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Posts Tagged ‘Remembrance Day’

A Soldier’s Story

Monday, November 11, 2013 @ 12:11 AM


soldierstoryMy grandfather is a war hero. For years I admired his ability to march to the cenotaph every November 11 with members of the Legion in Niagara Falls- even in his 70’s.   Some people, including my own mother, used to say that November 11 was always an excuse for old fogies like Blackie to get drunk – I never thought that and always reveled at his medal festooned chest on November 11. I always wanted to know what he endured on one blustery day in June of 1944.  I had opportunity in the latter part of the 1970’s when he and I drove together for the first time to Ottawa from Niagara Falls to attend the annual reunion to celebrate their regiment’s efforts on D-Day and hear the stories – some good, some troubling. Those stories have stuck with me and struck me awesome to this day.

The soldier’s name was C. Grange Black – all his life he was known as Blackie.  He married his sweetheart, Frances, in 1932 when the world was tense.  Seven years later, as a father of three and a Sergeant in the 43rd Cameron Highlanders Regiment of Ottawa, he kissed his wife and kids good-bye, marched his troop out of Lansdowne Park and onto a ship headed for Iceland.  While in Iceland he and his regiment were deployed for what he called menial military work known as “garrison duty” until he and his mates were deployed to England in 1941.  There he marched on a daily basis, trained with a rifle and kit and, like his mates, yearned to earn his keep by fighting in Europe.  On 6 June 1944, the 43rd was the only Ottawa regiment who had trained to land on D-Day at Juno Beach in what became known as Operation Overlord.

At reunions in Ottawa with Blackie, he recounted to me myriad stories of his departure early in the morning of June 6, 1944 from Portsmouth; he often recalled having no idea of what he would be up against when he landed at that stretch of the beach in Normandy code named Juno.   The trip across the channel was rough, the swells were high and the temperature was cold.  It was early morning – he said that on the trip across, he was joking with his men and singing off-key as he often did with his grand children in later years, but, he’d recount, when he neared the beach and he heard the whizzing of bullets and they smelled the fowl stench of gun powder, he become uncontrollably frightened.  The ramp to his LCA lowered and he at the back ordered his 35 other troops off the vehicle – that was lucky for him because some were cut to shreds by bullets from the German pillboxes at the top of Juno Beach.  Before he died in 1987, he confided to me that he jumped over the side of the LCA, grabbed one his soldier mates whom he thought was having a hard time getting his feet and raced with him to the beach. In fact, his colleague wasn’t struggling, he said, he was already dead and that fact gave Blackie the advantage he needed to advance protected from the hail of bullets using his mates body as a shield. That single act apparently haunted him for years – often making him weep in private.

Once on the beach, he discarded his Enfield rifle for a more effective Bren machine gun, he loaded himself up with ammunition he found and crossed the barbed wire to the advance site – all the while dodging bullets. He had soiled his pants and was wet from seawater, sweat and urine.  He had no idea that the four years previous training would prepare him for a mere 600-metre assault. But it worked!  He and several of his Canadian mates subdued the Germans taking them prisoner. He recounted one story in particular about a German prisoner resplendent in warm wool uniform while Blackie, freezing and wet, decided to beat  him up for his pants, his undergarments and his boots.  He also confided that he had taken a German luger complete with its breechblock – as a souvenir.  I remember seeing and holding it years and years later.

Following the landing on D-Day, Blackie and his regiment fought in almost every battle in the northwestern Europe campaign ending a few months later and until the end of the war he and several of his soldiers ended up in Huemen in the eastern part of Holland to help liberate it from Germany.  He returned there several times since the war ended – marching proudly down its main street to the delight of many grateful Dutch citizens.

Blackie died in 1987 in Niagara Falls leaving at the time, his wife of 55 years, five children, 17 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.  Blackie lived in Niagara Falls for almost 17 years and his life there was marked by him being named as Man of the Year one time, he was the biggest booster of the Niagara Falls Flyers hockey team, was a huge fund-raiser for the Legion and the Arthritis Society and never missed a reunion in Ottawa for the 43rd regiment with me.  The year he died, I attended the regiment’s reunion in his honour and, to mark his death, donated his barracks box to the museum at Cartier Drill Square in Ottawa including that German Luger.

He has a brick on the Juno Beach wall in Normandy prominently displaying his name, rank, regiment and years served.  I’ll remember him as a Canadian hero – a war hero!

- Marc Kealey