A recent SOFREP article about military legend Larry Thorne provided a high-level overview of his service in the Finnish military, German military, and U.S. Special Forces. This article provides a more in-depth look at his involvement in Vietnam, and particularly the helicopter crash that led to him being MIA for over 40 years.
Also included below is video footage of Thorne as part of some classic Special Forces Group training, along with a Finnish documentary about his service and accounts from his former teammates.
Larry Thorne: Headquarters Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Detachment SD 5891, 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces with orders to Studies and Observation Group Long Thanh, South Vietnam.
Larry Alan Thorne was born Lauri Allan Torni in Viipuri, Finland. As a young adult, he enlisted in the Finish Army where he obtained the rank of Captain. During the early years of World War II, he developed, trained and commanded the Finish ski troops. Under his strict and demanding leadership, the ski troops fought the Russians deep behind enemy lines for extended periods of time. During Finland’s wars against the former Soviet Union, he was awarded every medal for bravery that Finland could bestow including the Knight of the Mannerheim Cross, which is the equivalent of the American Congressional Medal of Honor. After Finland fell to the communists, Captain Torni joined the German SS in order to continue fighting the communists. After World War II, Lauri Torni made his way to the United States where he enlisted in the U.S. Army under the Lodge Bill. After completing basic training, Larry Thorne was selected for the budding Special Forces program. He quickly rose through the ranks, and with the assistance of allies within the military, received a commission. In 1964, Larry Thorne served his first 6-month tour of duty in South Vietnam.
In February 1965, then Captain Larry Thorne returned to Long Thanh, South Vietnam for his second tour of duty. While assigned to Headquarters, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam; Captain Thorne was instrumental in establishing the standard operating procedures employed by the fledgling Studies and Observation Group, better known by its acronym “MACV-SOG.” MACV-SOG was a joint service unconventional warfare task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout Southeast Asia. The 5th Special Forces Group channeled personnel into MACV-SOG (although it was not a Special Forces unit) through Special Operations Augmentation (SOA), which provided their “cover” while under secret orders to MACV-SOG. The teams performed deep penetration missions of strategic reconnaissance and interdiction that were called, depending on the location and time frame, “Shining Brass” “Daniel Boone,” “Salem House” or “Prairie Fire” missions.
When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.
In September 1965, the infiltration of reconnaissance teams into Laos, Codenamed: “Shining Brass,” was approved, but severe limitations by Washington restricted the teams to penetrate no deeper than 50 kilometers into Laos. In case the team was captured the cover story derived for the first Shining Brass mission was that “they were looking for a crashed US Air Force C-123 cargo aircraft that was lost near the South Vietnamese/Lao border.” Further, in conjunction with planning cross-border missions, Larry Thorne flew as the observer for many intelligence gathering reconnaissance missions over eastern Laos. Because of this, he was very familiar with the entire area in which MACV-SOG’s teams would be operating.
One of the earliest helicopters employed in Southeast Asia, and the primary Marine Corps helicopter used during the early years of the war, was the Sikorsky UH34D Seahorse. This aircraft was already quite old when they arrived in the battle zone. However, both the US and South Vietnamese military found them to be extremely effective throughout the war. The Seahorse was frequently used to insert MACV-SOG teams into Laos.
On 18 October 1965, the first MACV-SOG cross-border mission was to be inserted by South Vietnamese Air Force helicopters into a target area approximately 20 miles northwest of Kham Duc known as “D-1” to locate and report on North Vietnamese activity operating on and near Highway 165. All personnel were initially transported to Kham Doc Forward Operating Base (FOB) in preparation for their launch into Laos in search of what would eventually be known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.” Master Sergeant Charles “Slats” Petry, team leader; Sergeant First Class Willie Card, 1 South Vietnamese Army Lieutenant and 7 Nungs comprised Recon Team (RT) Iowa, the team to be inserted.
As the men of RT Iowa prepared their weapons and gear, Major Norton and Captain Thorne brought the SVAF Kingbee, US Army Huey and USAF Forward Air Controller (FAC) aircrews together in the operations shack to plan the team’s insertion at dusk. RT Iowa’s landing zone (LZ) would be a slash-and-burn area that resembled an old logging clear-cut from the Pacific Northwest. U.S. Air Force Major Harley B. Pyles, pilot; and U.S. Marine Corps Captain Winfield W. Sisson, observer and Marine MACV-SOG air liaison officer; comprised the crew of an O1E Bird Dog, call sign “Bird Dog 55,” the number 2 aircraft in a flight of two that would coordinate all aircraft involved in inserting RT Iowa. Major Harold Nipper flew the lead Bird Dog. In addition to the FACs, the U.S. Air Force provided a flight of B-57s to conduct a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) for this mission should the ground team run into trouble and greater firepower was needed.
At 1745 hours, both FACs departed Kham Duc. Minutes later Major Pyles transmitted the weather conditions were marginal, with clouds below the mountaintops and increasing ground fog. In spite of the existing conditions, the FAC pilot believed the low flying helicopters could weave around the worst of it and called for the rest of the mission’s aircraft to launch. At 1800 hours, the Kingbee helicopters lifted off with Cowboy, piloting the lead SVAF Kingbee; and Mustachio piloting the #2 Kingbee. The third Kingbee was a chase aircraft that would retrieve the crew and passengers of any aircraft that went down. Captain Thorne, who was not about to remain at Kham Duc, was the only passenger aboard the chase aircraft. US Army Huey gunships launched at the same time to provide air cover should it be needed at any time during the mission.
As the Kingbees and Huey gunships flew low over the countryside, all they could see were rolling hills, wild rivers and waterfalls. The weather proved especially hazardous, forcing them to weaving between thunderheads and sunbeams while avoiding sporadic .50 caliber machinegun fire, all of which missed. The flight arrived over the target area just before sundown. The all aircraft circled the area looking for a way to get down to the clearing through the thick angry clouds that blanketed the area. Minutes before Captain Thorne intended to cancel the mission and return to Kham Duc, the clouds opened up slightly allowing the two Kingbees carrying RT Iowa to spiral into the slash-and-burn clearing, rapidly discharge their passengers and immediately climb for altitude. As Larry Thorne’s helicopter and Major Pyles’ Bird Dog attempted to descend, the clouds again closed up. Captain Thorne ordered the now empty Kingbees to return to Kham Duc. Shortly thereafter, Captain Thorne also released Bird Dog 55 and the Huey gunships to return to base.
As the weather worsened, Larry Thorne continued to orbit D-1 near the landing zone in case RT Iowa ran into trouble. As Cowboy and Mustachio flew toward the east, they reported low-level visibility so bad that they had to climb to 8,500 feet in order to clear the top of the clouds. Once Captain Thorne received a message from RT Iowa that their insertion was successful, he transmitted that his aircraft was also on its way back. At 1810 hours, Major Nipper released the B-57s and began his own return flight to Kham Duc. Approximately 5 minutes after receiving the patrol’s report, the other aircrews heard a constant keying of a radio for roughly 30 seconds. After that, only silence was heard in response to repeated attempts to raise anyone aboard the Kingbee.
Intense search efforts were initiated at first light the next morning and continued for the next month, but found no trace of the missing Kingbee, its crew and passenger. Shortly after loss, Larry Thorne was reported as Missing in Action. Prior to his final mission, Larry Thorne had been recommended for promotion to Major and was being groomed for a staff position as an intelligence officer. His posthumous promotion to Major was approved in December 1965.
Early on 19 October 1966, the U.S. Army declared that Captain Larry A. Thorne was no longer being listed as Missing in Action, but had been declared Presumed Killed in Action in South Vietnam, not Laos. The Department of the Army officially stated, “On 18 October 1965, Major Thorne was a passenger aboard a Vietnamese Air Force CH34 helicopter which crashed about 25 miles south of DaNang.” Prior to the end of the war, the wreckage of the Kingbee was found and a search and rescue-recovery (SAR) team inserted into the crash site. According to reports, the SAR personnel found and recovered the remains of the South Vietnamese aircrew, but found no sign of Larry Thorne either dead or alive.
The number of MACV-SOG missions conducted with Special Forces reconnaissance teams into Laos and Cambodia was 452 in 1969. It was the most sustained campaign of raiding, sabotage and intelligence gathering waged on foreign soil in US military history. These teams earned a global reputation as one of the most combat effective deep-penetration forces ever raised.
Larry A. Thorne is the only American POW/MIA to fight communism under three flags – those of Finland, Germany and America.
In 1999, Thorne’s remains were found by a Finnish and Joint Task Force-Full Accounting team and repatriated to the United States. Formally identified in 2003, his remains were buried on 26 June 2003 at Arlington National Cemetery, section 60, tombstone 8136, along with the South Vietnam Air Force casualties of the mission recovered at the crash site.
Source: Compiled in 1989 from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK 2003.