I Was There: Canadian D-Day Veterans Recount the Triumph and Terror on Juno Beach
Troops from the 48th Royal Marines at Saint-Aubin-sur-mer on Juno Beach, Normandy, France, during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Montreal’s Okill Stuart and Winnipeg’s Jim Parks both served in the Canadian army during the Normandy landing at Juno Beach, enduring hellish bombardment from the Nazi defenders to take the beach and, eventually, help liberate France. Today, on the anniversary of D-Day, we look back at our 2019 interview with the pair following their participation in a History Canada documentary called D-Day in 14 Stories.
The Calm Before the Storm
“Mother wept and dad put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Good boy.’ I didn’t know much difference between a submarine and an airplane, but I ended up going to war.”
Okill Stuart had already been to Europe once. As an adolescent he’d left his native Montreal for Scotland, where he studied at Gordonstoun School — his schoolmates included distinguished students like Prince Philip. But in 1937, whispers of war precipitated his return home and, at the urging of his father, he took a job working among the lumberjacks at the Price Brothers and Company pulp and paper factory in Chicoutimi, Que. But when one of the lumberjacks relayed the news to Stuart that conflict had broken out in Europe, the teen decided to cross the pond once again, out of duty to his country. Unlike his first trip, this time he didn’t know if he’d be coming back.
“Mother wept and dad put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Good boy,’” recalls Stuart, who became a member of the 14th Canadian Field Regiment. “I didn’t know much difference between a submarine and an airplane, but I ended up going to war.”
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 km away in Winnipeg, a young Jim Parks followed the example of his older brother Jack and enlisted with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in 1940. He was only 15.
“It was the thing to do at the time,” Parks says. “I wasn’t the only one. My brother joined the Reserve Force and in Reserve Force they had a Selective Service Certificate. You had to be 18 to have that … I ended up getting one of those certificates, which indicated that I was 18 or over even though I wasn’t.”
Parks’ experience as a cadet meant he was already familiar with the drills, allowing him to evade suspicion. “And the Sergeant, he was my Sergeant in the cadets. He knew I was still a cadet and he just looked up and he winked and he says, ‘That’s okay, that’s proof of age.’”
The Journey to Juno Beach
“Something different was happening everywhere. And it all had a bang.”
Around noon on June 5, 1944, the soldiers aboard Stuart’s ship did their best to relax, despite the fact that the air was thick with a sense of impending action.
“We got into poker games. And those who had [squeamish] stomachs were going to the gunnels to relieve themselves. The sea was quite rough,” Stuart says. “We knew something was coming. A couple of days before, we were issued a limited number of French francs, guaranteed by the Bank of England, as temporary expense money, when we got to France. So we knew something was up.”
Mere hours later, the go-ahead orders came down and Stuart and his fellow soldiers found themselves on a landing craft stocked with tanks headed for France. Amazingly, they didn’t actually know the specifics of their mission — where they were headed or what they might meet when they arrived — until their landing craft reached the choppy waters somewhere off the Isle of Wight, at which point they received the signal to unseal the envelope that contained the full details of their mission at Juno Beach.
“I’ll tell you, on the morning of June 6, when I looked out and saw more ships than I imagined ever existed, it was quite a sight. I could tell you about all the different things I saw,” Stuart says. “Floating tanks that sank in the rough seas when their canvas ballooning broke. I remember rocket-firing ships that I had never heard of before firing rockets on the beach. I can remember seeing the seawall with different prisoners and some of our wounded people under [it]. I remember seeing cables holding big balloons over each of our ships so that the Germans couldn’t come with their fighters and hit us.”
“But there was something different. My God, when you heard chug, chug, chug, you found it to be the noise of a 15-inch [naval gun] from a battleship so far to the rear you couldn’t see it. Something different was happening everywhere. And it all had a bang.”
Parks and his unit were, in fact, ahead of Stuart’s craft, tasked with arriving two minutes before the other Allied troops to set up mortars and support their landing.
“But it so happened that the landing craft we were in hit some mine or something and it also got hit by a shell,” Parks remembers. Once the first carrier to exit the craft sank, Parks and his colleagues knew they’d have to swim for shore. They lost their equipment to the waves as they left the craft and struggled to make it to Juno Beach.
“I got side-swiped by the landing craft that were coming in. One of those pushed me under the water. I swallowed a lot of water, saw a few stars and I kept on going in,” Parks says. “And when my feet touched bottom, I got onto the shore itself and flopped beside this guy. I knew the guy, Corporal Scaife, I recognized him right away. But the only thing is, when I finally flopped down beside him, I noticed he’d been shot.”
As machine gun and mortar fire riddled the beach, Parks took the fallen soldier’s gun and gear to replace his own. “What was going through my mind, really, was I’d just say, ‘Well here I am, I wonder what’s going to happen.’ I thought all kinds of funny things but you focused on what exactly is happening. You’re hoping the sand, by the pressure of your body, will open up and give you more cover.”
Parks kept moving. “There had been a lot of things happening on the beach itself and a few guys were wounded and we tried to look after them. One guy died right while I was holding him — Corporal Martin. He says ‘Hold me, I’m cold.’ So I was holding him and hugging him and he did pass away because he’d been pretty well shot up.”
Eventually Parks met up with a Sergeant Major and joined his platoon. When he finally had a moment to catch his breath, he became sick from swallowing so much seawater. Then he got back to work.
Elsewhere in the area, Stuart’s landing craft also hit a mine upon reaching Juno Beach. The first vehicle to exit the craft hit another mine and blew up, killing all on board. Stuart’s tank followed and made it to shore safely with four other tanks in tow. In the ensuing battle they overcame the German defenders and, with Juno Beach secured, moved inland. That’s when, in an innocuous field in Bernières-sur-Mer, Stuart came face-to-face with a most unexpected battlefield visitor — a young boy in a black beret.
Field of Nightmares
“This young man, probably 12 or 15 with a little black beret, hopped in front of our tank and said, ‘Stop, stop, don’t go into that field.’ And I said ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘It’s got mines in it.’ [I asked] ‘How do you know?’ [He said] ‘Well the boss, the Germans, made me lay them.’”
Okill Stuart sat atop his command tank in the open field, not far from the bloodshed at nearby Juno Beach, and stared in disbelief at the young boy in the black beret who claimed to have laid the German mines that littered the area ahead.
“I said ‘Fine, hop on the tank and show us the way in,’” Stuart recalls. “And he said, ‘Like hell.’ And I pulled out a pistol, and I said, ‘You sit on the front of the tank and show us the way in.’ As a result we never lost a man and we never lost a vehicle.”
Despite the help from the boy in a beret, the danger proved far from over. That evening German bomber planes emerged out of the night sky, bombarding the Allied troops who’d successfully broken through their beach defences.
“That first night I’m in hedgerow right on the edge of the beach with German planes [coming] over,” Stuart recalls, noting he hid under his tank for safety. “I’m telling you I had nothing to do but to worry and think of getting killed. I would say it was the scariest time that I had in the whole war. And there I am, by my little self.”
After enduring the aerial bombardment, Stuart says he and his fellow soldiers turned to philosophy, or even humour, to combat the inevitable fear.
“I remember a guy running [past us] towards the beach and somebody said to him, ‘Where the hell are you going, and are you scared?’ He said, ‘No, but I passed a hell of a lot of guys that were.’”
“They were quite excited …”
When the dust settled on the Normandy invasion, perhaps the only people happier to be alive than the soldiers were the residents of the small French villages liberated by the Allies. Jim Parks remembers his first encounter with cheering locals celebrating and embracing the soldiers as they headed up from Juno Beach and into town.
“They were quite excited and they gave us apple cider, and I had a couple of swigs of that. And the next guy handed me what I thought was apple cider but it was Calvados, a very strong cognac.” Parks still laughs when he remembers the moment. “I swallowed it as if it was cider and boy-oh-boy, I just caught my breath. I’ll never forget that. It was quite a thing. I remember it distinctly.”
A year after the war, Parks experienced another unexpected encounter while walking down the street in uniform in Winnipeg. “Somebody hollered, ‘I had my son in [the] Winnipeg [Rifles].’ And sure enough it was Corporal Martin’s dad — the guy that died on the beach [in his arms]. So I told him what had happened. He was really shook up. He never knew what happened. He [was told] he was presumed missing.”
And for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Parks, now 94, headed back to Juno Beach with a delegation of fellow veterans.
“It means quite a bit going back,” he says. “I know exactly where we landed. We were within 100 yards of the river and that’s where I was. And I look across the beach and there’s the Juno Beach Centre. It’s almost as if it’s put down there for me.”
Stuart, also 94, says the war, “messed up my life” by interrupting his schooling, to which he never returned. Instead, after arriving home from battle, he embarked on a career in sales, got married and settled down. Still, looking back on the war today, he views the sacrifices he and his fellow soldiers made as a necessity, “otherwise we’d be doing the goose step here in Montreal today.” He does, however, quip that officials weren’t exactly accurate with their estimation of how long the war would last.
“They told us it was going to be six months and it was six years,” he laughs. “They’d be looking for me still if I’d been told [the truth].”
He continues to visit local schools every year to speak to young people about his experiences during the war, warning them never to let their guard down and allow a dictator like Hitler rise to power again.
Unlike Parks, Stuart and his wife were unable to make the trip back to Juno Beach this year. Instead, after laying his life on the line 75 years ago to allow us the freedom to celebrate D-Day today, Stuart, with his trademark wry wit, has only one request: “Don’t ask me to do it again.”