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75 years later, D-Day memories still vivid for local veteran

Second World War veteran Jim Parks was honoured by the Men’s PROBUS Club of Newmarket, one of many tributes being made around the world to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day

Second World War veteran Jim Parks carries with him a tag on a chain with the photograph of the infantryman who died in his arms on Juno Beach June 6, 1944.

He will never forget Cpl. William John Martin, who was among the 359 Canadian men who gave their lives on D-Day in the crucial Allied invasion that marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

Nor will he forget any moment of that day 75 years ago when 14,000 Canadians stormed Normandy.

Parks, now 94 and a resident of Mount Albert, was a sergeant in the B Company of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.

The longtime Men’s PROBUS Club of Newmarket member was honoured by the organization June 19, one of the many tributes being made around the world to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

“He remembers, and he is remembered,” said fellow member Doug Wrigglesworth.

Victory in the Normandy campaign would come at a terrible cost, with the Canadians suffering the most casualties of any division in the British Army Group.

“The more I read, the more I know, the less I can imagine what young men like Jim Parks went through,” said Wigglesworth.

“He has been remembering this all his life and sharing it with students and people like us. It helps us to remember, too.” 

Parks is active in local schools, sharing his story of that pivotal day and his battle experiences.

The veteran had just returned from Normandy, France, accompanied by his three sons and a nephew, to take part in the June 6 D-Day 75th anniversary ceremonies, also attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and France Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, hosted by the Juno Beach Centre, Canada’s Second World War museum and cultural centre.

The Centre is a memorial to the 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives during the war, of which 5,500 were killed during the Battle of Normandy and 359 on D-Day.

“There are fewer and fewer of our (Second World) war veterans, 37 for all of Canada,” said Parks.

It wasn’t the first time he has returned, attending official ceremonies in 1984, 1994, 2014 and 2017.

He is still able to pick out exactly where they landed, “just to the right of Seulles River”, despite the dramatically altered landscape. 

The landing craft he was on hit a mine, leaving the infantrymen to scramble into the water to swim to shore. He nearly didn’t make it when another approaching landing craft sideswiped him on the left shoulder, he said.

“It pushed me under the water, I saw stars … I panicked a bit, but it makes you want to survive, so I finally got into shore.”  

The first thing he saw was several “mortally wounded” men, and he recognized one, whose pack and Sten gun he took after having lost his own equipment in the harrowing journey to shore. 

He managed to make his way up the bank to the pillbox to wait for his platoon to gather, but not until he stayed at the shore by the side of Cpl. Martin, who had reached out to him, saying he was cold.  

He has spoken with the man’s son, who was born after his father died on Juno Beach, in the years since. 

Parks had enlisted at the age of 15 “because it was the thing to do”, following in the footsteps of his brother who had enlisted at 16.

His four brothers all enlisted, and they all came home, as did his wife’s four brothers.

Following the war, he returned to Winnipeg, first joining the fire department, then going to school to become a draftsman. When he discovered he was allergic to some of the chemicals used in the job, he began a new administrative career at Veterans Affairs and then the Department of Manpower and Unemployment.

The family moved to Waterloo, where they lived until he retired. Twenty-five years ago, he and his wife moved to Mount Albert, where his daughter lives. 

“I always think about it,” he said of his war experiences, as something as simple as a sound or a smell can take him back to the war, to that fateful D-Day in particular — a whiff of diesel from a passing bus has him standing on the landing craft of June 6, 1944.

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Debora Kelly

About the Author: Debora Kelly

Debora Kelly is NewmarketToday's editor. She is an award-winning journalist and communications professional who is passionate about building strong communities through engagement, advocacy and partnership.
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