Two of only 79 living Congressional Medal of Honor recipients were honored at DeKalb Middle School Friday. Members of the family of another recipient, Sergeant Alvin C. York, were also recognized.
Retired United States Air Force Colonel Leo Thorsness, 85, and retired United States Army Officer Harold (Hal) Fritz, 71, were both awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in the Vietnam War. Plans to bring the two honorees in on a Blackhawk helicopter were thwarted by the weather, and the men were instead brought to the school in a black SUV with Secret Service protection.
Thorsness, a native of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, received the Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam after being held prisoner for six years by the North Vietnamese. He flew 92 successful missions before being forced to eject from his plane after the heroic actions of his 93rd. He saved several other fighters from harm when he knew he was low on fuel before abandoning his plane over enemy territory. He suffered injuries to both legs in the incident, and was captured by the North Vietnamese military.
Thorsness was released in 1973, and retired from the Air Force. President Richard Nixon presented him with the Medal of Honor on October 15, 1973.
Fritz, a native of Chicago Illinois, was drafted in 1966, and after advanced armor training, he was accepted into Officer Candidate School. He was sent to Vietnam in 1968, where he was leading a column of heavily armored vehicles on a dirt highway near Quan Lo when he was blown out of his vehicle by an explosion and caught in a crossfire by a large North Vietnamese force.
Fritz manned another armored vehicle, fought off a large number of enemy troops, and led a small group of men in a charge to hold the larger enemy back. He and his men were eventually rescued by a tank platoon that had answered his call for help.
When he returned to the battlefield later that day he found a cigarette lighter that his wife had given him as a going-away present. The lighter, which had been in his left breast pocket, had stopped a bullet that would likely have killed him.
He also received his Medal of Honor from Richard Nixon, in 1971.
"We are so blessed just by being born in America. We wear this medal for those who can't. We wear it for everybody who served," Thorsness said in his remarks to the crowd at DMS.
"War is a terrible thing. But I believe beyond my lifetime that somebody or maybe some people sitting in this audience will be the key to finding a way to peaceably settle disagreements between individuals and countries. You are going to play a role in that. You are going to be part of that solution. Your contributions are very important. The two greatest weapons in the world today are faith and education. Always extend your hand out to your fellow American to help them. They in turn will help you and others. That's what makes America so great. That's why men and women serve. Because we want to preserve freedom, not only for today but for the future," Fritz told the assembly.
Members of World War I MOH recipient Alvin C. York, including York's son Andrew Jackson York, daughter Betsy Ross York Lowery and grandchildren, Gerald York and Deborah Marie York, the executive director of the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation, also attended the event.
DMS Principal Randy Jennings stressed to his students that the men being honored were true heroes.
"As students you guys look up to a lot of people; basketball players, singers, actors, and all those people you put on a pedestal. We use the term hero very loosely a lot of times. Those are just famous people. They are not necessarily heroes. Here are the real heroes. We are honored to have our Medal of Honor recipients with us," Jennings said.
Thorsness and Fritz answered selected questions from DMS students with Tom Duggin serving as moderator.
Thanks to teacher Tena Davidson, DMS was one of a handful of schools in Middle Tennessee to be visited by Medal of Honor recipients as part of the "Nashville Salutes" program, which Davidson introduced to her students last year.