Lenny Kravitz's Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes

Khalid Elhassan - August 18, 2020

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
The arrival of French forces in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1780. Wikimedia

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 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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Benedict Arnold. Smithsonian Magazine

15. Unmasking a Traitor

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga. Wikimedia

14. The British Plan to Split the Rebel Colonies

From early in the war, a key British strategy for crushing the Americans was to split New England, 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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
A French map of West Point in 1780. Wikimedia

13. The Danger to West Point

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 turn coat and betray West Point to the British in exchange for £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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
The execution of British Major John Andre. National Archives

12. A Clandestine Hero Saves West Point

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
The British surrender at Yorktown. Library of Congress

11. A Hero in Retirement

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Lauri Torni in Finnish, SS, and American uniform. Pintrest

10. A Hero for Three Countries

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. 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 bestows the Larry Thorne Award every year upon the toughest Green Beret detachment.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Soviet casualties and wrecked equipment during the Winter War. SA-Kuva

9. Torni in Finnish Uniform

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Lauri Torni after graduating from officer training in 1940. Wikimedia

The following year, the Soviet Union demanded that Finland cede it 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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Lauri Torni, center, as a Finnish lieutenant. Wikimedia

8. A Bitter Defeat

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Part of Finland’s capital, Helsinki, on fire after getting bombed by the Soviets during the Winter War. Finland Military Museum

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Lauri Torni in SS officer uniform in 1941. Wikimedia

7. A Second Round Against the Soviets

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Finnish ski soldiers during WWII. Pintrest

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Finnish ski soldiers during WWII. History Channel

6. The Dreaded Detachment Torni

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 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.

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Red banner waving over a wrecked Berlin in 1945. Radio Free Europe

5. Fighting in the Ruins of the Third Reich

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Lauri Torni in Finnish custody after the war. Yle

4. From National Hero to Political Liability

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Larry Thorne in American uniform. Badass of the Week

3. From the SS to the Green Berets

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Larry Thorne, far left, shortly before his final flight. J Michael Cleverly

2. End of the Road in Vietnam

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.

Lenny Kravitz’s Hero Uncle and Other Lesser Known American Heroes
Tombstone of Larry Thorne and his South Vietnamese comrades in Arlington National Cemetery. Wikimedia

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 legendry 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

Army News Service, March 18th, 2014 – Lenny Kravitz Honors Uncle, Medal of Honor Recipient

Badass of the Week – Larry Thorne

Business Insider, July 2nd, 2015 – The Crazy Story of the Man Who Fought For Finland, the Nazis, and US Army Special Forces

Cleverly, Michael J. – Born a Soldier: The Times and Life of Larry A Thorne (2008)

El Paso Herald Post, September 26th, 2017 – El Paso World War I Hero: Private Marcelino Serna

El Paso Times, May 29th, 2016 – Marcelino Serna, American Hero

Encyclopedia Britannica – Alvin York, United States Military Hero

Encyclopedia Britannica – Culper Spy Ring

New York Times, September 3rd, 1964 – Sergeant York, War Hero, Dies; Killed 25 Germans and Captured 132

New York Times, December 15th, 1985 – Remembering a Master Spy at Home

New York Times, November 13th, 2017 – When New York City Was a (Literal) Battlefield

Study.Com – The Role of New York in the American Revolution

Tablet Magazine – Lenny Kravitz’s Jewish Uncle Honored: Private First Class Leonard M. Kravitz Awarded Posthumous Medal of Honor

Tablet Magazine – Obama to Award Jewish Veterans Posthumous Medal of Honor

Texas State Historical Association – Serna, Marcelino

Vintage News – The Most Decorated US WWI Veteran From Texas Was Actually a Mexican Immigrant

War History Online – The US Special Forces Major Who Fought in the SS

Wikipedia – Culper Spy Ring

Wikipedia – Lauri Torni

Wikipedia – Marcelino Serna