Often surprising to many who know of Larry Thorne's swashbuckling reputation is that his US Army confidential officer's evaluation reports reveal that peacetime as well as wartime commanders year after year ranked him one at the top of the officers they commanded.
The day before Larry Thorne's last flight in Vietnam
Larry Thorne in the U.S. Army
by J. Michael Cleverley
Of the many distinguished officers the 20th century produced, Larry Thorne was one of the most romantic and enigmatic. He grew from a young 18-year old volunteer at the onset of the Finland-USSR Winter War (1939-40), to a winner of the Mannerheim Cross (the Finnish equivalent of the American Congressional Medal of Honor), to a prisoner condemned for treason in post-war Finland, to a fugitive who literally jumped ship to swim ashore in the American South of the 1950’s, to a legendary Green Beret in the American Special Forces. He rose from a junior enlisted man to an officer in both armies. He took training in Nazi Germany. He fought the communists and later volunteered to fight the Nazis. On top of such seeming contradictions, his difficult-to-decipher personality has often puzzled many of those trying to grasp the colorful Thorne legend.
One of a Kind
One thing is for sure, the men Thorne commanded in both the Finnish and American armies revered him and remained forever devoted. Over fifty years after they fought together and more than thirty years after Thorne’s death, the few remaining Finns who served under him still meet regularly in Helsinki to reminisce and remember. The American Special Forces Association maintains a Larry A. Thorne Memorial Chapter (Number 33). The headquarters building of the 10th Special Forces at Fort Carson, Colorado, is named after him. His former American friends and buddies update regularly a web site that recounts the life of a cherished comrade. As a cult-figure, his international following consists of many who never knew him, but who might have talked with those who did, or who have simply read about his exploits.
As with many of history’s colorful characters, there were apparent inconsistencies in Thorne’s personality. On one hand, he could be a dangerous and tough. He was always at the front, calm and cold as steel. But most people who knew him agreed that he was pleasant, quiet, and short on words. One acquaintance wrote, “Larry Thorne was a man, and above all a leader whose position left nothing to interpretation. He was a straightforward Finnish soldier whose gaze lingered and handshake breathed true comradeship and unity, a ‘we spirit.’”
If Thorne was the irreproachable battlefield leader that no one dared doubt, he was also the swashbuckling, brawling hero Hollywood adores. Although admired by his superior officers as courageous, effective, and indispensable, Thorne was most certainly a source of despair to his leaders on many occasions. His character, moreover, never lost a boyish trouble-seeking element. He possessed the potential to be his own worst enemy. The two sides of his personality often teetered against each other. After a few drinks, he could be a rowdy, fun-loving ruffian.
Especially in Finland’s World War II regular army – arguably the best army in the war – Thorne’s leadership of his units was unique and out of step with what was normally expected of an officer. Mauno Koivisto, one of the men whom he commanded and who later rose to become President of Finland, described 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.” But, Koivisto concludes, “We were quite poorly led,” and he notes Thorne’s tendency to keep to himself and to not communicate details of the mission to his men, as he marched as the unit’s vulnerable point man. “Above all, it is problematic when in a clash those in the forward are placed in greater danger. If the company commander, who has not told anyone anything beforehand, is lost, then what is going to happen?”
Thorne may have instinctively led in this manner. He headed his units as a commando leader, not a regular company commander. Moreover, units in special operations had to be handled differently from main line units. When operating dangerously behind enemy lines, what a captured man knew about the unit’s mission could jeopardize the rest of the men. If Thorne had been lost during such a mission, the unit was hopefully well enough trained and led to be able to extricate itself back to its own lines. At least that is what he must have assumed, if he thought of it at all.
There was one thing everyone then and ever since agrees about Thorne’s personality. He was one of a kind. There was never anyone quite like him.
There was a ten-year hiatus in Thorne’s military career from the time he left the Finnish army in 1944 until he joined the American army in 1954. For Thorne, they were difficult, undoubtedly sobering years. He had left his family, his life’s love, and his homeland behind. But he also left behind the troubles that had clouded his last few years in Finland, such as his prison term for treason brought about by Finland's post-war witch-hunting, communist-inspired secret police. He had a chance to start over.
It was therefore a great day for Thorne when he was inducted into the US Army. In spite of the ongoing Cold War, it was a peacetime army sitting in the time gap between the just ended Korean War and the Vietnam War, then on the not-so-far horizon. It was an army of deterrence whose being was hoped to stay a feared Soviet incursion into Central Europe. In this army there were no special considerations for how much valor a soldier under fire possessed. It was an everyday spit-and-polish army where core leadership skills were expected and required from its officers. At first glance, this army was not for someone as potentially volatile and unpredictable as Thorne. His Finnish-American friends, who by now were mid-level officers in the US Army, took it upon themselves to mold him into an officer who would not get cross-wise with his new command structure.
Contrary to any concerns, however, Thorne soon thrived in the American Army. That he was an exceptionally sound leader capable of adapting to different situations and cultures was especially evident from the officer evaluation reports written each six months to assess his performance, between 1957 and 1965. The reports were drafted by his direct commanding officers and reviewed in an additional section by the next higher officer in the command chain. Over the years, the assessments discussed and compared his capabilities as an officer and were used to determine his promotion potential as well as assignments. As they did so, they presented an inside view of Thorne, his strengths and weaknesses.
In an evaluation system that made and broke many American officers, the assessments reveal that Thorne, in both peacetime and wartime, was a strong, respected leader with sharp intelligence, solid judgment, and unnerving courage. These were relative evaluations pitting his skills against those of his contemporaries, many of whom were the product of America’s rigorous military academies and who at the time were commanding the country’s most elite forces. Thorne had attended no military academy, had no formal higher education, and spoke English, especially in the beginning, with difficulty. One might expect him to fare well on energy and courage but to suffer in comparison to others’ intellectual skills. That is clearly not the case in the evaluations.
When he returned in 1957 to Europe as a newly commissioned officer, having climbed from a recruit to a 1st lieutenant in just three years, his commanders were quick to recognize his leadership qualities. In his performance evaluation for the six-month period ending May 4, 1958, his commanding officer wrote, “Lt Thorne is one of the most devoted and conscientious officers I have known. He is quiet, modest, unassuming, and loyal.” Then the evaluation’s more senior reviewing officer added, “…Lt Thorne is an aggressive officer who is at his best in a situation which demands physical exertion, direct action, and forceful leadership. He is admired by his men and respected by his contemporaries and superiors.” Here were his two most defining qualities – quiet and modest at one moment and aggressive and forceful, at another – laid out side-by-side, in what was surely a right-on evaluation of Thorne’s character.
Within six months, however, he was under court martial for having thrown some German ruffians through the plate glass window of a pub during a brawl. Lady Luck was usually kind to Thorne, and this was true once again. During the investigation of the incident, the authorities found that some of the Germans involved had criminal records. At least two of them were wanted by the police. At Throne's court-martial in October, he was found not guilty of all charges and specifications.
The incident became a pretext for getting Thorne transferred from the 11th Airborne Division to the 10th Special Forces Group based in Bad Tölz, Germany. There he came under the command of Aito Keravuori, a Finnish-American officer who in fact was instrumental in achieving the transfer, in the first place. To Keravuori, Thorne committed himself to better behavior, and most of the time he lived up to that promise. Thorne, as a Special Forces officer, was in his element.
Keravuori and Thorne worked well together, and Thorne was soon in charge of an operational "A Team" that was the best in the Group. The leadership style of the Special Forces, especially on the A Teams, was pure "Thorne." Larry Thorne de-emphasized the line between officers and NCOs. In the Special Forces, mutual respect among professionals, officers and NCOs alike, replaced the often-rigid hierarchy typical of regular military units. Everyone was paid to think. That is how Thorne liked to lead.
At the time Thorne weighted 180 lbs. (82 kg) and measured 5'10" (174 cm.) in height, not an exceptionally large man but all muscle and endurance. Contemporary officers were surprised by his resilient strength that never ebbed as he moved into middle age. Fellow officer officer Herb Schandler remembered Thorne from a 1961 mission to Iran:
Sometimes he did not understand that everyone was not as strong as he was, like when we did a five-day ski hike and some of us made it only to the three-day mark at the end of the fifth day. Thorne could not understand, saying, "Well, I made it in five days."
Another, Col. Don Lunday, was Thorne’s executive officer when Thorne was in charge of training the US team to the 1962 NATO-wide skills competition, the Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers (“CIOR,” in French). The events included rifle and pistol firing, land navigation, obstacle courses, first aid, and a number of other physical and mental challenges. Lunday described Thorne:
Larry [then in his forties] was a bull. I was a 22-year-old 1st Lieutenant. The team members weren't much older, and we all were in outstanding physical shape. But Larry could do anything we were doing physically and with weapons, map reading, etc., and sometimes could do it better.
One of Thorne’s commanding officers wrote in his evaluation, “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.”
Larry Thorne's seemingly big handicap, as shown consistently in his evaulations, was his weak English ability. But in every instance, his commanders discounted the weakness stating that his strong leadership abilities offset any language problems. "He at times has language difficulties but overcomes these well," one commanding officer wrote.
Thorne was as smart as he was strong. Another commanding officer remarked, "The most polished and proficient professional soldier invariably gives Capt Thorne his unvarying admiration." Another officer, further up Thorne's chain of command, wrote; "The physical and mental capabilities of this man are far superior to that of the average officer. He is not in appearance a physical giant or in speech an orator. He has what God has given only to a few, and that is leadership."
By the time he left Germany in 1962, Thorne was fairly widely known as one of the best and toughest officers in the Green Berets. Then-Major Charles Simpson, one of Thorne's peacetime commanders while in Germany, 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.” Simpson later would author one of the important histories of the American Special Forces. Larry Thorne was: “…the best soldier I have ever known,” Col. Paavo Kairinen, another Finnish-American officer, told a reporter many years later. In Vietnam, the 5th Special Force’s executive officer, Robert Rheault reached the same conclusion, calling Thorne “the finest soldier I’ve ever known.” Thorne’s unwavering courage in Vietnam furthered more his reputation. This is “…the type of person you like to have around in a fight for he has unlimited courage,” wrote George Viney, deputy commander of the Special Forces in Vietnam.
During the spring and summer 1965, Thorne was working at the 5th Special Forces Group headquarters at Nha Trang, Vietnam, a "white collar job" as he termed it. Rheault recalls telling Thorne, "You've done enough fighting. You've got so much skill we need you to train these young guys." Thorne's job was to be an intelligence officer, coordinating, evaluating, and disseminating intelligence on enemy activities. Somewhat surprisingly, Thorne liked it. He demonstrated a flair for intelligence work, soon had his own intelliigence sources, and was quickly recognized as a leader of Nha Trang's intelligence operations. It wasn't long before he had some notable successes. Fifth Special Forces commander Spears wrote, “Thus far in Vietnam, there has been only one Viet Cong attack on a major U.S. installation in which the enemy did not achieve surprise. This one instance was the attack of Nha Trang airbase on 25 June in which damage was minimized because the prompt response of defense elements disrupted the Viet Cong effort. It was Captain Thorne’s work that made this action possible.” Spears recommended that Thorne be "developed through additional schools and carefully monitored assignments."
Spears’ confidence in Thorne only reiterated what Thorne’s commanders had been writing for several years. Consistently, both the rating and endorsing officers had given him top marks, on a scale of 1-5, for intelligence, ingenuity, and judgment. In most reports, they ranked him in the top ten percent of officers, in both “overall demonstrated performance,” and “estimated potential.” We find a new Thorne image as an officer, whose broad and continued high level of competence on a number of different key fronts, rather than just dazzling exploits, brought him to the attention of the senior officers in the American Special Forces. When he went to Vietnam, his ratings increased even beyond these earlier high marks. There, under wartime conditions, he soared to the very top as his commanders placed him in the top 2 - 6 percent of officers his rank, depending on the evaluation.
Was this the same Thorne who had fought in the Finnish army? Yes. But it was also a Thorne who had matured in years and experience. One who had had more than a few victories; one who had suffered more than one defeat. But at the core, Thorne most certainly was always a polished, intelligent, sound, tough, and reliable leader. Many of the best officers in both the Finnish and American armies held him in utmost esteem.
In the end, Thorne’s career finished abruptly, that night of October 19, 1965, when the helicopter carrying him lost its way in the fog and crashed into a dense hillside. He had recently been selected for promotion to Major. He had another ten years ahead before retirement, and it is probably safe to assume he would have served with distinction for many years had he possessed the opportunity. Thorne had already been earmarked by the Special Forces as an officer with potential, widely assessed as one of their best.
© J. Michael Cleverley 2008