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Veterans take emotional look at beaches of Normandy

Canadian troops wade ashore after landing in the D-Day invasion at Bernieres-sur-Mer in this June 6, 1944 handout photo. Hundreds of veterans are gathering on June 2009 in Normandy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. The building now known as Queen's Own Rifles House is at left.


Douglas MacDonald was a few months shy of his 21st birthday when he first caught sight of France from the deck of a warship off the coast of Normandy.

The weather was cloudy and drizzly. The Germans were dug in on the beaches. Mr. MacDonald, then a signalman with the Quebec-based Régiment de la Chaudière, remembers looking at the shore and thinking, "My goodness. It's so peaceful."

That was D-Day, 65 years ago, a day he witnessed death and bravery and horror. For most of the rest of his life, Mr. MacDonald could easily recount that quiet moment of wonder yet not what came afterwards. But it stayed with him, he said, "like a toothache that hasn't been fixed."

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French, British, American and Canadian leaders gather along the beaches Sunday to celebrate the Allied landings at Normandy that were a turning point in the Second World War. Their ceremony will feature speeches, accolades and military honour guards.

But a different, more intimate commemoration took place Friday along Juno Beach, the shoreline where 14,000 Canadian troops clambered down ropes from their ships on D-Day and waded ashore in a day-long assault that left 359 of them dead and 715 wounded.

Here, veterans old and young, from the European theatre and from Afghanistan, quietly exchanged their memories of war.

Some of them, like Mr. MacDonald, were seeing the battlefields again for the first time since the war ended.

Others at Juno Beach were seeing the old battlefields of France for the first time in their lives.

Kyle Scott, 27, joined the army just out of high school in Whitecourt, Alta. He served two tours with the 1 Combat Engineer Regiment in Afghanistan, and came to Juno Beach on a tour of sites from the two world wars.

The landscape, and his conversations with the old soldiers, left him in awe.

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"It's something you can't really explain to people until you see how impossible it must have seemed to these guys back then," he said.

For Mr. MacDonald, revisiting the beach was an emotional experience that brought long-silent memories to the surface.

White-haired and leaning on a walker, he "choked up" when he walked along the dunes, now calm and warmed by the spring sun, and gazed out at the water where he could still visualize "all those young men lying in the water, dead."

A lot of movies about the Second World War, especially The Longest Day, accurately portrayed the look and the sound of it, said Mr. MacDonald. But no film, no story, can capture the smell. "Ammunition, gunpowder, dust, dirt - the whole thing," he said. "You inhale it and always remember it."

After he returned home, and for years afterward, he would sometimes jolt awake in a cold sweat, thinking he was there on the beach again. But like a lot of veterans his age, if he talked about his war at all, he related only the amusing anecdotes, like how the French people loaded up the Canadian soldiers with bottles of Calvados and wine.

He said he did not describe the nightmares to his family - at least not until a few years ago when he began thinking about visiting the war cemeteries in Europe. Now, he said, remembering is part of his effort to "come and say my respects to the boys who didn't make it up the beach."

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Mr. Scott said he understood how the old soldiers might have wanted to lock away their memories of combat. He had the same impulse on returning from his second tour in Afghanistan in 2006.

"When we came back from Kandahar, we were all in pretty bad shape," he said. "When we came home, nobody in Canada really understood what it was like. They knew we had been in combat but they didn't understand how badly it changes you."

His first few months back, he recalled, "were a blur of drinking and being angry all the time." He finally sought counselling.

The veterans of the Second World War surely went through the same kinds of distress. "It's no different than it was for these guys," he said, but "they just buttoned up."

He had talked to Mr. MacDonald about it. "I told him, you guys came home physically and mentally broken and there was nothing," Mr. Scott said. "And for us, the government is spending millions of dollars trying to open mental-health centres."

He watched the D-Day veterans, most of them wearing jauntily cocked berets and sporting a row of medals on their chests, make their way along a boardwalk on the dunes overlooking the landing beaches.

They fought their war in "itchy wool and wet boots," he said, without the privileges of modern Canadian soldiers with Kevlar vests and phone calls home.

Mr. Scott had brought his uniform with him to wear at the official ceremony, but did not want to put it on until then. "They asked me to bring it, but I didn't feel right wearing it around these guys," he said, motioning toward the frail veterans gazing down at the beach. "I don't want to deflect attention from them."

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Foreign Editor

Susan Sachs is a former Foreign Editor of The Globe and Mail.Ms. Sachs was previously the Afghanistan correspondent for the newspaper, and covered the Middle East and European issues based in Paris. More

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