Marci McDonald June 11 1984


Marci McDonald June 11 1984


Marci McDonald

The tide is out on the beach at Bernières-sur-Mer. In the languid afternoon sun, lovers sprawl in front of a row of neat white changing cabins. Farther along the shore shrieking children tumble down dunes studded with buttercups. But down by the water’s edge, three elderly men in polished shoes and Sunday-best suits pace and repace the sand flats littered with mussel shells and memories. They point and argue, trying to get it right—struggling to see again through the sleepy resort tableau the bloody killing ground that

they first encountered on one chilly, terrifying dawn 40 years ago when they hit the beach under a hail of gunfire with Le Régiment de la Chaudière.

Louis Rousseau, a retired agronomist from Charlesbourg, Que., just outside Quebec City, squints to focus on the faded Tudor housefront looming over the shore. He was a 31-year-old captain when he saw it first in the grey halftones of daybreak. He recognized it instantly as the marker from all the nameless aerial photographs he had studied in simulated landing drills in England. Recalled Rousseau: “When I saw it, I knew this was not a game anymore. This was the war for real.”

It is Rousseau’s fourth trip back to Bernières-sur-Mer, where an Allied monument now marks the beach and such

place names as the Auberge de la Chaudière and the Rue Queen’s Own Rifles bear witness to the Canadian landing. Beside him is Etienne Poirier, a 64year-old Canada Pension Plan administrator in Quebec City who has returned once before. But for Armand Leblanc, a burly Canadian coastguardman from the Iles de la Madeleine, the experience is the most painful: it is his first pilgrimage. “I had to come before I was too old,” he said. With a Chaudière regimental tiepin glinting on his shirtfront, he strides to the relics of a German bunker, now littered with picnickers’ garbage. On the stone memorial in which the Chaudière and Queen’s Own

Rifles crests are imbedded, he reads: “A Tous Nos Morts: To All Our Dead.” His eyes mist over with a flood tide of memory: the wounded and the corpses he was in charge of rounding up on the beach, his older brother Emmanuel racing up the sand ahead through the carnage. “To see all this again after 40 years, it does something to you,” he says. “It churns up the guts. It is like an initiation back into the fire.”

Scrambled: But, despite the wrench, they have come—Rousseau, Poirier, Leblanc and others from regiments across Canada. Officials expect as many as 3,000 Canadian D-Day veterans to turn up for the celebrations in Normandy this week to keep the faith with that moment on June 6, 1944, when they scrambled into history to set a conti-

nent free on that 10-km stretch of sand code-named Juno. Only 44 will arrive with the official party, courtesy of Veterans’ Affairs Minister Bennett Campbell. The rest have paid their own way. Indeed, some veterans are bitter at the government’s lack of help. A Torontobased D-Day committee of legionnaires from the Queen’s Own Rifles, which requested Canadian flags, lapel pins and ground transportation for the veterans

between memorial sites, is still offended at Campbell’s refusal—which he explained was necessary because of a tight budget. In fact, the government is spending about $500,000 to finance the costs of sending the official party of 95, more than half of whom are senators, MPs, youth representatives and journalists. Ontario Agent Général in Paris Adrienne Clarkson finally supplied funds to buy pins and flags. “But zilch— that is the help we have had from the Canadian government,” said a Queen’s

Own spokesman. “We are absolutely disgusted.”

For Normandy residents the return of the Canadians is stirring as well. Hearing Rousseau, Poirier and Leblanc’s accents, a white-haired Bernières citizen named Reine Duval came down to the beach to hug them. She remembers emerging from hiding 40 years ago to the sight of a Canadian soldier. Said Duval: “I cut the buoys off

him and kissed him. I said to my husband, ‘We have been delivered.’ It was beautiful to see them coming up the beach so young like that to free us and speaking our own language.”

Ducked: For most who come, the pivotal souvenir is not this week’s official pomp but a private moment on some seafront or field trying both to recapture and put to rest the haunting remembrance of things past. For Stanley Hughes, who was a scared, skinny buck private of 22 from New Glasgow, N.S.,

when he raced up the Bernières beach with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, the memory is of the lane where he ducked into the cover of a pigsty. Two days later a German Panzer division trapped his unit outside the Abbey Dardennes in nearby Authie, and murdered 18 after they had surrendered. He has driven all day to find the abbey again with its 18 memorial plaques, where he had watched the two boys ahead of him shot down in cold blood. He lived to be taken prisoner and shipped to Leipzig, standing for 23 days in a fetid boxcar with only a bucket for a toilet. Inside the abbey again he breaks down and weeps. “You say to yourself, why them?

Why not me?” He shakes his head. “I wanted to come back. I was looking for something, I guess, something of myself that I left here. You think: how foolish I must have been then. I thought it was all going to be an adventure.”

Marcel Bélanger, a retired Canadian diplomat in Bordeaux and another veteran of Le Régiment de la Chaudière, has returned to Bernières-sur-Mer at least 30 times. Now, as then, he stays with the Desvages family who took him in as a shell-shock victim during the brutal fight for the Caens-Carpiquet airfield. But the site to which he always returns is the Canadian cemetery inland at Beny-sur-Mer—2,049 headstones carved with maple leaves fanning out under the chestnut and plantain trees in lovingly manicured rows,

jewelled with irises and pansies. “It is a wrench to see the names again,” he says. “The ages: 21, 22, 23.1 don’t like it, but still I go back. I feel I must. For me the ones who should have the glory are the ones six feet under.”

Righteous: Occasionally, wandering among the graves a sickening question seizes him. “Sometimes I wonder if all those sacrifices were worth it,” he says. “What have we learned? We are still fighting, still killing each other. Maybe we do not have a Hitler, but it is not sure that we won’t have a Khomeini.” The world has changed irrevocably from that terrible morning of June 6, 1944. At no time since have good and

evil shone so clearly. Never since then has the world seemed quite so simple or the Allies so united with a sense of common purpose and moral righteousness. “I believe patriotism does not exist like that anymore,” says Bélanger. Adds Hughes: “People are more interested in themselves today.” But Rousseau argues that young people now have an undeserved reputation. “They would do it all over again, I am sure, if they had to,” he says. For each of them, this week’s celebrations are not what is important: it is the remembering. Recollection is the pact that they keep with those who landed on the now-silent shores and never lived to see what their blood won. Says Bélanger: “It will be good for young people to remember. But those who were in the war will never forget.”