1st Lt. Joe Thorne – First South Dakotan to be KIA in Vietnam 1965

This story came to me from my brother. He saw that South Dakota State University was playing a game this past weekend against Holy Cross university, a university that my brother played against when he was an All-American at Colgate University. This brought back an odd memory from our childhood to my brother, a memory that had clearly made a deep impression in his mind. The following is about the person that is at the center of that memory.

You see, we lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for a couple of years back in the early 60s when we were kids. I was about 14 years old, and he was about 11 at the time of this story. My brother’s memory was of a day when we were across the street from our house throwing a football back and forth in the huge manicured, grassy area in front of the Sioux Falls Veterans Hospital. He remembered a car stopping and parking along the curb and a college-aged guy stepping out and asking if he could throw the ball with us.

The next day, my brother, a budding athlete even at that age, read an article in the sports section of the local paper with a picture of this guy. Yes, that guy. The one who just the day before stopped to toss a few balls with us. It was about this college guy, by the name of Josef L. Thorne, who had just been named an All-American as a strong fullback playing for South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD.

Joe Thorne had a stellar football record at Beresford High School and then attended college at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD. He gained a reputation there as a very talented fullback, which was recognized nationally when he was named to the All-American list. He was so good, in fact, that he was drafted to play at the professional level by Vince Lombardi for the Green Bay Packers.

Photo: vvmf.org

Thorne attended the Packers’ summer training camp the summer after his graduation but did not return to the team after that. Lombardi phoned Thorne’s home to see what was up. His father, with South Dakota practicality, told Lombardi that his son, “did not go to college to learn how to be a football player.” Thorne told Lombardi that he had signed up with ROTC at SDSU as a student and, as a result, felt obliged to serve his country. Lombardi understood and told Thorne to contact him if he was still interested after he had completed his service.

That was in 1963. Thorne was commissioned a 2nd Lt. that year, went into the Army, and was trained as a helicopter pilot for Huey gunships. He was with the 145th Air Lift Platoon (pre-281st) when he was deployed to Vietnam, along with the first combat troops to enter the war in 1965. In April of that year, just 41 days after those first American combat troops landed in Vietnam, Thorne was flying a mission near Qui Nhon, a city on Qui Nhon Bay on the central coast of then South Vietnam. His helicopter and one other came under intense enemy ground fire and both were shot down. Thorne’s Huey exploded on hitting the ground. All 9 men on both helicopters were KIA. As a result, Thorne became the first South Dakotan to be killed in action in the Vietnam War.

His body was returned to the United States and to his home state of South Dakota. A funeral was held for Thorne at the Doner Auditorium on the SDSU campus. 800 people attended the event. The U.S. Senator from South Dakota at that time was George McGovern. He was one of the speakers at the event. McGovern said of Thorne, “He was a hero to thousands of South Dakota schoolboys. His death brings the war in Vietnam closer to the heart of every South Dakota citizen.”

Another speaker at the funeral said of Thorne, “He was a special guy, with a competitive spirit that never waned.” 1st Lt. Josef L. Thorne’s name is the 21st name carved into the black granite surface of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. Joe Thorne’s name is also mentioned in two of journalist Tom Brokaw’s books.

A powerful quote appears at the bottom of one of the resources that I looked at for this story. It states simply: “Man is not dead until he is forgotten.” We remember you, Joe Thorne. You were one of us, coming from the ranks of the common man, but your memory stands tall in the minds of all South Dakotans, and all Americans. It looms even larger now in the minds and hearts of two brothers who are now in their seventies, whose day was made when you, as a college student, stopped your car to toss the football with a couple of local kids in a field in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

You are not forgotten. Thank you, Joe Thorne, for being the person you were and for your sacrifice on behalf of the nation. We will not forget.

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