Some Americans went to Canada to avoid Vietnam. Some Canadians went the other way

Tom Tompkins enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1963. Five years later, he was a Special Forces sergeant in the middle of his second tour in Vietnam. On Oct. 30, 1968, Tompkins established a six-man observation post on a rocky hilltop near the Cambodian border. The North Vietnamese Army detected Tompkins’ Green Berets and repeatedly attacked them. Despite multiple wounds and weakened from blood loss, the sergeant rallied the post’s defenders to repulse the assaults. He also called in medevacs and directed airstrikes against the enemy. His “complete disregard for personal safety…. [and] gallantry in action” earned him a Bronze Star Medal with a “V” device for valor. He would subsequently be awarded the Silver Star as well.

Tompkins was a Canadian, born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, and a veteran of his home country’s army. He served in the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers for five years, but wanted to practice his profession in combat. The American army sent him to Vietnam, twice. Between his first and second tours, Tompkins became an American citizen to qualify for the security clearance required for Special Forces training. When he returned from his final tour, Tompkins chose to remain in the United States.

Canada is widely portrayed as a haven for Americans who deserted or wanted to escape the draft during the Vietnam War. Although there are no definitive numbers, approximately 60,000 fled the United States for Canada, according Fred Gaffen, who was a military historian at the Canadian War Museum. However, about 30,000 Canadians joined American forces during the same period, with approximately 12,000 serving in Southeast Asia, Gaffen estimated. In the words of one U.S. Marine, quoted anonymously in US Army Infantryman in Vietnam 1965-73, by Gordon L. Rottman, “The worst of ours are going north, and the best of theirs are coming south.”

More than 100 Canadians were killed in Vietnam. Precise numbers are impossible to ascertain because many Canadians used American addresses of convenience when they enlisted and others simply lied about their nationality (although technically there was no need to do so because American citizenship isn’t required for service in the U.S. military). Some—but not all—of the Canadian dead are recognized at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “the Wall,” in Washington, D.C.

In the strictest legal sense the young Canadians heading south to join U.S. forces were violating the law—specifically, Canada’s Foreign Enlistment Act of 1937. At that time, it was estimated that 1,200 men had left to fight in the Spanish Civil War, which had begun in 1936 and pitted the fascist-influenced Nationalists against the more democratic Republicans, supported by the Canadian volunteers.

A Canadian formation, the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion, or Mac-Paps, had been created as part of the XV International Brigade. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, a master of avoidance, procrastination and vacillation, was terrified of the diplomatic problems this might present. His government passed the Foreign Enlistment Act, barring Canadians from joining foreign military forces or recruiting other Canadians to serve in foreign military forces.

The act states: “Any person who being a Canadian national, whether within or residing outside Canada, voluntarily accepts or agrees to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state at war with any friendly state, is guilty of an offense of this act.”

Thirty years later, as Canadians joined the U.S. military and fought in Vietnam, the act remained on the books. However, there are no reported cases of anyone ever being convicted under the act.

There was even talk of creating a unit along the lines of the Mac-Paps battalion. In 1966 the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. interviewed Don Echlin, identified only as a “Toronto man,” who was attempting to raise a Canadian unit to serve in Vietnam. “American commitment in Southeast Asia has to be maintained and it has to be supported,” he told the CBC. Echlin envisaged a Canadian Corps fighting alongside American forces. Despite his appeals to Canada’s federal government, no such legion materialized.

This is unsurprising, since Canada was officially one of the “referees” of the conflict. Since 1954 it had been the senior partner in the International Control Commission, charged with overseeing the implementation of the 1954 Geneva Accords governing the partition of Vietnam after the end of French colonial rule.

Two decades later Canada would provide nearly 300 peacekeepers to Operation Gallant, monitoring the cease-fire in South Vietnam as part of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. Echlin dismissed this diplomatic maneuvering as a “government way out, something they are using as an excuse to not shed Canadian blood,” but the official stance was strict neutrality.

Bob Beatty, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was willing to shed his blood to stop the spread of communism. “The American government was telling us that the communists were trying to infiltrate into Southeast Asia,” he recalled in a 1986 CBC interview. “I felt that if I’m going to fight communism I should fight it in a foreign country.” Beatty enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968.

Edward Bowes, a Nova Scotian, also was spurred by an ideological commitment and the politics of the war to enlist in the American cause. But he made his decision after witnessing an anti-war demonstration in Ottawa. The protestors were “hippies, yippies and draft dodgers…. Self-righteous, self-appointed moral guardians,” he said. “So I decided to go and find out myself. I journeyed to Bangor, Maine, enlisted in the United States Army, and volunteered to serve in the Republic of Vietnam.”

Most Canadian volunteers, however, were apolitical, motivated by a broad spectrum of opinions, attitudes and emotions.

Some of the professional soldiers in Canada’s military enlisted in the U.S. forces to get combat experience, as had Tompkins, the Special Forces hero. In 1962, after five years in the Canadian army, Gerald Giroldi, a native of Woodstock, Ontario, declined to re-up so he could enlist in the Marine Corps. In 1965 he requested, and was granted, a tour in Vietnam. He ended his career as a drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, and wrote a Vietnam War novel, Broken Time.

A substantial number of Canadian Vietnam veterans had a significant family figure—usually a father or an uncle—who served in World War II or Korea. The role modeled by a close relative is the most common thread among Canadians who joined the fight in Vietnam.

The premier example of that relationship was Marine Lance Cpl. Richard Dextraze, fatally wounded on April 23, 1969, while patrolling near the Demilitarized Zone that separated North and South Vietnam. Dextraze lost his life serving U.S. forces in Vietnam while his father was serving in the highest echelons of the Canadian forces.

Gen. Jacques Dextraze fought in World War II, led Canada’s Royal 22nd Regiment in Korea and was chief of the Canadian Defense Staff from 1972 to 1977. Jacques Dextraze asked Richard why he didn’t join the Canadian forces, and the son replied that Canada wasn’t at war with anyone. “I want to do my share,” Richard told him. “You fought in the last war for freedom and I’d like to go for a couple of years. When I come back I’ll feel a better man. I’ll feel I’ve contributed.”

Rob Purvis, co-founder of the Canadian Vietnam Veterans Association, and three buddies enlisted together in the U.S. Army during the spring of 1968. “All our fathers had been Second World War veterans,” he said.

But like some other Canadians who signed up, the four friends didn’t give any real serious thought to what they were doing and what the consequences might be. They just decided one day that they would head for North Dakota’s Grand Forks induction center. “We were just young and really naive kids,” Purvis confessed. “We all were watching the news every night with the war in Vietnam, and war seemed exciting, adventurous…. I don’t know why. We just went and did it.” There was no more thought to it than that.

Purvis was stationed not in Vietnam, but in Panama with the 8th Special Forces Group, and spent a year there. His friend Larry Collins did go to Vietnam and was killed in May 1969. “When Larry was killed, I volunteered for Vietnam,” Purvis said.

Arthur Diabo, a Mohawk born on the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal and living in New York’s Bronx borough, was another adventure seeker. “You’re young and strong and you want to use that energy, and Vietnam was a good place to do that,” he said, then added, “Vietnam was a good place…for about two weeks. After that, you just tried to stay alive.”

One Canadian who joined the U.S. military in a fit of wanderlust, Charles James “Mike” Phelps of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, had no idea he would end up in Vietnam during a war. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1963 solely to get away from home and broaden his horizons. About a year and half later, in March 1965, the first U.S. combat troops landed in Vietnam.

Kirk Leavesley, who had spent his teen years homeless on the streets of Winnipeg and then crisscrossed North America, wasn’t searching for another adventure but rather “felt he wanted a little discipline in his life.” He traveled to Minneapolis in October 1967 to join the Marine Corps. But Leavesley later admitted he hated it and had bitten off more than he could chew.

Some Canadians living in the United States, like many of their American-born neighbors, were less-than-enthusiastic about the war. And they also were subject to the draft. U.S. law requires draft-age noncitizens to register with Selective Service System (although they may be exempt from induction if they meet certain criteria). When faced with the prospect of a draft notice, some Canadians—like some Americans—opted to volunteer for military service, which would give them more choice in the branch of service or specialty.

After 19-year-old Timothy Labute, a Canadian citizen living in Detroit, received a draft notice for Army service in 1966, he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Air Force for a three-year tour to avoid two years in the infantry and the risk of a combat assignment in Vietnam. William Bricker, a Canadian living in Newport Beach, California, also enlisted in the Air Force when he was ordered to register for the draft.

Les Brown, a Canadian citizen who had lived in California since his family moved there in 1957 when he was 8 years old, received a draft notice in early 1969. Initially, he fled to his grandmother’s home in Wakefield, Quebec, but later returned to the United States, optimistically hoping that enrolling for a degree in police science at a local college would earn him a deferment. It didn’t, and Brown was inducted. Even so, he thought his college major might earn him a “safe” specialty, such as the military police. But Brown soon found himself in Lai Khe, 40 miles north of Saigon, with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Army Sgt. Peter C. Lemon is frequently cited as the only Canadian to receive the award during the Vietnam War. The “Canadian” label is tenuous at best. Although born in the heart of southern Ontario tobacco country, Lemon moved with his family to Alabaster, Michigan, as a young boy and became a U.S. citizen before his teens. He volunteered for Army service in 1968 at age 18.

The Medal of Honor recognized Lemon’s actions on April 1, 1970, when he was a specialist 4 in E Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), at Fire Base Illingworth, northwest of Saigon, near the Cambodian border.

The base was positioned along a North Vietnamese Army supply route. American commanders hoped to use Illingworth as bait to draw NVA troops into a fight and then blast them with artillery from the base and nearby locations. The troops inside the base included two companies of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, and a few artillery batteries.

Shortly after 2 a.m. on April 1, the NVA fired hundreds of rounds from mortars, rockets and recoilless rifles and then rushed the base with a force of approximately 400 infantrymen. Fierce fighting followed. Suddenly, a tremendous blast enveloped the battlefield as an ammunition dump exploded, stunning both sides and temporarily shutting down the combat. The firing resumed, but the NVA force had lost its momentum, and by 5 a.m. the attack had been repulsed. The American losses totaled 25 killed and more than 50 wounded.

While the attack still raged, Lemon was repeatedly wounded but continued to battle the attackers. He fought them at close range with machine gun and rifle. When those weapons broke down, Lemon turned to grenades and sometimes hand-to-hand combat. At one point, according to the Medal of Honor citation, he found an operable M60 machine gun, grabbed it and “stood atop an embankment fully exposed to enemy fire and placed effective fire upon the enemy until he collapsed from his multiple wounds and exhaustion.”

After regaining consciousness at an aid station, he was evacuated, but made sure that the more seriously wounded troops went first on the medevac helicopters. Today he lives in the United States. Undeniably courageous, Lemon is hardly a Canadian.

Canada’s official neutrality and the extra-legal status of the country’s Vietnam veterans, coupled with widespread popular distaste for the war among the Canadian public, meant that the returning troops confronted the same wall of silence that American veterans faced in the United States.

Jim Devlin, of Toronto, had served as a helicopter door gunner in D Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), beginning in July 1968, but discovered upon returning home in 1970 that most people weren’t interested in his combat experience.

Other veterans recall an attitude of detachment, tinged with disdain. “When I came back and brought up the subject, it was always ‘Who cares?’” Ron Parkes, one of the co-founders of the CVVA and the organization’s current president, told the CBC in 2015. “We weren’t there. We weren’t in it.”

The Royal Canadian Legion, the country’s largest veterans organization, also snubbed the Vietnam generation. The first time veteran Mike Gilhooley tried to get a drink at his local Legion hall using his U.S. military ID, he was told, “We don’t take Americans in the Canadian Legion.” Gilhooley was from Ville St. Michel in Quebec  province and had enlisted in Plattsburg, New York. He served with the 1st Cav and 507th Transportation Group.

Devlin heard Canadian Vietnam veterans referred to as “mercenaries.” He noted with a chuckle: “Mercenaries don’t serve for a private’s pay.”

Recognition from the Legion came only haltingly. In Canada, veterans are memorialized annually on Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, the date of the 1918 armistice that ended World War I. Ceremonies are held at monuments across the country. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Vietnam veterans were invited to join a Remembrance Day ceremony. The invitation was extended by veterans of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. In 1987 the Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario districts of the Legion became the first to permit plaques recognizing Vietnam veterans to be placed on military monuments. Finally, in 1994, almost two decades after the war ended, the Royal Canadian Legion officially recognized Canadian Vietnam veterans for regular membership.

Leavesley, the former U.S. Marine, was even more disappointed in the attitude of many Americans. “I lost all respect for the USA in their total rejection of Vietnam vets and their denial of what had happened,” he said. “It was an unpopular war, and there was a sense of embarrassment that pervaded the general population.”

Purvis and Parkes created the CVVA as response to the lack of acknowledgement of the veterans’ service in Vietnam, the cold shoulder from veterans of other wars and the feeling of isolation that many Vietnam veterans felt. In the mid-1980s Purvis, who had not spoken to another Vietnam veteran since his discharge, saw a newspaper story about a Canadian veteran of the war. The article inspired him to send “letters to the editor” to papers across the country, asking other Vietnam veterans to join them.

A handful of them met for coffee in Winnipeg in 1985 and hatched the CVVA. They spent a year organizing a pilgrimage to the Wall in Washington for a CVVA reunion in September 1986. That event was attended by 100 vets—from British Columbia to Newfoundland—and three silver cross mothers, the equivalent of gold star mothers in the United States.

Initially, the CVVA had branches in communities across Canada. However, with the passing of time and veterans, the organization has become largely moribund.

The Canadian government has never formally acknowledged that its citizens who fought with U.S. forces in Vietnam are veterans or officially recognized their service. And Devlin believes it never will. He recalls telling fellow veterans 30 years ago: “It wasn’t Canada’s war. They’re not going to do anything for you, and they don’t have to. So why bother?”

However, there is now a monument to Canadian Vietnam veterans. Canadians killed or missing in action are memorialized in Windsor, Ontario, at the Canadian Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the “North Wall.”  It is made of black granite like the Wall in Washington and was financed by the Michigan Association of Concerned Veterans. The monument, officially unveiled on July 2, 1995, lists 103 names. (The Wall in Washington is inscribed with more than 58,000 names.) Purvis said he is “very impressed with it,” adding “not quite as prominent as the one in Washington, but I appreciated it.”

In surveying the experience of Canadian Vietnam veterans, the diversity of their motivations for enlisting in the U.S. forces during Vietnam stands out. Some were stern anti-communists, but few were motivated by strong ideological or political positions. Others joined out of youthful exuberance, a chance to broaden their horizons or even a quest for more discipline in their lives. The most common reason was an influential role model or mentor who was a veteran. They also had in common a shared bond with American veterans who came home to a public that did not want to hear about or even acknowledge their service. 

Bob Gordon is a Canadian historian specializing in military and social history for a general audience. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Gordon is a regular contributor to Esprit De Corps and Halifax Magazine.