The last time he saw the beach in Normandy, it was an inferno of smoke, bullets and blood.
Earl Kennedy was 20 years old on June 6, 1944, a soldier from Canada storming the beach in France in the D-Day landings. He lost comrades that day. He lost part of his youth that day. But he never gave up his memories, even the ones he wishes he could forget.
Now, as the world prepares to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Mr. Kennedy is setting off on a personal pilgrimage.
He will return to Normandy for the first time in 75 years. He will smell the sea air he last breathed in 1944 and see the beach whose sands turned red with blood. And he will reimagine the 20-year-old he was, afraid but battle-ready, eager to fight in the campaign that would ultimately liberate Europe from the Nazis.
“I’m going because it’s a matter of saying: ‘We did it,’ ” Mr. Kennedy, 95, says from Ste. Anne’s Hospital in suburban Montreal. “And we did it, by God, with a lot of blood and guts. It wasn’t a fairy tale.”
Mr. Kennedy is part of an official Canadian delegation of 36 Second World War veterans travelling to France for the milestone anniversary next week. All in their 90s, many using walkers and in wheelchairs, they will likely be the last contingent of Canadian veterans to make the voyage to Europe for a major commemoration of the war.
Age is decimating the ranks of those known as the greatest generation. Twenty years ago, there were 416,000 Second World War veterans in Canada; today there are only 41,100, and their average age is 93. With each passing year, Canada loses the eyewitnesses to a searing page of history.
They include men such as Mr. Kennedy, who enlisted at 17. When his father refused to sign his army papers, he did it himself. He was intent on fighting Nazi Germany.
“I thought that what Hitler was doing was unforgivable,” he says.
Mr. Kennedy, who was born in Ontario and grew up in Montreal, shipped overseas to England and trained as a wireless operator.
As D-Day dawned on June 6, he was surging in a landing craft across the English Channel with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders. Rain and rough seas left the troops wet and seasick. When the beach code-named Juno appeared before him, Mr. Kennedy said a prayer.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
The ramp on his landing craft went down. Mr. Kennedy, seated in the back of a jeep with his radio on his lap, was plunged up to his neck in frigid water as the vehicle sank into the sand. Mercifully, a tank towed the jeep out and provided cover from the rain of German machine-gun fire. Mr. Kennedy began the race to safety.
Others were not as lucky.
“Young fellas with knobby knees and shiny cheeks tried to get off the landing craft onto the beach,” he recalls. “They so much wanted to get in there and get at the Germans. And they didn’t even have the chance. As they got onto the beach, they were blown to hell.”
They wore Canadian uniforms. Yet he was unable to help them.
“I could see these men suffering and dying, but you couldn’t do anything about it because the Germans were going after us with their bloody machine guns,” he says. “You just had to keep moving.”
Mr. Kennedy – Gunner Operator Kennedy on that day – had a mission to report on troop progress to headquarters. Once he had taken cover, he tapped out an encoded message.
“Landed safely. The regiment is on the move.”
He fought through France and Belgium and took part in the liberation of Holland. His navy veterans’ blazer, hanging neatly over his bed, carries numerous war medals, including the Légion d’honneur from France.
He returns to Juno Beach fully knowing the journey may not be easy. During a war commemoration in Montreal 25 years ago, the sound of bagpipes and the sight of Scottish regimental kilts made him start to cry. It reminded him of his Highlander comrades who were killed. “I’m concerned the memories will come back and hit me," he says. "The horrors I saw on D-Day were unbelievable.”
Next week, he will have the chance to pay them a final tribute. He will visit the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery and see the white headstones marking the graves of 2,049 Canadians who died in the Normandy campaign. Some of the names on the markers will be those of the soldiers who fought beside Mr. Kennedy. After 75 years, he will say goodbye and feel the weight of their sacrifice.
“I’ll remember their bravery,” he says. “We were brothers. We trained together. We shared our dreams together. And then they were gone.”