December 2013 was the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the Finnish Army's legendary Törni Unit (Osasto Törni). Below is the keynote address I delivered at the celebration that was held in Turku, Finland.
Larry Thorne the "Legend"
by J. Michael Cleverley
Presented at the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of Osasto Törni (the "Thorne Unit")
In Finland, much has been said recently about the Larry Thorne “legend,” whether his life deviated from his “legend” or whether he ever was a “legend,” except in the minds of some people who wrote about him.
In all this discussion, especially among those who have tried to detract from his reputation as a heroic Finnish and American soldier, the term “legend” has been used loosely with little reference to its real meaning. This has further confused a debate that may in any case have been generated more by the desire of some new authors to generate a reputation for themselves than to take an honest look at the validity of Larry Thorne’s fame and reputation.
This is what I wish to talk about tonight. But before I do, let’s clarify what may have been confused when talking about the idea of a “legend.”
Legends are stories that, because of their tie to historical events or location, are believable, though not necessarily believed. For scholars, whether a legend is true or not, is irrelevant, for the fact that the story is being told at all makes it a commentary on the cultures that produce or circulate the legends.
Legends are usually distinguished from myths, which are tales generally not considered to be based on facts. And fables, are simply stories that have no reference to reality. And finally, a person who is a “legend” is someone who generates legends in the popular mind.
So strictly speaking, Larry Thorne is a legend, for he has generated many legends in the minds of people in Finland and the United States. Again, it is not relevant whether the legends are true or not. The fact that they are written or told from person to person, and are believable, makes them legends, and makes Larry Thorne a legend. In that sense, efforts to portray his efforts as mythical or as fables, do not take away from his stature as one of the legends of our time. He continues to inspire legends in the popular mind.
As with any legendary figure, there are many stories about Larry Thorne that are probably not true. Others, we simply do not know whether they are true. But what is interesting to me is that unlike many legends, there is a veracity in many of the Larry Thorne stories that is verifiable. Many of the tales about him, often seem at first impression fantastic and almost unbelievable, but they are in fact authentic as verified by the words of those who had first-hand knowledge of them.
After studying and writing about Larry Thorne’s life for many years, here are some of the conclusions I have reached about the Larry Thorne legend.
Larry Thorne's fame and legend are not simply the product of writers who began publishing in the 1970s.
Legends are not born in a day, but they have to start somewhere. Fame always precedes legend, and Larry’s fame seems to have been born from nearly the beginning of his soldier’s career. Jukka Tyrkkö relates how journalists picked up on Thorne’s attack at West Lemetti, during the Winter War. He quoted lines from press accounts:
“Hurja ryntäys kahden syöksyryhmänsä kanssa mm. 25 panssarivaunua käsittäneen motin sisään karjuen käskyjään ja paiskoen kasapanoksi korsujen suista sisään.” ["A furious attack with two charging platoons against an encirclement of 25 tanks among other things, crying out orders and hurling grenades through the mouth of the bunkers."]
”Törni heilui keskellä luotisadetta ja korsujen edustat olivat täynnä kuolevia, valittavia, verisiä vihollissotureita, jotka eivät ehtineet ottaa montakaan askelta ennen kuin Törnin hurjapäiset miehet kaatoivat heidät siihen paikaan.” ["Thorne weaved back and forth in a rain of lead, and the bunkers were full of dying, groaning, and bloody enemy soldiers who could take no more than a few steps before Thorne's ferocious men dropped them on the spot."]
The journalists were talking about a young man named “Thorne,” not just a soldier, commander, a group of soldiers. They had his name, and given how his soldierly charisma captured those who met him, if even briefly, it’s not hard to see how his exploits quickly translated into fame and eventually legends.
Throughout his life, he caught the attention of keen observers, like journalists, and developed a natural aura of fame. Going through his military files from the US Army, I found a letter from a journalist written many years later, about a year after his loss in Vietnam. The reporter from the Cincinnati Post and Times-Star was writing to the commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group, and said:
“One of my friends was listed today on the casualty list from Washington – he was Larry Thorne, who has been missing for a year. It may seem unusual to call someone “friend” whom you’ve met but once – but he was a most impressive person, as you undoubtedly know. And I followed his career with much interest… could you tell me what happened to Larry?”
Thorne’s fame started early, and a legend began to grow. During the War of Continuation many Finnish officers and soldiers knew of Larry Thorne's fame. One soldier, whose unit was bogged down under an attack from the Soviets, started his account of the subsequent battle saying,
“Samalla minulle kuitenkin ilmoitettiin, että kuuluisa Lasse Törnin jääkärikomppaniaa odotetaan saapuvaksi klo 13,00.” ["I was told that the famous Larry Thorne Jaeger company was expected to arrive about 13:00.]
A soldier from another unit that the Törni Company rescued wrote about the operation:
“Tämä urhea, nuorista vapaaehtoisista koottu iskujoukko, jota johtaa äsken Mannerheiminristin ritariksi nimitetty nuori, 25-vuotias luutnantti, on kuuluisa…” ["These gallant commandos, made up of young volunteers and led by a just named 25 year-old Knight of the Mannerheim Cross lieutenant, are famous..."]
Finnish officers – and they were some of the cream of the war’s Finnish officer corps - who came to the United States as part of the Marttinen men said they knew his reputation during the war, before they met him in the States. He was readily befriended in New York City when he arrived penniless, fresh from swimming ashore, because he was known. When he was arrested in Finland following his return from Germany the Helsingin Sanomat carried a photograph of Thorne on its page reporting the arrest. He obviously wasn’t an unknown. Larry Thorne became the protagonist in The Green Berets, Robin Moore’s seminal book on the Vietnam War, because of his fame and reputation. This fame and reputation, by the way, led Moore’s US Army caretakers to try to prevent Moore from joining Thorne’s unit in Vietnam. He had more reputation than they wanted Moore to publicize.
Of course, definitionally there is no legend, if no one tells it. Legends are tales and stories people tell each other. So the body of a Thorne legend grew with the books about him that were published during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But it is wrong to say he was unknown before the books were published. If he enjoyed almost a cult following in both Finland and the United States following his death, it is important to remember that initially, at least, those who revered him were those who knew him. The books were published and became popular only because of the Thorne stories they told.
The exploits and events behind Larry Thorne’s legends were authentic
And it is equally wrong to imply that because the storytellers recounted the Thorne legends, the stories they tell are baseless. His accomplishments were in fact heroic even if they were not so widely told until books later wrote about him. The legends exist, because they tickled the imagination and minds of those who knew him and later those who heard about him. This is my second point. Most of the stories of Lauri Törni’s exploits were not exaggerations or fabrications.
People enjoy creating “heroes” from characters who could never live up to their iconic persona in the popular imagination. Thorne is like the other chosen. But what is remarkable is that in his brilliance and quirks, achievements and failures, escapades and disasters, he is – in the words of those who actually knew him – one of those few who actually brings some veracity to that imagination.
Maj. General Uno Fagernäs, who wrote Thorne’s Mannerheim Cross citation, Antti Lindholm-Ventola, who followed him, Lars Rönnquist, who commanded him, and Paavo Kairinen, who mentored him, all knew him well. And Green Berets author Robin Moore was a friend of Thorne’s and was actually present at Thorne’s battles described in his book. These were the writers whose accounts produced Larry Thorne’s legends. Few fiction writers invent better stories than those verifiable tales that witnesses like these leave us.
If you want a really great compilation of Larry Thorne’s legends, just read the Mannerheim Cross citation from General Fagernäs. The American equivalent to the Mannerheim Cross is the Congressional Medal of Honor. This American medal is normally given for an exceptionally heroic deed. Thorne’s Mannerheim Cross, however, was awarded for a long list of moments of heroism, the ones that fill the ledgers of Törni legends.
The sheer audacity and boldness of Thorne’s behavior on the battlefield was unforgettable. Colonel Lars Rönnquist, himself known for a fair amount of audacity, wrote in his book on Thorne, Törnin Jääkarit, about the day he and Division Commander Fagernäs observed Thorne, under fire on a frozen lake
”Törnin miehiä makasi lumipukuisin ketjussa, ampuen järvelle pain. Ketjun oikealla siivellä joku huomasi kenraalin, ja näin miten sana lähti kulkemaan oikealta vasemmalle. Sieltä nousi Törni, joka käänsi selkänsä viholliseen päin, veti kätensä lakin reunaan ja teki komean ilmoituksen kenraalille, joka huusi ’Hyvää huomenta pojat’ ja sai raikuvan vastauksen ’Hyvää huomenta, herra kenraali.’ Se oli hetki, jota en ikinä unohda.” ["Thorne's men lay in a line in their snow outfits, shooting toward the lake. On the right side of the line someone noticed the general, and I saw how word passed along from right to left. Then Thorne stood up, turned his back toward the enemy, raised his hand to his cap and made a handsome salute to the general, who yelled "Good morning, boys,' and received an energetic response, 'Good morning, General." It was a moment that I will never forget."]
Of course, it is Thorne’s colorful behavior off the battlefield as much as on the battlefield that has added much color to his legends. Eyewitness accounts of many of these stories add veracity to these legends, as well.
There is a temptation therefore to reach a conclusion that beyond being an incomparable fighter, Thorne was essentially an impossible character with few exceptional virtues. Pohjonen and Silvennoinen in their Tuntematon Lauri Törni book write:
“Muuten kuin sotilaana Lauri Törni oli keskinkertainen mies.” ["Other than as a soldier, Larry Thorne was a mediocre man."]
Even on the surface, however, there is an inherent problem in such a statement. It is like saying that, “Aside from being a painter and sculptor, Michelangelo was a mediocre man.” In fact Michelangelo was an outstanding painter and sculptor and Larry Thorne was an outstanding soldier, so what else they may or may not have been, adds little to the discussion.
More relevant questions are: What kind of leader was he? What kind of soldier was he in peacetime? Was he an asset to a commander's unit on and off the battlefield?
It is difficult to get the best answers to these questions solely by looking at Thorne’s experience in the Finnish army. He did not have a chance to develop a career in Finland’s peacetime military, and the war years, in the best of circumstances, were extraordinary times.
In peacetime as well as wartime, Thorne was a gifted leader
However, by looking at his eleven years in the American army it is absolutely clear that Lauri Thorne was an intelligent and a natural leader.
The American army Törni joined was a peacetime army sitting in the time gap between the just ended Korean War and the Vietnam War. Törni thrived in the US Army. That he was an exceptionally sound leader capable of adapting to different situations and cultures was especially evident from the officer evaluation reports written each six months between 1957 and 1965 to assess his performance. The reports were drafted by his direct commanding officers and reviewed in an additional section by the next higher officer in the command chain. Over the years, the assessments discussed and compared his capabilities as an officer and were used to determine his promotion potential as well as assignments. As they did so, they presented an inside view of Thorne, his strengths and weaknesses.
This was in an army that some believe was the best peacetime army the United States ever fielded. In an evaluation system that made and broke many American officers, the assessments reveal that Thorne, in both peacetime and wartime, was a strong, respected leader with sharp intelligence, solid judgment, and unnerving courage.
These were relative evaluations that pitted his skills against those of his contemporaries, many of whom were the product of America’s rigorous military academies and who at the time were commanding the country’s most elite forces. Thorne had attended no military academy, had no formal higher education, and spoke English, especially in the beginning, with difficulty. One might expect him to fare well on energy and courage, but to suffer in comparison to others’ intellectual skills. That is clearly not the case in the evaluations.
In his performance evaluation for the six-month period ending May 4, 1958, one commanding officer wrote,
“…Lt Thorne is an aggressive officer who is at his best in a situation which demands physical exertion, direct action, and forceful leadership. He is admired by his men and respected by his contemporaries and superiors.”
Larry Thorne's seemingly big handicap, as shown consistently in his evaluations, was his weak English ability. But in every instance, his commanders discounted the weakness stating that his strong leadership abilities offset any language problems. "He at times has language difficulties but overcomes these well," one commanding officer wrote.
Thorne was as smart as he was strong. Another officer wrote:
"The physical and mental capabilities of this man are far superior to that of the average officer. He is not in appearance a physical giant or in speech an orator. He has what God has given only to a few, and that is leadership."
By the time he returned in 1962 to the United States from his tour in Germany, Törni was fairly widely known as one of the best and toughest officers in the Green Berets. Then-Major Charles Simpson, one of Thorne's peacetime commanders while in Germany, wrote that he would “…fight to serve with him again under similar conditions, particularly in combat requiring great maturity, perseverance, physical and moral courage, and personal leadership.” Simpson later would author one of the important histories of the American Special Forces.
Larry Thorne was: “…the best soldier I have ever known,” Col. Paavo Kairinen, another Finnish-American officer, told a reporter many years later. In Vietnam, the 5th Special Force’s executive officer, Robert Rheault reached the same conclusion, calling Thorne “the finest soldier I’ve ever known.” Thorne’s unwavering courage in Vietnam furthered more his reputation. This is “…the type of person you like to have around in a fight for he has unlimited courage,” wrote George Viney, Deputy Commander of the Special Forces in Vietnam.
In Vietnam Thorne’s achieved recognition outside of battle. In one assignment he demonstrated a flair for intelligence work, soon had his own intelligence sources, and was quickly recognized as a leader of Nha Trang's intelligence operations. Fifth Special Forces commander Spears wrote,
“Thus far in Vietnam, there has been only one Viet Cong attack on a major U.S. installation in which the enemy did not achieve surprise. This one instance was the attack of Nha Trang airbase on 25 June in which damage was minimized because the prompt response of defense elements disrupted the Viet Cong effort. It was Captain Thorne’s work that made this action possible.”
Spears’ confidence in Thorne only reiterated what Thorne’s commanders had been writing for several years. Consistently, both the rating and endorsing officers had given him top marks, on a scale of 1-5, for intelligence, ingenuity, and judgment. In most reports, they ranked him in the top ten percent of officers, in both “overall demonstrated performance,” and “estimated potential.”
Thorne’s broad and continued high level of competence on a number of different key fronts, rather than just dazzling exploits, brought him to the attention of the senior officers in the American Special Forces. When he went to Vietnam, his ratings increased even beyond these earlier high marks. There, under wartime conditions, he soared to the very top as his commanders placed him in the top 2 - 6 percent of officers his rank, depending on the evaluation.
No legend, and certainly not Larry Thorne's, offers a flawless protagonist
Finally, just a concluding point. No legend, and certainly not Larry Thorne's, offers a flawless protagonist. In fact, as with ancient Greek legends, it is the flawed human character of heroes that makes them enduring and lovable. John Wayne’s performance of blemished characters were his most remembered roles. If larger in life in his heroics and leadership capacity, Larry’s mistakes were sometimes just as considerable. I’m sure, he too, must have wondered at times in later life whatever got him in early 1945 on that submarine destined for an already sinking Third Reich.
But it is not fair to Thorne, nor to the norms of respectable scholarship, to extract him, warts and all, from the context of his times. If the war years were extraordinary in Finnish history, those years immediately following the war were equally so. Many people believed that the terms of the peace treaty with the Soviet Union would result in Soviet or communist control of Finland. The communist takeovers in Eastern Europe supported that view. Even Mauno Koivisto wrote his parents that he had come to the conclusion that the Russians intended to take over Finland. It was just a question of time, he thought
And to say or imply that Larry Thorne after returning from Germany was a “traitor” on account of his conviction shows a gross misrepresentation of his character and his times he lived. It was a time when scores of Finnish officers were imprisoned for numerous unfounded charges, when a massive Cold War conflict was seasoning the minds and hearts of Finland’s powerful Soviet neighbor, and when Finland throughout its administrative and judicial systems, as well, could never forget the knife’s edge the country rested on in turbulent post-war Europe. In fact it was a time that no Finnish scholar wrote much about for over four decades thereafter.
One of the first to write about those years was Colonel Niilo Lappalainen who authored several books on that period. I had some interesting discussions with Col. Lappalainen, a few years ago before he died. Niilo Lappalainen was also among that Finnish contingent training under Gestapo auspices in the spring of 1945. When he returned to Finland, he was not imprisoned for treason. He joined the Finnish army and rose to the rank of colonel before retiring. In his book Vaarallisilla Teillä he explained what most of those in that program must have thought at the time:
Me nuoret vapaaehtoisetkaan emme halunnet vahingoitta isänmaatamme, vaan olla sille edelleen hyödyksi. Mikäli maa olisi miehitetty, olisimme joutuneet sisseinä osallistumaan vastarintaliikkeen toimintaan. ["We young volunteers did not want to endanger our Fatherland, but to still be of service to it. If the country had been occupied, we would have become insurgents participating in a resistance."]
Those were dark days for many in Finland, not just Thorne, and whatever the merits of the legal proceedings of the time, the events cannot be divorced from their context, and overall those events do not darken the legends of a man caught up in those times
© J. Michael Cleverley 2008