Capt. Callum Thompson, a Canadian chaplain, conducts a funeral service in the Normandy bridgehead in France in July 1944. Photo courtesy Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

Francis Campbell: Champions of freedom embody Christian values

  • June 12, 2019

Canadians ought to reflect on the summer of 75 years ago with an equal measure of pride and sadness.

The 1944 Battle of Normandy, beginning on June 6, 1944 with the massive Allied invasion of German-occupied France and continuing for the better part of two months, marked a turning point in the Second World War and produced thousands of individual tales of Canadian wartime courage and heroism.

Among 150,000 Allied troops that stormed the beaches were 14,000 Canadians. There were 359 Canadians killed on that brutal, chaotic day among a total of 1,074 first-day Canadian casualties.

As a newspaper reporter, I had the privilege to talk with three survivors of the D-Day invasion in the run-up to the 75th anniversary. All three — a soldier, a navy landing craft bowman and an aircraft gunner — are in their mid-to-late 90s but their minds and memories ring clear when the talk turns to Juno Beach.

True gentlemen, their stories were strikingly similar despite disparate backgrounds. The airman hailed from Halifax, the navy man grew up in Montreal and the infantryman came from a rural community in northeastern New Brunswick. Their common thread was a teenage aspiration to complete school and join the armed forces to be with their buddies, for something to do, to see some of the world and to push back against an already reviled German dictator who had a stranglehold on Europe. 

When the three decorated war heroes talked of D-Day, the conversation inevitably turned to the chaos and carnage that beset the Normandy beaches. The trio had trained for months on end but, as one veteran explained, no amount of training can stop a bullet.

The miserable weather, the artillery exchange, the charging tanks and the German mines set in the water to protect the beaches all contributed to the confusion.

“The sight of our boys being blown up and the other sights I saw wouldn’t leave my mind,” one of the veterans wrote in a diary that was later turned into a book.

The most difficult part of battle, cited one of the veterans, was not being able to stop and tend to buddies who were wounded, men who had become as close as brothers and had to be left behind because it was someone else’s job to help them. Seventy-five years later, one of the veterans talked about still being haunted by nightmares.

The most salient commonality in their accounts was modesty and self-effacement in sharing their stories. The trio talked about a sense of duty, doing what had to be done, taking the actions they had been trained to take. It was the sense that anyone would do the same thing. There were no claims of heroism although all three proudly sported medals representing courageous service.

They thought of themselves as ordinary Canadians who enlisted for military service, like so many of their age. Nothing special, just acquiescent compliance with whatever was asked of them.

Anniversary ceremonies at home and in France marked the not-so-ordinary efforts of the Canadians who fought, suffered and sacrificed at Normandy. The humility of the three veterans was a direct contrast to the actions of at least one other D-Day anniversary participant. 

Amid a flurry of bombast personally and on Twitter, U.S. President Donald Trump, visiting England and France during the week of D-Day, made a claim at a news conference of having the all-time record of support from the Republican Party. That boast, although minimal in scope to many other of the president’s fabrications, wasn’t even close to the truth and had absolutely nothing to do with the agenda of his European trip.

Trump was apparently incapable of making his visit entirely about the American troops who were killed and wounded during the Normandy invasion and liberation of France. He made the story about himself, a man who purportedly used money and influence to avoid military service during the Vietnam War.

The three Canadian war heroes discussed earlier joined four other D-Day veterans from around the country to take centre stage at a commemoration ceremony at the Willow Park Armoury in Halifax on June 6. They sat stoically as Gov.-Gen. Julie Payette and others shared their perspectives on what the veterans experienced on the beaches of Normandy.

These wartime heroes embody a Christian way of life, adhering to Christ’s call to love one another and that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.

In the wake of D-Day memorials, we must remember the lives lost and the innocence of youth sacrificed. Personally, I will remember three steadfast champions of freedom, forever noble and unassuming despite their extraordinary deeds.

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)

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