Pete Lawrenson went to Vietnam on his 20th birthday, a fresh-faced Montana kid who joined the Army with two of his buddies because he wasn’t ready for college and he believed America needed to fight communism.
He arrived in Saigon on Nov. 3, 1968 as a second lieutenant and was promoted to first lieutenant within five weeks.
That December, he was stationed as an assistant adviser to the 11th Vietnamese Ranger Battalion near the town of Plei Ku in the central highlands, not far from the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail and the borders with Laos and Cambodia.
He served in Vietnam until November 1969, but stayed in the Army for another two years and got out as a captain at age 22, for a total of five years in the military. Lawrenson later spent 25 years with the Missoula Police Department, including six years as chief. He retired from the force in 2000 and took a job as head of security for Montana Rail Link, a position he held until his recent retirement.
Now at age 66, Lawrenson can reflect on his time in Vietnam during the war.
Q: What is one of your most vivid memories from that time?
A: First of all, I got married before I got to Vietnam, so I had a wife at home. This is a fun one. This is the first thing that really stands out to me. We had met in Hawaii in August for a seven-day R&R. So when I got back to Vietnam then, it was like late September, I got a letter from her and it talks about having been to the doctor and everything was fine. It’s like, what’s she talking about? Over the next week or so, I get a couple more letters and I’m able to figure out that she’s pregnant. But what I never did get was the first letter where she said, ‘I think I’m pregnant, I’m going to the doctor.’ And what had happened was there was a military airplane that was basically a mail plane, and it crashed somewhere up in Alaska. And we figure the letter that she had sent me was probably on that airplane and I never got it. So to find out when you’re down to under two months that your wife is pregnant, that’s pretty exciting.
Q: What was the scariest situation you found yourself in?
A: We did a battle in April and May of ’69 where two of the three battalions, we were north of Plei Ku, and there was a major enemy buildup. We went in there as a specific force with a major intent to engage them. We got in there and quickly realized that we were outnumbered. I mean, it wasn’t a fun time. It was very rough terrain. We had good artillery support and good air support. We spent 19 days out there in the field. It is mountains. The one thing, when you’re in combat situations, you want the high ground. You definitely want the high ground. As we finished up toward every day or every operation, it was always with the intent to gain the high ground. We were having trouble gaining the high ground, but we sustained some real major casualties. When we went to the field, there were either five or six Americans as advisers in different capacities, and all of us had scrapes and cuts, but I was the only one that was truly ambulatory. Others could walk with assistance, but they were not truly ambulatory. The point of that was I was 20 years old, and I was just absolutely scared. It was a frightening experience to be in that kind of combat.
Q: Where were you located?
A: We were a combat unit in the central highlands. It was a real hot area. As often as not, what we were tasked to do was not necessarily engage the enemy, but go out in small teams and assess what their buildup was, what direction they were going and see if we couldn’t give intelligence to combat units. We did a lot of reconnaissance. If there was a real hot spot somewhere, Rangers would be dispatched to be the primary fighting unit. When we weren’t in the field doing military operations, we were working with Vietnamese to enhance quality of life a little bit. We helped in a brick-making factory and helped them build homes. None of them had electricity or running water. We were very active in being good neighbors and good stewards. We also worked with the provincial chief and city officials on garbage cleanup and general sanitation.