The KFOR mission in Kosovo is a multinational effort with troops from contributing nations such as Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Czech Republic, the UK and Latvia to name but a few. In 2005, I served with Multi-National Brigade (Central) where I was attached to the Brigade Intelligence Cell in Prizren, Kosovo working closely with counterparts in the Finnish Armed Forces. But it was while developing a taste for saunas, pea soup and reindeer meat I also learned about the tale of Lauri Törni, the Finnish soldier who fought the Russians during the Winter War, who later joined the German SS, finally joining US Special Forces, before being declared MIA in Vietnam in 1965.
Truth is often said to be stranger than fiction and in the case of Lauri Allen Törni, this was the case…
1939 saw the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, and almost simultaneously war also broke out between Russia and Finland. Before November ’39’ Russia had demanded large tracts of Finnish territorial land and on the 30th of November 1939, Soviet Armed forces launched a combined land and air attack on Finland, the conflict known as the Winter War had begun.
While the conflict was short in relative terms (just over 3 months in total), the cost was terrible — it was estimated that 30,000 Finns and 130,000 Soviets lost their lives, the high number of Soviet losses were attributed to the use of guerrilla warfare by the Finnish military who focused on small unit tactics and intimate knowledge of their own battlespace. However, outside of this space, the roles were quickly reversed and the Soviets manpower, technology and scale of effort quickly emerged victoriously…
Lauri Allen Törni was 20 years of age when the Winter War began. At that time Törni was serving with the 4th Independent Jaeger Infantry Battalion, stationed at Kiviniemi; and, as with many others, his term of service was extended due to the outbreak of hostilities. The 4th Battalion was quite active during the conflict with their first engagement against invading Soviet troops at the Battle of Rautu. Törni's potential as a natural leader and first-class soldier was quickly noticed by his Commanding Officers and he was later commissioned a Vänrikki (2nd lieutenant) in the reserves.
After Finland’s defeat during the Winter War, Törni continued to fight against Soviet forces, and in very much a case of the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ he and several other Finnish soldiers were sent to Austria to train with the Waffen-SS. On his return to Finland, he continued fighting the Soviet forces and in 1944 he received the Finnish version of the Medal of Honour — The Mannerheim cross.
Following the fall of Finland instead of surrendering to Russian Forces, Törni joined the Finnish Volunteer Battalion of the Waffen-SS so he could continue to fight against the Soviets, consequently, Russian forces placed a bounty of 3,000,000 Finnish marks on his head, he was now very much a wanted man.
With the signing of the 1944 Moscow Armistice, Törni and hundreds of his compatriots were demobilized with many ending up unemployed and disaffected. It was at this time that Törni traveled to Berlin where he joined a German Infantry unit fighting Russian Forces near Schwerin, Germany. Ultimately this would be his last engagement during the war.
The years following World War 2 brought mixed experiences for Törni — after surrendering to Allied Forces at the end of the war, he was sent to a POW camp (where he promptly escaped). He then later tried to rejoin his family in Helsinki but was arrested and reinterred, and in January 1947 he was tried for treason for having joined the SS and was sentenced to 6 years in prison. In December 1948, Törni was pardoned in recognition of his wartime service to Finland and he was released.
1950 seen Törni make his way to the United States where he worked as a carpenter, a cleaner and bartender amongst other trades and in 1953 he was granted permanent residency. Following the implementation of the Hodge-Philbin Act, Törni was allowed to join the US military and in 1954 he took the name Larry Thorne and enlisted in a third national armed force.
When Törni joined the U.S. Army his expertise in guerrilla warfare was already well known and it eventually led him into the Special Forces Group, where he was commissioned a first lieutenant, eventually rising to the rank of captain. From 1958–1962 he served in the 10th Special Forces Group in West Germany at Bad Tölz, where he was second in command of a highly secret search and recovery mission high in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. It was this recognition that later led to Törni being appointed as Commander to a Special Forces team in Vietnam.
In late 1963 Törni deployed to South Vietnam. Stationed in Tịnh Biên District with SF DET A-734, where his team’s role was to support ARVN (Army of Vietnam) forces and engage with Viet Cong forces at every opportunity. Early into the deployment, he was quick to demonstrate his aptitude for soldering where he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and two Purple Hearts during a particularly heavy contact.
“…During one of these encounters, Captain Thorne, one special forces sergeant, and 10 CIDG personnel defeated a force of 120 Vietcong armed with automatic weapons and supported by two 57 MM recoilless rifles. He inspired his force by personal example and instilled a high degree of efficiency and morale in his detachment and his paramilitary force. He is one of the most capable, loyal and dependable officers that I have known in more than 20 years of service…” Maj James Lattimore
Having fought in numerous conflicts and survived it was on 18 October 1965 that Lauri Törni’s luck finally ran out. It was while supervising one of the first clandestine missions aimed at disrupting the infamous supply route along the Ho Chi Minh trail that Törni’s CH-34 helicopter was lost. Despite numerous attempts to identify the crash site and search for survivors, Törni and the rest of the crew were declared missing in action presumed dead. Törni was posthumously promoted to the rank of major and awarded both the Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross. Rumors circulated amongst Special Forces circles that Törni had survived and was now living under a nom de guerre in Finland.
In 1999, some 34 years after his disappearance, Lauri Allen Törni’s remains were finally found by a Joint US & Finnish Task Force team close to the Phước Sơn District, Quảng Nam Province and following a runway ceremony, Törni’s remains where repatriated to the United States.
Formally identified in 2003, his remains were buried on 26 June 2003 at Arlington National Cemetery. Larry Thorne is buried in section 60, tombstone 8136, along with the RVNAF casualties of the mission recovered at the crash site.
He and the others lost at the site are also memorialized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Thorn was survived only by his fiancée, Marja Kops, who later married another man, thus drawing to a close the tale of the only known SS soldier to be buried at Arlington ceremony with full military honors.