In Memory

Carl Thorne-Thomsen

Carl Thorne-Thomsen


Carl Thorne-Thomsen
Brief Life of a Man of Principle

by, Bonnie Docherty

THE VIETNAM WAR era at Harvard is largely remembered as a time of resistance. In the late 1960s, students burned draft cards, occupied University Hall, and helped drive ROTC off campus. But before the anti-war movement became daily news in The Harvard Crimson, one undergraduate—Carl Thorne-Thomsen ’68—engaged in a personal and uncommon act of protest.

Those who knew him describe someone smart and athletic, enthusiastic and genuine, funny and at ease with himself and others. Though his humor often masked it, he also had a thoughtful side, writing in a high-school friend’s yearbook, “Perhaps I do not seem serious…but nonetheless I am.” Above all, Thorne-Thomsen possessed a sense of justice that led him to fight in a war he did not believe in.

The fourth of five children in a politically conscious family, he grew up north of Chicago. At Lake Forest High School, he earned academic honors, played the cello, and was a standout athlete. His best friend, Jim Kahle, recalls summers when “we would go sailing, swimming, and play wiffle ball during the day and at night engage in solving the world’s problems.” As student-council president, Thorne-Thomsen demonstrated his democratic values by working to eliminate a grade-point requirement for future officers.

At Harvard, the six-foot Midwesterner tried out for freshman crew and became one of two first-time oarsmen in the 1965 undefeated lightweight boat, rowing in the number-five seat. Teammate Chris Cutler remembers an exceptional athlete who “brought humor and joy to the boathouse.” Bill Braun adds, “Carl always wanted to do more than his fair share. You never had to look over your shoulder to see if he was pulling his oar.”

But the Dunster House resident had more on his mind than rowing. With the Vietnam War escalating, concern about the draft led students to forgo leaves of absence, join the Peace Corps, and apply to graduate school. According to the 1966 Harvard yearbook, many considered military service in the unpopular conflict to be a “waste of time” and “the work of a high-school dropout.”

Thorne-Thomsen saw it differently. He believed it was unjust for him to remain sheltered at Harvard while the government sent poorer, less well-educated young men to war. In late 1966, he told his friend Linda Jones (Docherty), who had served with him on student council, that he was thinking of leaving college; she recalls him saying, “Talk me out of it.” She couldn’t, nor could the few family members and friends in whom he confided. “He scorned that student deferment,” says his oldest brother, Leif. Thorne-Thomsen withdrew from Harvard in his junior spring and was drafted shortly thereafter. Rejecting the offer of a hiding place in Canada, and a safer post in the Pentagon, he told his father, “I have to do this.” His mother, who begged him not to go, wrote later that his decision exemplified “the qualities I loved most in him. He was perceptive, he hated unfairness, he was courageous, and he lived by his principles and acted on them despite personal consequences.”

Pfc. Thorne-Thomsen arrived in Vietnam on August 23, 1967, and quickly bonded with his unit—Alpha Company, Second Battalion, Twelfth Infantry. He wrote home that he was “glad to be in the infantry because of the lack of ‘pretension’ there.” Army buddies Charlie Page and John Stone knew him as friendly, quick-witted, articulate, and sensitive. Impressed by his abilities, Lt. Burnie Quick made him a radio operator, a vital but dangerous position.

Alpha Company operated out of Dau Tieng, between Saigon and the Cambodian border. A Vietcong supply route ran through the region, and the unit searched for and destroyed enemy bases, weapons, and food. On one mission, ordered to clear villages where the Vietcong had been hiding, it evacuated dozens of civilians, then burned down their homes. “It is justifiable in terms of winning the war,” Thorne-Thomsen wrote. “Now if we could only justify the war.”

On October 25, as Harvard students protested campus recruiting by napalm manufacturer Dow Chemical, undermanned Alpha Company trudged through dense jungle. Entering a clearing of tall elephant grass, the soldiers received fire from all sides. Thorne-Thomsen repeatedly exposed himself to maintain radio contact and facilitate the unit’s maneuvers, until a grenade exploded above him, killing him instantly. When reinforcements arrived two and a half hours later, four more men were dead, and about 30 wounded.

The Crimson did not report it, but Harvard responded to Thorne-Thomsen’s death. According to an Al Gore biography, “the news swept through [Dunster dining] room like a shock wave.” The varsity lightweight crew named a new racing shell in his honor. A 1968 yearbook essay, “The War Comes to Harvard,” opened by noting that “a junior who had left Harvard last year had been awarded the Bronze Star…posthumously ‘for heroism.’ ” One of only 22 men on Memorial Church’s Vietnam honor roll, Thorne-Thomsen also received a Bronze Star “for outstanding meritorious service.”

Fifty years later, his personal act of protest elicits admiration. Leif Thorne-Thomsen, who initially viewed his brother’s reasoning as crazy, now sees his choice as that of a “remarkable man.” Crew teammate Monk Terry observes, “[It] shows a lot more strength of character than the rest of us had.” Bill Comeau, a draftee from a poor family and Thorne-Thomsen’s predecessor as radio operator, regards him as a hero for “tak[ing] the risks and mak[ing] the sacrifices to right what he considered an injustice perpetrated on the underprivileged class.” Made without fanfare, Thorne-Thomsen’s decision to forsake self-interest for principle retains the power to inspire. 

Bonnie Docherty ’94, J.D. ’01, is a lecturer at Harvard Law School and the daughter of Thorne-Thomsen’s friend Linda Jones Docherty


Born November 27, 1946
Died October 25, 1967

Carl Thorne-Thomsen had everything going for him as a young man. He was one of eighth brothers in the Thomsen household.

He was raised in Lake Forest, the posh suburb of Chicago. His Mom was an English teacher at the local High School. Carl attended High School there and was a very popular member of his class. He was elected to the Student Counsel.

Carl played the usual sports and was a very bright student. Upon graduation Carl had the distinction of earning a scholarship to Harvard University. He enrolled in the fall and eventually became a successful member of Harvard’s Swim Team. Things were going along splendidly but Carl wasn’t comfortable with his privileged existence. By 1967 the war was being shown nightly on the network news. As the war began taking its terrible toll, more and more demands were being made on the Selective Service System to replace the losses and those rotating home. Carl didn’t agree with the conduct of the war while he was at Harvard, but he understood the inequities of the Draft System that favored the affluent and well connected and he felt uncomfortable with his sitting out the campaign in an Ivy League College. In early 1967 Carl decided to do something about it. He put aside his scholarly pursuits and volunteered for the draft. It didn’t take long before he was chosen by his Friends and Neighbors. 

He arrived in A/2/12 on August 23rd, 1967. Like all rookies in the unit, he was apprehensive, but enthusiastic.



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01/11/14 02:59 PM #1    

Beth Shoulberg (Johnson)

According to: “Vietnam War Military Casualties”

Carl was killed by hostile fire in South Vietnam, in the Province of Binh Duong.

01/11/14 03:13 PM #2    

Beth Shoulberg (Johnson)

Etching from the Vietnam Memorial Wall, Washington, DC

01/24/14 09:14 AM #3    

Beth Shoulberg (Johnson)

Submitted by John Stone:

         Not sure exactly when I first met Carl - most likely during the five day pre-combat at base camp.  Carl Spaul Thorne-Thomsen—the first guy I ever met with 4 names.   When  I first  met him, I thought his first name was Thorne. I thought that  was the coolest first name I ever heard. Then I was calling him by what I thought was his whole name—Thorne Thomsen. It wasn’t long before I got it right. Carl was so much easier. 

          I liked him from the minute I met him. The type of guy you wanted to hang with. He was very outgoing—so friendly—and quick-witted. I have to assume he was well educated—if not, he was very intelligent and had that ability to recall things that would fit the conversation. He knew something about everything and everything about some things, but was never condescending in our conversations.  When he would talk, I would listen and when I was talking, he would listen. The difference was, I was probably getting more out of the conversation than he was…He was an extraordinary speaker. I can still hear his voice…the tone…the way he spoke. He had a knack of choosing and organizing   his words well in advance.

 Carl was a real funny guy—He came out with some real funny stuff—a real comedian, but not silly. Boy did he make me laugh with his little comments and jokes. I always considered him my joking buddy. I always enjoyed being with him—not only because he made me laugh, but just an easygoing guy—at least with me.

 Even though I knew him for a short two months, he left a impression on me that has lasted  a lifetime. I suppose he made an impression on everyone that knew him. I would guarantee, if his life wasn’t cut short, he would have succeeded in any enterprise attempted. 

Even after 36 years, I still find it hard to believe he is gone. Gone yes…but only in body. I will never forget him. —Carl was one extraordinary guy. 

01/24/14 09:19 AM #4    

Beth Shoulberg (Johnson)

This is what Charlie Page says of Carl:

Carl Thorne-Thomsen was a Harvard student who ended up in Vietnam.  He was a handsome, wealthy, articulate, and intelligent individual.  I often told him there were no scholar-athletes at Harvard because there were no athletes at Harvard.  He told me that USC had the best athletes money could buy.  One of his friends said on the web site that he was the next JFK for this country.  I believe it.

Carl paid the ultimate price for his beliefs. On October 25th 1967 Carl was killed in the ambush that devastated the Company. 

When Lt. Quick wrote Carl’s family and extended his sympathy to them for Carl’s loss he received a letter back from them. He shares part of it here:


Dear Lieutenant Quick,

       Of all the letters we've received, including one from the President, yours has been the most meaningful...about the loss of our son Carl.
      I want you to know that our son wrote often of the bravery of the men in
Alpha Company, and its leaders, its Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers...
[Carl] said Alpha Company was the best company in Vietnam.
       [Perhaps] it's best if we do not state our position on the war, but we would
like to do something for the men of Alpha, of whom Carl thought so highly."

Note:  The family later sent a TV to Alpha Company in Carl's memory.


Carl was a man of principles and was willing to take the risks and make the sacrifices to right what he considered an injustice perpetrated on the under privileged class, who bore the brunt of the fighting in Vietnam. He was a hero to them; he was a hero to the Country.

01/25/14 06:25 PM #5    

Skip Justice


Carl was a true Hero.


01/30/14 02:44 PM #6    

Betsy Wentworth

Carl was the best of all of us.

03/22/14 12:54 PM #7    

Ann(Andrea) Glasel (Dunn)

It is honor to have stood midst such brightness .

04/04/14 11:53 PM #8    

Walter Schaefer

I wrote a poem for Carl, who I find is often on my mind after all this time.  The first line might require explanation: I still carry a bedraggled backpack filled with odd bits of paper, a notebook or two and sometimes lunch. When I wrote this, I had a two mile walk to work and it was on those walks that the poem began to reveal itself. So this is for Carl:

Panel 28E – Line 70

                                                                        For Carl Thorne-Thomsen                                                                                                                                    d. October 25, 1967                                                                                                          

Sometimes as I walk aimlessly along, carrying my thoughts on my back,

I think of you moving through jungle, carrying your radio on your back.

I think of how because of your strength you were given the choice

to carry a radio or a machine gun, and I think of how you made your decision

to carry the radio, first because it weighed more, and only second

because you would go to war, but you would not bring death with you.

Facts have a stubborn way of staying in place and waving like sea grass,

swaying to the command of currents as if imparting something useful,

like semaphores signaling. You studied the art of communication

long before you crawled dying in the ambush to the radio, brought rescue,

saved other lives so the day death called on them would come later,

maybe much later.

The patterns of grief are of grief’s own design and it is not strange

 to recover for a lifetime in fits and in starts and through the bleak

habitations of middle life and amid the age we call old because

it weighs more than a radio and some days it weighs more than thoughts.

Tonight in the doorway of the temple an ancient sleeps in his own urine,

but I have heard him tell how once he had 28 men under his command,

I led them, he says and his startled amethyst eyes find their target

around the boiled riven tuber once his nose, I led them, man, 27 of them

out of the hellfire that was Khe Sanh. His hands fly out as if to prevent a storm

I can not see and I want to say, Henry, who was the twenty-eighth? Was his name

ever Carl? But I have seen the sinking black granite wall with 58,000 names

and I know nothing changes tomorrow, so I let it rest, let Henry rest, let the world rest.


05/19/14 09:13 AM #9    

James Kahle

Carl was my best friend through out grade school, high school and for the short time afterward. Some how he felt the need to come over to my house during the summer, just before he was to join the army, and talk about his decision. I understood his rationale but did not like the fact that he would be put into harms way. There was,unfortunately, really no way to talk him out of it. 

I think of him often and remember most his innate ability to see the very best in everyone. To that point I remember a particular moment while we were spending our usual two week vacation time together at his parent's summer home in Door County Wisconsin. We would go sailing, swimming and play wiffle ball during the day and at night engage in solving the world's problems.  The only source of entertainment at night was a small radio that faded in an out as we tried to listen to the Chicago White Sox games. On this night the static was so bad we turned the radio off and just began to talk about everything under the sun. At one point he said to me " So Jake, imagine you are on a deserted island with little hope of being rescued. If you had the choice, what girl would you pick to be on the island with you?" I thought about it for a while and mentioned a few girls that we both discussed back and forth. "Actually, he finally said, I think I would choose Linda Larsen. She is intelligent, always has a nice smile on her face, her lauigh is infectious and she must be very creative as she enjoys music so much. I just think she would be the perfect companion and make the best of a bad situation".

So Linda, where ever you are, the 50 year old secret is out. Some how I don't think Carl would mind that I told this story. 

11/22/17 12:00 PM #10    

Beth Shoulberg (Johnson)

Hi Guys-
The ceremony on Friday (11/10/17) was well attended by the LFHS student body, some of our classmates and military personnel. I thought you might want to read my remarks about Carl at the event. (See below)
All the best ,
Jake Kahle

Carl Thorne-Thomsen was my best friend, although I don’t always think of him in the past tense, as even after 50 years, he continues to be an influence in my life.

Carl was a true humanitarian who early on realized he was in a privileged position and chose to use it so he could reach out to those who were on the margins of society. He was Student council president, Junior Prom King, co-captain of the swim team, and a National Honor Society member; none of which would change his humble and unpretentious personality.

When we were juniors in high school Carl and I decided to run for office in the student council; he for President and me for Vice President. Somewhere along the way, before submitting our names, Carl came to me and said, “You know Jake, I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and I really don’t want to take away the option from you running for President. I am perfectly willing to switch things around and run for Vice President. Our goals are similar if we should win, so it really doesn’t matter to me”. That was Carl, always thinking about the welfare and feelings of someone else. I of course declined his offer. Carl ran against Whit Peters who should have been a strong opponent and probably would have won against anyone else. Whit was incredibly smart and point of fact later in life would graduate from Harvard Law School magnum cum laude with a doctorate degree. Sometime later he was named by President Bill Clinton as Secretary of the Air Force. But he really didn’t stand a chance; Carl won handily with the overwhelming support of the student body. As for me…well, I actually had to run against my ex-girlfriend and won by the slimmest of margins.

Carl immediately worked on eliminating the grade point requirement so everyone could be eligible to run for student council office. We also set up a program where students could sit in on the student council meetings as a visitor. Once again that was Carl… always thinking about those on the outside looking in.

Carl was a good athlete who excelled in the freestyle events for the swim team. Always a positive force and supportive of his team mates I remember during a qualifying swim meet for the state championships, Carl asked one of his team mates who was coming back to the locker room, “So how’d you do?” The boy replied “not so good I finished 23rd out of 30 in my group.” Carl, always the quick wit, turned to him and said “look, don’t get down on yourself, think of it this way, you actually finished in the upper half of the lower two thirds.” His team mate went away smiling.

I remember well the day he came to my house during the summer after our sophomore year in college. He told me he was dropping out of Harvard, giving up his exempt status and volunteering for the draft. He explained that his decision was largely based on the fact that the entire process was totally unfair to those who, for whatever reason, didn’t go to college. Maybe they couldn’t afford it, or maybe they chose to enter a vocational training program or maybe they just had to help with the family business. Carl simply felt uncomfortable being exempt while so many that were not had to disproportionately bear the burden of going off to war. Even though I didn’t like his decision it was difficult to argue with his reasoning and knowing Carl there was no way to talk him out of it. The one thing he was absolutely adamant about, however, was that I should not follow in his footsteps or feel compelled to do the same as he. He told me, “Jake I know you only too well and it’s not in you to do this. Stay in school, avoid this war at all costs and find another way to serve.” I took his words to heart and in fact after graduating from college I joined the Peace Corps.

I have seen letters from those in Alpha Company that served alongside Carl in Vietnam. To quote a few “The type of guy you wanted to hang with. I have to assume he was well educated as he was very intelligent and had that ability to recall things that would fit the conversation. He knew something about everything and everything about some things, but was never condescending.”

Another said “Even though I knew him for a short two months, he left an impression on me that has lasted a lifetime. I suppose he made an impression on everyone that knew him.”

That was typical of Carl. While he was in the army he obviously never told anyone of his Lake Forest upbringing or that he had been a scholarship student at Harvard or member of a championship rowing crew. He just wanted to fit in as an ordinary soldier. I strongly suspect, however, that the men of Alpha Company considered Carl anything but ordinary.

So in the end what can we all learn from Carl’s short time with us? I think it would be this:

Don’t ever be afraid to venture out of your comfort zone. Always try to continually expand your circle of friends and learn to appreciate the many divergent life styles around you. Reach out and lift up the spirit of those less fortunate. By doing so it’s a guarantee it will also lift up yours. There are people out there from all walks of life that can enrich your life. You just have to be willing to look for them.

Thank you for allowing me to share a small sample of Carl’s all too short journey. I can only hope that you will join me in keeping his memory alive.

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