SPECIAL REPORT

The high cost of battle

Bruce Wallace,Paul Berton,Robert Block,2 more... April 29 1985
SPECIAL REPORT

The high cost of battle

Bruce Wallace,Paul Berton,Robert Block,2 more... April 29 1985

The high cost of battle

Canada did not escape the traumatic experience of the Vietnam War, and an estimated 5,000 Canadians may have fought with U.S. forces in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973. But because many Canadians posed as U.S. citizens when they enlisted, the exact number who served in Vietnam remains unknown. Still, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington displays the names of 54 Canadians killed in the war—and two servicemen listed as missing in action.

While those Canadians were joining the U.S. armed forces, as many as 80,000 Americans came to Canada to avoid being drafted. Although many returned to the United States after President Gerald Ford’s clemency program in 1974 and President Jimmy Carter’s general amnesty three years later, about 20,000 chose to make Canada their home. As well, 100,000 refugees from Vietnam itself have settled in Canada since South Vietnam fell on April 30,1975. They are among the estimated 580,000 Boat People who braved Communist patrols, pirates and storms on the China Sea. Maclean's correspondents and writers traced some of the Canadians who fought in the war, as well as draft dodgers and former Boat People. Their reports:

Those who fought

In 1965 John Roderick Foley, now W, served in Vietnam as a combat medic with the 12th Calvary Division. Now he lives in Port Coquitlam, B.C., and works as a freight handler for an airline company.

We were on patrol in company strength when we were pinned down by sniper fire from treetops and fixed emplacements in a mountainside. We were caught in the open and had absolutely no cover. We were completely vulnerable. The only ones who had a

chance to fire back were those with a machine-gun team at the front of a column, and the snipers made sure they got them first. We were trapped; we couldn’t move forward and couldn’t withdraw without casualties.

I crawled forward under constant fire to treat the machine-gun crew. I don’t know why I wasn’t hit. Just luck. All I remember is the fear; more fear than luck I guess. All three guys were dead when I got there; there was nothing I could do for them. So I started firing the machine-gun, first into the treetops and then at the fixed emplacements. They told me later I killed 21 VC that day. My platoon sergeant said he recommended me for the Medal of Honor but told me that they couldn’t award that to Canadians, so I got a Silver Star.

We were greeted at Oakland [Calif.] by about 300 protesters who broke through the police lines. The cops just stood by and smiled while we fought. Then they turned the dogs on the crowd. I heard later that some of our people

used their knives on the dogs. I didn’t see that. But whatever it was, the cops moved in then, and only then.

Michel St. Jean, 38, did a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam as an interrogator with an intelligence unit of the 101st Airborne Division. One of two FrenchCanadians in his unit, he was valued for his fluency in French. He has been a constable on the Montreal police force since leaving the U.S. Army in 1969:

I never expected to go to Vietnam. I had been in the Canadian reserves a long time and saw the American military as a chance to travel, so I took a bus to Plattsburg, N.Y., and enlisted. My intention was to join the marines, but they were not taking

any more aliens at that time, so I asked the army for the toughest job they had. That is how I ended up in the paratroopers.

Maybe we were brainwashed; we really believed we had a purpose. But gradually we saw the brutality of the enemy and found out that the people were not really with us, and our thinking changed. Whoever I saw in a restaurant in Saigon by day was probably shooting at me at night. After my three years in the army they tried to get me to re-up [re-enlist], offering me bonuses, a promotion and a paid 30-day holiday, but there was no way I was staying. They even tried to recruit me for the Green Berets. But they were only looking for recruits because they were all getting killed.

There was a Canadian infantryman there who was leaving just after I arrived. He gave me a Canadian flag that I flew over my tent on the base. It was pretty messed up when he gave it to me, and it went through rocket attacks and a typhoon with me, but I still have it.

The people who angered us were the photographers because they showed pictures back in the United States of guys who had been killed, sometimes even before their parents knew they were dead. And deserters bothered us too. I turned a couple of them in when I found them hiding out up here.

Douglas Pye, 35, lives in Fergus, Ont., where he drives an ambulance part-time and is also studying to be a registered nursing assistant. From June, 1969, to June, 1970, he operated as a sniper with the 82nd Airborne Division:

My home life wasn’t too good, and I was bored with my job, so on Feb. 19, 1968, I went to the marine recruiting office in Buffalo. But they had filled their quota. So I went to the U.S. Army recruiter and he met me with open arms. After training, I went back home for 30 days before shipping out for Nam. I got a lot of pressure from friends and family not to go, but I figured if I was going to play at war I should try the real thing in Vietnam instead of manoeuvres in the States.

The first and last few months incountry, you’re scared. But in between, you don’t give a damn. I was a sniper and a tunnel rat too. I’d volunteer to crawl down a hole armed only with a pistol and a flashlight. I was crazy.

A lot of vets will honestly tell you they don’t know if they ever shot anyone. Well, I saw who I killed. It was nothing to kill women and children over there. I killed a 12-year-old on patrol. He had a Soviet SKS rifle, and it was him or me, no question. At first you think you’re going to freeze. But you don’t. You survive.

The draft dodgers

Edwin Kothiringer, 37, a community development officer with the City of Toronto, was getting ready to accept an arts degree from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1970 when the draft board reclassified him 1A. He fled to Toronto with his wife, Susan, and is now a landed immigrant:

My father was in both the Second World War and Korea, but that was different. The Second World War was the last war in which armies still fought each other. In Vietnam both sides decid-

ed that if they killed the civilian population or terrorized them, there would be no support for the other side. I find that theory of war quite repugnant. I did apply for conscientious objector status, but then I heard that the local draft board had never granted such status.

One thing that confirmed my decision to come to Canada was a statement in 1970 by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that Canada should be a “refuge from militarism.” My father and mother and

my wife’s parents gave us their blessings, but several members of my family called my decision cowardly. That feeling has mellowed now because the United States didn’t win the wart People had died and there was nothing to show for it.

I refused to return to the United States under the clemency program in 1974 because it involved signing a statement that you had made a mistake and the benevolent government would say, ‘That’s okay, you were just a kid.’ I did not make a mistake and I was not just a kid. For a lot of Americans who came here, it was an intuitive moral decision. My feeling 10 years later is that I am not sure that the lesson of Vietnam has been picked up. In the United States currently, the attitude is even stronger than ‘my country right or wrong’—it is ‘my country. Period.’ There is a very strong reaction against being able to question why. It is hard, because I still love the United States. But just looking at the two countries, as places to live and raise families, work and make a contribution, we felt we had more opportunities here.

Minko Sotiron, 39, was born in Germany and moved to San Francisco with his parents in 1952. In 1967 he went to Vancouver rather than be drafted. He is now researching a bibliography of Canadian newspapers in Montreal, where he lives with his wife, Suzanne, and their two children:

As a kid I was totally inculcated by the notion of the brave American marine. But my four years at Berkeley

[1963-1967] radicalized me. People constantly talked about the war and how they would beat the draft. One guy went to the draft board dressed as a clown.

On my 22nd birthday I graduated with my BA and got my draft notice. I realized that if I enlisted, I would not be able to face myself in the mirror 10 years later. The war in Vietnam crystallized all the things I hated about the United States. It was part of the chauvinism that is American foreign policy.

In Vancouver there were a lot of draft dodgers. But these people still had their heads in the United States. As much as I was against the war, and in Canada for political reasons, I considered myself an immigrant. I liked Canada and its selfdeprecating humor.

Today there is no real draft dodger community. I know guys who were draft dodgers, but they are my friends for other reasons. There is a draft dodger living down the street from me but I know him only to say ‘Hi.’

The Boat People

To Thai, 66, came from a wealthy Chinese family in Saigon and in the late 1930s studied medicine at the Sorbonne in Paris. When Saigon fell, he had been a chest surgeon in that city ’s Grail Hospital for 15 years. He now lives with his wife and surviving family in Toronto, and does volunteer work for his church. The tuberculosis he contracted in Vietnam has prevented him from practising medicine in Canada:

When the Communists took over South Vietnam in 1975,1 was conscripted to work in the fields and then sent to a concentration camp. I spent almost three years there. My teeth fell out, and I got tuberculosis. Finally, my family members paid the Communists for my release.

The first time, we tried to escape by fishing boat. We left at midnight, but when we got out on the water the Communists encircled us and opened fire. My wife used her body to cover mine and took six bullets, but she did not die. I had to spend one month in jail and pay $1,000 to gain my freedom. The second time, several weeks after my release, along with 20 other families, we paid 64 oz. of gold for the construction of a fishing boat, but the Communist secret agency got suspicious and we never saw the boat again.

Finally, we had to pay the Communists everything: our homes, gold, cars, jewelry. But they let us leave. We were without food or water for four or five

days before we landed at the island of Hainan [off China]. Eight people died during that time, including my 27-yearold daughter.

Sometimes I feel very alone so I read the Bible for comfort. But sometimes I don’t believe I am still surviving. Vietnam is now like a big jail. Even the plants would leave if they could walk away from it.

Van Nguyen, 26, came to Canada with five other family members on July 31, 1979. She is now employed as a bookkeeper for a small management company near Vancouver, and in her spare time she works as an interpreter for the B.C. courts and as an English tutor for other Vietnamese immigrants:

We could not stay in a Communist country. They are against private business. There was conflict between the Vietnam government and the Chinese, and we used that opportunity to falsify our identification to Chinese names. The govern-

ment wanted 14 oz. of gold per person, and we had to leave all our property and assets, but they let us out.

They put 1,400 people on an old ship. It was so crowded that there was not even a place to sit down. We were eight days on the ship and we had no food or even water to drink. Most of the older people died, and the sailors threw their bodies into the sea. For two months we were in

a camp in Hong Kong.

We were one of the first groups to come to Canada. Our first impression was the attitude of George and Marianne Van Delft, our sponsors: they were very nice, helpful and friendly. My brothers got jobs right away. George Van Delft found me a job in a knitting factory where I sewed buttonholes. I worked for almost a year and saved enough to go to Vancouver Community College. Now I work for Pineview Management in Surrey.

I think I made the right decision. This is a free country—and one of the best countries in the world. I am a Canadian citizen now, and this is my home.

Bruce Wallace in Montreal, Paul Berton and Robert Block in Toronto, Douglas Clark in Fergus and Diane Luckow in Vancouver.