He was supposedly the warm-up act. He was Tim Isberg, a singer-songwriter from Fort Macleod, Alberta. And I was supposedly the main event, offering a talk about veterans’ stories, and how I came by them. But, as I sat there waiting for Isberg to finish his set, I was mulling over a problem in my head. I wasn’t quite sure where to start my presentation. Suddenly, I paid attention to what Isberg was singing.
“Listen to the voice,” he sang in a calming sort of way. “Listen to the voice calling me … calling you.”
Early in 1943, the military planners in London, England, coped with the ebb and flow of the Second World War, but they did so secretly. Squirrelled away in his tiny office at the British War Office, an experienced Canadian-born artillery officer grappled with a logistics problem about an upcoming military operation. But the stress proved overwhelming for hm. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t focus. To switch his mind off before bed, he tried reading detective stories. Then, he tried something completely different.
“I set up a fly-tying table,” Charles Falkland Loewen wrote in his memoirs, “and before going to bed sat down to tie a fly or two. I found that this absorbed one’s complete attention … and really unbuttoned my mind from current problems.”
A student pilot nearly killed him in a training accident in November 1942. While still an instructor in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, during the Second World War here in Canada, he’d survived a head-on collision with another aircraft near Bagotville, Quebec. And overseas during combat operations flying Spitfires, RCAF airman Charley Fox also survived 234 combat sorties as a fighter pilot. And yet, it was a June evening in 2006, that Charley told me just about topped them all.
“Meeting Dame Vera Lynn,” Fox said, “was a highlight in my life.”
His smile remained as infectious as ever. The twinkle in his eye was still bright during my visit with air force veteran Ed Carter-Edwards this week. When his son-in-law Mike and I lifted him, so that Mike could scratch a nagging itch on Ed’s back, I could feel the muscle in his shoulders that had served him a lifetime.
Now 94, Ed battled this week not just for life, but to stay connected to a hospice room of family and visitors as long as possible. Across from his bed, his son Dennis nodded and summed up his father’s life in a sentence.
“If there was ‘quit’ in his life,” Dennis Carter-Edwards said quietly, “he never would have made it.”
It was a spring day, not unlike others on the home front that year. And Canadians, as they had since 1939 when the Second World War began, looked eagerly overseas for news. Jean Portugal, in her second full year on the job at the Peterborough Examiner newspaper, faced one of those graveyard shifts working overnight. Suddenly, the wire service machine delivering international news into the Examiner newsroom, began to clatter. And night editor Portugal faced a difficult decision.
“I knew I would have to wake up one of the managers,” she told me in 2004. “The Allies had landed in Normandy, and I had to get permission to use Second-Coming-sized type on the front page.”
I remember as a boy of six or seven, when my mom and dad and sister and I got a lift out to Malton (that’s the former name for Pearson International) Airport for a marathon flight to New York. I was almost jumping out of my skin, I was so excited. I think for a month afterward all I ever said in gatherings of more than two people was:
“You know what I did? I flew to New York on an airplane.”
My writing staff and I had just completed a production meeting. I had just given our writers – the senior students of our online newspaper at Centennial College – their Remembrance Day assignments. With the recent loss of two reserve soldiers here in Canada, we were all sharply focused on Nov. 11 coming next week. So, I’d gone around the table and assigned stories to our student reporters. One would write about a woman in the Royal Canadian Navy in the Second World War. Another had an interview with an Afghanistan vet. A third would feature young military cadets.
And one reporter, a young man named Jasun, needed a phone number for a D-Day vet I asked him to interview.
“May I give you a bit of background?” I asked him.
He started writing notes on a single sheet of paper with his other hand as the writing surface.
I invited Jasun into my office. He sat at my desk. I stood across from him and gave him as much detail as I could about the 90-year-old veteran he would be interviewing later that day or the next.
When he was a kid at school, he dreaded show-and-tell days more than just about anything. Especially around Remembrance Day. When it came time to tell the class what his dad did in the war, sometimes he’d invent a fighter pilot dad. Other times, a bomber pilot dad. But just last week when he reconsidered his father’s wartime career, Rick Askew’s attitude about his dad had changed.
“I had him winning the war all by himself,” he told me. “In truth, he never fired a gun once in the war.”
Last week, Rick Askew, a semi-retired cosmetics salesman from Oshawa, travelled with me (and a larger Merit Travel group) in northwestern France. We toured key locations in Normandy where Allied armies had gained a critical toehold against the Nazi occupation of Europe beginning on June 6, 1944. I took him and the tour group to Juno Beach, Pegasus Bridge, Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, where the men of our fathers’ generation had turned the tide of the Second World War. But unlike the history books, I explained to Askew and my other travel guests that it wasn’t the generals and politicians who’d achieved these objectives. It was the average citizen soldiers, such as his father and mine.
To emphasize the point, I offered a story I’d been told by friend Braunda Bodger. A dozen years ago, she’d informed me that her father, a stationery worker in Regina before the war, had come ashore in France in the clerical section of Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. I was curious about the role a clerk might have played during the Allied advance. And when I spoke to the man himself – Wally Filbrandt – my view of the entire Allied invasion of Normandy turned on a dime.
“There were reinforcement companies, battalions and brigades all ready to jump into action,” Filbrandt told me. “We would simply receive casualty reports and then assign reinforcements where they were needed.”
In other words, he kept the invasion army functioning in fact the way it was supposed to on paper. It was a remarkable turnabout for me as a documentarian of the war. In those minutes spent with Filbrandt, I’d come to realize that sometimes the least visible acts of service were among the most influential contributors to winning the war. Filbrandt’s dispatching the right replacement ultimately meant the difference between victory and defeat.
Like Filbrandt, Bill Askew (Rick’s father) had served King and country not with a gun, but with a behind-the-lines skill. Askew Sr. had played brass instruments in the RCAF band stationed at Goose Bay, Labrador (then technically “overseas” because Newfoundland and Labrador didn’t join Canada until 1949). He and his 30 fellow bandsmen had played for parades, dances and ceremonies; they were the sound foundation to every official event on base.
“I had him winning the war,” Rick Askew said. “It took me 50 years to figure out he was just as much a veteran as anybody.”
Actually, Rick Askew had joined my Normandy trip for a number of reasons. Initially, a few months ago, he’d decided to get his buddies at a club in Oshawa to autograph of Canadian Maple Leaf flag. It would be up to Rick to find the right veteran attending D-Day ceremonies in France to receive the autographed flag as a symbol of gratitude and remembrance. As we awaited the ceremony last week at Juno Beach, Askew suddenly ran up to me.
“I found him,” he told me excitedly.
“Who?” I asked, not remembering his plan.
“The vet to receive our autographed flag.”
He led me through the maze of vets awaiting the 70th anniversary ceremony in front of the Juno Beach Centre and introduced me to Bill Opitz, who’d served as a stoker aboard the Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper HMCS Bayfield on D-Day. Ultimately, that proved only half of Rick Askew’s quest in France. During most mornings, when he smoked a cigarette out on the balcony of our hotel in Normandy, he began to realize the diversity of service that Canadians had delivered that spring back in 1944, had actually included his father.
With the story of Filbrandt in his thoughts and with his autographed flag delivered to an ordinary navy stoker, Rick Askew perhaps sensed his father’s role as a bandsman had been more important than a son had given his father credit. As a bandsman, the elder Askew had given tempo to military parades, melody to receptions and often the correct somber atmosphere to station memorials. He’d learned that service in such a desperate time had come in all shapes, sizes, and contributions.
“This trip has changed my life,” Rick Askew told me on the last day of our tour. “I’m really proud of what my father did now.”
The day seemed rushed and complicated. People and vehicles rushed in every direction. Time flew more quickly than anyone wanted. There seemed no room, but to hurry through the day. It was D-Day, 2014, and we had tried desperately to get to an appointment with history – a commemorative ceremony at Bavent, in Normandy, France. In fact, when we arrived, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion padre, who had already conducted the scheduled ceremony, realized our predicament.
“I know you weren’t late 70 years ago,” he said. “However, traffic jams and road blocks notwithstanding, you’ve made it.”
Two veteran members of the original Canadian Paras – Mervin Jones, 91, from Quebec, and Robert Sullivan, 91, originally from Oregon – and Joanne de Vries representing her late husband, paratrooper and Legion of Honour recipient Jan de Vries of Toronto, had rushed in to the Bavent memorial location at the last moment.
“And it would be a shame not to mark this occasion with your comrades and your successors today,” the padre noted.
And so, the young clergyman conducted a second, smaller commemoration to fallen members of the battalion. On that very day – June 5 – 70 years before, Jones, Sullivan and Jan de Vries had parachuted from transport aircraft into the night to protect the flanks of the invasion beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – not knowing if they might succeed or die in an attempt to dislodge the Nazis from occupied Europe.
On this 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion, I and 48 other Canadians (who had travelled to France for D-Day commemorations and were also late for the original tribute) were relieved that Joanne de Vries would be allowed to join the veteran Paras placing a wreath of poppies at the foot of their regiment’s Bavent memorial.
“They were young,” the padre said before the minute’s silence. “Strong of limb, true of eye. Staunch to the end against odds uncounted.”
By the middle of the D-Day morning, June 6, 1944, about the time 150,000 assault troops were establishing the Normandy beachhead behind them, survivors of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had achieved all the objectives assigned them in Operation Overlord. They had captured a vital German battery, made impassable all the bridges on the eastern flank of the D-Day landings, and they had isolated potential German counter-attacks.
“In fact, Jan had landed miles from his intended objective,” Joanne de Vries told us this week in France. Then, following the wreath-laying ceremony at the Paras’ memorial, she walked us up the road to where her husband, Jan, had dug a slit trench on the evening of June 6, 1944, and defended this spot unrelieved for almost two months.
I have always admired Joanne de Vries’ support for her husband’s post-war campaign raising the profile of veterans. When Jan de Vries co-founded the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer, when he led the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Association, and when he spearheaded the effort to keep fellow Para Fred Topham’s VC medal in Canada, Joanne de Vries was there at his side. Now she does it in his memory.
A few kilometres away from the Canadian Paras’ site at Bavent, another of the women who joined the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorative tour I’m hosting this year, paid tribute to her father’s Normandy campaign story. On June 6, last Friday morning, we visited Beny-sur-Mer, home of Canada’s D-Day cemetery.
Pat Rusciolelli checked the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site directory and then walked to the grave of trooper K.G. Starfield. She stood at behind his marker and explained to me what had happened. In early July, Starfield and Pat’s father, T.A. Bullock, were travelling in a Bren-gun carrier. At that time, their regiment, the 14th Canadian Hussars, was supporting the Allied liberation of Caen in an area known as Louvigny. A German mortar shell landed in the carrier, and severely wounded both men. Starfield died on July 15. Pat’s father nearly died.
“A piece of shrapnel lodged beside my dad’s spine,” she said. “He was paralyzed. They came to him and asked if he was OK. But the concussion had twisted his legs backwards, so he didn’t think he was.”
Pat went on to explain that her father thought he’d lost both his legs because he couldn’t feel them. Bullock was shipped home to Canada, where he eventually learned to walk again living a relatively normal life. As she stood there expressing how privileged she felt to attend Starfield’s grave at Beny-sur-Mer, Pat Rusciolleli was on the verge of tears. She pointed out her father was alive and well back home in Canada acknowledging an important moment.
“My father is 92 today,” she said. “Happy Birthday, Dad.”
Of course, wreaths and graveside visits – even on coincidental birthdays – don’t keep the memory of veterans alive. It’s the act of revisiting their achievements. If we continue to tell and retell the stories of their service, they live on.
In many more ways than one, Juno is always close by. Fred Barnard’s been counting down the days, reminding his daughter, Donna, that the anniversary is coming up. At 93, he’s not as agile as the day he first became acquainted with Juno Beach. That day – June 6, 1944 – he waded ashore in Normandy as part of the greatest amphibious landing in military history. He helped the liberation of Europe gain a toehold in France as part of the D-Day landings.
“He remembers it all,” she said. “Whenever it’s close to the anniversary, it’s always on his mind.”
Well, D-Day is almost as often on my mind as it is on Fred’s, but especially with the 70th anniversary tomorrow. Some of you may remember how Fred Barnard and I came to know each other. Eleven years ago, I was standing in line at the CIBC in town waiting to pay my credit card bill. Ahead of me were an older man and, at the head of the line, a friend of mine. My friend asked what I was doing these days.
“Writing a book about Canadians on D-Day,” I said.
“Big anniversary next year,” my friend said.
“Yes. The 60th.”
Then it was my friend’s turn for service at the teller’s wicket. That left only the older fellow and me. As we moved up the queue, he turned to me.
“I was there,” he said quietly.
“A veteran, are you?”
“I was there,” he repeated and then continued, “on D-Day.”
What followed was an exchange of phone numbers, an invitation to visit and an interview that changed me, and it changed the book I was writing. Fred Barnard related to me his D-Day experience of coming ashore in Normandy that June day in 1944 with his younger brother Donald in the same landing craft.
But Fred’s younger brother never made it off the beach; a single bullet through the chest felled Donald before he reached dry land. Until that day in 2003, Fred Barnard rarely if ever talked about it. I felt honoured to hear the Barnard brothers’ story.
Fred and I have carried on a friendly acquaintance ever since. Phone calls, visits to the house and the occasional chance meeting downtown have allowed me to learn more about my coincidental friend. As often as we’ve chatted, however, Fred remains a quiet and modest man. His Second World War service in France after D-Day proved to be equally remarkable. His Queen’s Own unit continued to spearhead the liberation of France and Fred was wounded by shrapnel in mid-August 1944.
All of that might seem just another veteran’s tale from a war so long ago, fading and nearly forgotten. However, several years ago, back in 2007, I accompanied Fred Barnard to a ceremony at the Moss Park Armoury in Toronto. At that event he received the French Legion of Honour.
“I was no patriot or hero,” Fred told me back in 2003. “I was just doing my job as a volunteer soldier.”
For the record, the Legion of Honour was created by French general Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. It was and still is the highest award given by the French Republic for outstanding service to France, regardless of social status or nationality. It is the French equivalent of the British Victoria Cross and George Cross combined. Critics of Napoleon’s award once suggested that such “baubles on men’s chests were mere children’s toys.”
Baubles or not, I for one have the greatest respect for what young volunteers Fred and Donald Barnard accomplished that precarious June morning 70 years ago. In simple terms, were it not for them, I wouldn’t have the freedom to write these words today.
Fred remains a modest veteran. His daughter Donna allowed that Fred doesn’t get out much. The frailties of age and diminished hearing, particularly in larger gatherings, such as he used to attend at the Legion and veterans’ events, make meeting people awkward for him. Nevertheless, the victory of landing Canadian troops on Juno Beach 70 years ago tomorrow is very much on his mind. Even more so these days, his daughter said. Fred has been looking forward to seeing the way the TV stations commemorate the anniversary – he’s been watching documentaries and will watch D-Day coverage on Friday.
But D-Day will be close by in another way this year. Donna and Fred just recently got a golden retriever puppy (five months old) to be a companion to their older golden, Chloe.
“Of course, you know what we named the new puppy, don’t you?” Donna said. “Juno.”
While memories of the loss of his brother Donald Barnard on D-Day always come back to him this time of year, now Fred has something more pleasant to think of each June 6 – the new life in his life. Something worth remembering everyday, as we do a veteran’s service to his brother, his regiment and his country.