There is a surprise or two, hidden among the 400,000+ grave sites, at Arlington National Cemetery. Did you know, for instance, that 4,000 former slaves went to their final rest there? Arlington is the only cemetery in the world, to hold American servicemen from every war in US history. Three graves contain the remains of enemy combatants, from WW2. Among them all there may no greater curiosity, than the grave of a Green Beret, interred with the remains of three South Vietnamese soldiers. Unless it’s to learn that that same guy, once wore the uniform of the Nazi SS.
In May 1941, the geopolitical map of the Eurasian continent could be drawn in two colors, the spheres of influence of governments headed by two of the great monsters of the 20th century: Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the Nazi Germany of Adolf Hitler.
The Republic of Finland, the 8th largest nation on the European landmass with a population equal to that of Minnesota, suffered military defeat during the “Winter War” of a year earlier, a 105-days long David vs. Goliath contest fought against the Soviet Union.
The two dictators were allies at this time according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, signed two years earlier. That state of affairs ceased the following month, with ‘Operation Barbarossa’, Hitler’s surprise attack on his erstwhile ally.
Finland never signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and stated that it would fight the Soviets only insofar as to redress territorial losses suffered during the Winter War. Adolf Hitler saw the distinction as irrelevant and regarded the Nordic republic as an ally. To Hitler, Finland would become just another part of the war on the Eastern Front. To Finnish patriots, the uneasy alliance with Nazi Germany and the continued struggle with the Soviet Union, would be known as the “Continuation War’.
Lauri Alan Törni was such a patriot, born this day in 1919 in Finland’s Viipuri Province. Törni fought the Soviet Union during the Winter War and the Continuation War, rising to the rank of Captain and earning the Mannerheim Cross, Finland’s equivalent to the British Victoria Cross, or the American Medal of Honor. An elite and highly effective guerrilla fighter, Törni trained with the Nazi SS in Austria. Such a menace was this man to Stalin’s war effort, that the Soviets placed a bounty on his head of three million Finnish marks, equivalent to $650,000. There is no record of such a bounty on any other Finnish soldier.
The Continuation War came to an end in September 1944, but Törni still had scores to settle with the Communists. He joined forces with a German unit fighting Soviet troops near Schwerin, Germany, and surrendered to British and American forces in the last stages of WW2.
Törni escaped the British POW camp and returned to Finland, only to be arrested on charges of treason for having joined the German army. There would be a six-year prison sentence and one more escape, before the Presidential pardon in 1948.
Traveling under alias as a Swedish seaman, Törni jumped overboard in the Gulf of Mexico, swimming ashore near Mobile, Alabama and claiming political asylum. He was granted citizenship in 1953 by special act of congress, and adopted the more “Americanized” name of Larry Thorne, joining the United States Army the following year.
Thorne was soon headed to Special Forces, the elite warrior becoming an instructor of skiing, mountaineering, survival and guerrilla tactics.
Thorne attended airborne school and earned the silver wings of a Green Beret. He went through Officer Candidate School and received his commission as a 1st Lieutenant, rising to the rank of Captain in just three years.
Larry Thorne had a reputation for physical toughness, even amidst such an elite organization as the Green Berets. Now in his mid-forties, he could physically out-perform many men half his age.
As part of the 10th Special Forces Group, Thorne served in a search-and-rescue capacity in West Germany, earning a reputation for courage in operations to recover bodies and classified documents, following a plane in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.
Captain Thorne was sent to Vietnam in 1963, assigned to operate Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) camps at Châu Lăng and later Tịnh Biên. Thorne earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor during one particularly ferocious attack on Tịnh Biên, an episode author Robin Moore wrote about in his best-selling paperback, The Green Berets.
On October 18, 1965, Larry Thorne was leading a covert mission against a Viet Cong stronghold in Laos when his helicopter crashed, killing all on board. He was 46. Captain Thorne was posthumously promoted to the rank of major and awarded the Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross. Let the citation tell his story:
“If the patrol were immediately confronted by a superior force, Major Thorne would land and extricate the patrol under fire. This was done with total disregard for the inherent dangers and with selfless concern for the ground forces. In so doing, he exposed himself to extreme personal danger which ultimately led to his disappearance and the loss of his aircraft. He had, however, guaranteed the safe introduction of the patrol into the area, the successful accomplishment of this mission and had positioned himself to react to any immediate calls for assistance from the patrol“.
The crash site of the Republic of Vietnam Air Force CH-34 helicopter was discovered in 1999. Thorne’s remains were found, intermingled with those of Lieutenant Bao Tung Nguyen, First Lieutenant The Long Phan, and Sergeant Vam Lanh Bui. Major Thorne was identified by dental records.
Thorne’s family in Finland said let him be buried in America, because that was the choice that he made. The four were buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, the way they had died. Together.
So it is that the name of the elite warrior who had served under three flags, a man who once wore the uniform of the Nazi SS, is engraved on that stone in Arlington, along with those of the South Vietnamese warriors with whom he once served.