To say that Larry Thorne did not like communists would be an understatement. The man led an extraordinary life that first saw him fight against the Red Army in the ranks of his native Finland’s army. After a brief hiatus, he again fought the Soviets during World War II in German uniform, as a Waffen SS officer. When Thorne’s remarkable military career finally came to an end, he was in US Army uniform, having reinvented himself as a Green Beret.
En route, Thorne had become a legend and war hero in three different countries. He is celebrated in Finland as a recipient of the Mannerheim Cross – that country’s highest award for valor, equivalent to America’s Medal of Honor. In German uniform, he earned an Iron Cross. In American uniform, he earned a Bronze Star for valor and two Purple Hearts, and became special forces legend. Nowadays, the US Army Special Forces bestow the Larry Thorne Award every year to the toughest Green Beret detachment.
The Making of a Warrior
He was born Lauri Allan Torni in Finland, in 1919. A natural athlete, he got into skiing and other sports at an early age, and one of his childhood friends, Sten Suvio, grew up to win a welterweight boxing gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In his teens, Torni joined the Civil Guard – a Finnish militia that is a cross between America’s National Guard and Army Reserves. He also attended business school. In 1938, Torni joined the Finnish military, and was assigned to an infantry battalion.
A year later, the USSR demanded that Finland cede some strategically important territory. When the Finns refused, the Soviets attacked, kicking off the 1939-1940 Winter War. The invaders were 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 Red Army. 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 performance caught the attention of his superiors, and in the war’s later stages, he was sent for officer training, then commissioned as a second lieutenant. By then, however, the Soviets had managed to get their act together. Once the Red Army was able to bring its overwhelming superiority in arms, men, munitions, and materiel to bear, the writing was on the wall. By the spring of 1940, the Finns had inflicted about 380,000 casualties upon the invaders, while suffering only 70,000 of their own. However, unlike the Finns, the Soviets could afford their losses.
Finland was forced to throw in the towel and sue for peace in March of 1940, and gave the Soviets what they had wanted. Understandably, the experience of having his country invaded by the communist USSR left Torni with a serious dislike for the Soviets and for communism. The conclusion of the Winter War left Torni seething at his country’s unjust treatment and itching for payback, and in June of 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 USSR. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, Finland joined Nazis 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. It was during this second round of warfare against the Soviets that Torni became a Finnish war hero, and earned a reputation as a feared raider and irregular warrior.