Islanders on D-Day: ‘It was just a sea of dead and dying. You never forget it.’

Earl Clark still flashed back to D-Day. “Every once in a while, you wake up in the night and, boom, you’re right there,” the 97-year-old said, gripping the arms of his wheelchair.

He could hear the mortar rounds raining down, see the machine-gun rounds slapping the water like heavy hail as the Canadian Scottish — all those Victoria boys, Nanaimo boys, Comox Valley boys — poured onto Juno Beach.

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“As soon as the landing barges hit the beach, we had to race like crazy, because if you stayed on the beach for one second, you were going to get mowed down.”

Up the slope they scrambled, weighed down with gear — rifle, pack, a short-handled shovel.

It wasn’t any safer when they reached the top. “That’s where Jerry had his fortifications. He poured the lead at us.”

The Canadians had to keep their legs moving if they wanted to stay alive. “You’d go a few feet, hit the ground, roll over, and do that again.” Stay in one spot, the machine guns would zero in. “You just kept going.”

It was awful. “There were dead and dying all over the place.” Canadians. Germans and their allies. They all fell.

“It was just a sea of dead and dying. You never forget it.”

There was no bravado to Earl Clark’s story, no flag-waving. The opposite, in fact. He reddened and trembled a bit, had to pause while reliving the day. Behind him in their room at Saanich’s Veterans Memorial Lodge at Broadmead, his wife Margaret, her posture perfect, listened to her husband’s story in silence.

• • •

That was in 2014, exactly 70 years after D-Day and two before Earl Clark died.

This wasn’t John Wayne in The Longest Day or Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. Clark was a salt-of-the-earth guy from Vancouver Island, not an actor, and what is Hollywood — or history — to the rest of us was real life to him.

Real life to a lot of other Islanders, too. Vancouver Island sacrificed disproportionately on June 6, 1944. The soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Victoria-based Canadian Scottish regiment were among the first ashore when more than 14,000 Canadians landed in Normandy that day. Other Islanders piloted landing craft through the mine-strewn surf, or parachuted into the blackness of the pre-invasion night.

It has been a source of national pride ever since, Canada being assigned one of the five invasion beaches (Sword and Gold went to the British, Omaha and Utah to the U.S.) for one of the most significant battles in history.

The Royal Canadian Navy was there, too, 10,000 sailors in 109 ships bombarding the French coastline and carrying troops and supplies through the heavily mined waters. The Royal Canadian Air Force also had a hand in Operation Overlord, the official name of the invasion of western Europe.

Over the years, I got to write about a lot of D-Day vets — almost none of whom remain today. Chester Stefanek was one of those on the 10-kilometre expanse of Juno Beach in 1944, drove a transport vehicle while under fire. Bill Fisher’s role in the invasion involved jumping out of a plane. Peter Ramsay led a company of the Canadian Scottish in the first wave to hit his section of French soil. Bob Parlow was offshore aboard HMCS St. Laurent, which was firing at German positions.

Clark was a logger before the war, part of a hard-working pioneer family in Shirley, past Sooke, where he grew up with eight brothers and a sister. He was a logger during the war, too, serving in the Canadian Forestry Corps in northern Scotland. That’s where he met Margaret, she of the lovely brogue, at a dance. “At least I didn’t step on her toes,” he said. They were married for 74 years.

Clark was shifted to the Canadian Scottish just before D-Day. A Polish ship ferried his company across the English Channel. They scrambled down netting hanging from its hull to get to the landing craft that ran them to Juno Beach. He recalled that a Major English was in charge. He remembered another officer, too. “His tank got hit and he lost both his legs.”

By the end of the day, the regiment was 10 kilometres inland, farther than anyone else.

The Canadian Scottish experience was well-documented in Ready for the Fray, the regimental history written by Reg Roy in 1957. The infantry unit lost 87 soldiers on D-Day. More than 200 men, almost a third of the battalion’s pre-invasion strength, had become casualties by the fourth day of fighting.

The battle for the town of Putot-en-Bessin alone saw 45 Canadian Scottish killed and another 80 wounded. (The Royal Winnipeg Rifles suffered there, too, including a couple of dozen men who were flat-out murdered by SS troops after being taken prisoner.)

On D-Day itself, some of the Canadian Scottish were ferried across the English Channel aboard the Prince Henry, which in peacetime served the B.C. coast as a Canadian National steamship. That resulted in some halfway-around-the-world reunions: As Lt. Stew Ross of the CanScots marched up the gangplank in England, he dropped the 80 pounds of gear on his back and embraced 23-year-old Lt. Jack Davie, the leader of the ship’s flotilla of landing craft. “Then Ross took Davie to a shipboard reunion with Maj. Dick Lendrum, who used to teach them both in the high school at Duncan, B.C.,” reported a newspaperman aboard Prince Henry.

Ross did not survive the war but Davie and Lendrum did, and remained friends. “After the war I used to say to Dick that putting him on the beach in Normandy was my revenge for him trying to teach me Latin,” Davie told me in 2001.

That was in his Maple Bay home at a reunion with six others who had lived through that day: Jimmy Mason of the Prince Henry’s crew and five — Billy Lindsay, Herb Millar, Frank Maxwell, Doug Townson and Dave Paterson (the father of journalist Jody Paterson) — who had ferried the soldiers ashore aboard the ship’s landing craft. The boats were basically wooden-bottomed, armoured-sided barges designed to carry about 30 soldiers and a crew of four.

It was about 10 kilometres from the Prince Henry to the Normandy beach, but things didn’t start getting hairy until the landing craft tried to wriggle through the obstacles — heavy steel tripods, many of them wired with Teller mines and percussion-tipped artillery shells — that the Germans had strewn thickly through the beach and shallows.

Mortar bombs began falling among them. One exploded as coxswain Townson was weaving his boat through the obstacles. It left him with a piece of shrapnel that remained in his head for the rest of his life. (“It wasn’t much,” he shrugged in 2001. “It just knocked me out, is all.”) Townson recovered and kept pushing for the beach. His craft unloaded the troops, but a line fouled on something and the boat drifted sideways until it hit a mine. It was the other guys who relate how Townson and crew pulled his badly wounded stoker out of the belly of the vessel, how they put out the fire before the flames reached the fuel tanks.

Things went a bit better in Davie’s craft. They gave their Canadian Scottish a dry landing, and were about to pull out when they saw a wounded corporal from the Winnipegs calling for help.

Davie half-carried him back to the landing craft, kicking stray wires out of their feet on the way. “Little did I know that these were rusted trip wires designed to detonate the bombs between the beach obstacles,” related Davie. “We put this fellow on a stretcher, gave him a shot of morphine, and just as we backed off the beach, a wave pushed us onto a beach obstacle, which holed us.”

Two other landing craft, including Paterson’s, tied up to Davie’s and got it safely back to the Prince Henry. (“The crew bailed furiously because they didn’t think they could make it,” wrote a reporter who interviewed Davie after he returned to the ship.) Their D-Day experience could have been worse, said Paterson. “It wasn’t as bad as we expected.” There was lots of shrapnel flying around, but “those obstacles took your mind off the rest of the stuff.”

Roy’s history offered another perspective. While only one of the Prince Henry’s eight landing craft was lost, all eight belonging to another ship, the Prince David, were destroyed. Heavy seas swamped tank landing craft several kilometres from shore. Concentrated mortar fire from the shore knocked out many tanks before the landing craft even reached the beach. Many soldiers (including those who had disembarked from the Prince Henry, whose crew had provided the Canadian Scottish with a much-appreciated lunch of two boiled eggs and a cheese sandwich to add to their rations) became seasick.

On shore, the fighting was relatively light in places, furious in others. An aboriginal soldier, Pte. B.M. Francis, killed two or three snipers, including one he shot from the hip without aiming from a distance of 50 metres, before himself being killed, Roy wrote. Ordered to take out a dangerous German gun emplacement, Lt. Bernie Clarke replied with the now-legendary “Who? ME?” before doing the job. Hardest hit of all was a platoon led by Lt. Roger Schjelderup, a young officer from Courtenay.

I found out about Schjelderup by accident one day in the year 2000 while leafing through a file of old Second World War photos gathering dust in the Times Colonist library. One of the fading black-and-whites, an army public relations picture, showed a pair of pyjama-clad D-Day casualties perched on a British hospital bed, cigarettes in hands, playing cards. It was the kind of frozen-in-time image that makes you wonder what happened to its subjects, which is why I looked them up.

One of the card players was Schjelderup, who had proven himself remarkable even before joining the army. In 1937, at age 15, he climbed Vancouver Island’s highest mountain, the 2,200-metre Golden Hinde, just after a team of surveyors made the first recorded ascent of the peak. He went on to become among the most highly decorated Canadians of the Second World War.

He was among the first ashore on D-Day. (“He said: ‘Our footprints were the first in the sand,’” his widow, Ida Schjelderup, told me a few years ago.) By nightfall, no platoon had been hit harder than Schjelderup’s, wrote Roy: “He had come ashore with 45 men under his command. At the end of the day when he, himself, was ordered back to have his wounds dressed, there were only 19 men left.”

Schjelderup’s actions earned him the Military Cross. By October, he was back in action on the Holland-Belgium border, where he led a company that stubbornly held off a massive counterattack long enough for other troops to get in position to prevent the Germans from recrossing the Leopold Canal. But Schjelderup, wounded by a grenade and with his headquarters on fire, was captured.

He wasn’t a prisoner long. Two weeks later, using a penknife that a Sergeant Gri had managed to hide, the Canadians cut their way out of the boxcar in which they were held. A farmer hooked them up with the Dutch Resistance, whom the Canadians joined in raiding German targets.

It took Schjelderup several weeks to recover from his wounds and pneumonia, but in late December he was in a small group that set out for Allied lines. It was harrowing journey: shot at by the enemy, slowed by snow, crossing canals covered by ice not quite thick enough to bear a man. “A number of times the group stumbled over trip wires leading to mines and booby traps which, with their mechanism frozen solid, did not go off,” wrote Roy.

Finally, on Jan. 5, 1945, the ragged band was taken in by the forward troops of a British unit, who fed them tea laced with rum.

Schjelderup was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (a rare honour for a junior officer) for the Leopold Canal and a bar to his Military Cross for his actions later.

That’s a very stripped-down version of a dramatic story, the kind of tale that would have been made into a Hollywood movie were Schjelderup from another country.

Instead, few of us even know his name. After Schjelderup’s death in 1974, it was left to his childhood friend and fellow outdoor enthusiast Ruth Masters — a much-respected Vancouver Island environmentalist — to drive the campaign to have a Strathcona Park lake near the Golden Hinde named in his memory. Even then, the parks branch balked at allowing a memorial cairn beside Schjelderup Lake.

Magically, a plaque appeared there in 2002. Family members gave it a proper blessing: “We poured half a bottle of Johnnie Walker into the lake,” Schjelderup’s son Eric later said. Every year, one or more family members make the arduous, three-day hike in to pay their respects. In August 2018, soldiers from the Canadian Scottish and Princess Pats hiked in with a 20-kilogram plaque to replace the damaged original.

While Schjelderup had died by the time I learned of his story, the other soldier in that army public relations photo was very much alive. Ken Byron relayed his story in person when photographer Debra Brash and I tracked him down to the family farm on Salt Spring Island, where he had been born and raised.

On the day we met, he was supposed to be getting an MRI, but Victoria General Hospital sent him home after learning about the shrapnel in his head. They feared it would heat up and throw off the test.

The shrapnel had been there since D-Day, when he landed as a 23-year-old platoon sergeant. He hadn’t even trod on French soil before finding himself in charge; his officer, Lt. Hector Russell, was badly wounded when a bomb hit their landing craft just as its ramp dropped on the shore at Vaux.

“I was platoon commander as soon as I hit the beach,” Byron said.

He didn’t have to wait long for his own wound. “Mortar bombs started to drop. I dove into a tank trap. My mortar man dropped right in front of me, dead. He got a piece of shrapnel in his temple. I got a piece in my cheek, cut the artery.”

A doctor patched up Byron to the point that, while coated in a mixture of sand and blood, he was able to lead the platoon inland. “I stayed in the battle for the rest of the day.”

They shipped him back to England. No sooner had he been tucked into bed in Basingstoke Hospital than the buzz bombs began falling with their awful moan. “When they landed you were happy because you knew they hadn’t hit you.”

He was shifted to Ascot with the rest of the Canadian Scottish wounded, including Schjelderup. It was there that a photographer posed the pair for the photo.

He made his way back to Normandy in mid-July 1944, taking command of his old platoon. The Scottish saw plenty of action, but what really remained etched in his memory was the road to Falaise in mid-August: Death, destruction, flies, heat, shattered carts, burning tanks, “the thick, grey dust about a foot and a half deep.” Allied aircraft had pounded the Germans caught on the road, and bulldozers had then plowed through the carnage, making a path for the advancing Canadians.

“Dead men, horses, livestock in nearby fields, all rotting,” recalled Byron. “The smell is still with me.”

The end of August found Byron trying to fight his platoon out of the French town of Tourville amid heavy artillery fire. “All of a sudden something caught me and spun me around to the ground.” Shrapnel had ripped into his arm and side. ‘The flesh had been torn off my hipbone.”

As he waited to be evacuated, a shell slammed into the bare hillside where he lay and tumbled end over end without exploding. “If that thing had gone off, I wouldn’t be here to tell you the story.”

He recovered to fight on until VE-Day, served in Korea, stayed in the army until 1976 when he retired to Salt Spring. Never married, he lived and farmed alone despite a long-running series of cancers he traced to 1966, when the American military — with Ottawa’s blessing — sprayed New Brunswick’s CFB Gagetown with Agent Orange, infamous as a Vietnam War defoliant. When he died in 2014, he went out the way he wanted: in his own bed on the Salt Spring Island farm where he stubbornly lived alone. He was 93. Tough old guy. Ditto for his little brother Terry, another Salt Spring sergeant who was wounded in battle.

In Terry’s case it was in Belgium on Oct. 13, 1944: “I was leading the platoon on the Leopold Canal. Most of us got across. It was midnight, eh? When I thought it was appropriate, I stood up and a goddamned German grenade landed right in front of me.”

When I met Terry in 2013, he didn’t want to dwell on the bad bits. “It was a tough go, but you try to forget the tough stuff and remember the funny things, the good people you meet.”

Some stories still cracked him up, like the time the Canadian Scottish’s Wing Hay, a noted boxer from Port Alberni, saw some chickens running loose. Hay figured that where there were hens, there would be fresh eggs to eat, so he went looking in a barn. Alas, instead of eggs he found a dozen or so German soldiers. “All these buggers stood up and put their hands up.” The single-handed capture made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

That sort of tale was common among the veterans when you tried to pry war stories out of them. They didn’t want to talk about the bad days. When I met the landing-craft veterans at their D-Day reunion at Davie’s house, getting them to talk about the invasion was like trying to teach a cat to fetch.

Oh, they would talk, all right. In fact, the longer they talked, the younger they got. It was just that not much of the conversation was about the day they filled their landing craft with soldiers and drove them onto Juno Beach.

They talked about Greenberg, the Jewish crewmate who arrived at their ship wearing a German uniform.

They talked about the time — it was after the North Africa and Sicily landings — when they got posted to Victoria to join the Prince Henry. There was a bit of a party at Yates and Douglas that ended up with a few of the boys trading clothes with some girls and trading punches with some guys. “Where are your uniforms?” asked the judge when they appeared in court. They pointed to the girls.

Then there was the time in Southampton, England, when they decided an American officer they had been hosting was too drunk to drive. They sent him off with some gin, telling him he could collect his vehicle in the morning — then hoisted it on deck before steaming off to war. “We decided we could do with a jeep on the ship,” reasoned Davie.

“We had the old paintbrush out as soon as we got it on board, too,” added Jimmy Mason.

It turned out to be quite a useful automobile in their journeys, at least until they found out the Americans were looking for it, at which point they traded it to some 8th Army fellows in Alexandria, Egypt, for a brand new one. That second jeep also served them well, at least until the car chase with the London cops, after which it was decided to park it in the Thames beside the East India Docks.

Funny story, but most of what I learned about their actual D-Day experience came from Davie’s written account. None of the old boys at Davie’s house wanted to talk about it. Every one of them is gone now, their memories gone with them.

That’s how it is with so many of the Second World War veterans I wrote about over the years.

Almost all the men mentioned here are gone now, the exception being Terry Byron on Salt Spring. I think sometimes of how his big brother Ken Byron was when I first met him — scarred by cancer, proud, independent — and contrast it with the youthful soldier in that fading army photo. As the years have passed, these old men’s stories have faded, too, become black-and-white photos in a history text, not quite real to the rest of us.

Earl Clark died on Remembrance Day 2016, at age 100. When I spoke to his daughter Christine, she said she had grown up knowing about his physical scars — a German potato masher grenade blinded him for six weeks in 1945, and left him with shrapnel in one lung and behind one of his eyes for the rest of his life — but what she didn’t know was how much he carried D-Day with him for all those years. Like so many of the veterans, he kept it to himself.

They were, as has often been said, Canada’s Greatest Generation — raised in the Depression, robbed of their youth by war, then grateful for the chance to build a better life.

Meeting them, it was hard not to feel a little smaller, a little softer, a little less adequate in their presence.

This story was excerpted from the book On The Rocks With Jack Knox: Islanders I Will Never Forget.

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