Wartime mass grave of executed deserters could be unearthed in summer at Lappeenranta campsite
By Jaakko Pihlaja
One piece of dark Finnish wartime history could be revealed next summer with the planned excavation of suspected mass graves at the Huhtiniemi campgrounds in Lappeenranta. A working group set up by the Mayor of Lappeenranta is currently examining measures that must be taken to authorise such an operation.
Although there is no documentation of a military court operating in Lappeenranta in the final stages of the Continuation War, or of any death sentences it may have passed, numerous stories and recollections of individual people give credence to suspicions of a grim fate suffered by deserters in the summer of 1944 after Vyborg was lost to the Russians.
The lack of evidence, and suspicions of an official coverup, have fuelled the rumour mill, raising the issue into the headlines, and turning it into material for both newspaper stories and television programmes. Now the intention is to investigate the veracity of the rumours.
City geodesist Jussi Salo says that the application filed by Juha Portankorva, a journalist for the public service television network YLE2, and the Lauri Törni Tradition Guild*, are currently under consideration by the working group.
"The working group is ascertaining which officials should be present in case bones are found - for instance, the Institute of Forensic Medicine, the police, the National Board of Antiquities, and environmental officials", Salo says.
He regrets that the work must begin again from scratch, after the death in a car accident of Pontus Blomster, head of the Central Museum of Labour in Finland. Blomster was temporarily working in Lappeenranta when he died.
The exact time of the excavation is also unclear. The prospect of digging going on in the middle of the high season for camping is not to the liking of the proprietor Juha Oksanen.
A Finnish championship orienteering event is also scheduled to take place in the area, but the excavations would not interfere with that.
"Nobody has been in touch yet. This is city property, but it would not be very nice if there were digging in the summer", Oksanen says.
Portaankorva, who had produced a television documentary on the subject, already had permission from the city to dig in the area, when members of the Törni Tradition Guild submitted their application.
The group from the Tradition Guild would have been ready to initiate spot-check excavations at its own expense in May, as soon as the ground frost melts.
"The project is now living a life of its own", Portaankorva says. "I am very interested in investigating the area, and after my programme I have been given tips and interesting information. Why don’t we look and see if we can find something?"
Portaankorva feels that it is important to do the study - in cooperation with the Törni group, if necessary.
Antti O. Arponen, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Karjala, also says that he has received dozens of tips and e-mails. He does not believe everything that he has heard, but feels that it is clear that there is a truth in the case that has been largely hushed up. There are no key witnesses, but plenty of indirect evidence.
He also says that there are clear indications that exceptional events did take place in the Huhtiniemi area.
As for what was known at the front of events in Lappeenranta, one indication is the description by Viljo Riihinen from Längelmäki, who served as a driver in the Lagus Battalion.
"In the summer of 1944 each day during the company’s briefing there were announcements of how many deserters had been executed."
"The battalion was in Juustila, and I fetched mail from the Fortress of Lappeenranta. They spoke about prisoners, saying that there’s a group who won’t be around in the morning any more."
Riihinen does not denounce the executions that took place in that situation. "War is war. I just wish it hadn’t been hushed up."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 5.3.2005
*The Lauri Törni Tradition Guild is a group dedicated to preserving the memory of the Finnish soldier Lauri Törni, whose extraordinary exploits during the war became the stuff of legend. After the war he emigrated to the United States, establishing a new - and equally illustrious - career in the US Army under the name Larry Thorne. He was killed in action in Vietnam.
More on this subject:
FACTFILE: Little documentation is available
JAAKKO PIHLAJA / Helsingin Sanomat