Lauri Allan Törni, 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 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.
Retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Hogan Walking into the Headquarters of the Green Berets 10th Special Forces Group in Bad Tolz, Germany as a newly assigned Lieutenant in June of 1961, not knowing what to expect, was the start of the second best assignment I had in the US Army (the best was commanding a Battalion of over 700 men and women in the 8th Infantry Division in Europe during the Cold War).
With this type of mission, it soon became apparent that within the ranks of Special Forces Soldiers were some rather unusual people. Since the mission of the Group was unconventional warfare behind enemy lines, one of the main considerations for staffing the units that would be deployed was the ability of the men to blend into the local citizenry. Obviously a man who spoke fluent Hungarian would be a tremendous asset for a group going behind enemy lines in Hungary. (In addition it would probably give him a much better chance to stay alive.) The same would apply for Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and other eastern European countries targeted for US operations. Likewise, people who were experts in the culture, habits, and appearance of the natives would increase the probability of successful operations behind the lines.
Added to these needed characteristics was the ability for a man to operate in the unusual environment of unconventional operations. More than likely, the insertion of the Soldiers behind the enemy lines would be done by parachute and then their only contact with other Americans would be by radio; their war would be fought, for however long it took, with the native forces behind the enemy lines. Former OSS operators, Ranger, and Airborne Soldiers from the American Army gravitated to this unit. Another special group of men also were there; the “Lodge Bill” troops. These were immigrants from politically persecuted countries who could become US citizens by serving in the US Army.
Larry was a Finn who entered the Finnish Army in 1938 at the age of 19. War broke out between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939 and for the next six years he fought the Russian Army, first as an officer in the Finnish Army; then as an officer in the German SS after Finland surrendered to the Soviets in 1944. While in the Finnish Army he became famous in the period of 1941-1944 when a unit was created under him to penetrate and fight deep behind enemy lines. His unit became so good and so famous the Russians put an unheard of $650,000 bounty on his head. Leading his unit, he received the highest Finnish medal, their Medal of Honor, for his activities behind enemy lines.
When the Finns and the Russians signed their peace treaty, Thorne was dissatisfied with the terms so he went to Germany where he joined the German SS to continue his fight against the Russians. In the last stages of the war he surrendered to the British and eventually returned to Finland after escaping a British POW camp. When he returned, he was then arrested by the Finns, even though he had received their Medal of Honor, and was sentenced to 6 years in prison for treason. He was then pardoned by the Finnish president in December of 1948.
Lauri Allan Törni, 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 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.Escaping from Finland after his pardon, he went to Sweden where he fell in love with a Swedish Finn. He hoped to establish a career before he was married so he disguised himself as a seaman and got on a ship headed for Venezuela. Arriving there, he then got on a ship headed for the United States; when it got near Mobile, Alabama, in the Gulf of Mexico, he jumped off the ship and swam to shore. He made it to New York where there was a strong Finnish community and was successful in getting a job as a carpenter. In 1953 he was granted a permit of residency through an Act of Congress that was sponsored by “Wild Bill” Donovan, the former head of the OSS group during WWII.
In 1954 he joined the US Army as a Private under the provisions of the Lodge Act. And as you would expect, he soon ended up in the US Special Forces organization. Going to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he became an instructor at the Special Warfare School where he taught survival, skiing, mountaineering, and guerrilla tactics. He also learned parachuting and was soon an expert in this area.
Rising through the ranks quickly, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1957 and then promoted to Captain in 1960. From 1958-1962 he was in the 10th Special Forces Group and this is where I got to know him.
In 1962, as a Captain, he led his Special Forces team onto the highest mountain in Iran to recover the bodies from an American C-130 airplane that had crashed and also to recover classified material on the plane. While others had failed before, Thorne and his men did what they had set out to do.
In 1999 a recovery team made it to the site of the helicopter crash and recovered the bodies of Major Thorne and the other passengers. In 2003 he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
He was the only American POW/MIA to fight communism under three flags: Finland, Germany, and America. Today in Finland he is remembered as a hero and at Fort Carson, Colorado, here in the States, the main headquarters building of the current location of the 10th Special Forces is named Thorne Hall. And so the story goes, in the movie “Green Berets”, the part played by John Wayne, Captain Sven Kornie, was based in large part on Larry Thorne!
Thorne, far left, taken just before his final missionLarry was just one example of Lodge Bill Soldiers who served in Special Forces following WWII. Others included a Sergeant from Poland, another from Czechoslovak who was a veteran of the Maquis and the French Foreign Legion, “Frenchy” Szarck who was a Pole and a veteran of four Armies, another who served in the Romanian and German armies, and the list goes on. Clearly the expertise these men brought to our Army helped establish the Special Forces we know today.
Jerry Hogan is a retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel who lives in Heath, TX. To have the story of your friend or relative told in this column, please contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 214-394-4033
LegacyIn the 1990s, Törni’s name became better 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.
Even before his death, Thorne’s name was legendary in U.S. Special Forces. His 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 bestOperational Detachment-Alpha in the command. The Special Forces Association Chapter 33 in Cleveland, Tennessee is named after him.
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 widely discredited, including by Törni Heritage Guild members Markku Moberg and Pasi Niittymäki, who acknowledge Törni faced pressure from war and alcohol, but did not support Germany, and Finnish historian Jussi Niinistöwho argues that Törni’s training was motivated instead by patriotism unlike the book authors who Niinistö contended stirred up hatred to promote sales of their book while disregarding “the fact that in Finland there was a genuine fear that Russia would occupy Finland.”
The Swedish power metal group Sabaton released a song on their 2014 album Heroes titled “Soldier of 3 Armies” in reference to Törni’s participation in three different military forces.