“It’s very important to honour them, they may not be here, but we must remember them.”
Those words come from Gilbert Morrison, President of the Trail Legion, as the branch readies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day tonight (Thursday, June 6) at 6 p.m. in the Cenotaph.
The Trail Pipe Band will be playing and Reverend Gavin Robertson, of the First Presbyterian Church, will be leading in prayer. As well, Legion members will be laying wreaths and poppies will be distributed.
Morrison encourages all residents to join the Legion to observe this critical date in world history.
“D-Day was one of the most important parts of the war,” he said. “Canadian forces landed there, in France, and kept on going. Other forces stopped and waited, so if it wasn’t for them, we probably wouldn’t have won.”
While so many Second World War veterans are now gone, the Trail Legion has 14 remaining, the Trail Times last wrote a D-Day feature in 2004 to recognize the 60th commemoration of D-Day.
Reporter Lana Rodlie spoke with two Rossland veterans, now passed on, about their memories of where they were on June 6, 1944, the infamous day of the Normandy Invasion during the Second World War.
Ritchie Watkinson and Thelma Portz were 19 and 22-years-old respectively, when they answered the call of duty, Rodlie wrote. Watkinson joined the Army Service Corp and Portz joined the Air Force.
Portz’s duties involved office work, and on D-Day, she was stationed on one of the troop carriers off the coast of England, not your usual steno posting.
“It was hazardous,” she told Rodlie. “We got shot at.”
A witness to the buzz bombs that were launched at England, Portz said she was quite nervous, but “covered it up.”
Her memories focused on some of the more pleasant times: meeting her brothers in London (one stationed on a navy Corvette, the other with the 9th Armoured Division), and coming home.
“You try to blank it out to a certain extent,” she said.
Watkinson had been stationed at the Cliffs of Dover for the nine days leading up to D-Day. One of the lucky ones, his unit was part of a mop-up crew that didn’t cross the English channel until after the invasion.
“We could only imagine what they went through,” the 86-year-old recounted, his voice wavering as he remembered some of the friends he lost during the deadliest battle of the Second World War.
Of the 21,400 Canadian soldiers who forced their way onto the beaches at Normandy against heavy enemy fire that day, 946 were killed and thousands injured.
After the initial invasion on June 6, Watkinson’s unit was sent to repair the airport at Calais, the first airport to be opened in Europe after the battle.
“It was still pretty messy when we went in … The Allies were blasting in France and the Germans had air power, but they didn’t tangle with them boats,” he recounted. “They would scoot in, really low, and shell everybody … We went in on landing craft, driving into the water and onto the shore, just like (the invading forces) did, only they were under fire doing it … I was lucky because I didn’t have to walk. We had vehicles.”
He recalled the hoards of refugees walking along the roads, trying to get home.
“We picked some of them up and took them as far as we could. But that was a ‘no-no.’”
Watkinson and his driver-friend were arrested by military police and taken to the British commander who told them they shouldn’t be picking up refugees.
The commander reported them to their unit commander who chastised them in front of the Brits, but on the side, said, “do what you want.”
“We’re Canadians,” he said. “Not near as strict as the British … A lot of people were walking with big sacks containing all their worldly goods. To get a ride was sure nice for them.”
As 2019 marks the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, the BC/Yukon Command of the Royal Canadian Legion branches have been involved in hosting and facilitating commemoration events since the beginning of this year.
“This year marks a special year for generations affected by World War 2. Our World War 2 veterans are reducing in number, but their honored sacrifice will remain with us forever,” said David Whittier, Executive Director of the BC/Yukon Command in a June 5 media brief.
“While being a veteran myself, and going overseas several times, there is a certain reverence when in the presence of our World War 2 veterans.”