On one particular Friday in January 1973, James Walton was getting ready to sign the papers to buy his first house with his wife.
Just days later, he was on a destroyer sailing towards Vietnam; the house purchase on hold, his wife and two young children at home, not knowing when he would be returning.
Walton – a radioman – had served in the navy for eight years. He had sailed around the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to Australia, then manned a communications post in Aldergrove. In the early 1970s, he was transferred to HMCS Terra Nova, based out of Esquimalt. The ship had just come out of the dockyard when Walton began looking for a home for his young family.
Then, one Friday, the destroyer’s hundreds of members were urgently called to the ship.
“Gentlemen,” Walton remembers the ship captain announcing, “prepare to go to sea. Destination: Vietnam. Return date: unknown. Departure day: Monday.”
Forty-three years later, Walton sits in his comfortable Sumas Mountain home, flipping through a book made for crew members following the trip.
“It could have been any destination,” he remembers. “You join the military to serve your country.”
Canada had joined a group tasked with monitoring the ceasefire that hoped to bring the Vietnam War to an end. With Canadian personnel on the ground, it was the Terra Nova’s job to give them an escape option if things turned sour.
The ship made a beeline for the South Pacific as part of Operation Westploy. The ship seemed vulnerable, and possibly in the direct firing ling should major combat break out.
“At any one of those days, we could have been called to enter hostilities,” he say. “To meet those challenges, we had to come together.”
And even though no combat was seen, there was still tragedy aboard. Around one-third of the crew came down with a serious virus. One seaman, Cpl. Ned Memnook (in photo at left), never returned alive to Canada, dying in Singapore at the age of 27.
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After five months, the Terra Nova was replaced and, after returning from Vietnam, Walton immediately headed for college. Later, he would became a military policeman and security officer, losing touch with his former mates.
Still, the details of the deployment stuck with him. In later years, after making a career move to work for the British Columbia Liquor Distribution branch, winning a national softball title, watching his grandchildren grow up and taking up a hobby making fine silver jewelry, Walton would look back at those days, and wish there had been a reunion of some sort.
Then he found himself in an Abbotsford home looking at a photo of a sailor.
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This January, Walton placed a small ad in The News’ Buck Passer classified advertising section, selling some of his homemade silver. Invited into a house to sell some pieces, he looked on a wall and spotted a photo of a sailor in uniform.
“That’s Uncle Larry,” he was told. A few minutes later, one of the people in the room, an older man, commented that the sailor was his son and had been on a boat that had sailed to Vietnam.
From there, Walton reconnected with his former shipmate, Larry Zilinsky.
Walton told Larry he had yearned for a reunion, only to learn two had already happened. And there was more. That three-month deployment had led to a lifelong friendship among many of the crew members. Not only had they reunited twice, but when the Terra Nova was decommissioned and dismantled, two former sailors flew to the Maritimes to pick up pieces of the old destroyer’s hull that were fashioned into ship silhouettes for the Westploy alumni. Members had also been awarded commendations – medals – for the Westploy deployment. And when the shipmates learned a family member of Cpl. Memnook needed financial assistance, they went into action to help.
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“That deployment was very unique,” Walton says now. The short notice of the mission, the fact that no end was given, and the perilous conditions in South Asia at the time brought the men together.
“This is very hard on families – two days notice,” he said. “There were a lot of personal sacrifices made … There were family members and children left behind and there were a lot of problems.”
Walton had been on several ships, but the Terra Nova crew was different.
“This is not the same,” he said. “There’s a bond there that appears to be unbreakable at this point.”
Those bonds continue to occur among men and women who are active today and sent into unfamiliar territory.
“It happens today in a multitude of different ways,” he said. “That’s what the nature of the military is – you respond.”
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Since receiving his medal earlier this year, Walton has made it his mission to try to inform other Westploy sailors who may not have received their commendations. He can be reached at email@example.com.
(Photo below: The HMCS Terra Nova was part of a task group assigned to the South Pacific in 1973 to monitor the ceasefire hoped to bring the Vietnam War to an end.)
FIRST WORLD WAR
In 1914, the call went out for Canadians to step forward to serve their country. While Canadian soldiers’ bravery catapulted the country to a new standing worldwide, the nation suffered great losses. Around 625,000 served, and approximately 60,000 were killed in action or died in active service, with another 173,000 reported wounded.
SECOND WORLD WAR
The Second World War officially started Sept. 1, 1939 after the Germans invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war two days later, while Canada did so Sept. 10. This marked Canada’s first independent declaration of war. Throughout the conflict, 1.1 million Canadians served in all three branches of service (army, navy, air force) with more than 45,000 losing their lives, and 54,000 returning home injured. On D-Day (June 6, 1944), Canadians made the third and final beach heads during the landings at Normandy.
THE KOREAN WAR
(1950-1953) was the first time the newly minted United Nations interceded in a conflict. This war pitted the communist North Korean government against the democratic South. On June 25, 1950 the military forces of North Korea crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea. Almost 30,000 Canadian soldiers were sent to the Korean War, and 7,000 stayed behind to supervise the ceasefire until 1955. From this, 1,558 were casualties, including 516 deaths.
UN and NATO
Canadians have regularly taken part in United Nations’ peacekeeping missions since 1956, including the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia. Canada suffered the second-highest number of casualties over the years, with 122, to the end of 2006. More than 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members served in the NATO Afghanistan theatre of operations between 2001 and 2014, suffering 158 fatalities over the course of that mission.