Bruce Melanson was an ordinary Canadian soldier who like so many others was shocked to find the reality of war so horrifying. It left lasting scars. And like many veterans of the Second World War, he came to see the six years he spent in the Army as the most important time in his life.
"As he got older the war became a huge part of his life," said his grandson Alex Bland, who travelled with his grandfather to France for a ceremony at the memorial to Canadian soldiers who landed on Juno Beach in the invasion of Normandy. Mr. Melanson was one of those soldiers, and he was the second to speak on that day in June, 2012, in recognition of the work he had done to get the memorial built.
Mr. Melanson, who died on Oct. 15 at 91, lied about his age so he could join the Army at 17 – you had to be 18 to be eligible for service overseas. For him and his friends, it seemed like a great idea at the time.
"They were young and didn't know what they were getting into," said his daughter Ann Vincent. "There was little work in small-town Nova Scotia and it seemed like an adventure."
The 133 reinforcements for the West Nova Scotia Regiment sailed from Halifax on May 12, 1940, two days after German forces invaded France. They were aboard the Duchess of Bedford, a Canadian Pacific luxury liner converted to a troop carrier. She was a fast liner, having set a record from Montreal to Liverpool in six days, so could make it to Britain in four days from Halifax. Young Bruce was thrown into the real thing with no delay.
Private Melanson and the West Nova Scotia Regiment moved quickly to the south coast of England, ready to sail to Brest in Brittany on the Atlantic coast of France to reinforce French forces there. But by this time the Germans had occupied Paris and the British had evacuated their troops from Dunkirk. France fell six weeks after the start of the invasion.
Canadian soldiers in Britain then prepared for the German invasion that never came. In later life, Mr. Melanson spoke often of living through the Battle of Britain, the air war that started shortly after the Battle of France ended.
The next four years for Mr. Melanson and most Canadian soldiers meant training and exercises. It also meant young men being introduced to life on their own, drinking in pubs and going to dances. There was romance. In March, 1941, when he was 19, Pte. Melanson married Joyce Abbott, a young woman from Bexleyheath in Kent.
Canadian soldiers soon entered the fighting war. There was the failed raid on Dieppe in 1942 and the Canadians, including the West Nova Scotia Regiment, participated in the July, 1943, invasion of Sicily and then Italy. But by that time Pte. Melanson had transferred from the infantry to what he and his fellow soldiers called "Ack-Ack," known officially as the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.
His brother Dave also left the infantry and moved to artillery. A bit of luck. Fighting was dangerous anywhere, but it was most deadly in the infantry. In Normandy, the death rate among the infantry was about the same as it was in the trenches during the First World War.
Pte. Melanson landed on Juno Beach in Normandy in the second wave after D-Day. Later in life he recalled the chaos and especially the noise on the beach. "The noise of the planes above us for instance, thousands of planes, and there were hundreds of guns going off at the same time and a lot of veterans – I hate to tell you this – but a lot of veterans went out of their mind from the shelling."
The men of the Ack-Ack regiment operated a Bofors Gun, a portable anti-aircraft gun developed by the Swedes in the 1930s. Both sides used it in the Second World War. It took Pte. Melanson and five other soldiers to operate the gun. It was a highly effective weapon, firing 120 shells a minute, with each explosive shell weighing slightly less than a kilogram. It could hit a plane flying at 3,800 metres. It could also be lowered and used against targets on the ground.
Pte. Melanson took part in some of the most bitter fighting in France, in particular the Battle for Caen, a town defended by one of the toughest German divisions. The men operating the Bofors guns in the Canadian and British units shot down 17 German aircraft in that battle, keeping open key bridges.
"We fought the toughest German army that Hitler had made," he recalled. "And that was under General Kurt Meyer with the SS troops. And that is why it took us five to six weeks to capture Caen where they thought we were going to capture it in two weeks."
Pte. Melanson fought across northwestern Europe, at Falaise Gap, in Belgium, the Netherlands and finally Germany. There was one incident he went on to recount many times in nights at the Royal Canadian Legion, where he was a regular.
"One day during a little bit of a lull, I decided to grab a little bit of water and take a bath. And after I was in the tub taking a bath, four or five Messerschmitts (German fighter aircraft) started to shell us," Mr. Melanson recalled in an online history. "So I run to the gun like heck, naked, and started firing with no clothes on. But then, all of a sudden, out of the blue skies, came three or four Spitfires and they knocked down two or three of them immediately."
After the war, he returned to Canada alone, his wife and newborn baby daughter, Ann, staying on in England. This was not uncommon. His family joined him a year later. After two years, his wife and daughter returned to England. This, too, happened often. Many war brides were homesick or disillusioned with life in Canada. Many refused to come over at all.
Mr. Melanson returned to England six years later and persuaded his wife to return to Canada with him. But the marriage didn't last. Mr. Melanson was estranged from his two daughters for many years. He married two more times and in his later years had a common-law relationship. He leaves his daughters, Ann Vincent and Sue Cortese, and his long-time partner Sonya Godina.
Back in Canada, Mr. Melanson became a small businessman, first in Nova Scotia then in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. His shop, Bruce's Menswear, at one time sold suits and jackets to many players from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"Dick Duff and some other retired hockey players were entertaining veterans at the Sunnybrook hospital in late September and Dick Duff came over and spoke to my father. He remembered buying suits from him," Ms. Vincent said.
Mr. Melanson entered politics and became a councillor for the city of Etobicoke. This prepared him for the final project in his life, campaigning for the recognition of veterans and raising funds and awareness for the Juno Beach memorial, where he and other Canadian soldiers had landed for the invasion of Normandy.
"Bruce was a tireless supporter of the Juno Beach Centre from the very early days, travelling coast-to-coast, knocking on doors to help raise the funds necessary to see the Centre built, ensuring that the legacy of Canada's contribution to the Second World War would not be forgotten," said Jenna Zuschlag Misener, executive manager of the Juno Beach Centre Association.
Because of his work for the Juno Centre, Mr. Melanson was invited to Ottawa on several occasions. In 2011, he was introduced to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. He asked Kate for a hug, but she politely refused.
His local MP Bernard Trottier rose in the House of Commons to give a tribute to Mr. Melanson after his death. "Bruce worked tirelessly to raise funds for the construction of the five-acre facility in Normandy, which honours the brave Canadian men and women who served during the Second World War," Mr. Trottier said. "To his friends, I am sure Bruce would say, 'let us never forget.'"