NEW GLASGOW – Cadet Master Warrant Officer Jennifer Wilcox remembers back in September when the corps was thinking about ways to celebrate their centennial year.
“We wanted to do something big so we thought, let’s take a trip to France,” she said. “After months of fundraising, it actually happened.”
The pilgrimage of 13 cadets and four staff from 219 New Glasgow Legion army cadets to the site of Normandy landings and Canadian soldiers’ graves from May 16 to 24 turned out to be a life-changing experience.
Why Normandy, of all the significant sites to Canada in Europe? Partly timing and to recognize the corps’s local roots.
“We’re named after the New Glasgow Legion Normandy branch, which is affiliated with the site in France,” said Capt. Guy Melanson, an officer with the unit.
According to Melanson, half of the trip was split between Courseulles-sur-Mer and Paris. The former was the near the beach where 14,000 Canadians landed on June 6, 1944, on D-Day. This knowledge was particularly poignant for the cadets.
“Some of the cadets got up early to watch the sunrise. I think they spent three hours just walking the beach,” said Melanson. “They have great memories.”
While walking the beach and seeing the deserted German batteries along the shore was one thing, going into the Juno Beach Centre to watch the footage from that remarkable day 70 years ago gave the cadets perspective.
“We saw what it was like, what came from it and why Canadians are so respected.” said Wilcox. “A few people saw our Canadian flags when we were on the beach and came right over to us.”
The visit to the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery was a time for the cadets to be introspective. Melanson noted there was little talking amongst the cadets when they arrived at the cemetery, which contains 2,049 headstones enclosed by pines and maples.
He said it brought back memories of stories his grandparents told him as a kid about the D-Day invasion.
“That was a sober event, the visit to the cemetery,” he said. “There wasn’t any discussion because they were absorbing the event. You could see they were looking at the ages of the individuals when they died and it was affecting them.”
The cadets also visited Mont Saint Michel, an 11th century abbey and village and the French capital Paris where the cadets toured the city and stopped by Les Invalides, the French military museums.
In retrospect, Melanson noted that your priorities change after seeing the age of the soldiers and the dates they passed.
“When you look at the beach, it took six weeks to advance to the next location even those it wasn’t bad, flat lands. They went through a lot.”
On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn