Master Sergeant, U.S. Army Special Forces
September 1965 – March 1972
All my life, I’ve been drawn to the sound of cannons. Yearning to go to Korea in the mid-1950s, I joined the Marine Corps at 17. John Wayne, as Sergeant Striker in The Sands of Iwo Jima, was my hero. I served in the artillery for three years, then reenlisted and served on Okinawa. After that, I enlisted in the Army, which promised me a fighting position in Germany. Three years later, Cuba started with its missile buildup and I heard the cannons calling me again.
While in Germany, I met these Army guys with little green hats and I thought, Jeez, this looks cool, man. So I reenlisted this time with Special Forces. The recruiter says to me,“Look, you gotta take tests first, and you gotta volunteer for airborne school.” But I was accepted and received orders to Fort Benning jump school, then to Fort Bragg for more than two years of training—lots of guerrilla and counterguerrilla tactics, mountain climbing, HALO [high altitude, low opening]-SCUBA.
At Fort Bragg, we built a Vietnam camp in the woods and exhibited our skills at the “Gabriel Demonstration”area. The Special Forces had to sell itself at this stage of the war, in 1965. An officer came and we put a 12-man team on line, and each one of us had to give a spiel and finish it in a foreign language. Having been born in Canada, I was fluent in French. As soon as I found out the 5th Special Forces Group was going to Vietnam, I volunteered.
At my first A-Team site, Camp Kannack in II Corps, I was one of the little guys who kept the weapons clean and mortars ready. Soon the communications man came to me and said they were looking for volunteers for Project Delta. Not knowing what it was, but hoping it might be better than the humdrum work I was doing, I volunteered.
After training at Delta headquarters in Nha Trang, I went on my first recon mission along the Ho Chi Minh Trail with Corporal Joe Alderman, the master. Most of Delta’s missions were intelligence gathering in remote areas of Cambodia and Laos—although we weren’t ever told that— tapping the enemy’s communications wire. You’d put the recorder under the wire,cover it up and leave, then come back the next day to pick up the recordings. If we happened to find something big, like an enemy camp, we’d call an airstrike, then bug out.
In 1967 I transferred to Command and Control, Central, with Military Assistance Command Vietnam–Studies and Observation Group, in Kontum, and became the leader of a hatchet team, which infiltrated areas along the trail to detect movements of troops and supplies. We hired the local indigenous people—the Montagnards— and put three or four of them on a team with two Americans. We trained them as far as we could trust them and tried to blend in, even changing our diets so our scent would match theirs.
We would infiltrate by chopper into an area near the Vietnam border and then walk into our mission area. If the LZ was too small, we’d rappel or jump in. If Charlie spotted you, you could be on the run for weeks. To hide while you slept, you’d climb on the side of a steep mountain or hill, take your military belt and hook it to a branch to keep you from rolling down.
If we needed an emergency extraction during a recon mission, we had to walk out until we could be evacuated. When there wasn’t an opening for an LZ, we’d shoot down a tree with automatic fire or use Claymores. The helicopter would throw down ropes, we’d hook up with snap links and we were out—very fast. The 281st Assault Helicopter Company always came to get us. Those guys never left us behind.
In February 1967 I was hit by sniper fire in Laos. Following my convalescence in Hawaii, I was assigned to detachment B-36, a mobile guerrilla force, as an instructor in recon and rigging helicopters. Colonel James“Bo”Grits would tell the young lieutenants in training:“You’re assigned to Sergeant St. Laurent until he tells me you’re ready to lead.Just listen to him…and watch him.” One of them got killed because he didn’t pay attention and went up the rope ladder on a helicopter the wrong way.
I lost a few good friends. Once, on the hatchet team,we were in high grass and this machine gun pops up and, boom, takes out my point man. Automatic fire opened up and the sergeant in charge of the team got hit. I took over and relayed our coordinates to the forward air controller for fire support and evacuation. The Army awarded me the Silver Star for saving my team.
What hurt the most when I got out of Vietnam was leaving my brothers. I still keep in touch with them, but the sound of cannons is now far away.
Adapted from MSgt. St. Laurent’s interview with the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.