Trip salutes Canadian veterans

On June 6, 2004, the lonely keening of a single piper’s lament drifted up from the beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer, in Normandy, France. In front of the year-old Juno Beach Centre, a crowd of more than 4,000 listened silently, many in tears.

They had gathered to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landing of Canadian forces on the beach code-named Juno. That spectacular  assault was part of Operation Overlord, the beginning of an Allied invasion of Europe designed to wrest the continent from Hitler’s inhumane grip.

During this special ceremony, Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Paul Martin and other dignitaries paid tribute to those who had sacrificed so much during the Second World War. “They have written their names in our hearts,” Governor General Adrienne Clarkson said, telling the attending veterans, “You are witnesses of a horror that we try to put behind us. But you are also the guarantors of our memory… Along with your fallen comrades, you cleared the rocky fields of war to sow a harvest of peace.”

But the most moving part of the observance took place on the beach when veterans marched to the ore to share a private moment of reflection and remembrance.

For 42 people on CARP Travel’s tour to Normandy, the commemoration event was the highlight of a once-in-a-lifetime journey. For several days, we had toured battle sites in the company of nine veterans. Five had shared D-Day’s drama.

Guest tour host Ted Barris, author of Juno: Canadians at D-Day June 6, 1944 (Thomas Allen & Sons), brought us together on the first evening by introducing the veterans and a Dutch-born civilian who had been rescued barely alive from a forced labour camp by Canadians.

As we visited the five D-Day landing beaches, the not-to-be-missed peace museum called le Mémorial de Caen, and the museum at Arromanches where we learned how a vital artificial port was created to supply the invasion, our veterans began to open up.

Individual efforts recognized as vital to the whole
Lorne Empey of Kingston, Ont., spent the early hours of D-Day on a minesweeper, clearing the English Channel for the flotilla to come.

He modestly admitted he had always considered his part in the war “miniscule” but as the tour progressed, he came to realize that every job, including his, had counted. Everywhere we went, French citizens stopped to thank our vets. Empey was surprised and deeply moved.

On D-Day, Bill Novick of Montreal had kept Panzer tanks from crossing the river at Caen and attacking Allied forces. As a 20-year-old RCAF Halifax bomber pilot, he had bombed the bridge there. Fred Sampson of Port Hope, Ont., a member of the British Army Glider Pilot Regiment, had safely landed a Horsa glider filled with troops, a padre and a jeep with an anti-tank gun, in spite of having to shear off the aircraft’s wings in the process.

Wilfred Pound of Brighton, Ont., drove a 60-CWT (3-ton) army truck off a landing craft at Juno Beach, while John Clark of Barrie, Ont., served on a destroyer in the crowded waters off the shore.

In England, Viola Boyd of Victoria in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWACs) drove “deuce-and-a-half” trucks during the war. Soldiers Art Oikle of Kanata, Ont., and Sam Reid of Toronto took part in the war effort following D-Day. Jim Ronan, Kingston, Ont., served later, in Korea. 

Our empathetic French guide blotted her tears in Beny-sur-Mer cemetery, where 2,044 of the 2,048 burials are Canadians killed in the early days of the Normandy action. “In 30 years, I’ve never had a more emotional trip,” she said.

Some tour members continued on to Paris, but as the rest of us returned to Canada, our vets and their partners were invited by Air Canada’s crew to fly home first class. Said a thrilled Bernice Reid of Toronto, “It was the end of a perfect trip.”