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Joe Thorne and Coach Ralph Ginn.
Joe Thorne and Coach Ralph Ginn.

A Fitting Honor for Joe Thorne

Apr 6, 2011

Every time I return to Brookings, it seems my alma mater, South Dakota State University, has changed. On my last trip there to gather stories for a feature in our next issue, I saw the new Jackrabbit Village residential complex. Three new dorms in the formerly green patch near my old stomping grounds inside Brown Hall. Each is named for important alumni or faculty - Velva Lu Spencer (SDSU's first Native American adviser), Cleve Abbott (first African-American varsity athlete at State from Watertown) and Joe Thorne.

Thorne could have been many things, including a star on Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. But Thorne died in a fiery explosion near Qui Nhon, Vietnam in April 1965. He was just 24 years old and was the first South Dakotan killed in the Vietnam War.

Thorne was a high school football star at Beresford and became a strong fullback at State. He played on the 1961 conference championship team coached by the legendary Ralph Ginn. The Packers drafted him, and he attended a summer rookie camp in 1963. But when he didn't show again, Lombardi called his home. Thorne's dad told the coach that Joe hadn't gone to school to learn how to be a football player. He had joined the Army ROTC on campus and felt obligated to serve his country in the military. Lombardi said he understood and invited Joe to call him after his military service was complete.

But a little over a year later, enemy ground fire pummeled the helicopter he was piloting over Vietnam. Another nearby plane also took a direct hit. Both crashed and exploded, killing nine men.

Consider yourself lucky if you're living in one of the new halls. Their modernity and amenities far surpass anything else on campus. But take a moment the next time you step into Thorne Hall to remember its namesake.


04:03 pm - Sun, June 3 2012
William B Kimbrough said:
I knew Joe in Vietnam. I also was a helicopter pilot and assigned to the 145th Airlift Platoon. He was a great guy, fit in well and a very good helicopter pilot. I have a picture of three of us, including Joe, Christmas Eve, 1964. If anyone is interested I would be more than glad to send a copy. It is a great loss to the country that a person of Joe's abilities and character was killed in Vietnam. He never mentioned his football career and accomplishments.
09:57 pm - Mon, July 23 2012
Duane Vincent said:
To William Kimbrough - I joined the 145th ALP in June of 1965 and the loss of Joe Thorne and all of the others was still greatly felt by all of the members of the unit. As you may know, the 145th ALP was later merged into the 281st Assault Helicopter Company and they have yearly reunions which include a rememberance service for all of the unit's members lost in Vietnam. They would love to have a copy of the picture you mentioned. Please send a copy to Thanks!
10:07 am - Tue, July 24 2012
Alfred W Smith SFC Ret said:
I arrived in the 145th a week after Joe and his crew was lost along with Joe Foss.I was the first replacement. And I heard a lot about Thorn ,Bishop, Oliver,Milay and foss.To this day I think about them a lot.
11:06 am - Tue, September 30 2014
Larry Jackson said:
Joe was one of my best friends and a teammate during high school in Beresford and later at Brookings. He was a great athlete. I have lots of great memories of Joe. The last time I saw him was at a football game in Beresford the fall of 1964. That's when he told me he would be going to Viet Nam for a year. It's been almost 50 years now since I heard of his death on the radio that morning in April 1965. I couldn't believe Joe was dead...still can't. I'm very happy to know that he has a dorm named after him at SDSU.
05:31 pm - Sat, September 3 2016
Denny Holm said:
Recently I saw this article from SD magazine and it brought back so many fond memories of Joe. He was a wonderful guy and in spite of all of his success, he never took himself too seriously.
We became very close friends in high school and later I was best man in his wedding. Diane,the girl that he married was my date at a dance at SDSU. I introduced them and that was the end of my date. Later, Joe was also the best man at my wedding.
I think about Joe frequently and I am very thankful that I had the good fortune to have known him as a friend.

12:43 pm - Tue, March 21 2017
Kevin Kennedy said:
Joe was like a big brother to me. I was kid and Joe would come out to our farm just north of Beresford, SD. He used to play football with me as my parents considered him almost another son. I still to this day remember the day my folks told me what had happened to Joe. I will never forget his love of football and he giving of himself for his country.
02:17 pm - Fri, September 24 2021
Barry Nelson said:
Joe Thorne had an outsize impact on my life, in college and just after. It started in 1960 when, playing SDSC freshman football during a scrimmage against the varsity, I found the Beresford Bomb barreling through the line, straight at my cornerback position. Knowing his reputation, I summoned my nerve, as, “Wow, I’m going to tackle Joe Thorne!” flashed through my mind. In the next instant I was flat on my back watching his cleats fly over my face.

For a while thereafter the impact was less literal, just the thrill of seeing Joe’s exploits from the stands and writing them up for the Collegian’s sports page. But as I completed sophomore year, thinking of entering advanced Army ROTC in the fall—but aware that as recently married man, baby on the way, I probably could avoid military service—the example Joe had set by pursuing a commission in those same circumstances helped persuade me to go ahead.

Later came time to decide whether to take the Army up on an offer to buy me flight lessons at Brookings airport in exchange for a promise to accept orders to Army flight school after commissioning. Hey, Joe did it, it must be okay, right? And so it was that in April, 1965, my wife and I were watching from our quarters on my very first day at the Primary Helicopter School, when Walter Cronkite brought us the story of eight flag-draped caskets coming back from Vietnam—one, he announced, bearing the remains of 1LT Joseph Thorne from South Dakota.

That was an impact I couldn’t shake off. But, with Joe never far from my mind, I completed my training, served one anxious year flying Hueys in Vietnam… and soon after left the Army. And to this day, I mull the randomness of fate that brings some soldiers home to live lives and grow old, and denies that chance to others who may have deserved it more.

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