The Beaches: Part Four

Stephen felt, as he had done before at moments of extreme tension, a dislocation in his sense of time. It seemed to stutter, then freeze.

Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong

The mind truly is a fascinating bit of machinery – I’m sure I’ve mentioned that before.

When the mind is at peace, bathing in a sense of calm, moments somehow fly by and before we know it, the peace is gone and we have encountered a new problem to solve or responsibility to take care of.

I know this from the little meditation I have done in my life. When I am truly able to calm my mind and focus on my breath, 5-10-15 minutes go by in a snap and suddenly the meditation is over and it’s time to get going on my To-Do list again.

And yet, in moments of stress or tension, time seems to slow down or even freeze completely. It’s almost as if our mind wants us to savour every single second of intense anguish so as to ensure that we keep ourselves as far away as possible from similar situations in the future.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for the opposite to be true? For happiness and peace to drag on forever while sadness and strife are over in the blink of an eye?

If you know a trick to make the mind’s mechanics flip like this, please let me know. Because in today’s blog, I’m going to talk about a painful experience which seemed to last for ages. An experience which cemented my firm belief that all life is immensely precious – a belief I hold sacred especially in today’s day and age with the Covid-19 pandemic still ravaging the world and mass graves of Indigenous children being found throughout the country.

But, I digress….

Once I had spent enough time on Juno beach itself, crying for all those lives lost so many years before I was born, I finally rejoined Dad and we made our way into the Juno beach centre, which houses the permanent museum about the DDay landings and the Canadian experience of World War Two in general.

I don’t know if you have had the chance to see it, but it really is something. The angular steel-like building juts out of the landscape sharply, making its presence known while suggesting the harsh, unnatural nature of what happened there that day. Apparently from above it mimics the shape of the maple leaf but I can’t confirm that first hand (do I need to buy a drone for my travels? Hmmmm).

Unfortunately I don’t have a view from above (or even straight on) but this lovely image captures the place nicely (Photo: Daniel Evans on flickr, CC BY 2.0)

We paid our way inside and then headed into the exhibit’s intro.

They start you off in a tight, slanted room, dark and cold, where they play a video that puts you right back on June 6th, 1944 in one of the boats riding through the waves on the way to land at Juno. All around, they somehow create an atmosphere where you can feel the crushing closeness of your fellow soldiers, complete with the sounds of them calming each other down, asking for a cigarette, questioning what they’re heading into. It ends with the boat hitting the shore and you’re allowed to “leave the boat” and enter the exhibition space.

It was dark, so Dad and I couldn’t see each other, but I could tell it upset him by how he tensed up. I myself was shocked into silence and I hastily wiped the tears off my face as the doors on the other end opened. If their plan was to deliver a precise emotional punch to the gut to ensure you’re in the right mindset to take in all the information inside the museum proper: mission accomplished. I was breathless.

This was exactly the image I pictured in that opening room. My pulse raced. I was terrified. (Photo: Public Domain)

The rest of the exhibition was a little easier to handle – lots of panels filled with loads of information. Enough to allow me to put a bit of distance between myself and the events being described so that I could learn something instead of blubbering inconsolably throughout the tour.

There were so many artefacts and videos – you could spend days in there and still not see everything. I did my very best but probably took in significantly less than Dad, speed reader that he is.

At one point near the end, I almost ran into an older gentleman dressed in uniform with a large amount of medals pinned on his chest. He was coming out of the “memories” room which featured all kinds of video testimonies from men who were there on DDay and who had survived – asking them what they still remembered. He looked lost and forlorn with this faraway gaze in his eyes as if he wasn’t totally there in the museum but wandering somewhere through his memories. Before I could ask him if he was OK, a young woman who might have been his granddaughter came up and took his arm to lead him away.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that look in his eyes – or forgive myself for not speaking to him when I had the chance.

There were a few points in the exhibition where, try as I might to read the facts with some emotional detachment, I couldn’t help but allow myself to feel the sadness welling up inside me. And that’s without having listened to all the first-hand testimonies. Maybe I’ll go back someday and focus on these but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to handle that emotional toll.

The first panel which managed to break through my protective barrier was the description of the disaster in Hong Kong where all of our men, down to the last, were either slaughtered or taken prisoner. And for some of the POWs. it might have been better for them not to have survived the few days of fighting at all.

I know that may sound cruel but the treatment they had to endure at the hands of the Japanese soldiers…That was a fate worse than death for some.

These men are nowhere near the peak of physical fitness they would have been when they were captured… (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, PA-145983)

Random historical fact #22

The Canadian soldiers who had been sent to defend Hong Kong not long before the hostilities commenced were primarily from two battalions: The Royal Rifles of Canada (Quebec City) and the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Thing is, most of these soldiers had absolutely no combat experience. They were underequipped and undertrained and in no way prepared for the assault they were about to face from the well-organized Japanese forces. Without any air or naval support, the men were left to use what few resources they had to defend the city along with their British and Indian compatriots against an exceptionally trained Japanese army overwhelmingly supported by a large air and naval component. They had no chance. While praising the bravery of his fellow soldiers, Veteran George MacDonnell, who survived the battle and its aftermath, referred to the experience of staving off certain defeat as being in the midst of a “cauldron of Hell“. I can’t even imagine. By the end of the battle, with the Japanese claiming their expected victory, 290 Canadian soldiers were dead and another 493 were wounded. All 1685 surviving soldiers were taken prison. Every single one.

And, as mentioned above, the surviving soldiers fared little better than the dead ones. Apparently, since defeat was deemed unacceptable in Japanese culture at the time (perhaps still in some circles?), their captors didn’t believe they deserved to live at all. Since they had surrendered alive, they were unworthy of the life they clung onto.

They were treated as less than human: starved, tortured, worked to death, executed on a whim. It’s remarkable that any survived at all but those that did would bear the scars of their captivity for the rest of their lives – both internally and externally.

Just more of the countless casualties of a war that destroyed the lives of so many.

Though there were many more points in the exhibition which caused me to breakdown in grief, the next one to draw tears was the description of the failed raid on Dieppe.

In a war already filled with so much death and destruction, this one really stood out for me personally. It was almost a completely one-sided slaughter of mostly Canadian troops – under the command of the Brits.

And the worst part? It was later admitted to have been a test for the real D-Day landings. A way to get a feel for the German defenses. The just over 6000-strong strike force made up of roughly 5000 Canadians, 1000 Brits, some navy, RAF, and 50 American rangers were sent like lambs to the slaughter. As a test.

In only a few hours, the Canadian troops had sustained 3,367 casualties…out of 5000 men. This is not to discount the losses of the other forces but that’s a casualty rate of 68%…and more than 900 of these were killed with 1,874 taken prisoner.

Wounded Canadian soldiers in the aftermath of the Dieppe raid (Photo: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-291-1205-14 / Koll / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

These numbers are completely incomprehensible, I know. But they’re huge, and incredibly disturbing in their size. The top brass KNEW Dieppe wasn’t going to be a success. They may not have expected so many casualties but they certainly didn’t think they were going to win.

So, essentially, they sent our boys in there knowing it wasn’t going to end well. I can’t shake the feeling that those Canadians were willingly sacrificed for the “greater good”. I’m not suggesting I would have preferred some other country’s people were sent in, not at all. I get that I don’t have any military experience. But was there REALLY no other way?

Yes, the failed raid may have saved countless lives 2 years later on D-Day but at what cost? It’s sickening to think of men using other men as pawns – pawns worth sacrificing. What is wrong with people.

Anyway, I should move on before I raise my blood pressure too much…

It was a group of artefacts that made my heart sink next. In a small room right near the end was a row of personal items belonging to Canadian soldiers which were uncovered on Juno beach throughout the last few decades. They were each heartbreaking in their own way but I think the worst by far was a helmet with what looked disturbingly like either a shell or a bullet hole in it.

You tell me. What does that hole look like? (Photo: ErinOfTheHills)

I had the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that whatever had made its way through that hole was what had killed its onetime owner.

I looked away with tears pricking my eyes only to be faced with a scrolling list of names: the Canadians killed during World War Two. The list was scrolling slowly enough to allow one to comfortably read each and every name and yet a note below it said it would take 13 hours to watch through.

13 HOURS.

If that doesn’t show what a horror this conflict was, I don’t know what will.

Scratch that. Conflict in general is horrific – I wish it would all just stop.

The final video at the end was meant to sum it all up and highlight the importance of remembering the sacrifice of so many.

It wasn’t working that day and in all honesty? I’m kind of glad this was the case. I’m not sure I could have handled it at that point.

It turned out Dad and I had spent 3 hours in the Museum. It had felt like an eternity of grief and incredulity. We had truly felt a dislocation in our sense of time through all the tension of the panels and panels of incomprehensible information.

Maybe that final video would have suggested there was hope for humanity, I’m not sure, but what we were left with was a cold feeling of sadness and despair.

Revisiting this experience has brought these feelings back in extraordinary force which is why I will be ending this rather long blog here tonight. I’ll finish up the visit to the Beaches next month. I promise.

And remember, though the topic of this blog may make this statement hard to swallow…Life is beautiful.

We owe it to the countless humans who have lost their lives to warfare to remember this. Live this beautiful life for those who no longer have that chance.

xo Erin

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