Nfld. & Labrador

2nd, and last, time to France for this D-Day survivor to mark 75th anniversary

"Not that many [left]," says Rod Deon of his fellow sailors and soldiers who landed on the beaches in Normandy.

'Not that many [left],' says Rod Deon of his fellow sailors and soldiers who landed on the beaches in Normandy

Rod Deon is going back to France this year, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. He hasn't been there since the Second World War. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

When Rod Deon sets foot in France next week, the 97-year-old veteran says it will be a stark contrast to the only other time he visited the country — on June 6, 1944, better known as D-Day.

"This is the first time [back]. The last time," he said with a laugh. "The second and last time."

Deon, just weeks shy of his 98th birthday, is one of the few surviving sailors who were dispatched to the beaches near Normandy on D-Day, a military campaign that marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

He'll be one of 45 people being flown over to France by Veterans Affairs Canada, to take part in the special commemoration ceremony.

Deon set up this display, ahead of the anniversary, at the Tiffany Village in St. John's. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

Hundreds of Canadians died on the beaches that day, 75 years ago.

It's a memory that Deon says never fades.

"It was a mess. It was a big, big mess. And it's very hard to describe," he said, recounting the thousands of ships, aircraft, sailors and soldiers surrounding him.

"Airplanes overhead by the thousands, U-boats chasing us all over the place, people dying on the beach. It's just like a thunderstorm. It's like a tornado."

It's a day at a time. It seems like yesterday.- Rod Deon

The chief petty officer, born in Nova Scotia in 1921, joined the Canadian Navy as a young man. In his later years he moved to St. John's to be closer to his daughter, and now spends his retirement at Tiffany Village.

Deon still remembers how it felt landing on the beach, but said it's impossible to explain it to someone who wasn't there.

"There was so much going on and it's hard to describe. Because when there's so much going on, your mind is something else," he said.

'I'm so pleased it's happening'

The memories haven't faded with time for Deon, who said his memory is as vivid now as it ever was.

"It's a day at a time. It seems like yesterday, because time goes fast."

Deon was originally planning to take part in a memorial in St. John's, but has since found out he's being flown to Normandy for a special 75th anniversary ceremony — a trip he's excited to take.

Deon when he joined the navy, and Deon today. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

"I did something for your country, but the country will do something for me. I feel glad. I'm so pleased it's happening," Deon said.

When Deon enlisted, he wanted to be part of the effort to put a stop to the war that he said was tearing the world apart.

But these days, Deon said the modern world doesn't look the way he thought it would.

"It seems … too much. It's too much going on now. When I was a kid it wasn't like that. It was different. The world is different now. It's a different world than it used to be when I was a kid," he said.

Deon has photo albums full of memories from his time in the navy. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

"I think it's worse. There's wars going on right now — somewhere in the world there's somebody fighting, all the time. All the time. There's millions of people in the Middle East starving to death, and there's wealthy people all around. There's more wealthy people now than there ever was, and more poor people."

In St. John's, Deon's face is a familiar one to many who have bought poppies from him.

Every year, ahead of, Remembrance Day, Deon sits at tables organized by the Royal Canadian Legion, selling poppies.

People are usually grateful to him, and his fellow veterans, but Deon said he's had less-than-pleasant run-ins before.

"Some people are not interested in the war … some laugh at us, some make fun. I was at the shopping plaza in Toronto … and I was canvassing poppies and this woman came, looked at me, pointed at me and she said, 'You should be ashamed. You went there so you could kill a German,'" Deon said.

Deon is just a few weeks shy of his 98th birthday. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

"I said, 'No, I went there so the Germans don't kill us.'… It was a good answer. I joined the navy so they don't kill us. I wasn't thinking about killing people, I was just thinking of stopping the war. And get back to normal. That's what I wanted to be, normal."

But no matter the experiences he's had, Deon is looking forward to the sombre anniversary.

It's not often he gets to sit with other survivors from the battle.

"Not that many [left]," he said. "Not D-Day. D-Day, there's very few.

"I might meet some person up there that was there with me. I know one or two that I think will be there."

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