Thousands of Canadians, including a Medal of Honor winner, served with the U.S. military in Vietnam.
Although not directly involved in the Vietnam War, Canada was part of the International Control Commission (ICC) set up by the Geneva Conference in 1954. “Unlike Hungary and Poland, which supported North Vietnam,” writes Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., in his Vietnam War Almanac, “Canada attempted to remain impartial. However, it provided economic assistance to South Vietnam.” As a result of the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, the ICC was superseded by the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS). Canada and Poland remained members, but India was replaced by Indonesia. “When it became apparent that the North Vietnamese had no intention of living up to the accords,” says Summers, “Canada withdrew on July 31, 1973 and was replaced by Iran.”
Although pressured by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to become part of the “Free World Military Forces” (Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of the Philippines, Taiwan and the Kingdom of Thailand) which provided combat troops to aid South Vietnam, the Canadian cabinet believed that because of its ICC membership Canada had to remain its impartiality.
But while Canada as a nation was not involved, Canadians themselves formed the largest foreign contingent in the U.S. military during the Vietnam era. Some estimate that their numbers far surpassed the more than 30,000 Americans draft dodgers who fled to Canada to avoid military service during the war. While exact numbers are impossible to obtain, from my work as a military historian with the Canadian War Museum, I estimate that of the many thousands who served in the U.S. Vietnam-era military, some 12,00 Canadians actually served in Vietnam itself.
This intermingling of forces was not a new phenomenon. Since the American Civil War, Canadians have served in the U.S. military and, over the years 40 have won the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military award. In the Spanish American War, for example, two brothers from Nova Scotia, Willard and Harry Miller, won the Medal of Honor for conspicuous bravery above and beyond the call of duty.
Some Canadians also served in the American forces during both world wars and the Korean War. Conversely, over 35,000 Americans joined the Canadian Army during World War 1 (recall that Canada was fighting the war from 1914 to 1917 before America became involved).
Again, in World War II, some 30,000 Americans, encouraged by such war movies as Captain of the Clouds, joined the Canadian forces during the period 1939 to 1941 while the United States was still neutral.
Thus, when the Vietnam War broke out, it was not unusual that Canadians would join, or allow themselves to be drafted into, the American military.
At a time when the Canadian forces were being reduced the Vietnam War afforded some Canadians youths an opportunity to join the U.S. forces and to acquire skills they would never have received in Canada, such as learning to fly or repair helicopters. Although some joined to fight communism in Vietnam, a good number joined for personal reasons, adventure, and some merely because of nothing better to do.
Another was Larry Semeniuk of Windsor, Ontario. Formerly a member of the Essex and Kent Scottish (militia), Semeniuk decided in January 1967 to join the U.S. Army. He hoped eventually to be able to further his education with Army help and perhaps make the military a career. He became a paratrooper, and early in December 1967 deployed to Vietnam as a member of Company B, 3rd Battalion 187th Regiment (Airmobile Infantry), 101st Airborne Division. In mid-January 1968, Semeniuk had risked his life to save an officer from drowning. Soon afterward he was killed in action and posthumously awarded the Silver Star. As the citation on the award reads: “For heroism in connection with ground operations against a hostile force at Phuoc Vinh, Republic of Vietnam. At approximately 0600 hours, 17 January 1968, a patrol from Company B set up an ambush, parallel to a winding foot trail in Viet Cong infested territory. Two Viet Cong guerrillas walked down the trail toward the machine gun manned by Private First Class Semeniuk. Since it was still dark, the enemy element approached to within six feet of his position. Private First Class Semeniuk opened fire and wounded one of the soldiers. The Viet Cong guerrilla wounded and dazed, but still alive, sprayed the area with his weapon. Private First Class Semeniuk, without regard for his own life, sat up and attempted to get a better shot at the enemy. He was fatally wounded in the chest, but the instant before he died, he fired his weapon killing the enemy soldier. The Viet Cong was established as a confirmed kill and was discovered to be a battalion commander.”
Then there was Gary Butt who was born on May 9, 1951, in Chateauguay, a suburb of Montreal. He wanted to learn to repair helicopters, and saw service in the U.S. Army as a way to achieve this objective He enlisted at Plattsburgh, New York, in 1968.
The U.S. Army felt that Butt could best be used as a rifleman with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. When asked to go to Vietnam, Butt volunteer because he felt he owed it to the US. government which had invested considerable funds in his training. He served in Vietnam from July 1970 to April 1971. He was killed April 3 while a sergeant with the 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. The only Canadian awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War was Spc. 4 Peter C. Lemon of Norwich, Ontario. Lemon volunteered for reconnaissance/commando training in Vietnam and joined the 1st Infantry Division as a ranger. When the 1st Infantry Division rotated home in March 1970, he was moved to the 1st Cavalry Division’s Reconnaissance Company.
On the night of April 1, 1970, some 300 – 400 North Vietnamese unexpectedly attacked a fire support base near the Cambodian border. During the battle, Lemon and another soldier were ordered to man an abandoned .50-caliber machine gun. They were unable to get it to function. A mortar shell soon hit them, wounding Lemon and killing his friend. Lemon then returned to his original bunker, scooped up grenades, and began throwing them amidst the attackers. When another friend was hit, Lemon carried him under fire to the first aid station. Lemon was wounded again while returning to his bunker, but continued battling the NVA. An enemy soldier was causing havoc with well-placed rounds from a grenade launcher. A well-aimed burst from Lemon’s machine gun knocked him out of action.
After about an hour of intense fighting, the enemy assault petered out. Lemon moved to a fortified bunker where he found a badly wounded South Vietnamese soldier. When the medics arrived, Lemon refused treatment for shrapnel wounds in his head, neck, leg and arm so that the medics could first take care of the badly bleeding ARVN soldier. Lemon was evacuated and spent a month recuperating in hospital and later was presented the Medal of Honor by President Nixon in a ceremony at the White House.
Like many of their American counterparts, Canadian Vietnam veterans who returned home discovered that their efforts were not appreciated. In fact, there was a great deal of anti-war hostility in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto where a considerable number of draft evaders had settled. Accordingly, Canadian Vietnam veterans quickly shed their uniforms and tried to resume their lives. But they found themselves a tiny minority isolated from other Vietnam veterans. There were no Veterans Administration Centers in Canada where they could go for assistance. They were prohibited from becoming full members of the Royal Canadian Legion (the equivalent of the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars) and the general message from many of the branches and members was that they were not welcome. It was not until after the completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington that a few began to publicly acknowledge their Vietnam service.
Even worse than the treatment of Canadian Vietnam veterans was that accorded to many of the families whose husbands or sons were killed in Vietnam. Defenceless as a result of immediate grief, some were verbally assaulted by anti-war activists. Neighbors and friends were unsympathetic. There are families whose sons survived the war, but were damaged physically, mentally and emotionally by their service.
The isolation of Vietnam veterans is much greater in Canada than in the United States. Remembrance Day on November 11, (Canada’s version of Veterans Day) is only for those killed in the service of Canada. The Royal Canadian Legion excludes Vietnam veterans from participating in its national observances.
In 1986, Canadian Vietnam veterans began to form groups in the major cities across Canada. There are now groups in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Whitehorse. Together they all are part of a loose coalition.
About 80 Canadians were killed in the Vietnam conflict. Most were young members of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps. Canada’s Vietnam veterans hope someday to build a monument in honor of their sacrifice.
This article appeared in Vietnam Magazine (Perspectives) by Fred Graffen