A soldier’s voice

Tim Isberg. Visualz photo, Isberg website.

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.”

Oh, for more happy landings

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.”

Handling the handlers

Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.
Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.

She started looking and listening from the moment she entered the room. Almost as if she were a bomb-sniffing canine, she was casing the space in which Olivia Chow was about to participate in a mayoral debate, Monday evening. I was the moderator and introduced myself. She had a raft of questions about where Ms. Chow would be sitting during the debate, and what the order of speaking would be. Then, just before her candidate entered the room, the handler approached me with one final question.

“How will Olivia know when her speaking time is up?” the woman asked me. “Have you got signs to count her down to the end of her time?”

“No.” I said. “I’ll just tell her she’s got 30 seconds left.”

“I really think you ought to have visual signs for her,” she insisted.

“Don’t worry. I’ve moderated a lot of debates. I don’t think we need visual signals. I’ll just find an appropriate moment, a breath pause in Olivia’s comments, and I’ll gently say, ‘Thirty seconds.’ It should work just fine.”

Service in all its forms

Rick Askew, from Oshawa, joined me in Normandy to pay tribute to service.
Rick Askew, from Oshawa, joined me in Normandy to pay tribute to wartime service.

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.”

Bill Opitz (left), D-Day vet from Canadian minesweeper Bayfield, receives Rick Askew's commemorative flag at Juno Beach on June 6, 2014.
Bill Opitz (left), D-Day vet from Canadian minesweeper Bayfield, receives Rick Askew’s commemorative flag at Juno Beach, on June 6, 2014.

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.”

He’ll never be afraid of show and tell again.

Juno in his life

JUNO_RCN_LC_EIn 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.”

Fred Barnard as a young QOR soldier.
Fred Barnard as a young QOR soldier.

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.

Donald Barnard, Fred's younger brother, also in the QOR.
Donald Barnard, Fred’s younger brother, also in the QOR.

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.

A peace-time image - Juno Beach in summertime.
A peace-time image – Juno Beach in summertime.

Making Remembrance Day instructive

Outside the Southwold community centre, the sign invites participants to the annual Remembrance week service.
Outside the Southwold community centre, the sign invites participants to the annual Remembrance week service.

Just before I delivered a Remembrance talk in the southwestern community of Shedden, Ont., last Sunday morning, I walked along the back wall of the Southwold Township Complex, where I was to speak. There were perhaps 500 people waiting for the township’s annual pre-Remembrance Day observance to begin.

And standing politely along that back wall, so that older citizens – principally veterans and their spouses – could have seats, were about 20 young army and air cadets. I made a point of introducing myself to them and learning who they were before I spoke.

“I’m 18 and in the Elgin Regiment,” one of them announced proudly.

“And why did you offer your part-time service?” I asked.

“I wanted to say something about my generation,” he said.