Joe Young’s journey back to the beaches of Normandy this year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of D-Day wasn’t like any other trip.
“It was a pilgrimage, I’d call it,” said the 95-year-old Second World War veteran. “Some people ask if I enjoyed myself but enjoy isn’t the right word. Seventy years ago we were young, the war was on and we were in it. Going back now is … different.”
Young made the trek overseas for a week in June with 121 other veterans, who all gathered first in Ottawa.
“Seeing as we’re all in our 90s, we had to have caretakers so my son Roger came with me,” said Young, who still lives on the farm he bought 44 years ago in Lacombe County between Joffre and Red Deer.
They flew on a Canadian Forces plane to Gander, N.L., then to Deauville, France, and took part in the official remembrance ceremony at Juno Beach on June 6: the day the Allied forces swept into German-occupied France.
“I wasn’t there on D-Day; my regiment landed afterwards. Maybe two to three weeks after,” he said. “I drove an armoured vehicle out of a tank landing ship onto the beach.”
Young, who grew up in Carrot River, Sask., was a member of the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment, a light armour arm of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division headquartered in Swift Current.
“There was 43 of us on the train and when we got to Saskatoon, we all went down to the recruiting station together. They told us they were recruiting for the artillery and for a new armoured regiment and it was the suicide outfit. Well, everyone of us joined that one,” said Young, who signed up in 1941, with a chuckle. “We thought there wouldn’t be as much walking, you see.”
Young has returned to Europe nearly a dozen times since the war ended. This trip, however, was the first time he found the grave of his best friend Lance-Cpl. Clifford Cushing of Regina, buried at Bretteville-sur-Laize.
“He was my best friend. … Same age as me. Just a young guy.”
But the highlight of the week in France was picking up his two grandsons, Jory and Travis Young, who are still backpacking the continent, and driving to the Vimy Ridge memorial.
“That is something I’ve always wanted to see and I’d seen pictures but I still never expected it to be so big,” said Young. “Every Canadian should see that. All those names. …”
Young was wounded in France in August 1944 by a large piece of shrapnel that perforated his upper back. He was taken to England to recover. But he went back to the regiment in 1945 for the liberation of Holland.
“We billeted with the Dutch people in Oldebroek. I remember there was not a thing in the stores. Food had to be dropped in that winter or they wouldn’t have survived. The Germans were starving, too … I always say no one wins in a war.”
After the war, Young donned his uniform one more time at a dance just north of Carrot River. He met his future wife, Nettie, that night. They’ve been married for 65 years.
“I was 29 and she was 19 … I always tease her and tell her I had to skip a generation because most of the women my age were gone or already married when I got back.”
The couple have 11 children and moved to Central Alberta after Young grew “too tired of the long, hard winters” in northern Saskatchewan.
Young no longer drives but said he is glad he was healthy enough to make it back to France.
“He always wanted to go back to where he landed and that’s something we hadn’t done yet,” said Nettie.
She stayed at home during the D-Day celebrations but caught a glimpse of her husband on CBC’s The National with Peter Mansbridge on the evening of June 6.
“He was filmed walking down to the beach and looking out over the water,” she said. “They didn’t know who he was, didn’t have his name but it was quite the moment. And we all recognized him back here.”