Addressing our fallen
Hundreds of Canadian homes will soon be receiving postcards with the name, rank and age of a soldier who lived there and went on to die in the D-Day invasion
Some 400 unsuspecting property owners and tenants across Canada are about to get a dose of military history courtesy of mystery postcards soon to land in their mailboxes.
The project — Postcards from Juno — being spearheaded by the Juno Beach Centre, Canada’s Second World War museum in Normandy, is using postcards to notify people living at select addresses about Second World War veterans who lived at the same location in the 1940s, before heading over to fight in Nazi-occupied France, where they were killed in battle.
The veterans were chosen from among the Canadians who died during the first five days of the Normandy landings — from June 6 to June 10, 1944 — a pivotal step in the march toward Europe’s liberation from Nazi Germany.
Staff at the centre selected the addresses from the attestation papers of soldiers — the military records of more than 900 Canadians — who died during those first days of the Battle of Normandy.
The project is part of efforts to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day (June 6, 1944) when 14,000 Canadian soldiers, along with over 140,000 British and U.S. allies, stormed a stretch of beach (code named “Juno”) on France’s northern coast, creating the largest seaborne invasion in history.
The personalized postcards include the name, rank, age, and the date of death of the soldier linked to each address.
The idea of using the last pieces of personal information linked to hundreds of fallen Canadian soldiers to create postcards commemorating their sacrifice was conceived by Mike Bechthold, executive director, Juno Beach Centre Association, which operates the war museum in Normandy.
“It’s a way to look at the men who never came home,” he said. “In a lot of ways, these are the postcards they would have sent, had they survived the battle.”
The cards will include a collage of images from D-Day and the Battle of Normandy and inform recipients they’re living at the last known address of the soldier before he volunteered to serve.
Details on how current residents can comment on the project will be attached, something Bechthold hopes will harvest interesting tidbits not yet known about the addresses and the soldiers themselves.
He’s aware that some of the cards could end up with recipients who may toss them into the bin befo understanding their intended purpose — but, it’s worth the risk.
“It’s about raising awareness,” he said. “I would like to see Juno Beach on a Canadian $20 bill. I would like there to be a Juno beach day, very much like how we have Vimy Ridge Day.”
“As we lose our veterans, we’re losing our personal connection with the story,” he said.
This batch is the first of what he envisions being hundreds more cards to come.
“We have every intention of doing that,” he said of expanding the project. “Right now, it’s about keeping it as a manageable project because 900 addresses is a lot to go through.” Jason Miller
Pte. George Westlake, Cliff St., Toronto
Dave Byron will soon have another keepsake to tuck away with his own father’s Second World War service medals — a postcard honouring one of three brothers, who once lived at his house and were killed during the Normandy landings.
It didn’t take Byron, 65, long to utter the name of the three military men who lived in the Cliff St. home he now inhabits.
“The Westlake brothers,” he said with some certainty of the surname that rings bells in military circles. “I already knew it.”
The Westlakes’ legacy is imprinted all over his neighbourhood.
Westlake Memorial Park within a stone’s throw of his front stoop bears their name and a laneway near the park was rebranded — Heroes Lane — in their honour.
“How the hell did a family with three boys live in this thing, it’s not big enough and I live alone,” Byron quipped.
Byron’s home is among the 82 Toronto addresses that are part of the Postcards from Juno project.
George Westlake, 23, of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, was the first of the brothers to die on June 7. Four days later Albert, 25, and Thomas, 29, members of the Queen’s Own Rifles, were among 100 Canadians who died trying to take the tiny village of Mesnil Patry.
Juno Centre officials said this batch of cards will honour George — his brothers died just after the cut-off date for this leg of the project.
Byron, who has resided at that address since 1981, recalls celebratory gatherings of groups near the house in previous years.
“I had a tour from France show up one day,” he said. “My neighbour called and said there (was) a whole bunch of people in your front yard.”
The group in question — the Westlake Brothers Souvenir Association — was brought there by Gary Westlake.
Westlake, 77, a nephew of the fallen veterans, has fought doggedly to have their sacrifice commemorated. Westlake lauded the Juno Centre for its efforts.
“They’re the only three Allied soldiers — who are brothers — in the world, to be buried in the same cemetery,” he said. “Any added source of remembrance, I applaud.”
Westlake initially had some misgivings about the card being sent to Cliff St., preferring instead for it to end up with immediate family, the nearby Royal Legion Branch 31 or Westlake Brothers Souvenir Association.
Hearing of Westlake’s feelings, Byron said the card will certainly not land in the garbage and he’s open to handing it over to a group of Westlake’s choosing.
“I think it’s a good idea that they’re doing this and I would like to get one,” Byron said of receiving the cards. “I will do more research, because my father and two uncles served in World War II.”
Gary Westlake met Byron for the first time on April 1. They exchanged stories about their links to the war.
“Since he’s got a connection to the military, that would be a nice person to send it to,” Westlake said. “I will share it with him because I would love for him to know about who my uncles are.” Jason Miller
Pte. John E. Stewart, W. 10th Ave., Vancouver
Terry Sanderson’s late father, Bert, served in the Second World War as an artist who helped craft military decoys and worked on set design for theatrical productions that toured army camps.
Bert was never sent out on the front lines, but between 1944 and 1945 he spent time in the U.K., France and Germany, where he created fake airfield strips and airplane decoys to throw off the Germans flying overhead.
Sanderson was surprised to learn that his Vancouver home sits on land that was the last known address of Pte. John E. Stewart, who died on D-Day, at the age of 48.
He is buried in Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy.
“I’ve always hated wars, I feel sad for this guy … he’s a hero,” said Sanderson, who should get a postcard from the Juno Beach Centre.
“I feel sorry for his family, too. I know what my grandmother and my mom went through when my uncle and dad were overseas.”
Sanderson was about 7 when his dad set out for Europe and the U.K., and remembers him coming home about two years later with a small sketch pad full of European street scenes. A commercial artist by trade, Bert also took photographs during his time overseas and his photos of postwar Germany sit in boxes at Sanderson’s brother’s house.
Bert would later reproduce at least a dozen of the sketches and photos as much larger watercolour paintings.
Now 82, Sanderson’s memories of his father’s participation in the war are sparse, but one of the watercolours hangs on the wall of his condo in Vancouver’s Fraser Heights neighbourhood. “When he came back I used to watch him put a paper on the kitchen table and start painting. I always loved watching somebody do something like that.”
Sanderson’s family connection to the war extends to his uncle, Bernard O’Sullivan, who was part of the Royal Canadian Air Force and flew Spitfire planes in the Battle of Normandy in France. O’Sullivan survived the war and worked as a TV and stage actor after returning home. Tessa Vikander
Flight Sgt. Morris Campbell Murray, Kingswood Rd., Toronto
A six-month stay in France, almost 26 years ago, led Tony Price and his wife, Leslie, on a military odyssey across Europe.
Unbeknown to the Prices, the Toronto home they were leaving behind contained a piece of military history that would take them more than 30 years to uncover: Their home was the last address of Second World War soldier, Flight Sgt. Morris Campbell Murray.
“I’m very proud of this house and its connection to that time,” Tony Price said, while standing at the entrance of the picturesque two-story house.
Price has dug into the history of his Beaches-area home, but the search came up mostly blank except for the fact it was built in 1909.
A surprise call from the Star, informing the 72-year-old and his wife of the Juno Centre’s postcard initiative, aimed at honouring Murray and hundreds of others killed during the first five days of the Normandy landings — unlocked a treasure trove of historical information.
Price was surprised by some of the connections his own family shared with Murray, who was 29 when he was killed on DDay.
Murray attended one of the local schools, Malvern Collegiate, where Price’s children went. And Price now knows that Murray died conducting air attacks of German-held Mont Fleury, on June 6, 1944.
“Oh my God, this is so very interesting,” said Price, whose Welsh-born father fought with the British at Ypres, Belgium.
Leslie Price, 71, noted the couple have made several trips to northern France, to sites linked to the First World War. Last fall, they visited Vimy Ridge, for Remembrance Day.
One trip that stands out was a tour of Dieppe, France, where in August 1942, the Allies conducted a raid on that was catastrophic, with more than half of the raiding soldiers killed, most of whom were Canadians. “There are these German bunkers up on the hill, up from a steep cobblestone beach,” she recalled of the site. “The Canadian troops were sent in and they were slaughtered.”
She said the postcard will serve as symbol of their respect for and appreciation of Canadians’ contributions to the Second World War.
“The number of these veterans left is dwindling,” she said. “This is a good way to keep their memory alive.” Jason Miller
Trooper Alfred White, 81st St., Edmonton
Born in Denmark in 1943 during the German occupation, Kurt Sorensen doesn’t have any memories of the Second World War, but he can recall some of its effects, like the rationing of things like cigarettes and coffee.
“I remember they had to have stamps to get that kind of stuff,” he said. “Even in the ’50s.”
In the fall of 1966, Sorenson moved to Canada and worked as a farm hand in Saskatchewan before landing an oilpatch job in northern Alberta. He made enough to buy a small two-bedroom house in Edmonton’s Forest Heights neighbourhood in the early 1990s, just south of the North Saskatchewan River, where he’s lived ever since.
Before that, it was the home of Trooper Alfred White, with the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment, who died at 32 on June 7, a day after the Allied landing at Normandy. The son of Victor and Margaret White, he is buried at the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery near Reviers, France, not far from where he died.
While he was surprised to learn of his connection to the soldier, Sorensen felt an instant respect for White’s sacrifice, and a brotherly bond that transcends time, one he said is shared by those who’ve served.
Having served in the Danish army for two years as a young man, Sorensen still remembers fragments of his training. In his front yard, he deftly performs a few drill commands, standing at attention and presenting arms with a nearby broom serving as a makeshift rifle.
“It’s something that’s stayed with me all my life,” he added. “We were proud to serve. It was the comradeship.”
When he gets his postcard from the Juno Beach Centre, commemorating White’s service, Sorensen intends to hang it on his wall.