One year after graduating from West Point Thor Sundt walked off the bloody battlefield of Pork Chop Hill Korea a decorated combat hero. After the carnage of the battle Thor told a classmate that he never wanted to kill again. Instead he wanted to become a physician and save people, and humanity was the beneficiary. Nearly forty-years later he would stand on the Plain being recognized as one of the first four Distinguished Graduates in West Point history. Although Thor only served three years on active duty, he stood being honored with three of the greatest General Officers in American military history: Ridgway, Goodpaster and Van Fleet. Thor had fulfilled his dream of spending every day after Pork Chop Hill saving people. He had become arguably the best neurosurgeon in the world. As the leading neurosurgeon and Chairman of Neurosurgery at the world class Mayo Clinic he had saved countless lives and led the global development of the tactics, procedures and policies that fueled the innovation that created this life saving field.
That day in 1991 when Thor received his Distinguished Graduate Award he stood on the Plain , in pain and on crutches- barely able to stand after seven years of battling a cancer that had riddled his body. Yet despite his chronic pain he continued to work saving patients until the day he died. He passed away only three months after receiving the award. He had lived on determined to stand on the Plain and receive the Distinguished Graduate Award and primarily to pass along his life’s lessons to the cadets. He credited everything he had achieved in life to learning “discipline” at West Point as eloquently stated in Schofield’s Definition of Discipline. He always treated his soldiers and later his patients as if he served them not the other way around- following Schofield’s words: “He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself.”
Thor entered West Point in 1948 inspired by his two uncles Dan (USMA 1929) and Harold (USMA 1932) who distinguished themselves in World War II. Thor, or “Thunder” as his classmates called him, excelled at wrestling and often cut significant weight to make either the 135 or 145 pound weight class. In his cow year he met Lois Baker, who would be his soul mate for the next forty years. He was incredibly bright according to his classmates (but not according to himself), graduating at the top of his class and choosing the Corps of Engineers. His class graduated as the US was entering its third year of the Korean War and deployed immediately to the on-going battle raging across Korean. Before deploying to combat, however, he and Lois were married in October 1952.
As the Class of 1952 arrived in Korea in the spring of 1953, the US was in the midst of negotiating an armistice. It was during these negotiations that the second Battle of Pork Chop Hill occurred. Both the US and Chinese forces battled over Hill for months in a bloody battle that cost over 1,000 US casualties. Thor and many of his classmates led soldiers on Pork Chop HIll, Two ’52 classmates were killed in action: Dick Shea would receive the Medal of Honor and Dick Inman received the Silver Star, both posthumously for their courageous leadership. Because of the futility with mounting casualties in the midst of negotiating a peace, the US finally chose to withdraw from Pork Chop Hill. In the withdrawal LT Thor Sundt was tasked with destroying the trenches that the US forces were defending as the Chinese were attacking. Thor was one of the last soldiers to withdraw from Pork Chop Hill as he detonated the explosives on the attacking Chinese troops. He was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor for his leadership. Three weeks after the battle of Pork Chop Hill had ended with over 1,000 US casualties, the armistice was signed ending hostilities in Korea with 33,686 American soldiers killed in action. Humanity benefitted from the tragic events on Pork Chop Hill. Thor left Korea and in the downsizing of the Army chose to leave to pursue his dream of saving people and became the leading pioneer and the top Neurosurgeon world.
Thor returned to Lois and left the military in 1955. Lois and Thor moved to Memphis where he entered Medical School at the University of Tennessee. As they raised a young family of 3, he would work surveying construction jobs for the family business (Sundt Construction) until completing his internship and residency in the field of neurosurgery. After completing training he was on staff first at the Semmes-Murphy Clinic in Memphis, and then the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he would rise to become Chairman of Neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic. He was a pioneer in the field and developed innovative approaches including the first use of the microscope in neurosurgery. Being the best in the field, he always performed surgery on the patients with the most challenging neurological disorders- and he fought for them in the operating room just as he had fought for his country on the battlefield. He once told a patient who happened to be an Army veteran “You and I are going to retake this hill from the enemy (brain tumor). So put your trust in me and together we will win this battle”
He received the top awards in his field including the Grass Prize and Medal from the Society of Neurological Surgeons. He was the honored guest of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons and was one of few surgeons to be inducted into the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science. Thor received the Medal of Honor of the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies. He was the neurosurgeon of choice for US Presidents, Kings, farmers and children, and he loved them all.
At the same time as he was building a world-class career, he and Lois raised a wonderful family with three healthy and successful children: Thor (a cardiothoracic surgeon), John (a lawyer) and Laura (a Vice President at Merrill Lynch). In 1985 Thor was diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer and given eighteen months to live. With the discipline he credited to learning at West Point he continued to work every day performing surgery on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for up to seven hours a day, standing while he fought the cancer with everything he had. He loved his patients said they gave him his strength. His bones became so brittle he occasionally fractured a rib coughing. He was in chronic pain and was so disciplined in his work that he had a special body cast made to continue to stand on his feet in surgery. In his speech at West Point receiving the first Distinguished Graduate Awards he spoke eloquently about learning discipline at West Point, and other than self-deprecation, he selflessly spoke nothing about himself but only of others who had been his heroes and what they had taught him. Of all the accolades he received in his life, he was most proud being a member of the Long Gray Line and he had survived against all odds to be honored with three of the greatest generals of the 20th Century on the “rockbound highland home” that he loved so much.
In his last year of life in 1992, Thor's story was highlighted on "60 Minutes" with Leslie Stahl when he Lois, and several patients were interviewed about his leadership under fire- but this time his leadership under the fire of the cancer that was destroying his body. The story showcased his strength, humility, brilliance, and courage under extremely challenging conditions. Until the day he died and beyond Thor was an inspiration to his profession and to the patients that he believed he served, just as he had served and inspired his soldiers in the Korean War. After he passed away the "60 Minutes" story ran again, as "60 Minutes" elected him as one of the three most influential people ever interviewed in their esteemed interviewing history. Twenty years after his death, his family dedicated a room in his name and honor at the Thayer Hotel. At that emotional event Lois said Thor would have been both “proud and embarrassed” by the praise he received that day from the many classmates, family and friends who attended. He is a hero to all those cadets and graduates who are inspired by him to lead America both on the field of battle and later in life “on other fields, on other days.”