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Return Of The Liberators

Clockwise from top right: A tulip is handed to a veteran during the parade; a veteran presents flags along the parade route; roses cover the rails at Westerbork, site of a WW II German transit camp; and veteran Maurice Gauthier and daughter Francine at the Apeldoorn parade.

There are young men inside those weathered husks. You can see it in their eyes whenever someone—especially a child—steps forward to say thank you or present a bouquet of flowers. You can notice it in the way they carry themselves—heads high, backs straight—along the rain-soaked streets of Apeldoorn, and in the way their smiling wartime buddies—riding in vintage military vehicles—wave and blow kisses to the more than 250,000 who are cheering, waving and blowing kisses at them on this historic day marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands.

Indeed, with each step along the three-kilometre parade route, the Canadian war veterans—numbering more than a thousand—seem to grow not older, but younger; rejuvenated by the loud and colourful displays of gratitude and by their own memories of a time when they helped destroy an evil that—between 1939 and 1945—killed and maimed millions across Europe and turned the Netherlands into a netherworld of mud, starvation and death. During five years of German occupation, 235,000 Dutch men, women and children died in concentration camps, by execution, acts of war, starvation or sickness.

“But would ya just look at it now,” says 86-year-old Raymond Williams who as a Canadian sapper served at the sharp end of the long and deadly struggle. “This country is so beautiful and its people so incredibly grateful. What more could you ask for?”

Williams was one of approximately 130 veterans who formed Canada’s official delegation to the Netherlands to mark the anniversary. Led by Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri, the group filled three hotels in and around Apeldoorn. The logistics of getting busloads of people to and from events were enormous, but by week’s end the veterans were unanimous in their praise, especially for Veterans Affairs Canada’s conducting officers and medical team. The vets were also impressed with the 13 youth representatives who prior to the pilgrimage spent months researching a person who had served from their province or territory. Once overseas, the youths presented what they had learned while standing next to the grave of the one they had gotten to know. These tear-streaked moments gave the teenagers new-found appreciation for their country. For the vets, they brought the hope that their stories will be renewed among a younger generation.

The adoration from the Dutch, meanwhile, remains deep and unstoppable. Canadians are blown away by its respectful vibrancy, especially the vets who can’t help but be convinced that their deeds and sacrifices will never be forgotten by the Dutch. Canadian visitors are also hit by the realization that not enough military history is being taught in Canadian schools. “I have never felt better about being a Canadian as I feel on this trip,” said Dominion President Mary Ann Burdett. “It is strange that you have to go across an ocean to get closer to your own history…. The cement—the cornerstone of our country—are the veterans—male and female.”

In the Netherlands, the lessons of war are in the blood. And even though many hold the opinion that the 60th anniversary marks the last of the major wartime commemorations, Dutch organizers say they will continue to welcome Canadian veterans and those who are interested in learning what was accomplished here. “I can assure you that what these men and women did for us will always be remembered,” vowed Gerry van ’tHolt of the Welcome Again Veterans Foundation, one of the organizations involved in hosting veterans and family members. “It is written on a monument here in our country that ‘Dying in war is not the worst thing that can happen to you. To be forgotten is.’ That is our goal: Never to forget.”

The Dutch shed tears of joy, especially during the parades where heaps of flowers and other mementoes were bestowed upon the “liberators.” Canadian flags were everywhere and children younger than five could be seen and heard singing our national anthem in perfect English. Older people could be heard telling stories about Canadians who helped liberate them. Many adults and younger folk wept openly during impressive ceremonies at Groesbeek and Holten Canadian war cemeteries, major events that included the participation of members of the Dutch royal family, including Queen Beatrix and Princess Margriet. Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and Victoria Cross recipient Ernest “Smokey” Smith also added greatly to the ceremonies.

Groesbeek contains the largest number of Canadian graves in the Netherlands. Among the 2,338 Canadians is the brother of delegation member John McConachie of the Royal Montreal Regiment. “This trip has given me the opportunity to see my brother’s grave. We were close…. Two of 13 children…. He was a tank commander—killed along with his crew in Nijmegen when their tank was hit by a German 88 (shell). It happened close to the end of the war. He was 23. I was 18.”

The first week of May 2005 was very much a week of contrasts. Take the grim memory from 60 years ago of the young tank commander and put it up against the very recent image of a child’s hand—bright as porcelain—emerging from the sleeve of a red raincoat with the tender offering of a colourful, but slightly drooping, tulip. Witness the face of McConachie as he stares at his brother’s grave and then watch the same veteran on the receiving end of the child’s tiny floral gift during the parade, and you’ll get an idea how the week has gone.

Canadian veterans from all branches of military service and from all parts of Canada have been the stars of these celebrations for years, but their time is fading fast; their average age is 83. Veterans Affairs Canada knows this and so do the Dutch. That is why they have played such huge and important roles in organizing events, and in the case of Veterans Affairs Canada, sending official delegations to commemorations every five years. This year’s delegation was said to be the largest ever. In addition to the vets, it included an equal number of caregivers, mostly spouses, sons and daughters.

Francine Gauthier is one of the daughters. She made that clear during the opening moments of the Apeldoorn parade when she took off down a tree-lined street—on foot—in search of her father who was riding with some “other boys” in the back of an old, but painstakingly restored army truck, one of many supplied by the Keep Them Rolling Association. “Dad! Dad! I love you! I’m so proud of you!” And with that, she leapt up onto the truck and gave her father, Maurice, a big hug, an unscripted show of affection that filled the damp street near the Het Loo Palace with something that had been missing most of the week—sunshine.

Earlier in the week, the palace was the scene of the first presentations of the Thank You Canada and Allied Forces 1945-2005 Medal. The very first recipient was Hallie Sloan, 88, of Ottawa who served with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. During one 30-day period, the hospital she served in admitted 18,000 casualties and performed 1,600 medical procedures. “I was in Holland on the first VE-Day. It was the most wonderful time. We had heard rumours the war might be over, but we weren’t quite sure. When day finally arrived I think everyone was quite stunned.”

Sloan and other veterans know that it is up to younger ones to carry history forward. Collectively, they know how the war was fought in France, Italy, Belgium, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, on the seas and in the air. More than a million Canadian men and women served in WW II and of these more than 42,000 lie buried in immaculately kept cemeteries in Europe and the Far East. More than 7,600 of them died in the nine-month campaign to liberate the Netherlands.

Following the Battle of the Scheldt in the fall of 1944, the First Canadian Army, under General Harry Crerar, fought in the northeastern and western Netherlands until a very desperate German Army surrendered in early May 1945. The preceding months were anything but quiet. Indeed, during the Hunger Winter of 1944-45 some 4.5 million Dutch suffered from starvation; many died. More would have perished if the Canadians hadn’t negotiated a truce on April 28 to permit relief supplies to enter the western Netherlands.

Vicious fighting, particularly in the northeast, left many Canadians dead in those final days. The headstones at Groesbeek, for example, tell of men killed on the final days of the war. G.L. Byers of the Saskatchewan Light Infantry died May 8, 1945. He was 23.

Raymond Williams, who served with the Royal Canadian Engineers, was one of the lucky ones. He was among the first to set foot on Juno Beach, June 6, 1944. Through France, Belgium and the Netherlands, he experienced many close calls while helping to build bridges. He remembers bullets and shells flying over and around him. When word came the war was over in Europe, he was helping to build a Bailey Bridge in Germany. “We had a pretty good idea for two or three days that the war was going to end, so we were working quickly to try to finish it.”

When you ask Williams about the last bridge, he can produce a small black and white photograph showing him standing on it next to a buddy named Tommy Fitzgerald. Both men are smiling and Williams’s beret is set at a jaunty angle, well back on his head. You can feel the release of tension, along with the desire both men have to get the hell out of there.

After noticing the photo, you notice Williams’s big, calloused hands—the tough mitts of a tradesman, a guy well used to pounding steel with a ball-peen hammer. Before the war, Williams—one of nine kids—did what his father and his father’s father did. He quit school and became a bricklayer. Indeed, the palms of his hands got so rough he could light a match on them. “I took my apprentice to become a bricklayer when I was 16, and I can remember how many times I used to stoop up and down in a day to lay a thousand brick….”

The Royal Canadian Navy and Canada’s Merchant Navy are often forgotten when it comes to stories about VE-Day. However, their huge contributions helped make victory possible. Thankfully, the Veterans Affairs Canada delegation includes more than a dozen navy veterans, among them Leo J. McVarish, Ron Rhine and André Rousseau. Able Seaman McVarish was on HMCS Alberni when she was torpedoed in the English Channel by U-480 on Aug. 21, 1944.

McVarish, 83, of Winnipeg was having lunch in the seamen’s mess when all hell broke loose. “I was one of the lucky ones because there were a lot of others who were sitting there beside me who did not get out.” The former sailor said the corvette sank in about 20 seconds. “I just had enough time to run maybe 15 feet and grab my life-jacket…. If you didn’t move right away, you were lost.”

With one arm through his life-jacket, McVarish began to sink with the ship. “It was very dark, but I reached the surface and wow I didn’t realize how rough it was. I could hear the wind howling and then noticed a few other sailors, but I lost sight of them in the trough. I remember looking around and saying ‘Gee, the ship is gone.’ I remember being worried about the depth charges, but none of them went off because they were all set to safe. Thank God for that.”

McVarish grabbed hold of a wooden plank and remained in the frigid water for over an hour before being rescued. Of the 90 sailors on board, 59 perished. “I still have my bad dreams…. They never go away. There is one recurring nightmare in which I am in the asdic hut on the bridge of Alberni. I look out and see this lookout standing there on the starboard side. He has his back to me and there is a name on his back which I can’t make out. I know this is wrong because we never put our names on our backs. I decide to leave my station—something I would never, ever do—and go out to see him. He was wearing a duffle coat and when he turned around he was a skeleton….”

André Rousseau, 81, of La Minerve, Que., was 19 when the Motor Torpedo Boat he was in struck a mine off the French coast. Half the crew was killed. The boat blew up and there was a second explosion when the fuel and ammunition went. “I was in the radar cabin and I had my kidneys crushed by the concussion. The water was coming up and I had the sensation of going down. I was caught in a very small space and my left foot was stuck beneath a cable, but there was a small air pocket. I pulled the cable off my foot and when I looked up I noticed an area that was lighter than the rest of the boat. I aimed for that, and it turned out to be a hole in the side of the boat.”

Rousseau was several feet below the surface when he got out of the sinking boat. “I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and so I was swallowing water. I peddled like mad to get to the surface, but it felt like I was going down.”

When he got to the surface, Rousseau was surrounded by little pieces of the boat. There was nothing large enough to grab hold of and he hadn’t had time to put on his life-jacket. What’s more, the loose knitted sweater he was wearing was getting heavier. “The arms of the sweater kept getting longer and longer and I said to myself I am going to drown. It was quite a struggle to take it off in the waves. Next I noticed that I was bleeding and burning. I was cut all over and the flesh on the right side of my face was gone.”

After he was rescued and onboard another boat, someone offered him a cigarette. What the Good Samaritan didn’t know was that Rousseau was covered in high octane fuel and that he had also swallowed a lot of it. “The guy wanted to put the cigarette in my mouth and I was screaming, but they must have thought I had gone hysterical…. I eventually got him to stop, but all that went through my mind was that I had gone through hell only to be killed by a lousy cigarette.”

Rhine, 80, of Westbank, B.C., served as a wireless operator on MTBs. “I think people were picked for Motor Torpedo Boats service for three reasons: One, they were at or near the top of their training or had previous experience. Two, they were risk-takers. I packed nitro gel into canisters and blew off pipe in oil wells…. Three, you had to be a Problem Child.” By problem child, Rhine means you had to be someone who could see a problem and then fix it without bothering to ask for permission to fix it. “When you took boys off the farm, out of the logging camps, out of the oil fields or off fishing boats you got people who were used to fixing things themselves.”

Rhine and another delegation member, Andre Juchli, 82, of Edmonton remember how rough it got on MTBs. “I got hurt once during a storm,” recalled Rhine. “Got sent up and crashed head first into the bulkhead. When I came down I went right through the chair I had been sitting on. Hurt my hip and my back. Wound up with three broken ribs.”

Meanwhile, on the North Atlantic, the navy and merchant navy were working against dangerous odds to deliver more than 180 million tons of supplies to Great Britain. The navy, which began the war with just over a dozen vessels, had the world’s third largest navy by war’s end. Approximately 2,000 Royal Canadian Navy members died during the war, and 24 RCN vessels were sunk. The merchant navy, meanwhile, lost approximately 1,600 sailors. These contributions and sacrifices were remembered by delegation members and hundreds of others who attended a poignant Battle of the Atlantic Sunday ceremony at the National War Memorial, May 1.

The delegation also included nearly 20 former members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, including Charles W. Fox , 85, of London, Ont., who flew one of four Canadian spitfires during the last flight of the war in Europe. Flying operations were to cease at 8 a.m. on May 5. Fox landed at 7:59 a.m.

Fox and other delegation members witnessed the impressive parade in Wageningen, right next to the hotel where the 25th German Army’s surrender was accepted by Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, commander of the 1st Cdn. Corps. Canadian veterans, including delegation members, marched or rode in the spectacular, but rain-drenched, parade in Nijverdal, a town liberated by the 2nd Cdn. Infantry Division. They participated in the unveilings of plaques, including one by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada at Het Loo Palace and one by the Groesbeek Airborne Friends.

Other powerful moments of commemoration occurred at Camp Westerbork in the northern province of Drenthe. Between 1942 and 1944, it was the gateway to death for the majority of the Jews living in the Netherlands. Ninety-three trains—one leaving every week—deported more than a hundred thousand people to the concentration and extermination camps. Westerbork, which was liberated on April 12, 1945, by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, is now a commemoration centre. Its memorial consists of a section of railway track symbolically lifted, twisted and bent skyward so that no train can ever follow the route again. After the ceremony, tears fell on the steel rails and gravel railway bed when delegation members placed red roses on the tracks.

“Westerbork was quite haunting,” said youth rep. Meaghan Beresford, 17, of St. John’s, Nfld. “I could see the faces of the people in boxcars coming towards me….”

For the Canadian delegation, which included a large contingent of Canadian Forces musicians, the journey ended with a farewell dinner in Arnhem. Prime Minister Paul Martin, accompanied by the leaders of the other major political parties, said Canadians undertook the liberation with ingenuity, guts and a deep sense of nationhood. His speech was well received, but it was caregiver Francine Gauthier who stole hearts. She said she has a much better understanding of the bonds that exist between veterans. “It is a bond no one will ever understand, but them. Because they have lived an experience we will never be able to imagine—nor should we ever again.”

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