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Portraits From Normandy: Seven Days With Seven Veterans

Veteran Murray Knowles pauses for a moment on Juno Beach. [ILLUSTRATION: JENNIFER MORSE]

Veteran Murray Knowles pauses for a moment on Juno Beach.

The 65th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy Campaign is a significant anniversary. It has been decades since the troops fought their way ashore and this may be the last chance for the world to stand beside the veterans of that campaign and remember.

On June 6, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Barack Obama, Prince Charles, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy came together, overlooking the rows of crosses at Omaha Beach, to say thank you. Yet even the skilled speeches from that stellar collection cannot compare with the simple recollections of seven veterans as they return to France as part of the official Veterans Affairs Canada delegation.

Veteran Beatrice Hunter places a wreath at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. [ILLUSTRATION: JENNIFER MORSE]

Veteran Beatrice Hunter places a wreath at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery.

A dilemma for any pilgrimage of remembrance must be to record for posterity not only the chronology but the emotional and intangible burden of war on the survivors. If that task was to fall to a watercolour artist they would begin by layering paint in transparent washes until with time we recognize each face, but a good representation is in itself never enough; when the artist has done his or her job, a life is revealed. It takes time, it takes a surprising combination of colours and it takes the ability to adapt when the watery pigments slide off in unexpected directions. And like watercolours, veterans are shaded with light and dark and have survived because they understand what it is to adapt. All any soldier can do is fight like hell to get the job done, stay flexible and hopefully come out whole.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is flanked by youth ambassadors Blair Moro (left) and Solange Saulnier. [ILLUSTRATION: JENNIFER MORSE]

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is flanked by youth ambassadors Blair Moro (left) and Solange Saulnier.

Each veteran on this trip is distinctive and each elderly face is a fascinating portrait of a life lived. There is Okill Stuart, long and lanky, who softens the telling of stories with his dry twinkle; Louis Alleyn, the bright-eyed Quebec Legionnaire who shines from his black shoes to his cap of dark curls; Robert Bruce, a big golden man, who smiles down on the group—warm and uncomplicated; Beatrice Hunter who watches and remembers the time spent nursing the boys of ’44—for her they remain unchanged, chockablock full of mischief and courage; Don Roach, the eternal rebel who gently teases that every day is one speech too many and after all he is long past protocol and yet he isn’t; Murray Knowles, articulate, dapper and fit as a terrier; and rounding out the group, quiet Leonard Wilson with his round face and gentle humour.

The 49-member delegation leaves for an overnight flight to France on Wednesday, June 3, 2009. They are led by Greg Thompson, Minister of Veterans Affairs and included with his staff are two youth representatives, six parliamentarians, a Canadian Forces veteran and three representatives from veterans’ organizations, including Dominion President Wilf Edmond of The Royal Canadian Legion. Edmond is looking forward to meeting the veterans on the trip. He smiles and says, “To mix with the veterans that landed on D-Day is an honour for me and I want to thank each one of them personally for our freedom.”

Lorna Bruce and veterans Louis Alleyn and Robert Bruce gather to remember at St. Lambert-sur-Dives. [ILLUSTRATION: JENNIFER MORSE]

Lorna Bruce and veterans Louis Alleyn and Robert Bruce gather to remember at St. Lambert-sur-Dives.

Directly after landing, Stuart, the vivid Montrealer, is whisked off to Paris to receive the Légion d’honneur from the French president. This award, which will be given to two of the D-Day veterans on VAC’s 65th anniversary of D-Day pilgrimage, is the highest decoration in France. While Stuart, who is standing in for National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada President Clifford Chadderton, participates in that, the rest of the group is bundled aboard a bus for Caen. Six veterans gaze out the coach windows and seem lost in landscape and memories. Pale stone buildings nestle into the green landscapes, and the surrounding meadows are sprinkled with sheep, horses and cows. This peaceful countryside seems a long way from June 6, 1944, when 15,000 Canadians fought their way ashore. In the days and weeks that followed, thousands more battled deep into France. Memories of that effort slides over the faces of the veterans as they stare out at the passing landscape.

U.S. President Barack Obama chats with veteran Don Roach moments before Roach received the Légion d’honneur.  [ILLUSTRATION: JENNIFER MORSE]

U.S. President Barack Obama chats with veteran Don Roach moments before Roach received the Légion d’honneur.

Eighty-seven-year-old Louis Alleyn, a member of The Royal Canadian Legion from Quebec, served with the Royal Canadian Artillery and remembers the days before the invasion. “We were putting up guns in all kinds of places in [on] anything that floats,” Alleyn explained. “We are off shore, we are next door, moving all around…we just kept the thing running, as artillery guys would do…you get to figure out where they are so you can land some ammunition at the target and that changes with time and tide and wind and breakdowns.” The return to France has energized Alleyn, and he darts between memories eager to explain his role, and anticipates the ceremonies to come.

Air force veteran Leonard Wilson remembers the war while standing on Juno Beach. [ILLUSTRATION: JENNIFER MORSE]

Air force veteran Leonard Wilson remembers the war while standing on Juno Beach.

The next morning dawns breezy and bright with a visit to the Juno Beach Centre. Veteran Beatrice Hunter, now president of the Nursing Sisters Association of Canada, has more than one reason to feel the pull of the beaches of Normandy. Like all surviving veterans, Hunter has lived long enough to face more than one tragedy. She pauses to point to a memorial plaque bearing the name of her younger brother. He was killed in 1967 while flying jets in Chatham, N.B., so Hunter bought the plaque to honour his memory along with the memories of the injured soldiers she worked to heal in the months after D-Day. “There were still so many wounded.… I can remember trying to serve the food trays… they were firing buns across the room…. The courage and the sense of humour and joie de vivre to be alive after what they had been through; well, it wasn’t a sad affair.”

Perhaps the veteran who most epitomizes those saucy boys is Don Roach, 82, who sailed as an engineer with the Canadian Merchant Navy. This day was the first opportunity to walk on Juno Beach and the sand contrasted with the sea and spring sky while a breeze off the Channel kept the flags flapping. Odd this day to look about and see scenery made for summer postcards, not for the grey colour of war. On June 6, 1944, Roach was a petty officer aboard one of the freight ships providing supplies for the Allied troops. Now, one day short of D-Day, Roach is being told that the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, will be pinning the Légion d’honneur on his chest tomorrow. Roach grins, shrugging off the upcoming honour, and downplays his heroism. “I am being kissed by the president of France.” He smiles sadly as he weaves along trying to keep balanced in the soft sand. He is asked many times about his memories from June 6, 1944. “Unfortunately, I have been trying to forget,” he says. “There is nothing too romantic about a war, regardless of what you are doing. It is not Hollywood. It is heartaches and tears.” As he sways from side to side up the incline, Roach reminisces. “It was a hell of a lot easier then, in 1944, running up the sand when you are 20 years old with that burst of German machine-gun fire up your arse.”

Legion Dominion President Wilf Edmond (left) and Second World War veteran Okill Stuart smile following a downpour in Caen. [ILLUSTRATION: JENNIFER MORSE]

Legion Dominion President Wilf Edmond (left) and Second World War veteran Okill Stuart smile following a downpour in Caen.

That morning as Roach faces his memories on the sands of Juno Beach, Robert Bruce visits a small French churchyard to face his own remembrance. With a soft sad smile, this amiable man explains that his brother-in-law, a paratrooper, was killed on the morning of June 6, 1944. “Somehow their navigator got confused…and they dropped right in the German lines. They were all killed except two…the Germans wouldn’t let them [the French villagers] bury them at first, but after awhile the bodies were in a field there, so they just went and buried them in their own churchyard. We went there.” Sixty-five years doesn’t seem so long, when the loss is still so near.

Memories roll in with the tide, but this is a busy day and there is no time to stop. After lunch the delegates tour the centre, followed by a wreath-placing ceremony in which a monument to the Royal Canadian Navy is unveiled. Then it is off to two commemorative ceremonies, the first at Bernières-sur-Mer and the second at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery followed by a reception hosted by the community of Reviers. The delegation breaks bread on the bus with a boxed supper and it is night before the group returns to the hotel in Caen.

On D-Day the delegation is split into two groups. All seven veterans along with Dominion President Wilf Edmond and Gordon Marsh representing the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada (ANAVETS) join the Prime Minister in the morning at the Caen War Memorial. After thanking the veterans and the students, Harper turns to the youth. “If you look at some of these photographs of these fellows from the Second World War, they were pretty young guys, some of them weren’t much older than you are today—taking on the most dangerous task imaginable and changing the course of history and giving us the foundation for the peaceful and prosperous society we have today. We should always remember that, acknowledge that, and always be prepared ourselves to defend those things and those values in the future.”

From there the coach speeds to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial where Roach receives the Légion d’honneur from the French President while Harper, Obama, Prince Charles and Brown look on. This Second World War cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, and buried there are 9,387 American soldiers who lost their lives in the war. Each head of state takes a few minutes to address the crowd of approximately 10,000, but the highlight was the chance to hear Obama’s words. “Citizens of all faiths and of no faith came to believe that we could not remain as bystanders to the savage perpetration of death and destruction. And so we joined and sent our sons to fight and often die so that men and women they never met might know what it is to be free,” Obama said. “… It’s a story that has never come easy, but one that always gives us hope. For as we face down the hardships and struggles of our time, and arrive at that hour for which we were born, we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history.”

From the highly publicized ceremony at Omaha Beach the small group returns to Juno Beach and is united once more. The drizzle turns the sky to a watery grey canvas and the delegation gathers under bright poppy umbrellas to pay tribute to their comrades. The Prime Minister says a few words and is joined by VAC Minister Thompson and French Minister of State Jean-Louis Borloo to place a wreath for Canada, after which Dominion President Wilf Edmond and other members of the delegation place wreaths. Edmond places a wreath on behalf of the Legion at every official ceremony and he comments on the commemorative events. “It is excellent, very solemn and moving and it gives you a far better understanding being on the beach with these veterans. It is an excellent history lesson.”

The layers of memory are complicated and any decent portrait attempts to get at the heart of the subject. For elegant Murray Knowles, now 92, his heart is visibly lightened by family, and this softens his recollection of D-Day. Knowles served aboard HMCS Louisburg (2nd), and by war’s end was a lieutenant-commander with the Royal Canadian Navy. He stands with his son Stephen on the darkening beach, and remembers. “We learned a week before D-Day that we were joining a special convoy to invade with all the allied forces…to try and save the poor souls under German rule…. All this time I was hoping to hear news. Finally, 23 days later, the news caught up to me by cablegram. Stephen had been born at six minutes to 12 on June 6, 1944…. Who would ever have thought that we would have been celebrating his birthday here 65 years later?”

The day after D-Day begins with a commemorative ceremony at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, in Cintheaux, followed by lunch in Cauvicourt. Next stop la Place de l’Ancienne Boucherie for a ceremony where the skies open and drench the day. Damp, the delegation continues on to the Memorial Garden at Abbaye d’Ardenne and listen to a grim retelling of the execution of 20 Canadian soldiers by members of the 12th SS Panzer Division in June 1944.

Monday morning the delegation departs for a guided historical tour, with stops along the way, including one in the village of St. Lambert-sur-Dives where Major David V. Currie earned the Victoria Cross. The next morning is the flight home and a chance to view France from above.

Leonard Wilson, the quiet air force man, had a bird’s-eye view of Juno Beach during the Normandy Campaign. He remembers arriving about July 16 or 17 and being stationed at Beny-sur-Mer for armed reconnaissance in a Spitfire. “There was always an amazing haze over the whole beach because of all the earth being churned up from the trucks and trains and tractors and bombs and things. There was always this haze in the air that levelled off at about 5,000 feet so that when you were flying you would approach and see this flat, almost like a billiard table…. When you let yourself down into that it was another world all together.”

Many VIPs gathered on the Norman shore to share words and inspire the world, but not one moment of one speech compares with the inspiration to be gained from seven days with seven veterans. Even the incomparable words of Barack Obama cannot compete with the small tellings of one veteran, so what artist can ever gather so much life under one paintbrush? It is an overwhelming challenge, but nothing compared to the odds that weighed against success on D-Day.

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