The first English langage edition of my book on Larry Thorne was published in Greece in 2003 under the title A Scent of Glory. Essentially the same book as the Finnish edition, it aimed more toward European readership. Since then I have taken advantage of access to Larry Thorne's US Army records to put together a new fuller edition geared more toward American readership, Born a Soldier, The Times and Life of Larry Thorne. This book has more detail on his life in the United States and service in the US Special Forces.
The play on words ("The Times and Life," rather than the customary inverse, "The Life and Times...") was intentional. With the book I wanted to draw attention as much to the times as to the life. And Larry Thorne is a colorful protagonist for guiding us through the dark troubled days of the mid-20th century, when war took more lives than anyone since has succeeded in counting with any exactness. Imagine, hundreds of thousands -- millions -- of people dying and their deaths unrecorded because the magnitude of the devastation obscured the possibility to even number them. This is the setting for Born a Soldier, the Times and Life of Larry Thorne.
At the same time Born a Soldier appeared in the United States in the fall of 2008, the Military Book Club of Sweden published a similar version under the title, Lauri Törni, Yrke Soldat. The Military Book Club of Sweden, the second largest military book club in the world, sold copies only to its members.
Both books enjoyed an exceptional response (See, for example, reviews on Amazon from both American and Swedish readers.) In the Spring of 2009, Born a Soldier was awarded Finalist in The Next Generation Indie Awards in both the categories of history and biography. Yrke Soldat went on to be The Swedish Military Book Club's second best seller in 2008 with 18,000 Swedish copies in print, a good number for a country the size of Sweden.
In the autumn of 1939, a young Finnish recruit named Larry Thorne would have ended his compulsory military service in the Finnish army a few kilometers away from the Soviet-Finnish border. But this was just days before Stalin’s Red Army launched an all out assault on Finland, and in anticipation of the attack all Finnish troops were ordered frozen in place. It is difficult to say what might have come of this naturally born soldier had he been born in another time or place. However, in history the counterfactual is an interesting point of reference, but ultimately only a figment of the historian’s imagination. The war threw the young man into a time and place where his talents as a soldier were soon legendary on both sides of the front.
Over the following twenty-five years, Thorne (christened in Finnish “Lauri Törni”) became a legend among the soldiers who fought the century’s wars. In his native Finland, he fought in the country’s first to its last battles against the Soviet Union. He won Finland’s Mannerheim Cross, the equivalent of the American Congressional Medal of Honor. He became an effective, sometimes ruthless, seemingly reckless leader of one of the most elite companies in the Finnish army, an army that can be considered one of the best of World War II. In reaction to Thorne’s brave, devastating raids behind Soviet lines, the Red Army placed a price on his head, dead or alive, reputedly the only Finnish soldier so singled out for bounty.
During the years of immediate transition from World War to Cold War, Thorne was a refugee, a political prisoner, a fugitive, an exile, and an illegal alien. He eventually landed in the American army, and was granted legal status in the United States by an Act of Congress. The law firm of retired Wild Bill Donovan, the leader of America’s wartime intelligence and covert operations the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), helped get Thorne’s bill through Congress. Thorne became one of the early members of the American Special Forces and a Green Beret legend.
As much as Thorne was a symbolic protagonist in Finland’s World War experience, he was equally so in Cold War America. Undoubtedly, the most salient moment of the Cold War in the American psyche was Vietnam. And no book captured the heroism of that war’s warriors better than The Green Berets. Whether the war was right or wrong, the fact remained that the men who fought in it were as valiant as any of their forefathers. Many gave their all as well as any generation in the country’s history. The Green Berets gave them credit at a time when few at home were willing to do so. In retrospect, the book jumped across its time to do what America was not prepared to do, at least for two decades. Larry Thorne was the book’s first Vietnam hero: “Kornie” in Chapter One, the chapter that served as the basis for the movie.
Nor did any of Vietnam’s soldiers spark the nation’s anguish any more than those who became the Prisoners of War (POW) and the Missing in Action (MIA). Perhaps if Thorne’s life served as the mid-century soldier’s paradigm, it is not surprising that it ended here along this chasm of national despair. When directing a secret mission into Laos, he was lost, one of the first American officers to go Missing in Action. Like tens of thousands of other American men and women, he went to Vietnam to die. Even before The Green Berets was playing at movie houses around the United States, Thorne’s life, in the great Hollywood tradition, had already become an adventure and a tragedy. His story, like those of many other soldiers of the 20th century, was the story of the century, for his century was the century of the soldier.
Born to be a Soldier is thus equally a tour of the mid-20th century’s conflicts, in both their horror and glory, as experienced through the remarkable life of Larry Thorne. As it captures the “times” as well as the “life” of its protagonist, the story sketches the broader panorama of a significant section of history's most glorious and grisly 100 years. It was a time when the world was in a real or virtual state of global war for all but its first and last decades, a century whose victims were so vast that many countries did not even number them. Now, the baby boomers are maturing, Vietnam heroes are no longer taboo, the Cold War is over, and we have moved into a new century from whose edge we are able to have a clearer gaze at what happened in this century of war.
The globally violent and displacing times of the 20th century sharply defined the lives of those who lived it. This is a biography that captures that sense by casting Thorne as a protagonist not the central figure in history’s great drama. Unlike the Hitler's and Stalin's, the Eisenhower's and Churchill's, Thorne did not shape the history of these years. Like the rest of his generation, he lived it. But his were the adventures of a man who in life loomed larger than folklore could ever make him. The story of Larry Thorne is a journey with a truly amazing and colorful man, through some of the worst days of the mid-20th century.
© J. Michael Cleverley 2008