Lauri Torni is a legendary figure in military history for many reasons. This is his story.
The following post is by guest contributor Ian McCall.
Born in 1919 in the town of Viipuri, Lauri Törni began to develop early on the skills that he would later put to good use during his military career. He took up boxing and skiing in school and, by all accounts, he excelled at both. In 1938 Törni joined the civil guard, where he was assigned to a light infantry Jager battalion. In 1939, the Soviet Union would pressure Finland to cede strategically valuable territory or else face the prospect of invasion and total subjugation. Having gained independence from the Russian empire only in 1917, memories of Russian domination still lingered in the minds of many Finns. However, Finland refused to surrender land, despite being highly outmatched, and the Soviets responded by invading on the 30th of November. Lauri Törni, like many other Finns, would rally to his young nation’s banner.
Lauri Törni represented the spirit of the Finnish military during the conflict. Far less in number than their Soviet adversaries, the Finns would form a flexible force that excelled at defensive and winter warfare. On the other hand, the Soviet forces would be poorly organized and badly led following Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s. In spite of their material and numerical advantage over their enemies, the communist forces failed to make much progress. Lauri Törni started the war as a Sergeant in charge of food supplies. Unsatisfied with his post, it would not be long before Törni proved he was capable of much more than simple logistics. Slipping out one night, Törni walked past his own sentries, slipped into a Soviet camp, and captured an enemy soldier. This event made Törni’s superiors realize that he was wasted in a non-combat role. He was quickly reassigned to an anti-tank group, a unit that would hunt Soviet tanks both on foot and on skis. Törni and his unit did this very well and would later distinguish themselves at the siege of East Lemetti. In this battle, the Finns managed to encircle and wipe out a large number of Soviets and capture a large number of vital supplies. Because of his heroic actions, Törni was put on a fast track to become an officer. Later, Törni would lead an unit of ethnic Swedes quite well, despite their inability to speak the same language. However, regardless of the actions of soldiers such as Törni, the war would soon end with a defeat for the Finns. Unable to hold back the tide of the Red Army, Finland would lose a large amount of territory, including Törni’s hometown and around 12% of the Finnish population. This would leave the Finns angry and looking for any chance for payback, and Lauri Törni was no exception with this conflict fostering in him a lifelong hatred of communism. Törni believed that communism represented a threat to his country, and he would do anything he could to try and destroy it. This led him to join the military of the Soviets’ number one enemy: Nazi Germany.
In June of 1941, Törni would travel in secret to Vienna to receive training from the S.S. with the goal of leading Finnish forces against their mutual communist enemy. After seven intense weeks of training, Törni would return to Finland having become a second lieutenant in the Finnish army as well as an Untersturmführer (Second lieutenant) in the Waffen S.S. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Finland would join the war as a co-belligerent in an attempt to regain their lost territory, though the Nordic country would refrain from ever fully joining the Axis. Törni would be given control of an infantry unit called Detachment Törni. This unit would fight behind enemy lines and use guerrilla tactics to great effect, pushing the Soviets back out of the Finnish land over which the Red Army had spilled so much blood. On March 23rd, 1942, Törni would step on a land mine and be sent to the hospital. There he would be promoted to a full Lieutenant, but he would not spend long laid up. With fragments of land mines still embedded in his body, Törni would go AWOL from the hospital to rejoin his unit. During the rest of 1943, Törni would help train other reconnaissance units in operating from behind the enemy lines. Törni expected his soldiers to match his level of skill, particularly in close combat, and especially with the traditional Finnish knife known as the Puukko. However, it would not be until the war had turned against the Axis that Törni would perform some of his most famous actions (feats, missions, ?). As the Soviets advanced in 1944, Törni and his unit would break a Soviet encirclement, saving many Finnish troops. Soon afterward, Törni would personally lead a covert mission that would capture Soviet intelligence, which provided Finnish high command with the intel necessary to counter the Soviet counterattack. Later Detachment Törni, reduced to only 100 men, would be instructed to hold a critical crossroads, facing two full regiments of the Red Army containing over 4000 soldiers. Splitting his men into even smaller groups, Törni created a highly mobile force to conduct a number of hit-and-run attacks against Soviet forces. This convinced the enemy forces that Törni’s unit was far larger than it actually was, buying Finnish forces time to retreat. It was during this time that Törni would again step on a landmine and sent to a military hospital. Here, he received the Cross of Mannerheim, the highest decoration a Finn could hope to achieve. This award came with a simultaneous promotion to Captain. During this time Törni’s subordinates included the future President of Finland, Mauno Koivisto, who would say of Törni Thorne, as a leader, “In many ways, he emphasized that we were all the same bunch, and he bore his share just like the others… He did not ask anyone to do something he did not do himself. He carried his own load, marched at the lead, and was one of us.” As a further credit to Törni’s abilities, the Soviets placed a bounty of 3,000,000 Finnish marks placed on his head. However, even with Törni and his men’s accomplishments on the battlefield, Finland was in a position it simply could not maintain. Soon, on September 19, Finland would come to terms with Russia. One condition to avoid Russian occupation in Finland was the expulsion of all German troops from Finnish soil. This condition would result in a short-lived conflict between the Finns and the Germans known as the Lapland War. After this, German troops retreated from Finland and the Finnish army was demobilized. Törni, like many other men, was soon out of a job, but this would not be the end of his war.
In 1945 Törni would be recruited by the pro-German resistance movement in Finland. This group feared that Finland would be occupied by the Soviet Union post-war and thus was making preparation for an extended guerrilla war. To that end, Törni would travel to Germany to continue his saboteur training. However, as the war entered its final days, Törni would not have time to finish his training. Unable to return to Finland, Törni would join the German unit to fight the Soviets until the end of the war. After the German surrender, Törni would turn himself over to the British and was imprisoned in a POW camp before escaping in June 1945. Returning to Finland, Törni would be arrested for treason as a result of joining the German army. In 1947, Törni received a 6-year prison sentence, though he would not spend long behind bars. Less than a year into his sentence, he would escape out a prison church window. He would be recaptured, but soon after the Finnish president pardoned him. Now a free man, Törni was unhappy with the state of post-war Finland. The Finnish government had been forced to give a large amount of land to the Soviet Union on top of paying reparations. Even worse, the Communists that Törni despised so much now had a strong position in the Finnish government. It was clear that Törni’s future lay outside of Finland.
In 1949, Törni traveled to Sweden where he hoped to find work. However, there was little work for a former member of S.S. in postwar Europe. So, Törni would use a false alias to travel to Caracas, Venezuela where he worked as—of all things—a babysitter before becoming a sailor on a ship transporting goods up and down the coast of the Americas. Törni was not content to simply survive; he wanted to rejoin the fight against the communists. That meant making his way to the new arch-enemy of Moscow: the US. This would prove difficult as Törni was prohibited from leaving his ship when it docked in the US. This would not stop Törni, however, as he jumped overboard and swam to New Orleans when his ship reached the Gulf of Mexico. He then made his way to New York, where he did odd jobs for the Finnish community. In 1951, he was arrested by the FBI for entering the country illegally. Luckily for Törni, he had made friends with a man named Paavo Fleming, who was to head off a Finnish Veterans Association. Fleming saw that Törni had a lot to offer the US armed forces and brought his case to the attention of former US General and founder of the OSS, William “Wild Bill” Donovan. Donovan had become an attorney and agreed to take on Törni’s case. Not only was “Wild Bill” able to get Törni a permit to remain in the US, but he was also able to talk the US Army into accepting Törni into basic training. This is where the story of Lauri Törni ends and the saga of Larry Thorne begins.
Starting training in 1954 at Fort Dix, former Captain Törni, now known as Private Thorne, excelled at training. Even though he was 10 years older than the other recruits and spoke little English, Thorne managed to communicate with a mix of gestures and swear words. After graduating from basic training, Thorne befriend a group of Finnish officers who pointed him toward a career in special forces and helped him get into both mountain warfare and airborne school. In 1957, Thorne attended officer candidate school and would be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. In the same year, he would finally become a US citizen. While stationed in Bavaria in 1958, Thorne got into a bar fight ending with him throwing several local Germans out a window. While Thorne avoided being kicked out of the army, this event would inspire him to transfer into the 10th Special Forces group. In 1962, Thorne would take part in a mission to recover a downed US recon plane from a mountain in Iran where it was recovering intel on the Soviet Union. Thorne and a team of other Green Berets made the long climb to reach the wrecked plane, and along the way the team provided medical aid to the remote villages along the mountain. The Green Berets managed to recover the classified intel from the plane as well as the pilots’ bodies and managed to get both off the mountain, all while remaining undetected.
In 1963, Thorne was assigned as an advisor in South Vietnam. He would lead South Vietnamese Commandos on several airborne missions into the jungle. On one such mission, Thorne, his sergeant, and 10 South Vietnamese militiamen would be ambushed by over 100 Vietcong. Thorne and his men would hold off the enemy forces and even drive them back into the jungle. This battle earned him the bronze star. After his tour in Vietnam, Thorne would go to Fort Benin, Georgia for more advanced training and a promotion to Captain. Following his brief reprieve, Thorne would be sent back its South Vietnam as an intelligence officer with the 5th Special Force group. Thorne was stationed at Na Trang when the base came under attack by the Vietcong, but, thanks to Thorne’s intelligence, the base was ready for the attack and was able to fend off the attackers. Because of his success, Thorne was assigned to lead operation Shining Brass, which was the infiltration of Laos to find Vietcong strongholds along the Ho Chi Minh trail. On October 18th, Thorne and a team of Vietnamese Commandos boarded a chopper and left from Kham Duc Special Forces Camp to head to a forward air control base. However, Thorne would never make it there, his copper had gone down. While rescue teams would be sent out to try and find the downed copper but it seemed that Thorne had simply disappeared into the jungle. Thorne was declared missing in action, and shortly afterward he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit, and a promotion to Major. In 1999, a joint US-Finnish team found Thorne’s downed chopper. His remains we returned to the US, where he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Lauri Törni is the only member of the Waffen S.S. buried in Arlington. His career transcends nations and is a lesson in bravery. Having earned the Mannerheim Cross, the Iron Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Legion of Merit, he is also one of the most decorated soldiers of all time. Lauri Törni is an example of a man who found a true calling in being a soldier, and this calling would not let a little thing like losing two wars stop him from performing what he saw as his duty. And with a career spanning almost thirty-years and covering some of the most impactful wars of the 20th century, Törni would truly earn his place in history and his nickname of the Phoenix Soldier.
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