A hero is not somebody who experience no fear in the face of mortal danger. People – at least normal people with all their marbles – cannot help but feel afraid when faced with a serious threat to life and limb. A hero is somebody who manages to act despite the fear, for the benefit of others. Following are forty fascinating things about some lesser-known American heroes, who deserve to be way more famous than they are.
40. A Hero Receives His Belated Dues
On March 18th, 2014, a ceremony was held in the White House, during which President Obama awarded twenty-four long-overdue Medals of Honor to Jewish and Hispanic veterans. Each of them was a hero, but a hero who had been denied his due recognition by a military establishment that was dead set against bestowing the country’s highest honor on minorities.
Conspicuous by his presence in the ceremony was rocker Lenny Kravitz. The music star, full name Leonard Albert Kravitz, was there as a family member of one of the honorees: his uncle and namesake, US Army Private First Class Leonard M. Kravitz. The hero’s uncle was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor for his service – and sacrifice – in the Korean War.
The ceremony was the direct result of a dogged quest by PFC Kravitz’s best friend, Mitch Libman, to correct an injustice visited upon his buddy. “Dogged quest” in this case is no figure of speech: Libman spent over fifty years to make sure that his friend got the award he deserved.
Libman and Kravitz grew up together in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, and were best friends since childhood. As Libman put it: “Lenny was the kind of guy that everybody likes. He was a neighborhood guy“. Born in 1931, Lenny was too young to serve in WWII. However, his older brother Seymour, the rocker’s father, had served in the Marines and was lionized as a hero upon his return. Lenny wanted to emulate his big brother, and decided to enlist when the Korean War broke out in 1950.
Leonard M. Kravitz was determined to serve his country in a time of war. As his friend Mitch Libman recalled: “His mother and dad fought with him and fought with him and fought with him“. However, Kravitz was over eighteen, so in the end, his parents had no choice but to let him go.
The last time Libman saw his friend, they were standing in a Brooklyn corner, while their mothers played mahjong. Kravitz was throwing a going-away party that night, but Libman was unable to attend. Regret and guilt gnawed at him forever after, when he learned a few months later that his best friend had been killed in Korea. That contributed to Libman’s lifelong quest to see that his hero friend got his just dues.
In March, 1951, thousands of miles away from Brooklyn, on the other side of the globe, PFC Leonard M. Kravitz was in war-torn Korea. On March 6th, Kravitz, of Company M, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regimental Combat Team, attached to the 24th Infantry Division, was attached to Company L as an assistant machine gunner.
He was in a defensive position near Yangpyong, when his unit was hit by powerful attacks from communist forces. Kravitz’s unit beat back two probing attacks, but was then subjected to a full onslaught that unraveled their position. It was then that the hero in Kravitz rose to the surface, as he sprang into action to save his comrades. He did, but paid a dear price: his own life.
Despite heavy casualties, the communists kept coming, and eventually overwhelmed the unit to the left of Kravitz’s. As a result, the position of Kravitz’s unit became untenable, and American GIs were forced to beat a hasty retreat. Kravitz was an assistant machine gunner, but when the machine gunner was wounded, Kravitz took over and began mowing down the attackers.
When the order to withdraw was issued, Kravitz volunteered to stay behind. Ignoring his comrades’ pleadings to fall back with them, he continued manning the machinegun to buy them enough time to make it to safety. As he poured fire on the advancing enemy, he shouted to his buddies: “Get the hell out of here while you can!”
35. Greater Love Hath No Man Than This, That He Lay Down His Life For His Friends
The last that PFC Kravitz’s buddies saw of him, the young hero was covering their retreat. He held back enemy infiltrators from pouring through a gap to the left of his position. When he spotted a column of communist troops advancing upon a friendly position, he swept them with deadly and accurate fire, killing the entire group.
His fearless defense and accurate fire forced the enemy to concentrate their fire on Kravitz’s position, long enough for his buddies to make it back to safety. The following day, the Americans launched a counterattack and retook their positions. They found Kravitz dead by his machinegun, with heaps of enemy corpses in front of him, and two dead communists in the machinegun position with him. He was nineteen years old.
For his heroism on March 6-7, 1951, PFC Leonard M. Kravitz was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. Mitch Libman, who served in Korea a few years after the death of his her friend, was convinced that Kravitz deserved the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor.
Libman reached that conclusion after reading other Medal of Honor citations that described conduct similar to Kravitz’s. One Medal of Honor citation for a machinegunner in Korea described heroics identical to those for which Kravitz was awarded a DSC. Comparing the citations, Libman figured out why Kravitz did not get a Medal of Honor: he was a Jew. As he put it: “I came to the conclusion that they don’t give Jews the Medal of Honor“.
33. “I Talked About Nothing For 50 Years Other Than That“
People don’t usually argue about somebody receiving America’s second-highest medal, but Mitch Libman knew that his hero pal deserved the highest one. So he made it his life’s mission to see to it that Kravitz got it. Year after year and decade after decade, Libman investigated the discrepancies in awards when it came to Jews and other minorities, and unearthed a clear pattern of discrimination. He contacted whoever he could think of, from Korean War newsletters to veteran groups to politicians, to influence anybody who would listen. As he put it: “I talked about nothing for 50 years other than that“.
Libman lobbied Congress, and finally convinced Representative Robert Wexler of Florida to introduce legislation calling for the Department of Defense to investigate. DoD examined awards to Jewish and Hispanic servicemen during WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam, to see whether prejudice prevented any who deserved a Medal of Honor from getting one. It took years, but the investigation concluded that, indeed, prejudice had deprived dozens of deserving veterans from a well-earned Medal of Honor.
In May, 2012, President Obama called Mitch Libman at his home in Florida. The president informed him that Leonard M. Kravitz would finally get his Medal of Honor, along with 23 other hero veterans identified in the investigation kicked off by Libman’s efforts. When Obama asked how long he had been pursuing this, Libman replied that he had been at it for longer than the president had been alive.
Obama cautioned Libman that it would still take some time: “You know, this is not something we can do overnight. We can’t do it next week“. Libman came back pure Big Apple: “That’s fine, the week after would be great“. As Libman recalled Obama’s response: “He totally cracked up“. It did not happen the week after, but two years later. Libman, by then 83 years old, was present at the White House ceremony to witness his childhood friend posthumously receive what he had earned at the cost of his life.
WWI hero Marcelino Serna was Texas’ most decorated soldier – and America’s most overlooked hero – of that conflict. He was also an illegal immigrant, born into a dirt-poor family in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1896. He only enlisted in the US Army to avoid getting deported back to Mexico.
When he was twenty, Serna had decided to seek a brighter future north of the border. He crossed the Rio Grande in 1916, and made it to El Paso, Texas. Speaking no English, all he could manage were a series of low-paying jobs. So he left the Lone Star Republic, and headed to Colorado, where he found a better paying gig picking sugar beets near Denver. It was backbreaking work, but the pay was better than anything he had encountered before, so he kept at it.
While Serna was toiling in the fields, the United States, whose president, Woodrow Wilson, had been reelected in 1916 with the campaign slogan “He Kept Us Out of the War!“, found itself getting drawn ever closer into the conflict. America had almost joined the fray in 1915, when a German U-boat sank the ocean liner Lusitania, leading to the death of 128 Americans. However, war was avoided when the Germans eased off on submarine warfare.
By 1917, Germany was desperate. To knock out Britain, it announced unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships approaching British waters. That directly challenged America’s position that freedom of the seas should be absolute for neutrals. Between that and a harebrained scheme to get Mexico to attack the US in exchange for the territories lost in the Mexican-American War, war was declared against Germany in April, 1917. With war came conscription, and when officials fanned out across the country to ensure that the draft was properly enforced, Marcelino Serna was caught in their web.
During a trip from his workplace in the beet farm to nearby Denver, Marcelino Serna was detained by federal enforcement authorities who were checking the legal status of men of draft age. He ended up locked up in a local jail while officials tried to verify his immigration status and eligibility for the draft.
Serna had no legal status, so after seven days behind bars, he got tired of waiting. To avoid getting deported back to Mexico, he volunteered to enlist in the US Army. Despite hardly speaking any English, he managed to make it through basic training.
28. Declining a Chance to Get Out of Fighting Another Country’s War
After boot camp, Marcelino Serna was sent to join the American Expeditionary Force in France, where he was assigned to Company B, 355th Infantry Regiment, in the 89th Division. Once he got to the trenches, Serna’s unit realized that he was not an American citizen. His company commander informed Serna that as a Mexican national, he did not have to be there.
So he was offered a discharge. Although it would have been quite understandable had Serna taken it, considering it was not his war but that of a country he had only lived in for less than a year, he declined. A stand-up guy, he decided to stick with his comrades.
Marcelino Serna’s moment to shine as a hero came during the run-up to America’s moment to shine in the Great War: the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. By 1918, America’s allies, the Entente Powers of Britain and France, were exhausted by years of ceaseless bloodshed. The British were nearly bankrupt, while the French were bankrupt and demoralized, their army had recently staged a widespread mutiny after one bungled offensive too many. Fresh American troops, full of fight and not yet worn out and dispirited by the tragedy of trench warfare, were to tip the balance in the Entente’s favor.
Serna’s heroics began when his unit was ordered to move towards the Meuse River and Argonne Forrest in northeastern France. It was an opening move, preparatory to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which became the largest offensive in US military history, involving 1.2 million American soldiers. As a preliminary, the Americans had to straighten out a salient – a massive engagement in its own right, involving 550,000 US and 110,000 French soldiers, known as the Battle of Saint-Mihiel.
At Saint-Mihiel, Marcelino Serna’s unit stumbled into the kill zone of a concealed and well-positioned German machine gun nest manned by 14 soldiers. Within seconds of the Germans opened fire, 12 Americans were killed. Many more were wounded, and Serna’s unit’s advance came to a halt.
As the shocked survivors were pinned down, desperately scurrying for cover from enemy fire, private Serna demonstrated what he was made of, and sprang into action to rescue his comrades. By the time it was over, Serna had cemented his status as a bonafide hero.
With his unit pinned down, Marcelino Serna volunteered to scout an alternate path. However, once he got ahead of his unit, he saw that the enemy position was vulnerable to a flank attack from the left. Without orders, and acting on his own initiative, he used minor and barely perceptible folds and dips in the terrain to alternately crawl and rush to the German position’s left flank.
Braving a torrent of angry bullets buzzing around him, two of which actually struck his helmet, Serna got close enough to the enemy machine gun nest to lob grenades into its midst. He tossed four grenades into the German position, and of its 14 occupants, the commander and five others were killed. Eight stunned German survivors were forced to throw in the towel and come out with their hands up. That was not even Serna’s greatest wartime exploit, but just an opening act.
Two weeks after his debut as a hero, Marcelino Serna did an encore. On September 12th, 1918, on the first day of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, Serna and his comrades were engaged in combat in the Meuse-Argonne region, when he spotted a German sniper. With his Lee Enfield rifle, Serna drew a bead on the sniper and fired a bullet that wounded the enemy soldier, who then tried to make it back to the safety of his comrades.
Acting again on his own initiative, Serna followed the wounded sniper, who led him to an enemy trench packed with about 50 German soldiers. Once again, private Serna demonstrated just how well he knew how to read and make use of the terrain to get close to the enemy. Once he did, he subjected the unfortunate Germans to sheer mayhem.
Marcelino Serna crawled until he reached an advantageous position within grenade lobbing range of the enemy. He then went into action, tossing three grenades into the packed German trench. Serna then opened fire with his rifle and pistol on the stunned survivors. Moving to a new position after every few shots, Serna tricked the Germans into believing that there were plenty more American soldiers all around them, not just Serna alone.
Within minutes, 26 Germans were dead, and another 24 surrendered. Serna remained on the front after his greatest feat of heroism, fighting alongside his comrades, until he was wounded 4 days before the war ended.
America’s greatest hero of WWI, then-corporal Alvin York, had gone on a mission with 16 other men, and when they came under murderous fire, he went on a solo lethal rampage. By the time it was over, he had single-handedly killed 28 Germans and convinced dozens more to surrender. For that feat, York was deservedly awarded the Medal of Honor.
Private Marcelino Serna had gone off against the Germans not as part of a group, but on his own, and done pretty much what Corporal York had pulled off. With his daring, intrepidity, and skill at arms, Serna had killed 26 German soldiers, and captured an additional 24. On top of that, while escorting his prisoners back to friendly lines, an American sergeant directed him to execute the captives, to which Serna replied with an emphatic “cabrÃ³n! No!”
Marcelino Serna’s exploits – not to mention moral courage in refusing to execute prisoners – were those of a true hero. He should have been awarded a Medal of Honor, but in that era’s rampant racism, it was not to be. Indeed, no minorities whatsoever were awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I. The powers that be decided that was too prestigious an award to bestow on a Mexican, let alone an illegal Mexican immigrant. Serna’s commanding officer told him that he would never get the Medal of Honor, claiming that it was never awarded to privates. And Serna could never rise higher than private, because he spoke almost no English.
He was instead awarded America’s second-highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross, in 1919. He would not have been awarded even that, were it not for the personal intervention of and insistence by the American Expeditionary Force’s commander, General Pershing, that Serna deserved a medal. Serna also received a French Medaille Militaire, as well as a Croix de Guerre With 2 Palms, and an Italian Croce al Merito di Guerra, among other awards from America’s allies.
After recovering from his wounds, Marcelino Serna returned to America and settled in Texas, as that state’s most decorated WWI hero. He was naturalized as an American citizen in 1924, then got married and raised a family in El Paso, where he got a job in a packing company.
He eventually became a plumber in El Paso’s William Beaumont Army Medical Center, and worked there until his retirement in 1960. He died in 1992 at age 95, and was buried in El Paso’s Fort Bliss National Cemetery. In 1995, legislation was introduced in Congress, requesting that Serna finally be awarded a Medal of Honor. The bill was not passed, and to date, efforts to award Serna his just dues have gone nowhere.
Revolutionary War clandestine hero Robert Townsend was the key coordinator of what came to be known as the Culper Ring – named after Townsend’s code name, Samuel Culper, Jr. He had a greater and longer-lasting historical impact than any other American clandestine operative from the country’s birth to the present. Despite that, he gets nowhere near the recognition his contributions warrant. However, that was how Townsend wanted it. He never sought recognition during the war, insisting that his identity be kept secret even from George Washington. After the conflict, the few who knew his identity respected his wish to remain anonymous.
George Washington personally spelled out Townsend’s tasks. In a letter with detailed instructions, the Continental Army’s commander in chief directed Townsend to remain in New York City and: “â¦ collect all the useful information he can – to do this he should mix as much as possible among the officers and refugees, visit the coffee houses, and all public places. He is to pay particular attention to the movements by land and water in and about the city especially“.
George Washington further instructed Robert Townsend to report on the number of British troops in New York City and its environs; identify their units; the defensive fortifications; the security measures in place to protect transports; the state of supplies and provisions; and the morale of the military and civilians. He closed by noting:
“There can be scarcely any need of recommending the greatest caution and secrecy in a business so critical and dangerous. The following seem to be the best general rules: To entrust none but the persons fixed upon to transmit the business. To deliver the dispatches to none upon our side but those who shall be pitched upon for the purpose of receiving them and to transmit them and any intelligence that may be obtained to no one but the Commander-in-Chief“. Little did Washington know just how well Townsend would perform, or how well-positioned he was to come across some of the most sensitive information of the entire war.
17. Saving the American Revolution from Financial Collapse
Once he had gathered information, the clandestine hero wrote his reports using invisible ink on seemingly blank reams of paper. Townsend then handed them to a courier who delivered them to one of his ring’s agents, Abraham Woodhull in Setauket. From there, they made their way to George Washington’s head of intelligence, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who passed them on to the general. Washington read the reports after developing the invisible ink with a chemical agent, and often responded to Townsend with invisible ink messages of his own.
Townsend did much valuable legwork gathering intelligence and fulfilling the tasks assigned him by Washington. He got a gig as a columnist for a Loyalist newspaper and visited coffeehouses to hobnob with British officers, many of whom opened to him in the hopes of seeing their name in print. That was how Townsend got wind of a British plot to wreck the American economy by flooding the country with counterfeit dollars. His warning enabled the Continental Congress to avert disaster in the nick of time by recalling all bills then in circulation and issuing new ones.
16. Setting the Stage for Britain’s Ultimate Defeat
Robert Townsend also discovered that the British knew that the French, who had joined the war on America’s side, were sending a fleet to land troops in Rhode Island. The British and their more powerful Royal Navy planned to intercept and capture or sink the French at the sea before they disembarked their troops. Townsend’s timely warning enabled George Washington to bluff the British into staying put in New York, by feeding them false information about a nonexistent plan to attack the city.
The British prepared to defend New York against an attack that never came, while the French safely landed their troops in Rhode Island in 1780. That link up between the French and American armies would ultimately doom the British. The allied Franco-American forces would effectively decide the war in 1781 by trapping a British army in Yorktown, Virginia, and forcing its surrender.
One of Robert Townsend’s greatest coups resulted from the unwelcome, but as it turned out fortuitous, quartering of British officers in the Townsend family home in Oyster Bay. During the British stay, one of Townsend’s sisters overheard a visiting officer, John Andre – Benjamin Tallmadge’s British intelligence counterpart – discussing the defection of a high-ranking American hero. She passed that on to her brother, and from there it worked its way through Townsend’s ring to Tallmadge. It eventually contributed to the unmasking of Benedict Arnold as a traitor.
It began with enterprising spy work in the fall of 1780. Townsend’s ring’s skullduggery led first to the capture of British intelligence officer John Andre, and Andre’s capture, in turn, led to unraveling Benedict Arnold’s treason. It spared the American side from what would have been a dramatic espionage coup that might have altered the war’s outcome and the course of history.
From early in the war, a key British strategy for crushing the Americans was to split New England, the birthplace and hotbed of the Revolution, from the rest of the colonies. In 1777, the British planned a coordinated attack to do just that, only for it to miscarry and end with the defeat of General John Burgoyne and the capture of his army at Saratoga, in upstate New York.
The plan to split New England from the other colonies remained viable, however, provided the British could control the Hudson River. If that happened, the British could sail northward from their base in New York City, deep into upstate New York. From there, the British could sever communications with New England, or even launch an invasion into that region.
The Patriots were aware of the threat posed by British control of the Hudson River. So they built strong fortifications on bluffs overlooking the Hudson upstream from New York City, at West Point. That choked off the river to enemy navigation. Capturing West Point thus became a Holy Grail for the British. In 1780, British Army Major Andre entered into communications with American General Benedict Arnold, who commanded West Point. The go-between was Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia socialite from a Loyalist family, with whom Andre was rumored to have had a romantic affair during the British occupation of that city.
Arnold agreed to turncoat and betray West Point to the British in exchange for Â£20,000 – about $4 million in 2020 US dollars. Spymaster and would-be traitor met secretly in September, 1780. Arnold gave Andre the plans for West Point, along with civilian clothes and a passport to get him through American lines. Andre aroused suspicions, however, and was detained by an American patrol. On him were found the incriminating documents.
Major John Andre was sent back to the Continental Army headquarters, where he almost bluffed his way out of it. He convinced his captors to send him to Benedict Arnold, whose treason had not yet been suspected. Then Robert Townsend’s ring doomed him. American Major Benjamin Tallmadge had received word from Townsend’s ring that a high-ranking American officer had turned traitor. Upon hearing of Andre’s capture, he halted the plans to send him on to Benedict Arnold. Cross-checking the documents found on Andre with the intelligence gathered from Townsend’s ring unraveled the plot.
During interrogation, Andre asked Tallmadge how he would be treated. Tallmadge, a friend of Nathan Hale who had been hanged by the British as a spy, told his prisoner about Hale’s fate. When Andre asked if the situations were similar, Tallmadge replied: “Yes, precisely similar, and similar shall be your fate“. He was right. Andre was tried, convicted, and hanged as a spy on October 2nd, 1780. The war in the northern colonies then entered a stalemate, and efforts shifted to the southern colonies. There, the war was won with the capture of Lord Cornwallis’ British Army at Yorktown in 1781. As a result, Townsend and his ring in New York became less important. They soon ceased activity, and disbanded.
The American victory at Yorktown was the last major battle of the Revolutionary War. However, the war did not officially end until Congress accepted the terms of the 1783 Paris Peace Treaty, and formally ratified it in January, 1784. Until then, George Washington remained skeptical of the British – who held on to New York City until November of 1783 – and their intentions. Accordingly, he ordered Robert Townsend’s ring reactivated in September, 1782, but there was little to report. As Townsend wrote on September 19th, 1782, the British had thrown in the towel, accepted American independence, and were just waiting for peace negotiations to conclude so they could leave.
After the war, Townsend withdrew into anonymity, and his wishes to remain anonymous were respected by those who knew of his espionage. The clandestine hero wrapped up his business activities in NYC, and returned to the family home in Oyster Bay, Long Island. He never married, although he fathered an illegitimate son upon a housemaid. Townsend lived with his sister in Oyster Bay until he died of old age in 1838.
Lauri Allan Torni, who later anglicized his name to Larry Thorne, was a hero in the armies of three countries, who twice fought for the good guys, and once for the bad guys. He was a Finnish hero during the Winter War (1939-1940) against the USSR. After a short break, then he became a hero for the Germans during WWII, when he fought as a Waffen SS officer. When his remarkable military career finally came to an end, Torni was in a US Army uniform, having reinvented himself as a Green Beret and an American hero.
Torni was awarded Finland’s Mannerheim Cross – that country’s highest award for valor, equivalent to the US Medal of Honor. He earned an Iron Cross in German uniform. Fighting for America, he earned a Bronze Star for valor, two Purple Hearts, and became a special forces legend. Nowadays, the US Army Special Forces bestow the Larry Thorne Award every year upon the toughest Green Beret detachment.
Lauri Allan Torni was born in Finland, in 1919. He was a natural athlete, and got into skiing and other sports at an early age. One of his childhood friends, Sten Suvio, won a welterweight boxing gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In his teens, Torni joined the Civil Guard, Finland’s military reserve militia. He also attended business school. In 1938, he joined the Finnish military, and was assigned to an infantry battalion.
The following year, the Soviet Union demanded that Finland cede some strategically important territory. When the Finns refused, the Soviets attacked, kicking off the Winter War. The Red Army expected to steamroll over tiny Finland, whose population at the time numbered a mere three million. The Finns, however, put up a fierce resistance that humiliated the invaders. Against the odds, the Finns actually went on the counterattack at some point, and managed to encircle and wipe out a number of Soviet divisions.
Torni’s superiors were impressed by his performance during the Winter War. In the conflict’s later stages, he was sent to officer training, and was commissioned a second lieutenant upon graduation. By then, however, the Soviets had gotten their act together. Once the Red Army brought its overwhelming superiority in arms, men, munitions, and materiel to bear, Finland’s defeat was inevitable. By the spring of 1940, the Finns had inflicted about 380,000 casualties upon the invaders, while suffering only 70,000 of their own. Unlike Finland, however, the Soviets could afford their losses.
The Finns were forced to sue for peace in March, 1940, and gave the Soviets what they had wanted. Having his country invaded by its giant communist neighbor left Torni with a serious dislike for the Soviets and for communism. The war’s outcome left him seething at his country’s unjust treatment and itching for payback. In June, 1941, he traveled to Vienna to train with the Waffen-SS.
By the time Torni finished his Waffen-SS training, Finland was once again at war with the Soviet Union. When the Nazis invaded the USSR in 1941, Finland joined Germany as a co-belligerent in what the Finns termed the Continuation War. After completing his SS training, Torni was made an Untersturmfuhrer – the SS equivalent of a lieutenant. During this second round of warfare against the Red Army, Torni once again became a war hero, and earned a reputation as a feared raider and irregular warrior.
Soon after the Continuation War commenced, Torni was promoted to captain. He was put in charge of a unit of snow skiers, who literally skied into battle against the Red Army. In 1942, Torni earned a German Iron Cross for leading a machine gun unit into a firefight, on skis with guns blazing, while displaying sundry heroics, including the rescue of a wounded officer. Torni was severely injured when he skied over a landmine, but recovered and was soon back in action.
Lauri Torni’s unit was informally designated “Detachment Torni” in 1943, and became legendary. In addition to his tactical skills and instinctive feel for the terrain, Torni inspired his men and earned their respect by sharing their hardships. One of his men, Mauno Koivisto, who later became Finland’s president, described his commanding officer thus: “Torni, as a leader, was liked. In many ways he emphasized that we were all the same bunch, and he bore his share just like the othersâ¦ 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.”
Torni forged the men under his command into an elite reconnaissance and raiding formation, which he led on dangerous missions behind enemy lines. His exploits inspired his own side, while instilling fear into the hearts of the enemy. He was such an effective guerrilla fighter, and inflicted such damage and casualties upon the Red Army, that the Soviets put up a bounty of 3 million Finnish marks for Torni’s capture – the equivalent of about $650,000. He is the only Finnish soldier for whom the Soviets offered a bounty. It went uncollected.
While Torni and his men excelled, the wider war went against his country, and in September, 1944, Finland sued for peace. The Finnish army was largely disbanded and Torni was discharged. However, he still wanted to fight the Soviets. So in early 1945, he joined a pro-Nazi Finnish resistance movement, and hitched a ride on a U-boat to Germany for clandestine guerrilla and sabotage training. By then, however, the Nazi regime was on its last legs.
Torni’s training ended prematurely in March, 1945, and he found himself stuck in a collapsing Third Reich, unable to get back to Finland. So he joined a German unit to fight the advancing Red Army. In the war’s final days, he made it to the Western Allies’ lines, where he surrendered to British troops. He was sent to a POW camp, but escaped and made it back to Finland in June, 1945.
While Finland had been formally at war, Torni was a national hero. However, his subsequent actions fighting for Germany after his country had concluded a peace treaty made him a political liability. So the Finnish government arrested him when he returned home. He escaped, but was rearrested in 1946, and tried for treason. In January, 1947, he was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.
Torni escaped once again, but was recaptured once more and returned to prison, before he was eventually pardoned in late 1948. Upon regaining his freedom, Torni got a job on a Swedish cargo ship. When it sailed near Mobile, Alabama, he jumped overboard and swam to shore. He claimed political asylum in the US, and with the help of former OSS chief William Donovan, he got a residency permit.
Torni settled in with the Finnish migrant community in Brooklyn, and got a job as a carpenter and cleaner. Then in 1954, he enlisted in the US Army. He anglicized his name from Lauri Torni to Larry Thorne, and with his experience and track record in irregular warfare, he soon ended up in the Special Forces.
It seemed as if Father Time was unable to catch up with Larry Thorne. Once he made his way into the Green Berets, he earned a reputation in the Special Forces community as one of its fittest and toughest officers. Indeed, his physical fitness was such that he frequently outperformed other men half his age. One commanding officer effused about him in an evaluation, and wrote: “I have not known any officer in his grade to whom he can be compared. He is over forty years old, but has the physical ability of a person of twenty-five.”
Larry Thorne trained NATO forces in West Germany, and ran a reconnaissance and sabotage school. In the late 1950s, he earned accolades for his role in a search and rescue mission in Iran’s Zagros Mountains. He deployed to Vietnam in 1963, as an adviser to South Vietnamese forces in the Mekong Delta, and earned a Bronze Star for valor plus two Purple Hearts. He returned to Vietnam for a second tour in 1965, and ended up with the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) – an unconventional special warfare unit.
On October 18th, 1965, Captain Larry Thorne was overseeing an operation to identify Viet Cong positions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, when his helicopter vanished in a mountainous area 25 miles from Da Nang. Rescue and recovery teams were unable to locate the chopper. Soon after his disappearance, he was posthumously promoted to major, was and awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and Legion of Merit. Larry Thorne was 46 when his helicopter disappeared. Many who knew him had trouble believing that such a seemingly indestructible hero had actually died.
1. The Only SS Member Buried in Arlington National Cemetery
In the years after Larry Thorne’s disappearance, there was considerable speculation about his fate. Some figured that the legendary hero had survived and walked away, while others suspected that he had been captured and finally turned over to the Soviets, who locked him up somewhere. NVA defectors were shown photos of Thorne, to find out if any recognized him. On the anniversary of his disappearance every year thereafter, Thorne’s comrades would down a toast in his honor, “wherever he may be“.
In 1999, Thorne’s downed helicopter was finally located. His remains were intermingled with those of three South Vietnamese servicemen who had been with him in the chopper. Following a ceremony in Hanoi, attended by Secretary of State Madeline Albright, the remains were sent to the US. In 2003, the remains were formally identified as those of Thorne. He was memorialized on the Vietnam Wall, and on June 26th, 2003, Major Larry Allan Thorne, along with the South Vietnamese servicemen who had died with him, were buried in Arlington National Cemetery under a single headstone. He is the only former Waffen-SS member to end up in America’s most hallowed burial grounds.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading