Today we’ll be discussing the military achievements of an outstanding cast of characters: a Finnish officer who fought the Red Army on skis; an American Green Beret who led dangerous covert missions from Iran to Vietnam; and the only Waffen SS soldier to be buried at the Arlington military cemetery in Virginia.
What is truly unique, though, is that all these personas were played by just one, singular person: a natural-born soldier who often ended up on the losing side — captured, betrayed, exiled — but never defeated. He would rise from the ashes of war to continue his personal struggle against his sworn enemies.
This is the story of Lauri Torni, aka Larry Thorne: The Phoenix Soldier.
Son of Finland
“And through the bitter cold with opened eyes
You’ll find the strength to fight and stand upright”
Born in Winter, J and M Duplantier
Lauri Torni was born on May 25, 1919, in Viipuri, a town on the Karelian isthmus just north of Petrograd. Lauri completed his studies, excelling mainly in sports: skiing and boxing, among others. As he came of age, Lauri joined the national reserve of the Finnish Army.
Following the partitioning of Poland by Germany and the Soviets in September of 1939, the Soviet Union hoped to push its borders farther west by capturing the Karelian Isthmus and securing Leningrad, formerly Petrograd, from a German attack.
The Soviets had also set their sights on several islands in the Gulf of Finland, and on the Hanko naval base. When Finland refused to grant such an annexation, Joseph Stalin ordered the invasion. Thus, a few months after Lauri’s 20th Birthday, on November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. It was the beginning of the Russo-Finnish War, also known as The Winter War.
The Finnish armed forces were led by Marshall Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, a former czarist officer. Severely outnumbered and outgunned, the Finns managed to put up one hell of a fight against the Red Army – a huge opponent, but one that was ill-equipped and poorly managed after Stalin had executed dozens of his top Generals during the Great Purge of 1937.
The Finnish Army, by contrast, was a small, flexible unit that had perfected the art of winter warfare and defensive tactics, exacting a huge toll on invaders.
At the beginning of the war, young Lauri was a junior sergeant in charge of food supplies. Lauri couldn’t have felt at ease with this post — he clearly understood how a constant supply of nourishment was vital for the morale of his fellow troops, but he thought he was capable of much more than supply line management. One night, as the temperature plummeted to minus-42 Celsius, Lauri silently slid out of his camp. Completely unseen and unheard by his own sentinels, Sergeant Torni walked to a Soviet outpost, captured a Russian soldier, and marched him back to the Finnish camp.
The effects on his soldiers’ morale were galvanizing. Lauri’s superiors realized that this 20-year-old NCO had a talent for light-infantry missions and assigned him his first special task. Lauri was put in command of an anti-tank patrol: basically, it was people fighting on foot, or on skis, whose mission was to attack Soviet tanks and destroy them. Yeah, that sounds easy!
But against any logical bet, Lauri and his squad did manage to blow up quite a few tanks, and still lived to tell the story. Lauri and his Fins distinguished themselves particularly at the Siege of East Lemetti pocket, in late February, 1940. Here, the Finns encircled and wiped out a strong Red Army contingent, capturing 71 tanks, 206 trucks, and 12 armored cars.
Lauri was put on a special officer’s course, becoming a second lieutenant in March. As a first assignment, he was put in charge of a company of ethnic Swede soldiers. They did not speak Finnish; he did not speak Swedish. But with the use of clear hand gestures and the common language of ‘let’s blow up the invaders,’ the young officer and his troops got along splendidly.
On a broader stage, though, the war was not going well for Finland. Despite having bloodied the nose of the Soviet Bear, the disadvantage in terms of manpower, artillery, and tanks was starting to take its inevitable toll. Already by February, the Soviets had breached the Finns’ main defensive line on the Southern end of the front, the Mannerheim line. Once they broke through, they were able to occupy Karelia, and threaten Lauri’s hometown, Viipuri. From the 3rd through the 11th of March 1940, heavy fighting took place around the Karelian capital, while a Finnish delegation in Moscow sought to establish terms for a ceasefire.
The Moscow Peace Treaty was eventually signed at 2 a.m. on March 13. Finland had to cede 10% of its territory and 12% of its population to the Soviet Union, including Karelia and Viipuri.
It had been a pyrrhic victory for the Red Army, which suffered 167,000 KIA and MIA, vs 26,000 on the Finnish side. But it had been a victory nonetheless, one that Lauri Torni would never forget, and never forgive.
Soviet Enemy Number One
At the end of the conflict, Lauri was awarded the Medals of Independence, 1st and 2nd Class, which became the first in a long series of decorations. But such accolades could not compensate for the humiliation of losing one-tenth of his country to the invaders – including his hometown!
Lauri was described both by friends and army superiors as quiet, pleasant, and courteous. He was a well-liked young man with whom it was easy to get along. But this mostly mild-mannered man had found a powerful vocation in fighting against a stronger opponent — either in direct, or indirect, service to Finland.
That is why, in the late Spring of 1941, when Finland was a neutral country deep in the background of WWII, Lauri Torni decided to rise from his country’s defeat and head back to battle.
This need for retribution drove him to travel to Germany in secret and join a newly constituted Waffen-SS Battalion, the Freiwilligen Nordost. It was not uncommon for citizens of neutral, occupied, or even Allied countries to volunteer for SS formations, either out of sympathy for the Nazi cause, hatred of Bolshevism, or both.
As part of the Freiwilligen Nordost, Torni received intensive training which honed his natural skill set — performing special operations deep inside enemy territory.
On June 22, 1941, Axis forces invaded the Soviet Union. This was the start of Operation Barbarossa. Finland joined the invasion, not as a formal member of the Axis, but as a co-belligerent country. The Finnish objective was simply to recapture the territories lost in the Treaty of Moscow, rather than expand their living space eastward into new land.
This conflict became known as The Continuation War, and was again masterminded by Field Marshall Mannerheim. The commander asked for Berlin to return the many Finnish volunteers who had joined the Waffen-SS to replenish the Army ranks, with Lauri Torni chief among them.
At the start of 1942, second Lieutenant Torni was again put in charge of a light infantry patrol deployed in Karelia – it was payback time! His unit was part of the forces that drove the Soviets away from the isthmus and captured the main garrison of Petrozavodsk. From there, Torni continued to push northward to reach the White Sea-Baltic Canal, then called ‘Stalin Canal’.
Lauri’s advance was halted on March 23, 1942. While on a ski reconnaissance mission, Lauri stepped over a landmine and was severely wounded. While recovering in the hospital, Torni received a promotion to lieutenant and an order to stay put for several weeks… which he totally ignored. With fragments of shrapnel still embedded into his body, Torni escaped from the military hospital to re-join his old unit.
Throughout 1943, Lauri led and trained several units in charge of reconnaissance and sabotage missions deep behind enemy lines. An exceptionally fit man, he expected his recruits to match his levels of strength, stamina, resilience, and skill in close-quarters combat, especially with the puukko — the traditional Finnish knife.
His company became known as the Osasto Torni, or the Torni detachment. Its symbol was a capital ‘T’ set against the backdrop of yellow lighting.
Some of Torni’s best-documented exploits took place in the summer of 1944, when the Red Army launched a counterattack to retake the Karelian isthmus.
On June 9 — three days after D-Day, a couple thousand miles away — his Division was at risk of once again being engulfed by the Soviets. Lieutenant Torni and his unit managed to break a Soviet encirclement maneuver, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. Two weeks later, Lauri personally performed an incursion behind enemy lines, during which he acquired vital intelligence on the Soviet strategy – intelligence which helped his commanders hold off the counterattack in Karelia.
On the 5th and 6th of July, the Torni detachment was instructed to hold the crucial Ilomansti crossroads at all costs. They were reduced to less than 100 men after the beginning of the Soviet offensive, and they were about to face two regiments of the Red Army, a total of 4000 enemy soldiers.
Against all military logic, Lauri split his men into even smaller units. Sure, they may have been weaker, but they were also highly mobile. By shuttling back and forth between them, Lauri was able to direct a series of counterattacks against the incoming Soviets, which were convinced they were facing a much larger force.
Torni’s company inflicted hundreds of losses on the Red Army, halting their advance and allowing for the bulk of the Finnish forces to retreat and regroup.
It was a tactical masterpiece that achieved an important strategic result. But Lauri did not have time to celebrate, as, once again, he stepped onto a Soviet mine.
While convalescing, Lauri learned that he had been made a Knight of the Cross of Mannerheim, the highest military decoration in the Finnish armed forces. It is estimated that a total of 600,000 Finns served in the Continuation War, but only 191 of them received such high military honor. The following month, he was promoted to Captain.
At the same time, the Soviets had bestowed on Lauri an even higher accolade. Propaganda radio broadcasts had issued a bounty on his head, dead or alive. The Soviets were willing to pay three million Finnish Marks, which corresponds to more than half a million US dollars in today’s money. It’s a small fortune, especially during wartime … yet no one dared to collect the reward.
Lauri and his men continued the fight in Karelia, but their Commander-in-Chief, Marshal and now-President Mannerheim, was coming to terms with a harsh reality.
The fight could not go on forever against the Red steamroller, especially now that Germany and its allies were losing ground. On August 25, 1944, the Finnish government initiated secret talks with Moscow, which led to the signing of an armistice on September 19th.
The conditions, while ensuring the survival of the nation, were extremely harsh: Finland had to cede back 10 percent of its territory, including Karelia and Viipuri. Helsinki also had to pay war reparations to Moscow, equivalent to almost four and a half billion US dollars in today’s money.
As if that wasn’t enough, Mannerheim was forced to demobilize most of his army … and to expel any remaining Wehrmacht units from Finnish territory. This became known as the Lapland War … one in which Lauri did not take part, as he had been demobilized.
Once again, Lauri Torni wasn’t prepared to yield amidst the wreckage of another unfair defeat. Like the mythical phoenix rising from its own ashes, he was eager to continue the fight against the Soviets, whose peace treaty he did not trust.
Alongside other demobbed troops, Lauri fled to Hamburg on a U-Boat to resume special operations, training in a Waffen-SS facility in Mecklenburg, along the Baltic Coast. Here, Lauri perfected his approach to asymmetric warfare, including sabotage techniques, explosives handling, and deep reconnaissance tactics.
Unfortunately for Torni, the program was halted after a few weeks of training because the Red Army was making its way toward Berlin. The Wehrmacht was in desperate need of combat-ready troops, and so Captain Torni was drafted: he was tasked with leading a Naval Infantry company, deployed east of Berlin.
Facing once more the invader of his Homeland, Torni fought valiantly against the incoming enemies. But once again, his tactical victories could not overcome the Soviet’s overwhelming numerical superiority. Facing inevitable capture by the Soviets – which would have meant almost certain death – Torni instead sought to turn himself in as a prisoner to a British unit which had landed in a nearby airfield.
His bet paid off, and the Brits did not kill him on sight. He was sent instead to a PoW camp in Belgium, then transferred to Lubeck, Germany. Life as a British prisoner was surely better than living as an inmate at a Gulag, but rumours started spreading that the Western Allies were transferring some of their PoWs to the Soviets.
Torni was not going to risk that. He partnered with a fellow Finn, Solmu Korpela, and escaped from the camp in July of 1945. The circumstances of how they did it are not clear … what is documented is that they posed as former prisoners of the Wehrmacht to hitch a ride from a British Army Captain! Eventually they reached Copenhagen and secured travel visas from the Finnish consulate.
Lauri Torni had emerged from the ruins of the Reich and was finally heading home. But what he received was not a hero’s welcome.
A Wanted Man
When Lauri returned to Finland in August of 1945, he was almost immediately prosecuted for treason by the Valpo, the Finnish State Police. Technically, they were not wrong. Torni had escaped to Hamburg and joined the Wehrmacht during the Lapland War … in other words, he had defected to the enemy!
The situation was complicated by Finland’s delicate position between the end of WWII and the start of the Cold War. While the Red Army could have invaded yet again – as it had done with almost all Eastern Europe – Stalin actually preferred a less aggressive approach. He demanded instead that Finland remain a neutral country, but under a strong Soviet influence. It was a shrewd strategic move, as it would prevent NATO from deploying future troops along the Soviet-Finnish frontier, one of the longest sections of the Soviet Union’s borders.
Moscow’s influence extended to the appointment of ministers and officials aligned to the Communist Party – and one of them was the chief of the Valpo.
Anyway, in August of 1945, Torni had been arrested for treason and was placed on a train headed to a high-security prison. Lauri did not wait for the term to begin; he simply jumped off the train during a stop.
For the next few months, Lauri reunited with his beloved parents and his sister Kaija, who had been forcibly relocated from Viipuri to Helsinki. Here, he worked at an electrical supply firm and generally lived in the open … he enjoyed the simple pleasures of life as a free, innocent man!
However, after a co-worker reported him to the Valpo, the former officer was apprehended once more. A trial in October of 1946 sentenced him to six years in prison for high treason.
Once again, the only way out of that sticky situation was to … well, to just leave. Torni certainly was no stranger to evasions, so in the spring of 1947, he simply walked out of jail, thanks to a false ID card smuggled by a friend.
His life as a fugitive did not last long, though, as Valpo had an ace up their sleeve. The police spread the false rumour that he was wanted for theft — a blemish on his upright reputation that Torni could not tolerate.
Willing to clear his record, Lauri handed himself over voluntarily and returned behind bars at Turku State Prison. But it wasn’t long before the restless Captain was ready to attempt another escape.
While generally a quiet man, Lauri could make a quite genial and cultured companion. He made friends with the organist in service at the prison Church. While serving as his assistant, he identified a poorly secured window in the chapel, from which he believed he could escape with a classic tactic: a rope made of bed sheets, tied to an iron hook.
But on the night of the escape, a guard discovered him and took aim with his rifle, ready to end this indomitable soldier’s career. Luckily, the gun malfunctioned, and Torni was apprehended without serious incident.
By the end of the decade, the Soviet’s grip on the Finnish Government had loosened enough for President Paasikivi to issue a pardon for Torni. Unfortunately, the pardon involved his being stripped of his rank. His name was removed from official war records, too. This was October 6, 1950.
Lauri felt betrayed. He wasn’t sure he had anything else to offer to his own country, so in 1949, he decided to emigrate, crossing the border into Sweden. Here, he started a new life … as a lumberjack!
Yes, he’d be a lumberjack, and be okay.
He’d sleep all night and work all day,
He started dating a girl from Stockholm, Marja Kops, the first and only real love of his life. The two got engaged on January 1, 1950 and had even set a date for their wedding. The two had agreed that Lauri would wear his old Captain’s uniform for the wedding photo shoot, so the girl traveled to Finland to collect it.
But fate threw a spanner in the works. Lauri had previously applied for a visa to travel to Venezuela under the alias of Ema Mbrsky. His intention was to join a community of Finnish ex-pats in the Americas and start a new life. After months of waiting, the visa had finally arrived. Unfortunately, this offered only a very limited time window for Lauri to leave Sweden.
Torni … was torn.
Okay, that was lame, but Lauri was, indeed, torn between his new love and the opportunity to start a new life away from Europe. In the end, he opted to leave, before Marja could return.
Lauri got in touch and promised her he would be back, but their connection waned over the years. Eventually, Marja moved to Las Palmas to marry a Spanish man.
Down in South America, Lauri landed in Caracas in March of 1950, taking on odd jobs around the local Finnish community to make ends meet. Among these jobs, Lauri would work as a babysitter for his compatriots. And that’s comedy gold, right there, Hollywood! A former Waffen-SS Captain and Special Forces operator looking after young children? Send that screenplay to all the major executives.
Beyond babysitting, a job more suited to Lauri was as a sailor on merchant ships, sailing to the US. The Finn had since long set his sights on moving to the States, but the status of his visa did not allow him to step off the boat onto dry land. But a man like Torni would not let a little bit of paperwork get in his way.
By now an escape artist on par with the Great Houdini, Lauri simply jumped overboard off the coast of Louisiana and swam safely to New Orleans. From there, Lauri made his way to New York, where he settled in Harlem, resuming his routine of odd jobs.
By 1951, Lauri had been apprehended by FBI agents: he was an illegal immigrant, after all, and it was only a matter of time before he would be kicked out of the country.
Luckily, in New York, Torni had become friends with one Paavo Fleming. This gentleman was the President of an association of Finnish Veterans and Soldiers in the States, and he had immediately recognized the great potential that Lauri could offer to the US Armed Forces.
Fleming had brought Lauri’s case to the attention of retired General William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, a key figure within the OSS and, later, the CIA. Now an attorney, Donovan agreed to represent Torni and was able to secure him a permit to remain in the US. Not only that, but he interceded for him to be enrolled in the US Army.
This is when Lauri Torni reemerged as Larry Allan Thorne, a legend of the Green Berets.
All the Wars He Came Across
In January of 1954, former Captain Torni started basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, as Private Thorne. He must have felt like a real Finn out of water: he was 34, while the average age of the soldiers there was 19; he had the inclination to lead, but he also had to re-train as a low-ranking soldier; his English was not really up to scratch, but he did manage to communicate at least in part with a blend of hand gestures and shouted profanities.
After completing basic training, he attended two specialization courses. First, there was the Mountain and Arid Cold Weather Survival Course, which must have felt like any other Tuesday to him. There was also the paratrooper course at Fort Benning, Georgia, which earned him a HALO certificate.
In 1957, Larry was serving in Bavaria, as a member of the 11th Airborne Division. He had performed well in the US Military, climbing to the rank of 1st Lieutenant. However, following several months of relative quiet, he got into serious trouble.
In December of 1958, Thorne was involved in a pub brawl with some locals, a fistfight which ended in his throwing several Bavarian patrons through a plate glass window. Larry was arrested and court-martialled. He seriously risked his own dismissal from the Army, but luck was on his side — investigators found that some of the Germans involved in the brawl had a criminal record, and at least two of them were wanted by the police. At Thorne’s court-martial in October 1959, he was found not guilty.
Thorne could return to his duties, but he preferred to accept a transfer instead, to the 10th Group of the Special Forces – the Green Berets – based in Bad Tölz, Germany.
It was with this team that in July 1962, Lauri took part in one of his best-known missions. His unit was tasked with retrieving the wreckage of an Otter reconnaissance plane. The aircraft had crashed over the Zagros mountains in Iran, after a secret mission to gather intel on Larry Thorne’s old nemesis, the Soviet Union. Two previous crews of German mountaineer troops had failed to locate the Otter, which contained information too sensitive to be left unattended on a mountain top.
Under the leadership of Captain Schandler, Larry and a dozen of Green Berets climbed the unforgiving terrain of the Zagros range and succeeded in reaching the wreckage. They retrieved all the classified intel, as well as the bodies of the airmen who had died in the crash. Along the way, Larry and friends even found time to provide medical aid to isolated communities on the mountains.
In early 1963, Lieutenant Thorne was assigned a mission in South Vietnam. As a military advisor, his job was to work with the South Vietnamese special forces, which he led in several airborne missions. On one such assignment, Thorne, his Sergeant, and 10 South Vietnamese militiamen were ambushed by 120 Viet Congs. Larry’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ soundly defeated the guerrillas, and he was awarded with a Bronze Star.
After this first tour in Vietnam, the now-Captain Thorne returned to Fort Benning for more advanced training, after which he was ordered to a second tour in Vietnam, during the spring and summer 1965.
Thorne was working at the 5th Special Forces Group headquarters at Nha Trang, as an intelligence officer. It was mainly a quiet job, but surprisingly, he liked it and was soon recognized as the leader of Nha Trang’s intelligence operations.
In late June, the base came under attack from the Vietcong, but the guerrillas did not achieve the intended surprise and were swiftly repelled. This was thanks to Thorne’s intelligence work, which had enabled
“the prompt response of defense elements”, as stated by his Commanding officer in an after-action report.
It was also thanks to this success that Larry was assigned to lead Operation Shining Brass in September. This was a secret infiltration of reconnaissance elements into Laos, a formally neutral country.
On October 18, 1965, Larry Thorne boarded a helicopter with South Vietnamese operatives. A photo taken that day depicts him as he gets to the chopper. This was the last photo ever taken of Captain Lauri Torni, reborn in the west as Captain Larry Thorne.
The objective of the mission was to pinpoint the location of a Communist troop encampment. From that perspective, Larry had scored another success: his team did locate the enemy base, and the US dropped 95 tons of bombs on it two weeks later.
However, during the flight itself, mission control lost all contact with Thorne’s helicopter, and he and his comrades were declared Missing in Action. Exactly one year later, on October 19, 1966, they were all declared Killed in Action – although neither their bodies nor the helicopter, were ever located during the remaining years of the Vietnam conflict.
Had he actually died in a helicopter crashed? Had he been captured by the Vietcong, or by the North Vietnamese Army? Had he resurfaced again, in another country, with another name, ready to fight another war?
It took more than 30 years to solve the mystery. In 1999, Thorne’s remains were found 25 miles south of Da Nang by a joint Finnish-US Task Force. He was repatriated to America.
Formally identified in 2003, his remains were buried on June 26th, 2003, at Arlington National Cemetery, section 60, tombstone 8136. He was buried alongside the remaining South Vietnam Air Force casualties from his final mission.
Remembering Lauri Torni
In his 47 years of life, Lauri Torni had fought in three different wars, on behalf of three completely different countries, all of which bestowed upon him praise for his valor. He could proudly wear 17 military decorations, including the Mannherheim Cross, the Iron Cross, a Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Bronze Star.
To this day, US Special Forces have an award named after him. A former comrade from the Vietnam War, Robin Moore, took inspiration from Torni for the character of Sven Kornie in his book ‘The Green Berets’. This was later turned into a movie, where the Kornie character would be interpreted by ‘The Duke’ himself, John Wayne.
And in 2014, Lauri was celebrated by metal band Sabaton, in their song ‘Soldier of Three Armies.’
If you want to know more about the crazy life of this character, I can recommend the books ‘Born a Soldier’ by Mike Cleverley and ‘Soldier Under Three Flags’ by Henry A. Gill.
Of course, not everybody agrees on his hero status: Finnish authors Juha Pohjonen and Oula Silvennoinen in their book ‘Unknown Lauri Torni’ suggest that, at the end of WWII, the Finn had joined a Nazi resistance movement with the purpose of carrying out a National Socialist coup in Finland. The book is available only in Finnish, but we’ll leave a link to the eBook in the description below, in case you speak the language.
Controversy aside, I hope you enjoyed today’s adventurous tale of the Phoenix Soldier. As a follow up, let me ask you, which protagonist of the Winter War would you like us to cover?
Born a Soldier
Soldier Under Three Flags
Finland after WWII
The Green Berets movie
Rescue on the Zagros
Operation Shining Brass
Love of his live
Unknown Lauri Torni