On the morning of June 6, Allan Cameron of Sylvan Lake stood with his feet in the sand at Juno Beach, shot glass in hand, and made a toast to those who had served 70 years prior on D-Day.
“I stood there thinking what had happened there and how many lost their lives on that beach. How can that not make you emotional and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck?” said Cameron upon his return from France to Central Alberta earlier this week.
“To call it a privilege is just an understatement. To be there like that with everyone was just amazing.”
Cameron, a freelance videographer who founded and runs the non-profit Veterans Voices of Canada, had originally planned a fundraiser to bring two veterans from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders to Normandy, France, for D-Day’s 70th anniversary this year.
However, one vet, Ralph McCallum, later decided the journey would be too much for him and another, Earl Jewers, chose to go on the commemorative tour with Veterans Affairs Canada.
Cameron’s own family history is woven in with the Highlanders as two of his uncles served with the infantry regiment during the Second World War.
“They partook in the D-Day landings and one of them, my uncle Ernest Hill, is buried there. He died on July 25, 1944, at Tilly la Campagne. My second uncle, Perley Cameron, a D-Day veteran, he survived.”
So it was important to Cameron, 47, who has dedicated his life to documenting veterans’ stories, that he make the trek overseas for the milestone anniversary.
“We’re not going to forget what they did for us,” Cameron said.
“We’re looking at veterans who are 90 years old and above so this was probably the last opportunity that we will get to show them en masse that we respect them and pay tribute.”
Additionally, thanks to the funds (about $4,500) gathered from the sales of Cameron’s The Fighting North Novies: Into the Fire DVD, he brought with him Afghanistan veteran Master Cpl. Paul Franklin and Franklin’s son, as well as Ray Coulson, curator of the Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum in Amherst, N.S., and a Highlander veteran himself — post Second World War — and Coulson’s granddaughter.
“Ray basically single-handedly keeps that museum going and he helped me do many interviews in Nova Scotia with many veterans. He always talked about going over and he couldn’t afford it so I thought with all of the work he’s done in keeping the regimental history alive, he deserved to do that so I took care of all his costs over there,” said Cameron.
Martin Jones, a freelance videographer with the BBC and a contact of Cameron’s, also joined him at Normandy to voluntarily document the group’s eight-day journey across the beaches, through the cemeteries and to various landmarks, such as Hell’s Corner in La Barquette village.
Cameron hopes to compile the footage and distribute it to Highlanders’ family members and descendents, many of whom also met up with him earlier this month on the French beaches steeped in history.
While the entire trip was memorable and heartstring-tugging, Cameron said it was the toast on the beach that really shook him up.
He had brought with him many specially designed shot glasses commemorating the Highlanders and, with bagpipe music wafting over from players down the shoreline, the group cracked open a 15-year-old bottle of whisky presented to Cameron two years ago by the lieutenant-colonel of the regiment, and toasted the veterans.
They poured a little on the beach, planted flags and filled up the glasses with Juno sand, as well as soil from Authie, where the North Novies had their first encounter with the 12th SS division and lost 85 men, Cameron said.
He now plans to get back to documenting war stories before it’s too late.
He has about 150 veterans waiting to be interviewed, many of them Second World War and Korean War vets.
“I’ve got to get cracking on that and fundraising to keep this organization going and doing good things.”
He hopes to have a new DVD out by Remembrance Day.