Not all who gave their lives for freedom in Vietnam were Americans. For area servicemen, the memory of brave Canadian volunteers lives strong.
They came from across the vast plains and small towns of Canada – young men who wanted to make a difference and help their neighbors to the south. Some were inspired by the 1968 John Wayne movie “The Green Berets” and feared the Vietnam War would end before they could make a contribution and “join the fight.” They were idealistic, determined and brave, and they knew what they wanted to do.
They were the volunteers who came down from Canada to join America’s military and fight in Vietnam, in a war that some thought America had little chance of still winning. But that didn’t stop the thousands of Canadian volunteers who earned the respect and admiration of those with whom they served.
It’s important to remember that more than 100 of the nearly 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. aren’t Americans; they’re Canadians.
Gordon White was one of approximately 40,000 Canadians who followed their hearts into battle for the United States. He was barely out of high school when he left his home in Ft. McMurray, Canada, in the dead of winter and crossed over the border to sign up with the U.S. Marine Corps at Great Falls, Mont. Though his Canadian homeland was not at war with Vietnam, White wanted to fight in Vietnam as an infantryman with the Marine Corps.
“Gordon had several reasons for wanting to join the Marines and fight in the Vietnam War,” recalls Dana Urban, a fellow Canadian who joined the Marines and was a friend of White’s. “He felt Americans were our friends and neighbors, and if Canada was not going to take part in the war in a combat role he was going to – as friends are supposed to help friends.”
Urban first met White after they had completed Marine Corps boot camp and were sent to Advanced Infantry Training School at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in late June 1968. They became close friends and learned how shockingly similar their lives had been up until then.
“We both were heavily influenced by the John Wayne movie ‘The Green Berets’ and thought long and hard about heading to the U.S. to join up,” says Urban. “Neither one of us had ever been to the United States before. And although he was four years older than me, we were both born in September, just two days apart, and both of us attended high school in Edmonton. Both of us were raised and educated in the Catholic school system.
“While at Camp Pendleton, we had a number of deep conversations about why we had joined and whether we had made the right decision,” Urban adds. “It wasn’t in the manner of doubt, but more for mutual reassurance. Gordon was deeply moved by the suffering of the innocent Vietnamese women and children who were caught in the crossfire of the war, and he wanted to make a positive difference in their lives.”
They took a short leave to visit family, and then they completed their jungle warfare training in California and the island of Okinawa. The last Urban and White saw of each other was shortly after they landed in Da Nang, Vietnam.
“Because grunt replacements were badly needed in the bush, we quickly got orders to different line combat units,” recalls Urban. “We had no time to hug, just a tight-lipped look in the eyes and a quick, abbreviated wave goodbye. I got on a chopper heading off to join my new platoon, and Gordon went elsewhere to begin his. We did not know at the time where each other went, so we did not keep in touch.”
Gordon White was sent to the Marines’ 2nd Batallion, 26th Regiment, a battalion that fought in the Quang Nam and Thura Thien Provinces of Vietnam. His unit fought against regular North Vietnam Army (NVA) forces. Both sides inflicted and suffered enormous casualties during operations called Bold Mariner, Mead River and Eagle Pursuit. The Qaung Nam Province was the deadliest place for Marines during the war. Of the more than 14,000 Marines killed in the Vietnamese conflict, one-fourth of them fell there. And the bloodiest year was 1969.
On March 12, 1969, White was killed when a booby trap exploded near the DAI Loc District during Operation Eagle Pursuit.
The heartfelt words from his eulogy helped to crystalize the feelings of so many families who have lost their loved ones to a faraway war and to honor their sacrifice: “Certainly, in the sadness of bereavement, the death of Gordon White in a strange and distant land may seem futile. But it wasn’t. Life and death are only futile for those who go from the cradle to the grave without being challenged, without believing and without enough faith to dedicate their lives to defending those beliefs. Gordon White dared to live. What more can any man do?”
Belvidere resident John Darley was a firsthand witness to the courage of Canadian volunteers. Darley was a medic with the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta in 1970. He met a Canadian, barely out of high school, who served in his unit.
“He was only 18, probably the youngest guy in our unit,” recalls Darley. “I was surprised that he would put his life in danger for another country. It was very commendable what he did.”
Today, Darley is active in the Belvidere Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1461 and acts as Service Officer for the Boone County Honor Guard, a group that provides ceremonial honors during funeral services for local veterans. After more than 50 years he can no longer remember the name of that 18-year-old Canadian volunteer, but he does remember asking the youngster why he decided to fight with America’s Army.
“He said he just thought it was the right thing to do,” Darley says. “We thought that that was pretty unusual, that somebody that young would be so committed and put his life in danger. So, most of us in our unit kind of protected him because he was so young and he really didn’t have to be there, fighting in Vietnam, but the rest of us did have to be there.”
Darley was wounded in combat and awarded the Purple Heart. After being shipped to Japan for medical treatment he was then assigned to a different unit and lost contact with the Canadian. But he still has strong feelings about that young man.
“I’m absolutely proud of him and what he did for our country,” says Darley. “When I look back, I’m in awe of his courage and his commitment.”
“It’s is an incredible sacrifice for anyone to make, but especially a Canadian volunteering to fight for our country,” adds Nick Parnello, president of Rockford’s Vietnam Veterans Honor Society. He was one of many Vietnam veterans who established Rockford’s LZ Peace Memorial, which honors Winnebago County veterans who gave their lives during the conflict in Southeast Asia.
Parnello served overseas about the same time Urban and White were in Vietnam. Parnello was an Army door gunner serving onboard a Huey helicopter that picked up wounded soldiers and Marines and resupplied troops with ammo, food and other supplies. He was exposed to combat on several occasions while serving with the Army’s 4th Aviation Battalion, 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam. Though he doesn’t recall serving with Canadian volunteers, he holds their experience in high regards.
“My father always had a great respect for the Canadians, going back to World War II when they fought so bravely,” says Parnello. “I think their sacrifices during the Vietnam War show how much they loved America and were willing to die fighting for her. I had no idea they had served with us in Vietnam, and I’m really touched in my heart by their service. A big salute to them – and I believe they deserve all of the recognition they are getting.”
Canadians weren’t the only foreign soldiers to join America – at a time when many in America questioned the value of war. Volunteers came from Australia, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Jamacia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Pacific Island, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico and Switzerland. Many of those volunteers made the ultimate sacrifice.
George Jmaeff was born and raised in southeastern British Columbia and was part of the Doukhobor immigrant family, a group of staunch Christian pacifists. In spite of those strong pacifist values Jmaeff fought heroically and carved out a reputation for bravery.
Karl Marlantes has written three books on Vietnam and gives numerous speeches about the war. An American citizen, he was a Marine officer in Vietnam and served with Jmaeff.
“He was the best in the company,” says Marlantes. “When there was a hard job, people would say, ‘Canada’! We need him!’ Marines would talk about him all over the regiment. You’d see him and say, ‘Whoa! I want to be like that.’ He had that sort of swagger and confidence.”
On March 1, 1969, Jmaeff was serving as a platoon sergeant when his company assaulted an enemy position at the top of a hill. He attacked the position alone and was badly wounded by grenade fragments, yet he continued his attack and took out the enemy position.
Later, while his wounds were being treated, he left a secure position upon hearing his fellow Marines were in trouble. Jmaeff disconnected himself from his IVs and ran away with the tubes still hanging out, so he could rejoin Marines who were under attack by enemy mortar fire. He was killed by a mortar round.
For his heroism, George Jmaeff, a Canadian citizen and the son of pacifist immigrants, was awarded a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a posthumous Navy Cross – the highest Marine medal for valor. Jmaeff was one of only 368 Marines awarded the Navy Cross during the entire Vietnam War.
To this day, four of the Marines in Jmaeff’s platoon wear a silver bracelet engraved with his name.
Nearly half a century after his death, the Marine Detachment of the U.S. Embassy in Canada’s capital of Ottawa paid Jmaeff a significant tribute in September 2015. Officers and enlisted men of his Marine combat unit attended a tribute to Jmaeff at the Heritage Wall of the Marine detachment’s residence. The display included Jmaeff’s medals, photographs and uniforms.
The detachment’s written dedication reads in part: “To pay tribute to this serviceman, who so perfectly embodies the shared spirit and partnership of our two great nations.”
About the Author
Bob Ryder is a former Marine sergeant who served in Operation Desert Storm and was awarded the Joint Service Achievement Medal for his service as a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent and broadcast journalist with the Armed Forces Desert Network. He is a lifetime member of the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association and has received numerous awards for his work, including Best Television News Story and Best Radio News Story.
The author’s father served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army with the First Cavalry during World War II, fighting in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines, triggering Ryder’s interest in the military and the men and women who fought in our armed forces.
Ryder worked as a senior reporter and substitute news anchor for WTVO, the ABC affiliate in Rockford, for almost 20 years and is currently the Superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Boone County, a local agency dedicated to helping veterans and their families in need. He has had numerous articles concerning military history published in local and national magazines.