On May 28, 1919 one of the unique fighting men of the 20th century was born to a family in Viipuri, Finland. Given the birth name Lauri Allan Torni, he grew up as normal as any other citizen, unaware that his generation and tens of millions of others were destined for the carnage of war. A terrifying ordeal to most, the blond Finn soon found out that he could thrive and succeed in this environment like no one else around him for years to come. This one did it all, some would say; from the biting snow of a forest, the endless steppes, and on into the sweltering humidity of an unforgiving jungle in his third war – all for the third flag that he fought under.
It is known that he put on his first uniform in 1938 upon entry into the Finnish army. He soon found his service length extended when the Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939, beginning what would become the ‘Winter War.’ After first being assigned to a supply section, he ended up transferring to the front and participated in combat around Lake Ladoga in December. Amid the snowy terrain, a Finnish force some 30,000 strong used guerrilla tactics to encircle and smash a Soviet force outnumbering them 3 to 1 in men and 5 to 1 in airpower and artillery. During the fighting, Torni received the attention of his superiors on several engagements when he displayed considerable ability in battle.
Subsequently, they sent him to Reserve Officer School in February, 1940. After the ‘Winter War’ came to an end in March, Torni, now a 2nd lieutenant, remained in Finland with his unit until 1941. He then traveled to Germany to become a member of the Waffen SS. He joined the SS-Freiwillgen Battalion Nordost, a unit made up of Finnish volunteers. Here he stayed for one month, until someone decided the unit had too many officers and he was sent back to Finland to command a tank battalion.
Finland decided to continue its ongoing hatred of the Soviet Union by becoming the invader. On June 25, 1941 just four days after four million German and Axis troops stormed over the Soviet borders, Finland sent divisions toward Leningrad in the north. This would become known as the Continuation War. Now the Finns battled and annihilated Red Army units with German allies at their side. Torni was in the thick of it, fighting from within a tank as hard as he had on foot in Finland. Despite this, his commanders soon felt that he was better suited to an infantry role, and transferred him to a light infantry company. Here he was wounded and suffered a partial stroke one night after stepping on a mine.
After his recovery, which took several months, and a promotion to 1st lieutenant, he was transferred to yet another infantry unit. Eventually, his commanders awarded him a prize; A company to be designed by and named after himself. Detachment Torni specialized in small unit warfare and began penetrating deep behind enemy lines (similar to a long-range Special Forces unit). Using guerrilla tactics, sabotage and any other devious scheme he thought of, they stacked Soviet bodies at every encounter regardless of the terrain.
At every battle, Detachment Torni employed a surgeon-like efficiency when compared to the Germans wholesale slaughter of everybody and everything in their way. This method wreaked havoc in the Soviet command. They read pages of reports concerning the numerous dead found behind the front-lines. One thing was always common: The hallmark of being killed by what seemed to be otherworldly experts of combat.
3,000,000 Finnish marks (about $650,000 USD) emerged as a bounty for Lauri Torni, the only Finnish soldier in the war to have one placed on his head. He shrugged off the news and continued his campaign against the enemy in an even more efficient manner.
Mauno Koivisto, who later became President of Finland, served with Torni and said this of him: “Thorne, as a leader was liked. In many ways he emphasized that we were all the same bunch, and he bore his share just like, the others…He did not ask anyone to do something he did not do himself. He carried his own load, marched in the lead, and was one of us.”
He also added that he did not think highly of Torni’s leadership because he never divulged mission details to the others in the group. This was something he considered all the more important because Torni walked point all the time. There may have been a reason for this.
Torni may have concluded that the less the others knew, the better – especially if captured. Whatever his reasons may have been, he explained them to no one. He got the job done so many times that on July 9th, 1944 he was decorated with the Mannerheim Cross, the Finnish equivalent of the U.S. Medal Of Honor. This was after more than three years of combat operations against the Soviets, and knowing the war had long turned against Finland and Germany.
After being discharged as a Captain and upon learning that his country had switched sides (because of an armistice between Finland and Russia), Torni left for Germany in 1945 to begin sabotage training. He planned to employ it against the Soviets if they ever decided to invade Finland. He hated communism and yearned to carry on the fight. This time it ended in a way he never thought possible. Although Germany shriveled up as expected, Finland remained intact. He soon found himself far from home, swallowed up by a British POW camp and without a war to wage.
One day he escaped his captors and made his way back to Finland. There he was arrested, tried for treason and sentenced to six years imprisonment – a term for which he only would serve three years before being pardoned. This left him itching to get back into something that would make his life meaningful again.
In 1949, he travelled to Sweden with a fellow officer and eventually fell in love and got married, hoping at last to begin some kind of career. This started when he and his wife boarded a ship bound for Caracas, Venezuela. Thorne played it safe and used a fake identity, knowing there were still those who wanted to see him in prison.
Arriving and settling in Caracas, he stayed for about a year doing odd jobs before heading back to sea as a sailor on a Swedish freighter. Its destination: The United States.
Just offshore, near Mobile, Alabama, Torni plunged into the water and swam for the coastline of what he hoped would become his new home. He made his way up to New York City, where Finnish residents helped him assimilate into his new environment. He tried hard to learn English but still pronounced most words with a deep accent. He worked as a carpenter and received a residency permit in 1953.
However, civilian life bored him to tears and, after less than a year, he left to slide the uniform of the U.S. Army over his body.
The warrior was back. He quickly began training his new compatriots in the same tactics that had made him a legend. He became a 2nd lieutenant again in 1957. His fame continued to spread, eventually growing Army-wide. When he learned of a chance to serve in the Special Forces, he knew at last that he was home. He set off for training, completed it and was assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group (Germany) starting in 1958.
In 1962, Thorne, now a Captain, led a unit to recover the remains of a crew and the classified material from a downed C-130 transport in the Iranian mountains. He achieved something where others had failed. He received immense praise for his ‘can-do’ attitude and getting the job done. He had never been happier… well, at least until a year later, when a call came for advisors to help a little-known country fight off its communist brothers from the North. For the third time and under a third flag, Captain Thorne headed off to fight his archenemy, this time in the oriental land of Vietnam. It was December 1963.
Operating as part of Detachment A-734, he trained and fought alongside the South Vietnamese from isolated outposts, leading ambushes and conducting patrols. He led from the front, always inspiring his men. He earned more medals and was wounded before having to return home to the states a year later.
In 1965, Thorne returned to Vietnam. This time he was assigned to the Studies and Observations Group (S.O.G), the most secret Special Forces unit in country. His job was to oversee an operation called ‘Shining Brass.’ Here they employed small indigenous units led by Green Berets known as Recon Teams (RT). They were going to be inserted into neutral Laos by unmarked helicopters. Thorne was assigned to a Forward Operating Base at Kham Duc.
In the late afternoon of October 18, 1965, the first team to ever go into Laos, RT Iowa, lifted off from Kham Duc in two choppers. A third, carrying Larry Thorne, flew along as a backup helicopter. Its job was to monitor the insertion, which promised difficulty as there were rainclouds along the entire journey.
The weather worsened. Rain and lightning flashed around the choppers. Visibility plummeted to almost ground level. The chance of a collision rose every minute. Despite the worsening conditions, RT Iowa managed to be successfully inserted. Larry Thorne waited for them to radio that they were all safe and then ordered the choppers back. After a bumpy ride, the first two arrived back Kham Duc.
The third chopper, supposedly only minutes away, vanished without a trace. Larry Thorne and the two pilots were never seen again.
They were designated MIA for a few years, though most suspected the worst had happened. The chopper crashed due to the awful weather and had taken one of the bravest, most cunning soldiers the century had ever known. It is ironic that ‘Mother Nature’ succeeded in doing something that the men in three wars had failed to do – kill Larry Thorne.
In 1999, a recovery team managed to locate the crash site. Upon excavation, fragments of bone and teeth were recovered. The family of Larry Thorne knew that was all they would ever get. They honored their fallen soldier at a ceremony in 2003, burying him in his adopted country’s most sacred resting place, Arlington National Cemetery.
(Featured Image Courtesy: arlingtoncemetery.net)