Cover

'PLEASE, NEVER AGAIN’

A D-Day veteran brings the horrors of war to a high school classroom

BRIAN BERGMAN June 7 2004
Cover

'PLEASE, NEVER AGAIN’

A D-Day veteran brings the horrors of war to a high school classroom

BRIAN BERGMAN June 7 2004

'PLEASE, NEVER AGAIN’

A D-Day veteran brings the horrors of war to a high school classroom

BRIAN BERGMAN

TWENTY-FIVE Grade 12 students are sitting in a semicircle, listening intently. Les Wagar, 80, is describing how his D-Day differed from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. “The Americans make great movies about Americans—not about history,” he says. “That version of landing on Omaha Beach was a little laughable because everyone stopped to look after the wounded. And you don’t, you simply don’t. If you stop, you’re likely to get wounded too.”

Wagar’s voice falters, his eyes well with tears, but he presses on. “So you keep going because the idea is not to get wounded—it’s to live and shoot. And you can’t be doing that if you are trying to bandage up a friend. That’s what other people do later, OK?”

After the fighting, Wagar suffered for years from night sweats and delirium

The students at Hunting Hills High School in Wagar’s home city of Red Deer, Alta., have studied the Normandy invasion. Now, they are hearing from someone who lived history. Wagar’s talk is part of The Memory Project, an initiative sponsored by the Toronto-based Dominion Institute that brings hundreds of Canadian veterans into schools to share their wartime and peacekeeping experiences. In Wagar’s case, it’s an unsentimental—and brutally honest—account of combat. He is proud of the role Canadians played in defeating the Nazis. But he clearly found no glory in any of it. “Battle honours often come to those who die in the greatest numbers,” Wagar says, after describing one costly encounter. “And that’s why those of us who come back say, ‘Never again, please God, never again.’ ” For Rifleman J.L. Wagar of the Queen’s Own Rifles, only 20 at the time, D-Day and the bloody advance into France were a baptism by fire. For him, the invasion began, he tells the students, shortly before dawn as his 30-man landing craft tossed in the swelling waters off Juno Beach. Many, Wagar included, threw up their breakfast. His first thought after hitting the sand was, “Thank God for solid ground!” The relief didn’t last long. While his company faced little resistance on the beach, the battles inland took a heavy toll. Over the following days and weeks, he saw comrades torn apart by snipers’ bullets, land mines and “friendly fire” bombing blunders. He witnessed brutality on both sides and was shocked, he says, by “how easily the civilized pretence of humanity slips off.”

Describing himself as a loner before, during and after the war, Wagar says he didn’t allow himself to become emotionally attached to his fellow soldiers. “It was hard enough to see people killed,” he says, his eyes tearing up again. “Had they been my friends, I couldn’t have gone on. Not a happy way to go through a war. But it was my way.”

One of the students asks Wagar if he was injured in combat. At first he says no, then pauses. “I was seriously injured because I was in a war,” he says. “You can’t come out of that without a pin going upside down in your head.” In fact, Wagar suffered for years from night sweats and delirium, the apparent result of his adrenal glands working overtime as if he were still fighting the war.

Afterwards, Wagar worked as an actor, stagehand and, for 20 years, a drama teacher. Never once, he says, did his social studies colleagues ask him to address their classes about the war. “I looked at the textbooks and saw that the Canadian role was barely mentioned,” he says. “They had buried us—and I don’t like to be buried.” So he welcomes the chance to participate in The Memory Project. As he tells the Red Deer students, “Talking about this seems to help.”

The feeling is mutual. Following Wagar’s address, several students say how much they appreciated a personal perspective on the war. None more so than Leanne Langlois, 17, whose grandfather is also a Second World War vet. “He’s never talked about it,” she says. “If you ask him a pointed question, he gets this haunted look in his eyes and changes the subject.” Listening to Wagar, says Langlois, reinforced “how emotionally straining this must have been. You can see it in their body movements and tone of voice. Something unimaginable must have happened.” lïl