I’ve interviewed a lot of veterans over the years in my rambles as a journalist/historian. Chatted with and BS’d with a whole lot more, sometimes off the record at their request.
I want to tell you about a man who, with his childhood best friend, hit Juno Beach, Normandy, on D-Day.
I’m moved by the research I did for last week’s 75th anniversary of D-Day. This, as everyone should know, was the long awaited invasion of German-occupied mainland Europe. It was the beginning of the end of the Second World War, the worst war in history, and 14,000 Canadians helped to make it one of the greatest military victories of all time.
I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Every natural-born Canadian should know it by heart and give at least passing thought to this epochal event each June 6. Just as most (I hope) take notice of Remembrance Day. And Battle of the Atlantic Day. And V-E and V-J Days.
Not too much to ask for all the human sacrifice involved, wouldn’t you agree?
Well, apparently, it is.
Sunday, in a column entitled, “Canadians pay far too little attention to our history,” Times-Colonist columnist Monique Keiran pointed out that a recent Ipsos poll found that “just slightly more than two-thirds of Canadians know what D-Day is. Fewer than 65 per cent know that Canada participated [my italics], and less than half know Canadians landed on Juno Beach.”
How utterly, bloody shameful!
I grew up in a second-generation Canadian family of which two grandfathers, two great uncles, my father and two uncles, served in the First and Second World Wars. I was the first of three generations who didn’t have to answer duty’s call and am ever grateful for that fact.
Coincidental to working on the D-Day tribute I finished reading Barry Broadfoot’s 1986 book, The Immigrant Years: From Britain and Europe to Canada 1945-1967. It’s a truly fascinating compilation of hundreds of interviews the late journalist made with immigrants, many of whom landed in Canada with little more than a suitcase and the clothes on their backs, and knowing only a few essential — if any — words in English.
Almost without exception, these men and women, some of them children accompanying their parents at the time of their arrival, went on to make successful lives for themselves and their families. Canada, the frontier colony that came of age as a nation during the Second World War, allowed them that opportunity.
It wasn’t all altruistic, of course. The Liberal government of the day wanted labourers to fill the grunt jobs that few Canadians wanted. Too, in the immediate postwar years, there were hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen who also wanted secure and remunerative employment and their needs, not unfairly, came first.
So, for the immigrants, many of them from former enemy nations, many of them doctors, lawyer, teachers, accountants and artists in their previous lives, came to harvest beets, to sweep floors, to do other peoples’ laundry.
They worked hard, saved their pitiful wages and ultimately prospered.
In the course of doing all this, most of them did something else: they embraced the Canadian way of life. They came to love Canada for all the hardships and humiliations some of them suffered upon arrival.
You don’t hear the terms much any more but, in the late ’40s and through the ’50s, DP for Displaced Person and the crueller ‘Bohunk’ were in common usage. These so-called DPs, some of them war brides, became Canadians in body and in spirit and Canada is the better for it. Theirs, after all, is pretty much the story of the millions of immigrants who settled this country almost from its beginning.
But, time and again in their reminiscences, they speak critically of us natural-born Canadians. They didn’t think we have a serious work ethic, that we seemed to want all the good things in life without really having to sacrifice our labour or energy for them. That we seem to take so much for granted, almost as our due.
They were particularly critical of us as Canadian citizens. We had it all but we didn’t seem to appreciate it. Other than those who’d served overseas during the war or lost loved ones in the conflict, Canadians hadn’t really suffered; certainly not on a comparable scale with these immigrants who’d forsaken their own wounded countries in hopes of building a future for their families.
Their own new-found loyalty made them wonder at what they perceived to be most Canadians’ apathetic approach to the land of their birth. One interviewee who’d suffered the German occupation of Holland told how he taught his children to love Canada, their country: “I tell them Canada is the most wonderful country in the world. I think children should salute the flag and sing ‘O Canada’ every morning in school. Sing it loud. Sing it with a free heart. Sing it as if you are saying, this is the most wonderful country in the world. I teach my children this, and I can do it by telling them to look around this city and watch the television and see the misery and poor in the world…”
OK, perhaps an extreme example but you get the idea. No, Canada isn’t perfect. That same television news he used to compare Canada with the rest of the world tells us, almost daily, of our own sins and omissions. Canada, too, has much to answer for in its treatment of minorities over the centuries, for example.
But — all said and done, Canada is heaven on earth when compared to much of the world. That freedom of choice didn’t come cheaply, as the replays of old photos and newsreels of D-Day so graphically reminded us.
Which brings me to the crux of today’s ramble. Back in the ’90s I helped an elderly man publish a book of his poems. Although yet in his 70s, this retired journalist’s health was rapidly failing and he had something he wanted to say for posterity.
But the story he told me about his experience on D-Day wasn’t in the book; this was something he’d carried around with him for 50 painful years. How he and his childhood chum (I’ll call him Bill) went to school together, hung out together, played together, joined the army together, were in the same unit and went to Normandy.
Together they struggled ashore onto that hell of exploding shells and mines that was Juno Beach. They didn’t get far. Within the first hour or so they were both hit by the same shell. When my informant came to, he and Bill were sprawled in a shell hole. He knew he was wounded but could hardly move and when he looked over at Bill, who was groaning, he saw to his horror that most of Bill’s face had been blown away.
That’s when, with the last of his strength before he again passed out, he cocked his rifle, and raised it, just enough to shoot his friend…
God bless every man and woman who has ever served this country and God bless all those families who’ve lost loved ones. We who’ve been so blessed to have simply inherited the benefits they so dearly won for us, owe it to them to remember them — no ifs, buts or maybes.