'A place for all soldiers': Canadian veterans gather in Normandy to remember D-Day
As memories of the war fade, those who fought struggle to explain the experience to those who came after
It was something Jean Trempe felt called to do.
He needed help, though — someone to hold the 94-year-old former Bren gunner and artilleryman steady as he dipped his foot in the pounding surf of Juno Beach one last time.
"My heart was telling me to go and walk in the water," the former corporal with the Régiment de Maisonneuve de Montreal said today.
Trempe was among a handful of old soldiers who chose to step into the waves off Normandy today — waters which, three-quarters of a century ago, were choked with blood, bodies and wreckage.
He said he knew the moment would reawaken long-sleeping ghosts of the humid, violent summer of 1944. But it was a price he was prepared to pay to honour a youth spent on the knife's edge of a world war — an experience that seemed incomprehensible to the thousands of people of all ages who gathered today to commemorate the triumph of the D-Day landings 75 years ago.
"Maybe tonight, or tomorrow night, I'm going to wake up suddenly and think about it," Trempe said in French as he returned from the beach.
'Thank you so much for coming'
Some of the Canadian veterans walked down to the surf, while others had to be wheeled down to the beach where 14,000 Canadian troops stormed ashore on June 6, 1944 to begin the invasion that signalled the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
A crowd of locals stood by cheering as the veterans made what, for many of them, was almost certainly their last visit to the scene of one of the 20th century's most important battles.
Former lieutenant Bill Anderson waved to the well-wishers as he guided his wheelchair down to the water. "Thank you so much for coming," he said with tears in his eyes.
Asked by a reporter how it felt, he smiled. "How do you think it feels? It's overwhelming."
Juno Beach was one of five Allied landing zones on D-Day — the place where 359 Canadians were killed and over 700 others wounded and captured.
Even 75 years after, Anderson said, the place has lost none of its symbolic power and significance as "a place for all soldiers."
Canada's current top military commander walked down to the beach with the veterans. Afterward, Gen. Jonathan Vance struggled to put his feelings into words.
"A few of them put their feet on that sand, having not been there for 75 years," said the chief of the defence staff. "It was a touching moment. You can imagine what was going through their minds.
"We stand [today] on the shoulders of giants and we're always trying to live up to it."
It was just one of several haunting moments during a day when world leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, tried to invoke with words an experience now fading into the grey mists of history.
"We know there will always be challenging times in the world, but by remembering moments of the past, we can always do better as we look to the future," he said.
Trudeau, who also went down to the beach to mingle with the veterans, said no one who wasn't there 75 years ago can truly appreciate what happened.
And the experience gets more difficult for younger generations to imagine with every passing year, and with every veteran who passes away.
Courseulles-sur-Mer, the fishing town at the mouth of the Seulles River where the Royal Winnipeg Rifles landed on D-Day, has returned entirely to its sleepy pre-war existence. Freshly-painted condos overlook the wide, sandy dunes where so much blood was spilled.
Still, there was a moment during Thursday's event when the 2,000-plus spectators could imagine — even if only for an instant — what it might have been like.
A battery of artillery, pointed inland, delivered its salute as a flight of C-47 Dakota transport planes, marked with black and white invasion stripes, lumbered overhead and gently banked as if preparing to drop hundreds of paratroopers.
"It brings different memories. Good ones and bad ones," said Alfred Hebbs, a Toronto native who served as a gunner with the Sherbrooke Fusiliers.
"But I ended up with the best bunch of guys you could ever imagine."