On June 6, 1944, as one can imagine people in the Okanagan waking to a beautiful late spring morning, apples and cherries ripening, the lake getting warmer, thunder having rolled through the hills the evening before, thousands of young Canadians were dying on a beach in France.
With three tags on their bodies to serve as markers for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, they stormed a coastline thick with land mines and barbed wire, machine gun nests and anti-tank walls.
The stretch from Denmark to the south of France was known as Fortress Europe and more than 450 Canadians parachuted into the abyss, hours before the rest of the Canadian troops rolled up on the shores of Juno Beach, 14,000 of them, earning D-Day a sombre place in this country’s history.
By August, those young soldiers who survived, barely adults and largely inexperienced at battle, would liberate Paris en route to the Allied Forces eventual victory, the staggering death toll of the D-Day bloodbath still a heavy weight in their hearts.
Shaking from a sea so thick most were violently ill even before finding boatloads of fellow soldiers dead on shore, they surged forward. Amid the destruction they found hints of the plan of attack laid out for them in photographs of the beach the day before.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Normandy campaign.
It also may be one of the last times world leaders and veterans of the war stand together in Normandy to remember the day the second front opened. With survivors who helped secure the shoreline dwindling—the villages of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernières-sur-Mer and Saint Aubin-sur-Mer—the opportunity to grasp what it all means, to look into the eyes of those who actually made the sacrifice so often spoken of, is slipping away.
John Cashin, a two-time president of the local Royal Canadian Legion, and his son, Todd, say this was part of the motivation for taking Todd’s son, William, to this year’s D-Day events.
The trio will be at Juno Beach, and possibly Sword Beach, where the Queen, U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will assemble today.
“I think the kids have to realize what we were over there to do,” says John, who enlisted at 17 years old and spent his career in the Canadian Armed Forces artillery.
Now 71, John is too young to have served in either world war. He is too young to remember firsthand what was given, and the soldiers he served with who could have told stories refrained. His uncles, one decorated multiple times and wounded in Italy, another two in field artillery and one an engine technician in the Air Force, didn’t discuss it.
Serving as a peacekeeper in Egypt, shortly after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and before the Libyan-Egyptian War in 1977, gave him that taste of what it means to leave a family behind and voluntarily move toward danger. By 1978, he was named Soldier of the Year. Remembrance Day was taken seriously in the house.
The Cashins lived in Germany twice before the wall fell. It’s where Todd was born and spent a good chunk of his childhood, and his mother, a registered nurse, found work in the military hospital.
John climbed the ranks. He travelled around Europe playing hockey and participated in the Four Days Marches Nijmegen, once walking the 40-kilometres each day with fellow soldiers past the graves of those who fought in WWII, and once serving as quartermaster for the Canadian troops.
Recognizing the efforts of Canadian military men and women was part of the family’s fabric, making a trip back to Europe for D-Day, or a battle anniversary, was a plan of which they spoke often.
“The 70th anniversary is probably going to be the last anniversary or the last big ceremony of any substantial size…In Canada, you’re down to the hundreds in terms of survivors.
“It was forced on me at an early age, but I truly do respect Remembrance Day and what it means to remember and I want to instill that in my kids and teach them about Canadian history,” said Todd.
Every family vacation he takes, Todd says he and his wife try to work in a bit of learning.
The comment precedes an eye roll from his son. William is looking forward to the castles on their father-son-grandfather trip to Europe. He fully admits he doesn’t know what to expect in Normandy. It’s hard for him to picture.
While the Veterans Affairs website has detailed itineraries, travel packages with small pockets of money available to veterans, and enough reading material to make one go blind, making it all seem real or important for a 14-year-old is difficult, even one raised to understand the importance.
Speaking honestly, William says he believes he is supposed to remember the wars. For his generation, it’s largely dependent on how you were raised whether you recognize why it’s so critical.
His father and grandfather are hoping a front-row seat to this week’s events sheds a little light on what 5,400 dead countrymen, lives lost all at once, soldiers just a few years older than him, means. They’re hoping the trip ensures he too will be standing at his local cenotaph each November for many years to come, dragging his children along, reminding them not to forget exactly what humanity is capable of and why we honour the dead.