Remembering Cpl. Ivan Broeffle, the Sapawe youth who died a Vietnam War hero

Remembering Cpl. Ivan Broeffle, the Sapawe youth who died a Vietnam War hero

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Remembering Ivan Broeffle

(originally published in November 2009)

Jessica Smith

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In spite of shrapnel wounds from a landmine explosion, former Atikokanite Ivan Broeffle continued to help his injured comrades until he succumbed to those injuries on the battlefield in Vietnam, May, 9, 1968. The selfless actions of the young man earned him posthumously a Purple Heart for giving his life in battle, a Bronze Star Medal for Valour, and a promotion from Private First Class to Corporal.

For those who knew Broeffle during his formative years spent in Sapawe and Atikokan, the fact that he thought of the needs of others – right up until his death – is not surprising.

Helping was in his nature from a young age, said childhood acquaintance Dan Danco, who recalled the time when both of their families lived in Highland Park.

“I was playing with his younger brother and he walked me part way home just to make sure I got home okay. I had to walk along the railroad tracks – I was about eight years old and at that age, it’s dark and you’re kind of scared. He may have been 11 or 12 but even then he was looking out for the welfare of others, even when we were little kids.”

Cpl. Ivan Broeffle
Cpl. Ivan Broeffle

“That would be typical of him,” agrees Broeffle’s sister Ethel de Jong of Murillo. “He always tried to be helpful, kind, and considerate.”

Broeffle was born in Emo in 1946 and in 1952 moved to Sapawe, then a thriving little community, with his parents, Clarence and Nancy, and siblings. Clarence worked as a surveyor and scaler with J.A. Mathieu Lumber Co. The company owned a lumber mill and built a one-room school house, church, store and around 100 houses for employees. The Broeffles lived in one of those homes; Ivan was the eighth of 10 children. “Ivan was full of fun,” said de Jong, who worked at the Sapawe general store. She said her younger brother enjoyed hunting and the outdoors and was an excellent skater and hockey player. Yet “sometimes you could find him being contemplative.”

When the family moved to Highland Park, Broeffle attended high school and distinguished himself in local hockey games.

He carried that passion for the sport with him when he eventually moved to Downers Grove, Illinois (southwest of Chicago) at age 15 to live with his sister Ida Colgan, and her husband George. There he became a top-scoring defenseman who helped his hockey team to the all-state championship.

He was one of three younger brothers the Colgans took into their Illinois home (including brother Edmund, who became renowned as E. Donald Two Rivers, a Native American poet and playwright in Chicago; he passed away last year.) and “was the one we had the least trouble with. If I was sick he’d always take care of me,” said Colgan, who now lives in Mine Centre.

Broeffle’s desire to help others was likely what led him to volunteer to serve in the Vietnam War. The U.S. led conflict with Communist North Vietnamese forces was in full swing when Broeffle, by then an American citizen of several years, graduated from high school. Under the draft, he registered with the U.S. military, and was sent to Washington shortly thereafter. He soon discovered he would not be pressed into service overseas because he was half-Native Canadian and under American army regulations was not required to serve in a war on foreign soil. Sorely disappointed, Broeffle called Colgan, saying “They won’t let me go,” she recalled. He discovered however, that the U.S. Army would accept him as a volunteer, which is precisely what he became.

The 21 year-old arrived in southeast Asia, March 2, 1968, to serve as a rifle infantryman, in Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 196 Infantry Brigade, as part of a scouting party, a unit that would go ahead of other units to scout out unsecured territory.

Broeffle’s faithful correspondences to his sister showed an eloquent and idealistic young man, who spoke of the battle waging in the jungles of southeast Asia, where he clung to his belief in what he was doing.

“Over here I am doing something that is necessary and I feel very proud to be able to say I helped. Sure it is pure hell here, and hot. It is a dangerous country. I’m not fighting for me but for those whom I love.”

While wanting to help others was in Broeffle’s nature, the brutality of war was very difficult for him, recalled Colgan. “The letter that got me most was the one where he told me what happened one time when they came around a bend in the jungle…”

In Broeffle’s own words he described the horror of having to kill an enemy combatant for the first time. “Sis, I feel kind of sick, but it was either him or me; I killed my first human today and I hated it,” he wrote.

Colgan recalled how that incident “bothered him so much that he went to the chapel at the army camp.” Of the horrors he witnessed, Ida said “I don’t know if he would have been able to handle what he had seen,” had he made it home from Vietnam.

He also contended with the boredom and discomfort of long hours in fox holes and limited food choices. The young man missed his favourite baloney and onion sandwiches, wistfully asking in one letter if there was any way to send something like that. Colgan, who always sent care packages managed to carry out her little brother’s wish, by taking a chunk of baloney and a giant sweet onion and getting them “as cold as I could without freezing them. The baloney didn’t spoil because I dipped it in hot wax again and again. I packaged it in popcorn. He wrote back and was thrilled,” she said adding, “Those are the kind of memories that make me happy.”

There would be no happy ending for Broeffle. In the 68 days of his service, his final act of heroism would become the legacy of his short life. On May 9, 1968, he was a ‘point man’ – a sharp shooter at front of his scouting party – as the unit advanced into hostile jungle territory.

The party struck a North Vietnamese booby trap in the Quang Tri province, and although severely wounded by the explosion, Broeffle administered emergency aid to three of his comrades until his own injuries eventually claimed his life.

“That typically describes Ivan,” said Colgan, of a memory that still brings tears four decades later. “I often wonder what he would be like today – if he had made it home… He’d be in his sixties now.”

A pastor at the church Broeffle had attended in Illinois, broke down when he heard of his death, saying, “He was one of the ones I was certain would make it home.”

For Colgan, comfort came in two unusual ways. The army brought a letter and birthday card he had had posted to her. Ironically Broeffle had died on her birthday and she still treasures his final correspondence. Something else brought her strength during the difficult weeks of waiting for her young brother’s body to be shipped home.

After 12 years of marriage, the Colgans had given up on having children when she discovered that she was two months pregnant with the couple’s much wanted child.

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” she said, adding that her daughter Ava, feels a connection to the uncle she never met, and sang at a dedication ceremony for him in Emo last July.

That ceremony od commemoration – the placing of a marker on his grave in the Emo Cemetery – finally occurred four decades after Broeffle’s burial. Although he had a full military funeral in 1968, the US Army marker for his grave never made it across the border due to an administrative error.

“It was issued and travelled to Minnesota, and somehow it got lost there,” said Colgan. “I didn’t know how to find it.”

That has all changed due to the efforts of Hal and Maddy Laffin of the Canadian Vietnam Veteran Veterans Assoc., (CVVA) who discovered the oversight more than a year ago. They contacted Colgan to help with the necessary paperwork, and now, Broeffle’s name has at last been included in Vietnam War memorials in Washington, D.C., Windsor, and Manitoba, and his grave marker finally arrived early this year.

This July, Colgan planned a small ceremony to mark the placement of the plaque bearing Broeffle’s name, rank and military honours. When word of the planned ceremony got out, veterans’ associations from both countries requested to attend and the event grew. In addition to representatives of the CVVA, the Fort Frances Royal Canadian Legion, Minnesota Patriot Guard Riders (a group of veterans who travel by motorcycle to the funerals of fallen soldiers to shield their families from protesters), the Kenora-based Hindenburg line unit of the Canadian Army Veteran motorcycle units, and the White Earth Tribal Honor Guard (a group of veteran Native Americans) stood at the Emo cemetery to honour the tender-hearted young man who died as he lived – helping others.

“I don’t know how to describe how I felt,” said Ida. “Pride, sorrow, happiness that he finally had this beautiful marker on his grave.”

While Broeffle’s surviving siblings Colgan, de Jong and younger brother William (of Fort Frances) will never forget their brother’s sacrifice, Colgan said this Remembrance Day will have special meaning – because now they are no longer the only ones who know of his service.

“It’s nice he is being remembered after all these years.”


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