Although I never met Carl Thorne-Thomsen, I’ve known about him for as long as I can remember.
I distinctly recall driving down the road to my grandparents’ home in Lake Forest, IL, as my mother told me about her close high school friend who had died in Vietnam. Carl had opposed the war, she explained, but he felt it was unjust for him to be sheltered from the draft while others with less privilege were sent to fight in Southeast Asia. In a quiet act of protest, he withdrew from Harvard College during his junior year and was drafted in April 1967. Two months after arriving in Vietnam, and 50 years ago this week, he was killed in combat.
Although I was in elementary school at the time of this conversation, Carl’s decision to live—and die—by his principles made a vivid impression on me. Decades later, having spent most of my career on issues of armed conflict, I still find myself compelled. The 50th anniversary of his death motivated me to track down more information through archives and interviews and to write a Vita for Harvard Magazine’s September/October issue.
Carl’s story demonstrates the power of an individual to have a lasting impact. Virtually everyone I interviewed used the word “special” to describe him. Crew teammates and fellow soldiers alike cited the strength of character Carl showed in standing up against the inequity of the draft. On the battlefield, his bravery as a radio operator saved lives. Several Harvard classmates said they had sought out Carl’s name on the Vietnam Wall, and for decades, his commanding officer carried with him a letter Carl’s mother sent after she received the news of his death. An unexpected reward of doing my story was to share with his still grieving family how others remembered him.
My own admiration for Carl has only grown as I have done more research and talked with people who knew him personally. He made sacrifices for his principles yet did so in private way. Many of his classmates and comrades-in-arms did not know until recently how a Harvard student ended up as an enlisted man in Vietnam. Carl hated injustice, and whether on campus or in a combat zone, he treated everyone with the same respect. In the end, he left a legacy of courage and character that remains an inspiration.