The Extraordinary Larry Thorne

Lauri Törni (Larry Thorne) Lauri Allan Törni (28 May 1919 – 18 October 1965), later known as Larry Thorne, was a Finnish Army captain who led an infantry company in the Finnish Winter and Continuation Wars and moved to the United States after World War II. He is known as the soldier who fought under three flags: Finnish, German (when he fought the Soviets in World War II), and American (where he was known as Larry Thorne) when he served in U.S. Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War.

Lauri Törni
Lauri Törni

Early life and military service Christened Lauri Allan Törni, he was born in Viipuri, Viipuri Province (Karelia historical province), (Karelia), Finland, to ship captain Jalmari (Ilmari) and Rosa (née Kosonen) Törni; his sisters were Salme Lesley (born 1920) and Kaija Iris (born 1922). Lauri was athletic and an early friend was future Olympic Boxing Gold Medalist Sten Suvio. After attending business school and serving with the Civil Guard, Törni entered military service in 1938, joining the 4th Independent Jaeger Infantry Battalion stationed at Kiviniemi; as the Winter War began in November 1939, his enlistment was extended and his unit confronted invading Russian troops at Rautu. Career World War II During the battles at Lake Ladoga, Törni took part in the annihilation of the encircled Russian divisions in Lemetti. His feats during these engagements were noticed by his commanders, and toward the end of the war, he was assigned to officer training where he was commissioned a Vänrikki (2nd lieutenant) in the reserves. After the Winter War, in June 1941, Törni went to Vienna, Austria for 7 weeks of training with the Waffen SS, and returned to Finland in July; as a Finnish officer, he was recognized as a German Untersturmführer (Second Lieutenant).

Lauri Allan Törni in Uniform der Waffen-SS
Lauri Allan Törni in Uniform der Waffen-SS

Most of Törni’s reputation was based on his successful feats in the Continuation War (1941–44) between the Soviet Union and Finland. Törni’s military career lasted for 27 years without pause. He volunteered in the military service, entering Battalion 4 of light infantry. As a non-commissioned officer serving in Infantry Battalion 4, Törni was assigned to a supplementary refresher course and ended up in the Winter War. He was a patrol leader and the deputy commander of a Swedish-speaking company within the battalion. Toward the end of the war he took Course 45 in the reserve officers’ school (RUK) in Niinisalo. After RUK Törni was transferred from Infantry Regiment 12 to serve the armed forces as a platoon commander, hired for a supplementary second lieutenant. In May 1941 Finns were being recruited for military service and Törni, too, enlisted as a volunteer. However, he only served in the SS-troops (SS Freiwilligen Bataillon Nordost) in Germany from the beginning of June till the end of July. Due to the great numbers of officers in the battalion, Törni was returned to Finland with several other “extra officers”. Next, Törni became the leader of the tank battalion (founded on August 15, 1941) of the light infantry battalion 8 in the first division. The battalion advanced to Karhumäki, Petrozavodsk and Käppäselkä. Törni was severely wounded by a mine on a nocturnal ski patrol in Malu on March 23, 1942. He was injured by splinters all over his body and suffered from a partial stroke. After Midsummer he returned from the stationary hospital in Seinäjoki to his previous detachment as the 1st company commander, having been promoted to yliluutnantti (First Lieutenant). When the aggressive warfare became stabilized, the detachment was disbanded and Törni was transferred to Infantry regiment 56. In 1943 a famous unit informally named Detachment Törni was created under his command. This was an infantry unit that penetrated deep behind enemy lines and soon enjoyed a reputation on both sides of the front for its combat effectiveness. One of Törni’s men was future President of Finland, Mauno Koivisto. The two served together during the Battle of Ilomantsi, which was the final Finnish-Soviet engagement of the Continuation War during July and August 1944. Koivisto participated in the battle as a soldier assigned to a reconnaissance company under the command of Captain Törni.

Kapteeni Lauri Törni during the Continuation War.
Kapteeni Lauri Törni during the Continuation War.

Törni’s unit inflicted such heavy casualties on Russian units that the Soviet Army placed a bounty on his head of 3 million Finnish Marks. He was decorated with the Mannerheim Cross on 9 July 1944.

Shoulder patch of Detachment Törni
Shoulder patch of Detachment Törni

The September 1944 Finnish peace treaty with the Soviets required Finland to remove German troops from its territory and resulted in the Lapland War; also, much of the Finnish Army was demobilized along with Törni, leaving him unemployed in November 1944. In January 1945, he was recruited by a pro-German resistance movement in Finland and left for saboteur training in Germany, and to organize resistance in case Finland was occupied by the Soviet Union. The training was prematurely ended in March, but as Törni could not secure transportation to Finland, he joined a German Schutzstaffel (SS) unit to fight against Russians near Schwerin, Germany. He surrendered to American and British troops in the last stages of World War II and eventually returned to Finland in June 1945 after escaping a British POW camp in Lübeck, Germany. When Finland withdrew from the war, Törni went to Germany, performing special duties as a Hauptsturmführer (Nazi paramilitary rank, equivalent to Captain) in the SS, from late January until early May 1945. Törni fought the Russians near Schwerin, Germany. He surrendered to American and British troops in the last stages of World War II and eventually returned to Finland in June 1945 after escaping a British POW camp in Lübeck, Germany. Lauri Törnieventually returned to Finland whereupon he was promptly arrested by the ValPo (The State police) for treason for having joined the German Schutzstaffel or SS. After Finland was forced into war against Germany, taking service in the German armed forces was a clear case of treason, and Törni was sentenced to six years in January 1947. Törni was Imprisoned at the Turku provincial prison, he escaped in June, but was recaptured and sent to the Riihimäki State Prison. Finnish President Juho Paasikivi granted him a pardon in December 1948. Lauri Törni faced increasing harrassement by the Red-controlled State Police (Valpo) in Finland, he emigrated in 1949-51 via Sweden and Venezuela to the United States, where he succeeded, after many twists and turns, in enlisting in the US armed forces. US Flag Emigration to the United States In 1949 Törni, accompanied by his wartime executive officer Holger Pitkänen, traveled to Sweden, crossing the border from Tornio to Haparanda (Haaparanta), where many inhabitants were of ethnic Finnish origin. From Haparanda Törni traveled by railroad to Stockholm where he stayed with Baroness von Essen, who harbored many fugitive Finnish officers following the war. Pitkänen was arrested and repatriated to Finland. Remaining in Sweden, Törni fell in love with a Swedish Finn, Marja Kops, and was soon engaged to be married. Hoping to establish a career before the marriage, Törni traveled under an alias as a Swedish seaman aboard the SS Bolivia, destined for Caracas, Venezuela. In Caracas, Törni met one of his Winter War commanders, Finnish colonel Matti Aarnio, who was in exile having settled in Venezuela after the war. From Caracas, Törni hired on to a Swedish cargo ship, the MS Skagen, destined for the United States in 1950. While in the Gulf of Mexico, near Mobile, Alabama, Törni jumped overboard and swam to shore. Now a political refugee, Törni traveled to New York City where he was helped by the Finnish-American community living in the Sunset Park, Brooklyn “Finntown”. There he worked as a carpenter and cleaner. In 1953, Törni was granted a residence permit through an Act of Congress that was shepherded by the law firm of “Wild Bill” Donovan, the former head of the OSS, America’s wartime covert military organization. United States Army In 1953, Törni was granted a permit of residence through the Lodge Act (The Lodge-Philbin Act was a U.S. federal law, passed on 30 June 1950, which allowed for the recruiting of foreign nationals into a military force fighting under the command of the U.S. Armed Forces). He joined the US Army in 1954 and changed his name to Larry Allen Thorne. Joining other highly decorated Finnish American officers who were in Special Forces at the time, he became an instructor in skiing, survival, mountaineering, and guerrilla tactics. He attended airborne school, and advanced in rank; attending Officer Candidate School, he was commissioned as a 1st lieutenant in the Signal Corps in 1957. From 1958 to 1962 he served in the 10th Special Forces Group in West Germany at Bad Tölz. While there he was second in command of a search and recovery mission high in the Zagros mountains of Iran, which gained him a notable reputation. He later received a regular commission and a promotion to captain in 1960.  

Captain Larry Thorne.
Captain Larry Thorne.
10th Special Forces Group Patch.
10th Special Forces Group Patch.

His first tour in Vietnam, from 1963 to 1964, was as the Detachment Commander of SFODA-734 in the Mekong Delta. In February 1965, assigned to MACV, he was instrumental in establishing the SOPs employed by the fledgling Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG).

Larry Thorne, Vietnam 1962.
Larry Thorne, Vietnam 1962.

On October 15, 1965, Thorne was inserted as an observer on the very first MACV-SOG cross-border operation. When the team was inserted, Thorne, who had planned the mission, remained in the area in case the team ran into trouble. Once he received word that the team was safe, he radioed that he was on its way back to base. His helicopter crashed. Although the crash site was located, he was listed as Missing in Action. He was promoted to the rank of Major in December 1965. Vietnam War and death Deploying to South Vietnam in November 1963 to support South Vietnamese forces in the Vietnam War, Thorne and Special Forces Detachment A-734 were stationed in the Tịnh Biên District and assigned to operate Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) encampments at Châu Lăng and later Tịnh Biên. During a fierce attack on the CIDG camp in Tịnh Biên, he received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star Medal for valor during the battle. This attack would later be described by author Robin Moore in his book The Green Berets. Thorne’s second tour in Vietnam began in February 1965 with 5th Special Forces Group; he then transferred to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV–SOG), a classified U.S. special operations unit focusing on unconventional warfare in Vietnam, as a military advisor. On 18 October 1965, he was supervising a clandestine mission during which his Vietnam Air ForceCH-34 helicopter crashed in a mountainous area of Phước Sơn District, Quảng Nam Province, Vietnam, 25 miles (40 km) from Da Nang. Rescue teams were unable to locate the crash site. Shortly after his disappearance, Thorne was promoted to the rank of major.

CH-34 Helicopter.
CH-34 Helicopter.

In 1999, Thorne’s remains were found by a Finnish and Joint Task Force-Full Accounting team and repatriated to the United States following a Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport ceremony that included Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Ambassador Pete Peterson. Formally identified in 2003, his remains were buried on 26 June 2003 at Arlington National Cemetery, section 60, tombstone 8136, along with the Vietnam casualties of the mission recovered at the crash site.

Larry Thorne - Lauri Törni burial at Arlington Cemetary.
Larry Thorne – Lauri Törni burial at Arlington Cemetary.

  Details of service

  • The Finnish Army
    • 3 September 1938, military (reserve)
    • 1 March 1939, reserve corporal
    • 9 May 1940, reserve second lieutenant
    • 5 March 1942, reserve lieutenant
    • 27 August 1944, reserve captain
    • 6 October 1950, removed from officers list
  • Finnish decorations:
    • 2 class medal of freedom, 26 July 1940
    • 1 class medal of freedom, 24 August 1940
    • 3rd class Cross of Liberty, 9 October 1941
    • 4th class Cross of Liberty, 23 May 1942
    • Mannerheim Cross, 9 July 1944
    • 1st Div. memorial cross
    • Defence Forces bronze medal

 

The Mannerheim Cross.
The Mannerheim Cross.
  • German army, the Waffen-SS
    • 18 May 1941, Untersturmführer (Nordost)
    • 15 April 1945, Hauptsturmführer (Sonderkommando Nord)
  • German decorations:
    • 2 class Iron Cross, 11 December 1943

 

Iron Cross Second Class.
Iron Cross Second Class.
  • United States Army
    • 28 January 1954, enlisted
    • 20 December 1954, Private First Class
    • 28 April 1955, Corporal
    • 17 November 1955, Sergeant
    • 9 January 1957, Lieutenant (res.)
    • 30 November 1960, Captain (res.)
    • 16 December 1965, Major (res., posthumously)
  • United States Army decorations:
    • Legion of Merit
    • Distinguished Flying Cross
    • Bronze Star
    • Purple Heart (twice)
    • Air Medal
    • Army Commendation Medal
    • Good Conduct Medal
    • Vietnam Campaign Medal
    • Vietnam Service Medal
    • Combat Infantry Badge
    • Parachute Badge (Master)

Purple Heart.
Purple Heart.
Bronze Star Medal.
Bronze Star Medal.

Legacy In the 1990s, Törni’s name became more and more well-known as a war hero, with numerous books being written about him. He was named 52nd in the Suuret Suomalaiset listing of famous Finns; in the 2006 Suomen Sotilas (Finnish Soldier) magazine listing, he was elected most courageous of the Mannerheim Cross recipients. In Finland, the survivors, friends, and families of Detachment Törni formed the Lauri Törni Tradition Guild. The Infantry Museum (Jalkaväkimuseo) in Mikkeli, Finland, has an exhibit dedicated to Törni, as does the Military Museum of Finland in Helsinki. Thorne’s U.S. memorial is the Larry Thorne Headquarters Building, 10th SFG(A), Fort Carson, Colorado. 10th Group honors him yearly by presenting the Larry Thorne Award to the best Operational Detachment-Alpha in the command. The Special Forces Association Chapter 33 in Cleveland, Tennessee is named after him. In 2010 he was named as the first Honorary Member of the United States Army Special Forces Regiment. In the book The Green Berets by Robin Moore, the “Sven Kornie” (or Captain Steve Kornie) main character in the first chapter was based on Thorne. In their 2013 book Tuntematon Lauri Törni [Unknown Lauri Törni], authors Juha Pohjonen and Oula Silvennoinen argue that Törni’s conviction for treason was justified because the SS training he received at the end of World War II was provided to help achieve a National Socialist coup in Finland. This view is disputed by Törni Heritage Guild members Markku Moberg and Pasi Niittymäki, who acknowledge Törni faced pressure from war and alcohol, but did not support Germany. Moberg also expresses disappointment in what he terms a false picture of a man who is no longer able to defend himself. Finnish historian Jussi Niinistö argues that Törni’s training was motivated by patriotism, not sympathy for a Nazi coup. He takes issue with the book authors, asserting they intentionally stirred up hatred to promote sales of their book; and Niinistö also justifies the context for Torni’s brief post-Continuation War German training with “the fact that in Finland there was a genuine fear that Russia would occupy Finland.” The Swedish power metal group Sabaton have a song on their 2014 album Heroes titled “Soldier of 3 Armies” which is about Törni’s participation in three different military forces. References

 

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