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Stories of sacrifice, challenge and triumph

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Jason Pankratz - Tillsonburg Legion

As a historian, I am always taking notes about times, dates and places. I make scribblings of facts and stories. I mark things on my calendar at home and enjoy ‘this day in history’ web pages. May 8th was VE Day. May 24 was Queen Victoria’s birthday. I love dates. I wish I went on more of them. Ha ha.

Monday, June 6th will be the 72nd anniversary of D-Day. I am proud to say that I knew people who served during that time. I had an opportunity to get to know a veteran who was a survivor of the first wave assault at Juno Beach. Another gentleman entered the beach hours after the first wave and described it as “not bad compared to the fellows ahead of us.”

My grandpa served as a truck driver and unloaded cargo along Mulberry Harbour at Gold Beach. He remembered all the duck boats carrying supplies and men. Another was constructed at Omaha Beach. These harbours were constructed of portable, floating concrete pads for the unloading and transporting of goods from supply ships. It was only after I had returned home from a historical Europe trip that grandpa had told me this. If I had have known then, we could have easily driven west of Juno Beach to Gold Beach to see the remnants and ruins of the harbour and where grandpa had served.

The stories of sacrifice, challenge and triumph are numerous when researching the 1944 Invasion of Normandy. The Allied preparation was highly secret and immensely detailed. Soldiers were trained with large sand tables of how the invasion would occur. Doug Vidler remembered landing beaches being given names of flowers as identification during this training. It wasn’t clear when or specifically where they were going to land, but the soldiers knew it was something big.

The codename for the Normandy landings was Operation Neptune. The codename for the ‘big push’ through which the landings took place was called Operation Overlord. The landing beaches were given specific names too. From west to east, the American’s landed at Utah and Omaha, the British at Gold, Canadians at Juno and the British at Sword.

There are some worthy films that represent the experience in action, politics and perspective. ‘Storming Juno’ is an excellent Canadian film. Clearly, it represents the events Canadians experienced during the invasion. Of course, we cannot forget the visual and visceral experience of ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ In retrospect, I saw that film for the first time in theatres when it came out, as a high school field trip with veterans. I watched it recently and I'm still in awe those veterans had the courage to experience that film in the theatre. Contemporary audiences are haunted by its opening scenes. Lastly, arguably my favourite film is ‘The Longest Day.’ This film was released in 1962. Some of its stars participated in the Normandy landing and other battles. The film does not demonize the ‘enemy’ like many other Hollywood pictures of the time. It presents a good historical portrayal of both sides through central figures, politics and military strategy (though Eisenhower apparently walked out of the film when he saw it due to its gross inaccuracies and romanticized interpretation).

Next time you’re in the Legion canteen, ask about the ‘borrow and return’ library we have. If you are interested in knowing more about D-Day or other military conflicts, this library is a great source of information. Don’t forget to raise a glass to those who served and sacrificed. Take a look at some of the artifacts the Legion has too. As the years pass, let us honour the memory of the men and women who took part during these dates that we now consider ‘history.’ 

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