Lost to history: the Canadians who fought in Vietnam
50 years since the U.S. ground war began, there's a push to remember the 134 Canadians killed
By Chris Corday, CBC News Posted: Nov 10, 2015 5:00 AM PT Last Updated: Nov 11, 2015 6:37 AM PT
At only 17 years old, B.C.'s Rob McSorley knew he wanted to go to war, and it didn't matter if it wasn't in a Canadian uniform.
Now, 45 years after his death in the jungles of Vietnam, his sister is finally learning how much he mattered to the American soldiers with whom he served.
June-Ann Davies says in 1968, her brother was tired of school at Templeton Secondary in East Vancouver, and decided joining the military would cure his boredom.
The war in Vietnam was still raging and Canada wasn't officially participating, but McSorley was determined to be at the heart of it.
"I think he wanted adventure, which he could get out of the U.S. military as opposed to the Canadian military," said Davies, who now lives in Kamloops, B.C.
McSorley's parents tried to reason with him: He wasn't an American, and it was actually illegal for him to fight in a war that didn't formally involve Canada.
But McSorley was going to Vietnam, with or without their support.
"When they were putting up a bit of a fight, that's when he said, 'Well, you either sign the papers, or I'm going anyways and I'll lie about my age,' " Davies recalled.
His parents grudgingly signed the forms, and McSorley travelled just across the B.C. border to Blaine, Wash., to enlist in the U.S. army, which was accepting anyone who came through the door.
Two years later, what was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime ended suddenly. McSorley was shot by North Vietnamese soldiers.
Davies still remembers being in bed when the doorbell rang at their Vancouver home, and a telegram delivered the news about her older brother.
"It was awful. Terrible. Yeah, it was the worst day," she said.
"He only just started his life when it ended. Because he'd just turned 19 two weeks before."
According to Davies, her family felt isolated after her brother's death. No one they knew in Canada had relatives who had joined the U.S. military, let alone gone to Vietnam.
"Afterwards, my parents didn't say a lot about it, other than to say that my brother was a hero," Davies said.
20,000 Canadians enlisted; at least 134 killed
McSorley was certainly not the only young Canadian to fight and die in the conflict.
Canada never officially joined the fight with U.S. forces in Vietnam, and eventually harboured tens of thousands of American draft dodgers and deserters.
But much more quietly, a steady stream of young Canadians was crossing the border in the opposite direction.
The Canadian Vietnam Veterans Association estimates that about 20,000 Canadians enlisted, although other historians think that number may have been as high as 40,000.
The association believes 12,000 Canadians actually served in combat roles in Vietnam.
Some were dual citizens who may have been living or working in the U.S., but many other Canadians volunteered, driven by a conviction to fight communism, or by a love of adrenalin.
By the end of the conflict, it's believed at least 134 Canadians had died or been declared missing in action.
To put that number in perspective, 158 Canadian soldiers were killed during the mission in Afghanistan.
Many Canadians came home from Vietnam with their lives completely changed.
"I'm proud of my service," said Canadian Ron Parkes, who enlisted in the U.S. military during the Cuban missile crisis.
The Winnipeg veteran was deployed to Vietnam in the summer of 1965, serving with one of the first American brigades to join the ground war.
Today, Parkes is president of the Canadian Vietnam Veterans Association, which he co-founded in 1986.
Struggle for recognition by the legion
According to Parkes, Canadian Vietnam veterans were ignored or forgotten for years after the war.
"When I came back and brought up the subject, it was always 'Who cares? We weren't there. We weren't in it,' " Parkes said.
"When I went down to the Royal Canadian Legion, they wouldn't accept us, our service. So for many years they just forgot about it."
The government of Canada has never formally acknowledged the citizens who were killed or declared missing in action in Vietnam, but according to Parkes, in 1994, the Royal Canadian Legion officially recognized Canadian Vietnam veterans for regular membership.
"It's been a long struggle to get the word out, but we've persevered and accomplished quite a few things now," Parkes said.
Canadian names still being added to memorial
The name of every Canadian who died fighting for the U.S. in the war is listed on the expansive Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Some, like McSorley, are officially on record as being from Canada.
Other Canadians aren't remembered that way at all — listed only as being from the American towns or cities where they enlisted.
In 1995, some American veterans took up the cause for their Canadian colleagues and privately funded a memorial that was built in Windsor, Ont.
"The North Wall" Canadian Vietnam Veterans Memorial now lists the names of 138 Canadians who died in the war, but the number still grows today.
It includes 134 Canadians who were killed in action for the U.S. military, and four other Canadians who died in Vietnam while serving with the International Control Commission, the three-country body charged with supervising the 1954 partition into South Vietnam and North Vietnam.
"The main thing is to remember those that made the supreme sacrifice," Parkes said.
'Without Rob... I would be gone too.'
American Bruce Bowland says he never thought much about the idea that some men in the U.S. military were actually Canadian volunteers.
Bowland was only 19 years old when he was deployed to join the fight in Vietnam.
That's where he met and became fast friends with Sgt. McSorley from Vancouver, who at age 18 was actually younger than Bowland, but had already fought in a number of battles.
"Rob told me he was a Canadian and he enlisted in the American army so that he could go to Vietnam," Bowland told CBC News from his home in Gainesville, Fla.
"And I told him, 'You're crazy,' " Bowland laughed. "He was a gung-ho guy, man, a great man."
McSorley's U.S. Army Rangers unit was sent into what was known as "Mission Grasshopper" in the A Shau Valley, when they were suddenly caught in a battle with North Vietnamese soldiers.
"[Rob] said 'Wow, this is really cool. I feel like John Wayne!' " Bowland recalled.
"That's the type of guy he was. He knew his job, he did his job, and you knew he always had your back."
It was on that same mission on April 8, 1970, that Bowland was planning to "walk point," leading his team toward the jungle to make sure it was safe.
But he says McSorley wanted to be the leader that day, so he took the spot from Bowland, telling him he was a more experienced soldier.
The young Canadian was checking the bush for signs of the enemy when he stumbled upon a group of North Vietnamese soldiers.
They opened fire on each other, but McSorley's gun jammed. He was sprayed with bullets and fatally wounded.
Bowland says his life was only spared because the enemy had their sights trained on his Canadian friend.
"Without Rob sacrificing his life for me, I would be gone, too. I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have a son and two daughters. I wouldn't have a grandson," Bowland said.
"Rob gave up a lot of things, and I often wonder what his life would have been like if he would have come back and got married and had children. But he sacrificed his whole life for us, and I'll never, ever, ever forget that."
'He didn't want to be a bystander'
In Kamloops, McSorley's sister June-Ann Davies and her husband, Don, have spent many years learning about her brother's service in Vietnam.
Don Davies has spent many long nights researching the war stories of a brother-in-law he was never able to meet.
"I've got heavy into it, finding out about him, and I do find it very emotional. Even though we didn't meet face-to-face, I feel I know him as a man," said Davies, holding back tears.
"He did what he thought was the right thing to do, and he didn't want to be a bystander. And that's Rob and everything I've heard about him."
Over the last decade, June-Ann and Don Davies have made contact with Bowland and a number of the Rangers who fought alongside McSorley.
June-Ann Davies says their stories about her brother have changed her life.
"Even after all these years, it's still emotional, but it's also healing."
(Source for all photos and captions: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund)
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