Jim Laurent’s 24 years of service in the U.S. Air Force was shrouded in secrecy. He was a high frequency radio communication expert who spied on the Russians, kept the radio equipment running in the SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane and spent more than five years working in White House Communications for three presidents.
Trained as a radio communication technician, Laurent graduated in 1956 among the top three students in his class at March Air Force Base, Calif. Because of his ranking he became part of the Air Force Security Service.
“I went to work for the 6911th Radio Group Mobile at Darmstadt Air Force Base, Germany. It was a wonderfully, unique experience. Our job was to monitor the Soviet Union. We were the pioneers of electro-magnetic spying,” the 77-year-old former airman said at his Rotonda home more than half a century later.
Because of all the secrecy Laurent didn’t know much about what he and his fellow airman were up to while working in Germany. It wasn’t until Francis Gary Powers was shot down by the Russians in 1960 that he learned a bit more about his job in Germany.
“In a book I have called ‘The Price of Vigilance’ I also found out about 35 years after the incident that Russian MIG fighters shot down one of our spy planes over Armenia and the entire crew was lost,” he said. “The flight flew out of our base and never came back. We never knew what happened to them until I read this book.”
During his first hitch in the Air Force in Germany they were pretty laid back. They only wore fatigue uniforms while working and never went off base in anything but civilian clothes.
Laurent returned to the U.S. in 1960 and got out of the service for a few months. After being fired from his civilian job he decide to re-up.
He was sent to Toul-Rosieres Air Force Base in France just about the time French President Charles de Gaulle ordered NATO out of his country. When he did Laurent was relocated to Sembach, Germany. He served with a mobile communications group that provided communications for the European Theatre of Operation.
“When I returned to the U.S. I was assigned as a communications specialists with the SR-71 (spy plane) flying out of Beale Air Force Base in California. I worked on the airplane’s electronic gear and black boxes,” he explained.
“‘Blackbirds’ would be rotated out of Beale to Vietnam every 90 days. They flew them from Guam over Vietnam,” Laurent said. “Their pictures were so good at 80,000 feet at night they could read the license plates on cars in our parking lot on their infra-red pictures.”
It was 1972 and the Air Force was about to send the Tech Sergeant to Alaska to work at a radar base on the “Dew Line” for 18 months when his orders were abruptly changed.
“I got a call from my base commander who told me I was to meet with some unidentified people immediately. I met with a couple of Secret Service guys and some people from the White House Communication Agency,” he said.
When the meeting was over they offered Laurent a deal he couldn’t refuse. They wanted him to come to work for the White House. He signed on the dotted line. For the next 5 1/2 years he was employed by Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter.
“Any time the president went out of town we would precede him and set up all the communications they needed, The president had to be with five minutes communication of anyone worldwide,” he explained.
During his first 18 months in the White House. Laurent worked for President Nixon.
“Nixon ran a very imperialistic organization. Nixon didn’t like talking to the common man. He let (John) Ehrlichman and (H.R.) Haldeman talk to the commoners,” Laurent said.
“President Gerald Ford, who replaced Nixon, was a very nice man. He and his wife and family treated us like we belonged. You never passed by President Ford that he didn’t pat you on the shoulder and say, ‘You’re doing a good job. I really appreciate what you’re doing.’
“On the other-hand President Jimmy Carter was a very nice man, too, but he wasn’t ready for the presidency. The scope of the job was too much for him.”
During Ford’s time in office, Laurent spent 280 days on the road one year setting up communications for the president around the world. He went to China with Ford.
“It was during this period I also worked for Dr. (Henry) Kissinger, who was Secretary of State. I accompanied him when he flew into Munich, Germany to see a World Cup Soccer match.
“The German Secret Service received word that a group of Arabs had arrived in Munich with a heat-seeking missile to shoot down Kissinger’s plane. They told our Secret Service. Dr. Kissinger’s plane was diverted to a German Air Force base. From there he was flown by German helicopter to a retreat in the Alps when he spent the night before attending the game,” Laurent said.
His best friend in the Carter administration was Billy Carter, the president’s younger brother who was a bit different.
“I knew Billy personally. Occasionally I’d drink a beer with him. One time I got him to autograph a ‘Billy Beer’ can for me. He also gave me a beer mug that read: ‘I drank a beer at Billy’s, Plains, Ga.’
“Billy drank ‘Pabst Blue Ribbon,’ he hated ‘Billy Beer,’ Laurent said.
Two years into the Carter administration, he retired from the Air Force. Almost immediately he joined Sunair Electronics in Fort Lauderdale. They manufacture high frequency radio equipment for the military.
“I went to work for them as a field service engineer. Six months later I was made Customer Service Manager and a year after that I became a salesman for the firm. After 30 years with the company I retired as president and CEO,” he said. “I advanced with the company the way I did because of the training I received in the Air Force and the education I obtained watching President Ford run the country.
“I was the only CEO of a public company traded on the American Stock Exchange who didn’t have a college education,” Laurent said with a smile.
He and Gisela, his German-born wife moved to Rotonda, Fla. in 2007. They have three children: Christina, Michael and Corinna.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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