Dyson Blitterswyk and Kyle Brown are excited, thrilled and even a bit overwhelmed for the chance to be at Juno Beach for 75th anniversary D-Day celebrations June 6.
The two Chemainus Secondary School Grade 11 students and good friends since kindergarten have done their homework, so to speak, and know something about what to expect from their studies. But, until they get there, the enormity of the place in world history is hard to fathom.
“You can look at pictures and read about all you want, it’s going to be so different to see it first-hand and experience what they went through,” conceded Brown.
“We have to think boys our age were doing exactly the same thing. They weren’t going to sight-see. They were going to fight a war.”
Both students managed to take a Socials class a year ahead with Ruest before she retired.
“I’m very glad to have Mrs. Ruest as a teacher for what she’s done for the school and us,” noted Blitterswyk.
“I know I’m extremely honoured to get to do this. I don’t think I’ll ever have a better opportunity.”
“Kyle and I both found Social Studies to be interesting,” he added. “I know Kyle’s really interested in war history. I am, too. I don’t think I’m as knowledgeable as Kyle would be. I know a lot of stuff about where we’re going. The geography of it I know pretty well.”
“It’s probably the biggest point of my life, to be honest,” said Brown. “The opportunity Mrs. Ruest has provided to both of us, it’s crazy.”
Both also have some personal connections to wartime that they’re anxious to explore further.
Brown’s great, great uncle piloted a Lancaster bomber and was shot down on the way to a bombing in Nuremberg.
A great, great grandfather of Blitterswyk’s fought in the First World War and was killed in the Battle of Hill 70. His name is on the Vimy Memorial.
Another grandfather on the Chadwick side of Blitterswyk’s family actually fought in both the First and Second World Wars, quite a rarity considering the gap between the two.
It all promises to add a completely different dimension to the trip.
“I think I’m well-prepared knowledge-wise,” said Brown. “Emotionally, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Blitterswyk has never left North America before so this is going to be an epic 10 days for him.
Brown has been to Iceland, but no other countries in Europe.
The sites of the battles, the cities and the entire tour are thoughts racing wildly in their minds in advance of the trip.
“I’m just really excited,” summed up Brown. “I’ve seen them in movies and books and Socials class, learning about them – obviously not the same scenario, but the same area.”
“I don’t know what to expect, either,” said Blitterswyk. “I don’t know the scale of anything.”
One thing they both know is several other students worked hard for the chance to go on the trip and they wanted to acknowledge them.
“All these people we know are hard-workers,” noted Brown. “To be chosen out of that group, it’s powerful.”
A powerful image on D-Day and the days immediately following emerges in an email from Allan Bacon of Toronto.
“On June 6, 1944, I arrived by boat on Juno Beach in Normandy, France, with the Canadian Scottish Regiment,” he writes. “My role was in the mortar platoon. On June 17, I was based in a barn, anticipating an attack that never came. I went into a nearby shed to disarm the grenades when one exploded, resulting in the loss of my right arm.
“When I returned to Canada, I became a member of The War Amps, which was started by amputee veterans returning from the First World War to help each other adapt to their new reality as amputees. Through the years, we have made it a goal to remember and commemorate our fallen comrades, and to educate youth about the horrors of war.
“In Normandy, many Canadians died or suffered wounds that they had to carry for the rest of their lives. As we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it’s important that we never forget.”