Rob McSorely was 17 when he quit East Vancouver’s Tempelton Secondary School, craving the action and adventure of war. His distraught parents did all they could to dissuade him but he was determined. McSorley skipped across the border to Blaine, Washington and enlisted.
After training, he was flown to Vietnam as a proud member of the U.S. Army Ranger’s 75th Infantry, L Company, 101st Airborne Division; nicknamed the Screaming Eagles. On April 8, 1970, McSorley’s twelve-person unit was in the A Shau Valley at the Laos border. Mission Grasshopper involved infiltrating positions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, reporting on Viet Cong or NVA movement, engaging if necessary, and calling for air support when needed. Most of the reconnaissance work was done through thick jungle that restricted visibility to just a yard. The Rangers were battle-tested and combat-hardened. They relied on each other like the brothers they had become. At 1:30 in the afternoon, four helicopters dropped them at the designated landing zone (LZ) just inside the Laotian border. Two of the helicopters were empty, to deceive anyone who might be watching about the group’s size.
They immediately saw a number of NVA running down the hill, away from the LZ. Others were spotted on a hill above their position. The Rangers quickly moved to set up a secure perimeter and waited for the inevitable attack that for some reason never came. A single helicopter was called in to fake an extraction, hoping it would entice the NVA into the open.
The ploy worked. Bullets sprayed the helicopter, allowing the Rangers to spot enemy positions and return fire. The firefight quickly escalated with the NVA attacking the Rangers’ perimeter at McSorley’s position. They put their M-16s on rock’ n’ roll – firing automatic bursts – and McSorley killed two NVA and wounded more. Amidst the firing he yelled to Frank “Buff” Johnson: “Hey Buff, I feel like John Wayne!” They continued firing until, finally, the NVA withdrew. There was another quick exchange and another tense quiet.
With less than two hours of sunlight remaining, the Rangers gathered their gear and prepared to return to the landing zone. McSorley’s closest friend in the unit was another teenager, Bruce Bowland. Bowland was to walk point, that is, lead the column through the jungle. McSorley smiled and said to his less experienced friend, “You forget who taught you to walk point?” Bowland nodded and McSorely took the perilous point position.
The men were slowly and quietly making their way with McSorley out in front when AK-47 fire crashed in front and around them. McSorely killed three NVA but then his weapon jammed. He took three shots in the chest and shoulder and lay wounded in open ground, over 30 feet in front of the others. Gary Sands crawled out and dragged McSorley back to safety. With McSorley moaning in agony, the firefight continued. Within fifteen minutes he was dead. It was just two weeks past his nineteenth birthday.
Days later, the doorbell rang at McSorley’s Vancouver home. A hand-delivered telegram brought the news. McSorley’s parents were shattered. It was the wrong order. Children should not die before their parents. Time saw their grief and isolation grow for no one they knew shared their experience of losing a child while fighting in a foreign uniform in a foreign land in an unpopular war.
Rob McSorley’s name is carved into the reflective black granite of Washington’s Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial. Difficulty in defining exactly who is Canadian allows us only to estimate that between 79 and 160 other Canadians share that honour. Canadian visitors remember them by visiting the wall and completing paper and charcoal rubbings, and leaving flags, roses, and tears.
It has been estimated that between 12,000 and 40,000 Canadians enlisted in the American armed services and fought in the Vietnam War. Some, like McSorley, went for the adventure, some to fight communism, and others because of a sense of duty, having grown up knowing that nearly every man they knew was a veteran. While many died, all suffered. Many returned home as physically and emotionally damaged as their American comrades but to a country that either didn’t know they had fought or had been crazy for having done so.
The Vietnam War stole many Canadian lives and continues to affect thousands of others. Canadian Vietnam War veteran Doug Carey, who lives outside Ottawa, speaks of being among those who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He can still never play a round of golf without scanning the trees for danger. The stories of Canadians who donned an American uniform to fight are just one part of the larger story of how Canada fought the Vietnam War and was forever changed by it.
(Doug Carey’s story and that of others that fought is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It will be published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, but can be pre-ordered now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)