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Estonian-American Special Forces pioneer Jyri Laats dies at 95

Jyri Laats as he appeared in the 1963 US Army promotional movie 'Guerilla USA'.
Jyri Laats as he appeared in the 1963 US Army promotional movie 'Guerilla USA'. Source: Jeff Quitney/Youtube

Estonian-American Special Forces legend Jyri Laats passed away in the US on Saturday, July 28 at Palm Springs, CA. Mr. Laats was 95. His friend Jüri Estam recounts the events of his long and eventful life – a man of many countries, as fate would have it.

Friends say Jyri experienced a peaceful ending to what had otherwise often been a tumultuous life. No one will ever know how Jyri's life might have unfolded otherwise, had the Baltic States been left in peace eight decades ago, but fate intervened dramatically instead, early on in his long life and, launching ´him on a long and exotic, though not fully voluntary, "walkabout".

Born on May 28, 1923 in Tartu in South Estonia to a Finnish father and an Estonian mother [note the Finnish spelling of his first name, as opposed to the more usual Estonian 'Jüri'-ed.], Jyri Georg Laats grew up in the independent sovereign nation of Estonia, a situation that wasn't destined to last for long, however.

In 1940, the Soviet Union engineered a forcible takeover of Estonia and the two other Baltic States. Jyri's stepfather – a military officer – was arrested by the secret police of the occupying power, and he disappeared permanently into the Gulag – the notorious Soviet labour camp system. Jyri's younger brother was killed in action during the war.

Manning the ramparts of Estonia's northern sibling

Adolf Hitler went on his own conquering spree soon thereafter. The three Baltic States were among the many countries his Panzers rumbled into. Stung by what both Stalin and Hitler were now doing to the neighbouring countries, Jyri Laats – to the extent that one man can exert any influence at all on the course of human events – wasn't going to take any of this lying down. He surreptitiously made his way across the waters of the Baltic Sea to Finland, which was embroiled at the time in her Continuation War with the Soviet Union ['Jatkosota' in Finnish, 'Jätkusõda' in Estonian, which ran from 1941-1944 and is distinct from the earlier Winter War (Talvisota/Talvesõda) between Finland and the Soviet Union-ed.]

Laats apparently served in a Finnish reconnaissance unit in 1943 before joining the 2nd Battalion of the legendary infantry unit JR ('Jalaväerügement') 200, which was composed almost in its entirety of thousands of Estonian volunteers who'd made their way to Finland in order to avoid being dragooned into the German occupation army in their home country.

Laats and his JR 200 comrades in arms fought against the overwhelming forces of the Red Army on the Karelian Isthmus, which lies on the shores of Vyborg Bay and the banks of the Vuoksi River. Much of this territory was subsequently annexed by Stalin, as were large swathes of territory in Estonia and Latvia.

Having lost his homeland of Estonia first to the Stalin, then to Hitler and then finally to the Soviets again for half a century, it quickly became obvious after the capitulation of Finland to the Soviet Union [a ceasefire was called on 5 September 1944, and formalised by the signing of the Moscow Armistice on 19 September-ed.] that sticking around there wouldn't be a good idea.

Manhunts soon began in Finland for many of the men who only days before had been putting up a spririted armed resistance on the frontier to try to repel the onslaught of the Red Army.

After making his way to Sweden, Laats stowed away on a ship to Brazil. From there, he managed to find his way to the US as an immigrant. In America, this new arrival found himself in a situation familiar to many other Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians who had been run out of their homes - a stranger in a strange land with empty pockets and little knowledge of English.

From 1946 to 1951, he worked as a seaman aboard Norwegian and Finnish merchant vessels before settling for a while in San Francisco.

Join the American army and see the world's hotspots first hand

Like many other Finns and Estonians before him who had combat experience, Laats volunteered for service in the US military. After completing parachute school in the mid-1950s, Laats was sent first to the 11th, and later the 82nd, Airborne Divisions. After serving in the US for some time, he was transferred to Munich, West Germany. Laats' first five-year period of enlistment ended with him heading up an anti-tank infantry squad back in the US, in North Carolina.

In 1959 Jyri Laats applied for Special Forces (SF) training. After becoming qualified as a combat medic, and soon after being assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the Army made something of a minor movie star out of Laats, playing a guerilla chief in the mountains of West Virginia in the US Army promotional film 'Guerilla USA' (1963).

Jyri appears in a scene at around the 13 minute mark (it is available on youtube here) speaking with a thick Estonian accent and wearing a cowboy hat, armed with a pistol as well as what almost certainly looks like a Finnish hunting knife ('puukko') on his belt.  

However, Jyri Laats was soon in action in real life, being sent to the southeast asian country of Laos, which found itself embroiled in the conflict in neighbouring Vietnam, along with several hundred other SF soldiers.

In 1960, the Kingdom of Laos was in the process of being subverted by North Vietnamese and Soviet Union-backed Pathet Lao insurrectionists, while the US supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in that country.

At the time, the Mobile Training Team (MTT) 'White Star' operation in Laos was under the command of one Lieutenant Colonel Aito Keravuori, who as it happens, and as his name hints at, was a US officer of Finnish descent.

Throughout his SF career, Laats would often find himself in the company of other American soldiers of Estonian and Finnish heritage, such as his friend Major Larry Thorne, who perished late in 1965 in a helicopter crash in Laos while on a combat operation.

A powerful aversion to communism came to all of these men as a matter of course.

After World War Two the US and her NATO allies found themselves staring down the Soviets and its proxy partners in Berlin, Cuba, Latin America, Indochina and a host of other places, so the attraction between Special Forces and men from several Central and Eastern European countries who had been rendered persons without a homeland was a natural and beneficial one.

Once he was in Laos, Jyri Laats was on medic duties, tending to the ill and the wounded, but was also involved in reconnaissance missions that ranged all the way up to the Chinese border.

After Laos, Laats received orders to join the 10th Special Forces Group in Bavaria, in the southern part of West Germany, and ended up serving under one Paavo Kairinen – yet another officer of Finnish extraction.

The Group Surgeon at the 10th at the time was another Estonian-born fellow by the name of Einar Himma, who ultimately reached the rank of Colonel. The late Col. Himma later retired as after a long and varied career.

More than any of the other American special operations units, the 10th Special Forces Group – one of the most pioneering US unconventional warfare organisations in recent history – drew heavily from the expertise of the Finns and Estonians in its ranks.These men were naturally experienced in winter and forest warfare, and were happy to pass on various military tips of the trade, ranging from the often intricate art of the ambush to the details of warfare on skis, where an operator pulls their equipment behind them on an 'ahkio' sled.

The particular detachment, or A-team, that Laats served on in Bavaria would have been deployed to the aid of one of the Northern European countries, had push come to shove during the Cold War.

Special operations duty can be physically punishing of course. Laats developed some medical issues that ended his SF career, but that didn't stop him from doing three tours as a senior NCO at US Army hospitals in South Vietnam.
When the bitter end arrived in the contest for that country, Himma and Laats participated together as medical specialists in the repatriation to the US of 24 American prisoners of war who had been held captive by the communist Viet Cong.

Tending to the health scares of visitors who dropped in from space

After 24 years of service, Jyri Laats' military career drew to a close in Honolulu, HI, at Tripler Army Medical Centre on a ward where he supervised a workforce of 350 NCOs and enlisted men.

Fate's fickle finger did however introduce a fittingly final dramatic moment before Jyri could enjoy his retirement, with three Apollo program astronauts being entrusted to the personnel in his ward at Tripler.

As the Apollo spacecraft returned from orbit on July 24, 1975, carrying astronauts Deke Slayton,Tom Stafford and Vance Brand [following the Apollo-Soyuz mission which saw a space rendevous with a Soviet craft carrying Alexey Leonov and Valeri Kubasov-ed.], the drogue chute of their capsule deployed above the Pacific as expected.

However, when the spacecraft's vent valve opened, the reaction control jets were still operating, admitting a potentially lethal dose of nitrogen tetroxide, one of the most toxic chemicals used in spaceflight.

As the deadly fumes lingered in the spacecraft, Slayton, Stafford and Brand, began choking uncontrollably. All three developed pneumonia after splashing down and were hospitalised at Tripler for two weeks while they recovered, under Jyri Laats' watchful eye.

The Pull of the Old Country, or What Goes Around Comes Around  

If I recall correctly, Jyri Laats retired with the rank of Master Sergeant, but I could be wrong.

He had a typically understated Nordic personality and the stern face of a soldier's soldier, but he'd easily break into a smile in the company of friends.

After Estonia regained her independence in 1991, he'd come by the old country now and then and visit, among others, with General Aleksander Einseln (another US Army SF veteran of Estonian extraction) who was the Commander the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) for several years in the mid-1990s.

Aleksander Einseln preceded his friend Laats in death by just a year and a half, passing away in Estonia on 16 March last year. Earlier this year, General Einseln's ashes were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in the US.

Jyri Laats continued to live in Honolulu for many years before finally relocating to Palm Springs. Jyri's mother had managed to make it out of Estonia in 1944, just before the return of the Red Army, reaching freedom in Australia many years ago, and is buried there.

As far as I know, the joys of marriage and having children passed Jyri by. This kind of thing can happen when you get deprived of the birthright of your native country at an early age and you end up being tossed around by the vagaries of fate.

Even if his country and his society had been dealt a particularly bad hand, Jyri instinctively lived by the playbook that instructs one to improvise, adapt and overcome.

In a reversal of history, US SF personnel of a much younger generation are today participating in training missions in the CEE countries, and awareness of the slow but sure improvements being made in the defensive posture of the "reindependent" (even if this may not be a fully bona fide term) Baltic States gladdened Jyri as he grew older.

Details about the funeral service for Jyri Laats haven't been made public yet. He was a good man, faithful to his (several) homelands, and will be sorely missed by a number of friends who are – and there's no surprise here – scattered to the four winds around the globe.

Jyri Laats had been bestowed with a number of military honors over the years, including decorations awarded by Finland, the US and the Republic of Vietnam, not to mention the Order of the Cross of the Eagle in Gold of the Republic of Estonia.
– – 

This account of the life of Jyri Laats was written by journalist and consultant Jüri Estam, who served in the American military (SF) at the same time Mr. Laats was preparing to retire.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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