By Keith Lacey
A decorated war hero from Osoyoos plays a prominent role in a book that has become a national bestseller in the United States.
George Jmaeff left his home in Osoyoos in his early 20s to join the United States Marine Corps and died a hero after sacrificing his own life to save the lives of numerous other marines while serving in Vietnam.
Jmaeff’s incredible journey from small town B.C. to becoming a decorated war hero is featured prominently in the American author Karl Marlantes’ bestseller called Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, which has sold more than 500,000 copies since its release in the spring of 2009.
A review in Goodreads states, “Intense, powerful and compelling, Matterhorn is an epic war novel in the tradition of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’ The Thin Red Line. It is the timeless story of a young marine Lieutentant, Waina Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood.
“Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese, but also monsoon rain, and mud, leeches and tigers, disease and malnutrition. Almost as daunting, it turns out, are the obstacles they discover between each other: racial tension, competing ambitions and duplicitous superior officers. But when the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the marines are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. The experience will change them forever.”
It took Marlantes, who lives near Seattle, 30 years to write Matterhorn. While the book is fictional, almost all of the characters are based on fellow soldiers he battled with, including Jmaeff, in Vietnam.
In real life, Jmaeff was fondly referred to by the nickname “Canada” by his fellow American soldiers. In the book, he’s called “Vancouver” as it was tradition to give soldiers nicknames based on geographical references, said Marlantes.
He had never met anyone like Jmaeff before or since, said Marlantes.
“He was this great looking guy, six foot four, 200 pounds in jungle weight, but probably closer to 230 pounds, and he looked like he walked right out of a Hollywood movie,” he said. “He had personality, he had charm and every single guy who got to know him, just loved him.”
When he first met Jmaeff in October of 1968 during military training, they hit it off immediately, said Marlantes.
“I got to know him very well … we became fast friends,” he said. “He was so big and strong that he could carry an M-60 machine gun and huge ammo belt by himself. The guys in our battalion all looked up to him, literally and figuratively.
“While he was larger than life, but he was an open and friendly guy. Most of us American guys were only 18 or 19, but George was a little older, maybe 20 or 21, when I met him, so he had experienced a little more out of life than we had.”
Many Canadians joined the U.S. Armed Forces preceding the Vietnam War, said Marlantes, but Jmaeff stood out because he always carried a small Canadian flag everywhere he went, he said.
From the day their battalion landed in Vietnam, Jmaeff proved himself as a leader among men, said Marlantes. “He was quite simply a warrior … a born warrior,” he said.
“He was born to fight. He once told me he was born at the wrong time and should have been born in the 1920s so he could have gone over and killed Germans in the Second World War.”
As much as he loved being a soldier, Jmaeff was never reckless and went out of his way to protect his fellow soldiers, said Marlantes.
“He wasn’t blood thirsty and he never exposed the guys with him to unnecessary danger,” he said. “But the entire time I knew him, he always ran point. Running point means you’re the first guy taken out if you run into an ambush.
“He was a born leader who had the trust of every soldier he fought with.”
On the day he died, Jmaeff was trapped in the mountains in northern Vietnam and was given the assignment to protect as many Howitzer weapons as possible with a small battalion of 40 marines.
“We were trapped on what was called Hill 484 in Mutter’s Ridge,” said Marlantes.
Jmaeff was hiding in a bunker when he was hit with enemy fire.
“He had been hit and was losing a lot of blood,” said Marlantes. “He was being attended to by medics when he heard on the radio that the enemy was closing in on a bunch of our guys.
“So he ripped off the intravenous tubes and jumped out of the bunker and ended up killing several Vietnamese that had surrounded his unit. He saved several lives, but lost his own. He died a true hero. I still get emotional whenever I talk about it.”
Jmaeff was age 23 when he died on March 1, 1969.
“He gave his own life to save others. That’s the way Vancouver would have wanted it.”
Jmaeff’s legacy was so strong that four members of his battalion named their sons after him, said Marlantes.
“He will never be forgotten by anyone who knew him,” he said. “He was a true hero in every sense of the word.”
He knew when writing Matterhorn that Jmaeff would play a prominent role, he said.
“He was iconic,” he said. “I still think about him a lot more than 40 years after his death. I couldn’t write any book about my experiences in Vietnam without referencing George Jmaeff. I haven’t met anyone like him before or since.”
Last summer in Ottawa, several American marines gathered at the United States Embassy in Ottawa for a special ceremony honouring Jmaeff and other Canadians who died during battle in Vietnam, said Marlantes.
A plaque honouring Jmaeff and many medals of honour he received posthumously were showcased as part of the ceremony, he said.
“To have a ceremony honouring the U.S. Marines in the capital of Canada shows just how important George Jmaeff was to everyone who knew him in Vietnam,” he said. “It was a fantastic ceremony and a lot of the guys who knew George said they wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
Jmaeff is buried in the Osoyoos Lakeview Cemetery.