The three soldiers were the same man: Lauri Törni.
Finland formally applied to join NATO last week, marking a dramatic reversal of its longstanding policy of military non-alignment. For many years, before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February generated Finnish public support for NATO membership for jump to a record 76 percentonly 20-25% of Finns had wanted to join the alliance.
Finland and Sweden formally apply to join NATO
But Finland and NATO have worked together in the past, including in 1996 when Finland contributed a battalion to peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of the Bosnian war. And no one better embodies the complexities and contradictions of Finland’s foreign entanglements over the decades than Törni.
Across his various postings for three countries, Törni’s apparent motivation – to keep Russian aggression at bay – is one that seems to be shared by the majority of Finns today.
The conflict with Russia was a reality for Törni, not just a fear. When he volunteered for military service in September 1938 and the Red Army moved to occupy Finland, he and his compatriots found themselves overwhelmed by Soviet manpower.
According to Mika Karttunen’s 2007 documentary, “Törni – Sotilaan Tarina (Story of a Soldier)Törni’s skill in combat led to him being recommended for reserve officer school, where he was given command of a Swedish-speaking company – even though he spoke no Swedish.
He used hand signals to direct his team, which excelled in combat. Törni received first and second class Medals of Freedom before the end of the Winter War on March 13, 1940, with Finland ceding land to the USSR but retaining sovereignty and most of its territory.
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He returned to find his hometown of Vyborg destroyed and his family homeless.
Nazi Germany offered Finnish forces arms and assistance in return for passage to their country. When Finland sent a battalion of volunteers to the SS Division Wiking, Törni – restless from time away from the battlefield and fallen into fights and excessive drinking – was among the volunteers aboard a ship of 289 recruits.
He was promoted to the rank of Untersturmführer, but his prospects for advancement were limited. Men who did not get along with the Germans were fired. Torni was one of them.
When a second conflict between Finland and the USSR, the Continuation War, broke out on June 25, 1941, Törni was given command of a machine gun platoon. He was promoted to lieutenant and awarded a Third Class Freedom Cross Medal for his leadership.
He was also able to form his own company, the Törni Detachment. The company’s work behind enemy lines involved tying down Soviet troops, disabling transports, and spreading terror among the Russians. This earned Törni a German Iron Cross from his occupying commanders, and a bounty of 3 million marks on his head from the Soviets.
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Russian conscripted women are said to have patrolled the battle lines shouting into megaphones, “Bring us Törni’s head!” Dead or alive! You will receive 3 million!
Another honor – the Mannerheim Cross second class, which Törni received on June 9, 1944 – came with a cash prize of 50,000 marks, most of which was drunk by Törni along with his comrades.
With his homeland in turmoil and the threat of Soviet occupation still looming, Törni boards a U-boat for Germany in 1945, seeking action after being denied permission to join the Lapland War in the north of his country. But World War II was coming to an end, and the 1944 Moscow Armistice – signed by Finland, Russia and the UK – had ordered the Finnish government to expel occupying German troops.
The following year, Törni was arrested by the Finnish state police for high treason. Convicted in 1948 of having “armed a resistance movement against Finnish and Soviet forces”, he was sent to the provincial prison of Turku – then escaped.
Törni attempted to reach Sweden but was caught, earning him a six-month extension of his original sentence. A further escape saw him recaptured and sent to another prison. He was pardoned by Finnish President Juho Paasikivi in December 1948.
Looking for a fresh start, Törni boarded a freighter bound for Venezuela, then a Norwegian ship bound for the United States. It was illegal for him to enter, but Törni jumped ship and swam to Mobile, Alabama before entering American soil on September 20, 1950.
Despite a lack of money or a strong command of the English language, Törni traveled to New York, where he was welcomed by the Finnish immigrant community. According to the 2007 documentary, some of his enlisted buddies “pulled some strings,” and Törni’s application for U.S. citizenship was approved on January 27, 1954. His service under a third flag could begin.
Lauri Törni changed his name to Larry Allan Thorne. With his SS tattoo removed and a wealth of combat experience to draw upon, he received postings at Forts Dix, Carson, Benning, and Bragg. He was selected for training as a special forces officer, and in 1963 began his first tour of Vietnam, setting up a base camp near the Cambodian border.
Thorne helped build schools and hospitals and would return to Fort Bragg with Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals.
But faced with an old enemy – civil unrest – he volunteered for a second tour with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Studies and Observations Group), a top-secret unit not officially recognized by the government, and tasked reconnaissance missions across the border with Laos. Thorne’s long-range patrol skills developed during the Continuation War could once again be called upon.
On October 18, 1965, the former Finnish Civil Guard, ex-Untersturmführer and serving special forces major, boarded an unmarked helicopter tasked with finding the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a communist supply route. He disappeared in bad weather.
More than 50 search missions have failed to find Thorne or his comrades, each made difficult by the fact that he has never officially been to Laos. Thorne was pronounced dead on October 19, 1966.
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His remains will finally be recovered 33 years later by the Joint Task Force Full Accounting on the Laotian border. Today, his grave rests in Arlington National Cemetery.
American author Robin Moore, who visited Thorne’s camp in Chau Doc, Vietnam, wrote a character in his 1965 novel, “The Green Berets”, inspired by the Finn: Officer Sven (Steve) Kornie .
The book – which in 1968 became a film starring and directed by John Wayne – describes its Nordic hero as “the ideal special forces officer. Special Forces was his life: combat, especially unorthodox warfare, was what he lived for.