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 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