Canada played active role in Vietnam war

Canada's participation in the Vietnam war is not well documented.

Although Canada was "officially non-belligerent" in the war, the Canadian government helped the U.S. by sending medical equipment, weapons-making material, and technical assistance.

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But it is the war efforts of tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers who joined the U.S. military forces that had a more profound effect on Ray Heimes. The 69-year-old Prince George resident and U.S. Army veteran witnessed firsthand the bravery of Canadian-born soldiers who fought alongside him while he served more than three years of combat duty in the 10-year war.

"People think it was an American war, but it wasn't," said Heimes, a native of Detroit. "There were 13 countries involved [helping the U.S.] and there were at least 40,000 Canadians in Vietnam.

"A lot of the guys in our unit were Canadians. They just came across the border and got a post office box or used a buddy's address and joined up. There was no other war then and they wanted to join because their dad or their brother or uncle served in the military and they wanted to keep up the tradition.

"The attraction was you got to see the world, you got a trade out of it, and they paid you, and in the '60s it was a little hard to find a job."

One of Heimes's Prince George neighbours, Stan De Merchant, is a Canadian citizen who joined the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam war and served on swift boats.

While the exact number of Canadians who volunteered for military duty with U.S. services during the 10-year Vietnam war is difficult to pinpoint, most estimates put the number at about 30,000 troops, about the same number of U.S. citizens who fled to Canada to avoid the draft.

Prior to the war, Canada allowed the U.S Air Force to practice carpet-bombing techniques at air force bases in Suffield, Alta., and North Battleford, Sask. Agent Orange, a herbicide used to defoliate the jungles of southeast Asia during the war was tested at CFB Gagetown, N.B.

In the early days of the conflict in 1964, Canada was part of the International Control Commission and sent military advisors to Vietnam to monitor the war and act as watchdogs to ensure the American military was following the protocols of the Geneva Convention, which outlined standards of international law and the treatment of wartime prisoners and victims of war.

In 1973, Canada pulled out of the International Commission of Control and Supervision when it determined North Vietnam was not living up to commitments established in the Paris Peace Accords to establish peace in Vietnam and end the war. Two successive governments declared Canada's role was strictly as an impartial peacekeeper willing to give aid to war victims, but the top-secret Pentagon Papers revealed in 1971 Canada was actively supporting the American war effort. From 1950 to 1975, Canada sent $29 million in aid to South Vietnam.

Heimes is a member of the American Legion and did apply for membership in the Royal Canadian Legion after he arrived in Prince George in 1991, but at the time was allowed only an associate membership. It wasn't until 1995, when the Canadian Vietnam Veterans memorial Wall was built in Windsor, Ont., that Canadians received official recognition for their participation in the war and the Legion extended full membership privileges to Vietnam veterans.

The memorial has the engraved names of 121 Canadians killed in Vietnam but some estimates put the number of Canadians who died in the war as high as 1,000.

For the past 18 years, Heimes has participated in the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 43 last post and most of the colour parties in the city's Remembrance Day ceremonies. He and his wife Rose lay a wreath every year at the cenotaph for Vietnam Veterans in Canada and plan to do so again Sunday.

"You always honour your dead and you always honour your country's participation," said Heimes.

"I am representing all military veterans from all the wars and I'm no better and no worse than any other veteran. A veteran is a composite of all people who fought for a common cause."

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