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Staff Sergeant Jyri Laats at Fort Bragg, North Carolina with his self propelled anti-tank gun and crew.

 

Master Sergeant Jyri Laats (US Army Retired) passed away quietly in Palm Springs, California recently at the age of 95. A true warrior has entered Manala (Estonian for the great thereafter). Laats was born in independent Estonia in 1923 in Põlva, one of two brothers. His mother fled Estonia in  1944 and reached the west; she died in Australia. His brother fell in combat against the Communists.

 

Laats fled his native Estonia in 1943 to Finland, where he entered the Finnish Army. When Infantry Regiment 200 (JR 200) was formed (the unit was manned by Estonians who fled to Finland), Laats transferred to JR 200 and saw combat against the Red Army in the battles of Rajajõgi (Rajajoki) and Vuoksi. 

 

In August of 1944, Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim allowed 1,600 Estonian volunteers to return to Estonia to help resist the advancing Red Army. The 1st battalion of JR 200 saw savage combat in the counterattack to retake Tartu. Some of the Estonian volunteers had stayed in Finland, while others were helped to escape to Sweden. Laats was advised by the Finns to flee in anticipation of future Russian demands for the incarceration of Estonians who had served in sensitive operations inFinland.

 

Laats fled to Sweden and eventually managed to get on a merchant ship that visited Brazil, where he jumped ship. Local authorities immediately arrested him because he had no identification papers. The

Finnish Consul read of his apprehension from the newspapers and managed to free him and obtained identification documents for Jyri Laats. After working for some time as a domestic helper in a local family, Laats managed to board another merchant ship, which led to his arrival in the United States.

 

Laats lived for a short time in Brooklyn and then moved on to San Francisco where he had friends. Like many of his Estonian contemporaries, Laats joined the US Army. Thus began an adventurefilled twenty-year career that took Laats to many faraway lands and service in many US airborne and Special Forces units. He volunteered for airborne training and was assigned to the famous 11th Airborne Division in Germany. After rotation back to the United States came an assignment in the All-American 82nd Airborne Division, where Staff Sergeant Laats was in charge of a selfpropelled anti-tank gun. 

 

Our paths initially crossed there in 1959 when Juri Toomepuu and I came back from Ranger Training.

 

Jyri Laats then became a triple volunteer (enlistment in the Army, completion of Jump School, and applying for Special Forces training) by signing up for Special Forces duty. He was an ideal candidate.

He spoke fluent Finnish and Estonian as well as several other languages. He had seen intense combat against the Red Army and was street savvy. He became a Special Forces medical NCO. A deployment to Laos as part of OPERATION WHITE STAR followed. Communist Pathet Lao guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars were taking over the country, and US Special Forces teams were organizing and training irregular forces to counter their activities. The US operation was headed by a Finnish born Lieutenant Colonel, who had been one of the “weapons concealers” in Finland after World War II who was now a Special Forces officer. Weapons concealing had involved the hiding of a large amount of weapons and equipment in caches around the country as a countermeasure against a possible Soviet occupation of the country.

 

Laats then joined Sergeant Major Endel Palgi, who had fled from Estonia in 1940 and previously parachuted into Normandy and Holland during World War II and later served in the Korean War.

 

A tour in the 7th Special Forces Group in Fort Bragg, North Carolina followed. Soon Laats found himself in the beautiful Bavarian town of Bad Toelz in the 10th Special Forces Group. That unit's Special Forces teams were trained to conduct intelligence collection and guerilla warfare operations in the Soviet rear in Eastern Europe (should war break out). There are some indications that Polkovnik (Colonel) Vladimir Putin of the KGB mission in East Germany targeted this unit. Laats joined such individuals as Hans Saul (from Viljandi) and Oleg Golubjatnikov (born on the Island of Muhu) and others who were assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group. The Group surgeon at Bad Toelz was none other than Major Einar Himma, with whom Laats was associated for year to come. Along the way Laats had a kidney removed, which precluded further Special Forces duty. Three tours as a senior medical NCO in Army medical facilities in the Republic of Vietnam followed. 

 

When the Vietnam war ended, the US received back some of its Viet Cong held prisoners. It was  Lieutenant Colonel Himma and Sergeant First Class Laats who represented US medical personnel at the reception point. Himma had previously been the surgeon of the 5th Special Forces Group and then of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam.

 

Laats subsequently served in various medical assignments in medical facilities in the United States,  His last assignment was in the Army Hospital in Hawaii where as a Master Sergeant, many of the US astronauts who came back to Earth in a capsule into the Pacific Ocean were under the care of his men.

 

Jyri Laats retired in Hawaii and established residence there, until moving to California where he passed away. It is not possible to write about all of his exploits due to security regulations.

 

Laats left a deep imprint in the crust of the earth. He was a true warrior. He will be sorely missed.

 

Priit Parming

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