Lauri Törni played the contradictory roles of hero, villain, then hero again from 1939-65 – a recipient of Finland’s highest award for bravery, an Untersturmführer in the SS, and an officer in the US Special Forces. His consistency was that he fought communists under the flags of all 3 nations.
Törni was born in Finland, the son of a sea captain, in 1919. He enlisted in the Finnish Army at the age of 18 and was on the verge of completing his engagement when the Soviet Union attacked Finland in late 1939. Finding his service suddenly extended as part of Finland’s mass mobilization of troops, Törni was transferred to the front line. His heroism in fighting the Red Army, which greatly outnumbered the Finns in what became known as the Winter War, quickly caught the attention of his commanders and he was commissioned as an officer.
In 1941, when Hitler effectively tore up the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact by invading the Soviet Union, Finland had little option but to agree an informal alliance with Nazi Germany against their mutual enemy. It was against this background that Törni went to Germany to briefly train with the Waffen-SS. On his return to Finland, he cemented his heroic reputation in the Continuation War against the Soviets, in command of an infantry unit which came to bear his name – Detachment Törni – admired and feared by both sides for its exploits deep behind enemy lines.
So effective were Captain Törni’s operations against the Red Army that the Soviets placed a bounty on his head of 3 million Finnish Marks ($700,000 / £450,000). He was also decorated with the Mannerheim Cross, Finland’s most esteemed gallantry award. The Continuation War ended in September 1944 with the signing of the Moscow Armistice between Finland and the Soviet Union. The conditions for peace required Finland to cede territory to the Soviets, pay them harsh reparations, legalise the Communist Party of Finland, and drive German troops from Finnish territory (which lead to the Lapland War 1944–45).
So dissatisfied was Törni with the peace terms – and so driven by the adventure of war – he joined a Finnish resistance movement orchestrated by the Germans with the aim of staging a Nazi coup d’état in Finland. As a volunteer with the Waffen-SS, Törni received training in Germany in the art of sabotage and was there as World War II drew to a close. He surrendered to British troops, but eventually escaped a POW camp to return to Finland, whereupon he was arrested by the State Police. He was sentenced to 6 years in prison for treason for having joined the German army, but was pardoned by the Finnish President at the end of 1948.
Rather than live under constant suspicion in Finland, Törni escaped across the border to Sweden in 1949, then later travelled under an alias as a Swedish seaman aboard a ship bound for Venezuela. From there he joined a Swedish cargo ship bound for the United States. While in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Alabama, he jumped overboard and swam to shore. He made his way to New York City where he was helped by the Finnish-American community in Brooklyn, finding work as a carpenter and cleaner. In 1953 Törni was granted a residence permit with the assistance of “Wild Bill” Donovan, the former head of the Office of Strategic Services – the US’s wartime intelligence agency. Törni joined the US Army in 1954 and adopted the name Larry Thorne.
Thorne was befriended by a group of Finnish-American officers, who had similarly fought with distinction in Finland’s war against the Soviets and had later emigrated to the US. Several were brought into the US Special Forces when they formed in 1952, and Private Thorne soon followed them. He became an instructor in skiing, survival, mountaineering, and guerrilla tactics. After attending Airborne School, he quickly advanced in rank and was commissioned as an officer in 1957.
From 1958 to 1962 he served with the Special Forces in West Germany, and while there he was detached to the Zagros mountains of Iran as the second in command of a search and rescue mission, which earned him a notable reputation.
In November 1963 Thorne joined a Special Forces unit in Vietnam and fought in the Mekong Delta, where he was twice decorated.
In 1965, now aged 46, Captain Thorne transferred to a training unit in Vietnam as a military advisor. On 18 October 1965, he left for a covert mission on board a helicopter which crashed in a mountainous area of Vietnam, 25 miles from Da Nang. A rescue team was unable to locate the crash site, so Thorne was classified as Missing in Action, then Presumed Killed. He was promoted to the rank of major in his absence.
Thorne/Törni was revered by all the men who served under him. The fact that his remains were undiscovered in the years that followed added to his cult-like status and many veterans who met annually to raise a toast to him, both in Finland and America, believed he was still alive.
In 1999 a joint US/Vietnamese team excavated a helicopter crash site near Thorne’s last suspected location. They recovered several fragments of bones and a Swedish-made machine pistol that Thorne carried with him. Forensic and DNA tests eventually concluded that the remains were his.
He was finally buried at Arlington National Cemetery in 2003.