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Memories of Normandy: Kelowna man recalls landing on Juno Beach as lone Japanese-Canadian
When Canadian soldiers took their place with the Allied Forces and stormed Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, an unlikely soldier was among their ranks.
Kelowna resident Tom Morimoto, now 96, was a radio operator with the Third Canadian Division, and in the middle of the legendary assault.
He had squeaked into Canada’s Armed Forces years earlier at two inches too small, nearly 20 pounds too light and entirely of Japanese descent.
“I was the only Japanese Canadian there,” said Morimoto, in a Capital News article written about him in 2012.
His unique position among the thousands of Canadians taking part in D-Day wasn’t completely unforeseeable.
Recruitment officials back home were content to look the other way when it came to his so-called shortcomings because they were so in need of able-bodied men.
As for his ethnicity, Morimoto had enlisted in 1940, before the Japanese became allies with Germany, and Japanese-Canadians were funnelled into internment camps.
“I was patriotic and at that time the Germans were overrunning Europe,” he said.
“It was the last good war. We had to fight that one against the Nazis and then the Japanese.”
That patriotism informed his view on many decisions, and took him on a lifetime of tremendous adventures. What stands out,, however, was the way it took took him away from his home in Fort McMurray, across the country for training, to England for a tour of duty and eventually to Normandy.
By the time he reached the beaches of Normandy, he’d been a soldier for over four years.
The sea-borne invasion required 155,000 soldiers, 5,000 ships and landing craft, 50,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes.
Around 14,000 Canadian soldiers were to land on the beaches, while another 450 were to drop behind enemy lines by parachute or glider.
The Royal Canadian Navy supplied ships and around 10,000 sailors, while the Royal Canadian Air Force supported the invasion.
“When dawn broke on June 6, it revealed an unforgettable sight—thousands of ships, seeming to reach forever across the sea, with the barrage balloons hoisted to keep off low flying enemy aircraft,” he wrote in his memoir, Breaking Trail.
“It was with a mixture of excitement and fear that I approached the beach on D-Day. I think what keeps every soldier going is that he doesn’t think he’ll be hit—it’s the other unfortunate guy who is going to get it.”
His boat arrived on the beach’s shores an hour after the first wave of soldiers landed and, without much strife, they set up camp near what’s now the Canadian cemetery Beny-Sur-Mer and stayed there for months.
Morimoto survived near starvation, non-stop fire and being outclassed in terms of equipment over the course of the long campaign. They even survived communication shortcomings that led to friendly fire.
“Because of poor liaison between the Air Force and the Army over the significance of yellow smoke signals, bombs were dropped on our troops,” he wrote.
“It was the first time I had ever been so close to a Lancaster bomber that I could see the bomb bay doors open and the bombs dropping. This was near Falaise, and I remember seeing men on bicycles pedalling as hard as they could down the road, back to Caen.”
His divisional commander Major General Rodney Keller, who also has a Kelowna connection, was felled by the American bombs, and many others died near the sandy stretch where they had landed just months earlier.
At the end of the two-and-a-half month Normandy campaign, Allied killed, wounded or captured totalled 210,000.
Canadian casualties added up to more than 18,000, including more than 5,000 dead. German casualties were 450,000.
About 5,400 Canadians are buried in Normandy.
Morimoto went on to have a successful life that saw him help shape Canada’s oil and gas industry, monetize an under-utilized part of Dubai’s oil and gas before eventually making Kelowna home.
In the introduction of his memoir, it’s noted that he’s been an active player in many of Western Canada’s pivotal historic moments. But, Normandy and the lives lost there still weigh on him.
In recent years, he’s taken his two granddaughters to the area, and walked through the rows and rows of tombstones that mark the lives of his fallen comrades.
It’s something his granddaughter Ariel said she was taken aback by, noting that there were so many men who were “18, 19, 20, who never had the chance to start their lives.”
It’s something even survivors have chosen to reframe in their minds as time has gone on. “You can’t keep the memories of being afraid, or the bad dreams,” he said.