfare Officer Harold Johnson and I, were forced to eject. After unsuccessful rescue attempts, we were captured by enemy forces and imprisoned in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for the next six years.
“One day in our sixth year of imprisonment, a young Navy pilot named Mike Campbell found a piece of cloth in a gutter. After we collected some other small rags, he worked secretly at night to piece them together into a flag. He made red from ground-up roof tiles and blue from tiny amounts of ink, then used rice glue to paste the colors onto the rags. Using thread from his blanket and a homemade bamboo needle, he sewed the pieces together, adding white fragments for stars.
“One morning he whispered from the back of our cell, “Hey gang, look here,” and proudly held up that tattered American flag, waving it as if in a breeze. We all snapped to attention and saluted – with tears in our eyes.
“A week later, the guards were searching our cells and found Mike’s flag. That night they pulled him out of the cell and, for his simple gesture of patriotism, they tortured him. At daylight they pushed what was left of Mike back through the cell door.
“Today, whenever I see our flag, I think of Mike and the morning he first waved that tattered emblem of our great nation. It was then, thousands of miles from home, imprisoned by a brutal enemy, that he courageously demonstrated the liberty it represents, and that is what I see in every American flag.”
Bonnie Bartel Latino is an award-winning journalist and novelist and former columnist for Stars and Stripes in Europe. She and her husband, retired Air Force Colonel Tom Latino, live in Atmore with their rescue dog, Bama Bella.