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Larry Who? An Unexpected Arlington Cemetery Story

photo by Lauren Kahn

Arlington Cemetery is full of stories.  There are over 320,000 people buried there and you cannot help but be moved by a visit.  Sometimes you ask a question and you get an answer totally different from what you expected.  That is how I found out about Larry Thorne.

I was preparing to do a tour for a group of Finnish people.  I knew there was a grave near the Kennedy gravesite for Konstant Niemi which listed his place of birth (rather than one of the United States) as “Finland”.  I wanted to know more about him.  So, one day, I typed in “Finns buried in Arlington Cemetery” into google search.  I never found out anything about Niemi, but this amazing story about Larry Thorne came up.  He is known as the only soldier buried in Arlington who fought for 3 different countries.

Larry Thorne, who anglicized his name when he immigrated to the US, was born Lori Torni in Viipuri, Finland, on May 28, 1919.  During World War II, he fought for the Finns against Russia, when the Finns invaded the Finnish province of Karelia.  Viipuri is part of Karelia.  He enlisted in 1938.  Larry Thorne lost his home—as did many Finns--when the province of Karelia was eaten up by the Russians at the end of the Winter War (you know, the one where the Finns fought on skis).  There was massive population displacement as all the Finns fled to Finland rather than be absorbed into Russia.  It's a sore point in Finland to this day.  Viipuri, by the way, is now known as Vyborg.  Finns visit it to touch base with where their ancestors lived with great sadness.

Larry Thorne fought the Russians in the Winter War, initially as an enlisted man.  He was such a good soldier that he was eventually commissioned a lieutenant.  He continued to fight the Russians in what the Finns call the Continuation War from 1941-1944 with the Waffen SS.  Finland, by the way, ended up on the German side in World War II.  They didn’t much like the Germans, but they disliked the Russians more.

At the end of World War II, Thorne had a difficult time.  He was incarcerated for joining the Germans, but was pardoned in 1946.  The Finns had a difficult time sort of dealing with war guilt after it was over, but, they shouldn’t have blamed themselves.  There are currently just a little over 5.2 million Finns.  How could they fight either Russia or Germany and win?  They have repeatedly been squeezed between major powers. Their survival is a heroic story.  So is the story of their language—which is viewed as distantly related to Mongolian.

Thorne found post war work eventually as a seaman, but, in 1953, jumped ship and immigrated to he US landing in New York City.  In 1954 he enlisted in the US Army—a path followed by other Finnish officers who fought for the Germans in the Continuation War.  In 1960 he became a Captain in the US Army despite difficulties with the English language which dogged him throughout his time in the US.  He joined the Special Forces and was regarded as a soldier’s soldier. Then came the Vietnam War and Thorne was sent to Vietnam.  On October 18, 1965, he left for a clandestine mission in Laos.  He never returned, but it was known that he had perished because the remains of the helicopter in which he had been a passenger were found.

In 1999 Larry Thorne’s body was at long last buried in Arlington Cemetery together with some South Vietnamese soldiers who died with him.  The remains were scant and the families chose to mingle them together in the grave just as they had perished.  That’s why the tombstone is larger. Thorne is buried in Section 60, grave number 8136.  He was laid to rest on June 26, 2003.  He received a posthumous promotion to major.

Before doing my tour with the Finns, I went to visit Thorne’s tombstone to see if there was any way I could do the site in the tour.  I couldn’t because there was insufficient time.  I pointed out Niemi’s grave as we walked up to see the Kennedy brothers.  When I started to speak about Thorne, they all said, “Oh, Lori Torni.”  They all knew the story.

Thorne’s name is on panel 2E of the Vietnam Wall.  The people in the tour group photographed it.

Who knew?  And who else is buried in Arlington Cemetery who we have forgotten?  In Finland, Thorne was once voted #52 in a survey of the most famous Finns.  He fought for three countries and found his resting place among Arlington’s many heros.

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Reader Comments (7)

I love learning about stories like this. As someone who married into a family with Finnish ties, I found this one particularly interesting.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLara

Glad you enjoyed this. I did a home exchange in Lahti, Finland (north of Helsinki about an hour) last summer and got interested in things Finland. That led to Finnish groups and the Larry Thorne story.

I am currently reading a book about the opera star Marian Anderson, who, of course, gave that concert at the Lincoln Memorial after the DAR refused to let her use Constitution Hall. Why do I mention that here? Well, Ms. Anderson had a lot of difficulty jump starting her career in the US, so she went to Europe and got it started in Scandanavia. She was hailed there--and particularly in Finland--before her career got started in the US. I knew nothing of this story before reading the book, but I sure will use the information with my Finnish groups.

Thanks for commenting on behalf of DC Like a Local. We are always learning.

January 8, 2010 | Registered CommenterLauren S. Kahn

Lauren was kind enough to sent her blog article to me, since I was also hosting the same Finnish group while they were in DC. Thank you, Lauren, for the wondeful job you did with them!

The article is very good and does reflect the Finnish sentiments towards Lauri Törni (see the proper spelling),alias Larry Thorne very well, indeed. In fact he was known to my father who was the same age, also born in Viipuri, enlisted in 1939, fought both wars and who came out of the war as a captain. I would just like to make a couple of factual comments to set the historic record straight:

First, the Winter War broke out in December, 1939, when Stalin in acordance with the pact he had made with Hitler, ordered he Red Army to invade Finland. The war lasted 100 days, and instead of marching through Finland in two weeks, as the plan was, the Russians suffered terrible losses and never managed to occupy Finland. Karelia was lost though. That was 10% of Finland's territory.

Then, when Hitler launched his Operation Barbarossa on Russia, Finland joined in to get back Karelia. The was reluctant cooperation with the Germans and at the end of WWII when the Finnish government saw that Germany would lose the war, the German troops were chased out of the country and a truce made with the Russion. Karelia was lost again, but the country remained independent and maintained its Western democracy. In fact, Helsinki was the only capital besides London of coutries in WWII in Europe that was never occupied!

As Finns, we can be proud of Lauri Törni's heroic fighting to save the country from Communist aggression. And it is gretifying to see that his memory is honored also in his adopted country.

January 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTapani

I think that an American that looks at the Finnish situation in World War II becomes aware that the Finns fought on the side of the Germans because the Russians sliced off a piece of Finland. Everyone also knows that Finland was in a difficult position and that the Finns had no real love for the Nazis. And, yes, Finland did maintain its independence.

The story of Finland is a very interesting one. I learned much on my home exchange. Not only was Finland able to maintain its independence, but the story of the survival of the Finnish language--closely related to Estonian only (and more distantly to Hungarian and Mongolian) is in itself a story of survival.

Thanks for commenting.

January 11, 2010 | Registered CommenterLauren S. Kahn

The celebrated Larry Thorne (Lauri Törni) cooperated with future President of Finland Mauno Koivisto in the war against the Russian invasion.
Thirty of the Finnish Army infantrymen who accompanied Törni on numerous dangerous missions in World War II are still alive, among them Finland's former President Mauno Koivisto

Mauno Koivisto, the future President of Finland at war

Lauri Törni (Thorne) from the same period of war

The Russian Machine Gun DEGTYAREV snatced from the Russians,
used by Koivisto together with Törni (Thorne) in the war

Among his jääkärit in this "Lightning Bolt" unit, was Mauno Koivisto, future President of Finland. In truth, the future president had very mixed views of his commanding officer.

October 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA Finn
I find it interesting that people in the US are willing to ignore Thorne's Nazi connections. It is true that his war record in Finland was heroic, and that Finland was practically forced to co-operate with the Nazis because nobody else would assist them against the Soviets. However, Thorne did not have to volunteer to serve in the SS between the Winter War and the Continuation War. Nor did he have to volunteer to do so again in 1944-1945 after Finland had agreed to a peace treaty with the Soviets (who, by the way, were allied with the US at the time). Before creating a myth about Thorne as some mythical hero and defender of freedom, it is worth remembering that thousands of soldiers served in the Finnish army in WW2 who were equally heroic and had no personal Nazi connections. Thorne's willingness to enlist with the SS twice on volunteer basis is worrying - it tells me that he did not do so only to fight communism. It is quite likely that he also agreed with the Nazis on a good number of other issues - or he was simply a war enthusiast always looking for a fight. Neither is good - and I don't believe that the society benefits from elevating these personalities, no matter how glorious their war record may be.
January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKari
Lauri Törni was truely war enthusiast. That was only thing he could do decently. He had no vocational or higher training, just one year in business college. He was first a supply personnel member, then showed off some badass going in war and got eventually ROTC officer status. He was quite unpopular within the enemies, he was one of the few Finns which Soviet authorities promised a bounty for (3 million Finnish marks). Besides of it, he received Mannerheim Cross, the highest Finnish military award (equals Medal of Honor in Finland).

After the war he was (like almost any Finn) quite sure that Soviet Union would try to occupy the country after peace has been declared. So Lauri hid some infantry weapons for future use, unaware of other, nation-wide organized ring of conspirators who hid the weapons to all 38 militia districts of Finland, each district holding a battalion-worth of outside-the-army-accounting weapons. In case of occupation, the weapons and guerrilla battalions would make the Red Army life difficult. The Waffen-SS was still at full-scale war with russians and they asked Lauri to join their underground movement which would, in case of Soviet occupation of Finland, fight back at Finnish soil. Obviously, the Waffen-SS had their own interest here, but so had Lauri too.

Due this Waffen-SS connection and political change in Finnish climate (so called Years of Danger) where the formerly-forbidden Communist Party of Finland rose from the ashes and secured vast majority of secret police offices and others (like Finnish department of interior), Lauri was imprisoned, charged and sentenced for treason. He got 6 years of imprisonment (sounds ridiculous compared to lifes or death penalties, given at other countries). After the communists have been kicked out from offices due the incapacity and atrocities and Soviet Control Commission (formed from Soviet officers) has left, Lauri was pardoned by president.

As interesting off-topic, many other Finns, including former president of Finland were sentenced to prison in Finland by a cangaroo-court which was suddenly sentencing Finnish people as war-responsibles. These laws were retroactive and were result of pressure from Moscow.

So, as a summarum: Lauri Törni was a man of action with no education but combat officer of infantry. He has been doing time in prison (which did not improve his possibilities to get job), so he saw no other choice but join the other secret-weapon-cache officers of Finland who had escaped to USA earlied and were now working there in US army.
March 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSenior Lecturer

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