A magic moment in the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong

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In the past week, much has been written about Neil Armstrong and his historic mission to the moon 43 years ago. He was described as a historic pioneer; a great aviator and astronaut; and a man of great humility. All of this praise is richly deserved. However, there is one story about his life that has not been told publicly.

Neil Armstrong, shown here with NASA's experimental X-15, was no stranger to heroics, but showed his trademark humility in the presence of Medal of Honor winners at a 2004 ceremony.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Neil Armstrong, shown here with NASA's experimental X-15, was no stranger to heroics, but showed his trademark humility in the presence of Medal of Honor winners at a 2004 ceremony.

IN 2004, AT THE New York Stock Exchange in downtown Manhattan, the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation was conducting an annual fund-raising event. The ballroom of the Stock Exchange was full. Seated at each of the 28 tables was a Medal of Honor recipient. A major award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation was to be presented to an outstanding American that evening. The recipient of the Circle of Honor Award was Neil Armstrong.

The man who had been selected to introduce Armstrong that evening was the perfect choice: Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. Thorsness earned his medal in aerial combat over North Vietnam in 1967. Two weeks after his heroic mission, he was shot down. He spent six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He had been tortured daily for many months in a row. His torture was so severe that his back was broken four times.

As he was introducing Armstrong, Thorsness told a personal story that captured the attention of the entire audience. Thorsness explained that the POWs were bombarded by enemy propaganda every day but received almost no news of world events during their long periods of captivity.

On rare occasions, one of the prisoners would get a letter or a small package from home. In 1970, a year after the historic voyage of Apollo 11, a package arrived that contained a small sugar packet. Imprinted on the packet was a
rendering of Armstrong on the moon.

SINCE TALKING among the POWs was strictly forbidden – torture would follow immediately – the message was passed cell to cell by the prisoners’ tap code. As Armstrong’s feat reached each of the tiny prison cells, the chests of the POWs burst with pride. Neil Armstrong’s feat seemed to minimize the suffering of the 350 POWs in a communist prison camp. Tears of joy flowed everywhere in the Hanoi Hilton.

When Thorsness’ moving introduction was complete, Armstrong started his talk with some unscripted words. His voice shook with emotion when he told the assembled audience that he had never heard that story before.

He said that, in the past, he had been introduced to audiences by kings, by queens, and by presidents and prime ministers of
great nations, but he had never had an introduction like the one he had just received. He then told
everyone how much respect he had for those who wore the Medal of Honor, and how humble he
felt to be in the presence of such men.

Here was a man who had accomplished an amazing feat, saluting others who had given so much. The quality that Armstrong demonstrated that night and throughout his entire life was one he shared with the Medal of Honor recipients. That quality was profound and sustained humility.

ARMSTRONG NEVER took advantage of his great fame. He always gave credit for his accomplishments to those who supported the mission to the moon. That night, Armstrong bonded with the recipients of the Medal of Honor and they bonded with him. It was a magic moment.

To shift gears a bit, here are highlights of the recent work of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

Last month, Lockheed Martin committed $2.5 million to support the foundation’s Character Development Program. This program incorporates the ideals of courage and selfless service into middle-school and high-school curricula to build character and promote responsible citizenship. The entire curriculum can be found on the foundation website: cmohfoundation.org. There is no fee required for anyone who wishes to use the program.

Finally, in the months ahead, Medal of Honor recipient Jimmie Dyess will be honored three times here in Augusta – at the Hall of Fame banquet of the Academy of Richmond County, Oct. 4; at the Jimmie Dyess Scout Jamboree at Fort Gordon, Oct. 5-7; and at the Jimmie Dyess Symposium at the Augusta Museum of History, Jan. 10.

The museum event is open to the public at no charge. Please join me in becoming a sponsor for this event. Contact Nancy Glaser or Kristie Linn at the museum for details – (706) 722-8454.

(The writer – a retired U.S. Air Force major general – serves on the boards of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, the Augusta Warrior Project and the Augusta Museum of History. His email address is genpsmith@aol.com. His website is genpsmith.com.)

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