The Nazi SS Officer That Became a Green Beret, Died in combat, and is Buried at Arlington

Jun 09 , 2024

The Nazi SS Officer That Became a Green Beret, Died in combat, and is Buried at Arlington

In Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, among the thousands of white granite headstones for American soldiers killed in action, stands a marker bearing the names of four servicemen who died in Vietnam. At first glance, this stone appears unremarkable, blending in with the many others in this hallowed ground.

Even the name at the top of the headstone—Major Larry Allan Thorne—seems typical. It sounds quintessentially American, especially compared to the names of the three South Vietnamese soldiers buried with him in this collective grave. However, Larry Thorne was not his given name. Though he was a legendary U.S. Green Beret known for his incredible courage and fierceness, he was actually Finnish.

Larry Thorne was born Lauri Allan Törni in Finland’s Viipuri Province in 1919. He fought for his homeland against the invading Soviets during the Winter War and Continuation War at the outset of World War II. Because the Continuation War was a joint effort between Finland and Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, Törni trained with the Nazi SS, where he was recognized as a lieutenant.

After the war ended, Törni emigrated to the United States, where he joined the Army and eventually became a Green Beret—making him the only former Waffen-SS officer buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Even setting that aside, the story of Lauri Törni, also known as Larry Thorne, is remarkable. From birth, he seemed destined to be a warrior. He joined the Finnish Army as a teenager in 1938 and fought off the Soviet invasion in the Winter War (1939-1940) and the Continuation War (1941-1944), rising to the rank of captain and earning the Mannerheim Cross, Finland’s equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

In between the Winter War and the Continuation War, Törni trained with the Nazi SS in Austria. Throughout his service, Törni was an effective guerilla fighter of such skill that the Soviets put a bounty on his head because of the casualties his unit inflicted upon them. Reportedly, no other Finnish soldier had a bounty placed on them by the Soviets. The bounty was worth about $650,000, and apparently, no one ever tried to collect.

Törni was tasked with leading elite ski units on dangerous missions behind Soviet lines. While he was building this fearsome reputation, one of his soldiers, Mauno Koivisto, who would later become president of Finland, praised him: “Thorne, 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.”

After the Continuation War ended, Törni sought to continue fighting the Soviets. Since Finland had ceased hostilities with the Soviets after reaching a territorial agreement, Törni joined with the Germans in 1945 before being captured by Allied forces as the war was coming to an end. He was placed in a POW camp but escaped and made it back to Finland.

After World War II, he eventually made his way to the United States, changed his name to Larry Thorne, and joined the U.S. Army in 1954, thanks to the Lodge-Philbin Act that allowed the recruitment of foreign nationals into the U.S. Armed Forces. Larry Thorne was befriended by Finnish-American officers who recognized his abilities and directed him to the Special Forces. There, he became an instructor, teaching skiing, survival, mountaineering, and guerrilla tactics. He attended airborne school, earned his silver wings as a Green Beret, went through Officer Candidate School, and was commissioned as a first lieutenant, rising from recruit to officer in just three years before being promoted to captain.

As a Green Beret captain, Thorne was known as one of the toughest officers. He was extremely fit and often physically outperformed soldiers half his age. During one evaluation, a commanding officer 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.”

Still in fighting form in his mid-40s, Thorne served with the 10th Special Forces Group in West Germany as part of a search-and-rescue unit. He earned a reputation for fearlessness in leading operations to recover bodies and classified documents from a crashed airplane in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. In November 1963, Thorne was sent to Vietnam. He served two tours, earning a Bronze Star for valor and two Purple Hearts. He continued to build his reputation for bravery by taking on difficult assignments and leading his men with courage and distinction during several tough operations.

During his final tour as part of the 5th Special Forces Group, Thorne led a covert mission against a Viet Cong stronghold in Laos on October 18, 1965. He was flying in a South Vietnamese Air Force H-34 helicopter when the weather turned bad. Caught in heavy fog and rain, Thorne refused to order his chopper to leave out of concern for the men on the ground that his crew was supporting. This act of courage and leadership was typical of Larry Thorne—but it was also his final mission. The weather worsened, causing the helicopter to crash into a mountainside, killing everyone on board.

Thorne was 46 years old and had just been approved for promotion to major. He received that rank posthumously and was awarded the Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross. His remains were not located until 1999, and even then, military authorities were unsure it was him. He was eventually identified by his dental records, and his remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery on June 26, 2003, with full military honors. Thorne’s remains were intermingled with those of the three South Vietnamese Army soldiers who were with him on the helicopter. They were all buried at Arlington under a single headstone bearing the names of Larry Thorne and the three other men: Lieutenant Bao Tung Nguyen, First Lieutenant The Long Phan, and Sergeant Vam Lanh Bui.

Beyond his burial at Arlington, accolades for Thorne’s heroics and bravery continued well after his death. Col. Charles M. Simpson III, one of Thorne’s commanding officers, wrote that he would “…fight to serve with him again under similar conditions, particularly in combat requiring great maturity, perseverance, physical and moral courage, and personal leadership.” Similarly, Lt. Col. George Viney, deputy commander of the Special Forces in Vietnam, wrote that Larry Thorne is “…the type of person you like to have around in a fight for he has unlimited courage.”

It’s not every day that you’ll hear an American officer say such things about a man who once wore the uniform of the Nazi SS.


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