Three quarters of a century ago, over a thousand Canadians lost their lives battling along the beaches of Normandy, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Allied troops.
Earlier this month, exactly 75 years after the initial D-Day attack took place, five members of the 908 Rainy Lake Air Cadets travelled through Western Europe to learn about both world wars, ending at Juno Beach where the cadets participated in an anniversary celebration.
From May 31-June 9, the cadets joined students from Woodstock, Ont. as they traveled through Amsterdam, Belgium, and France under the guidance of Education First (EF) Tours
For air cadet Sgt. Alex Coats, visiting war memorials in France was one of the most powerful parts of the trip.
“Seeing 45,000 graves—nothing like that should ever have to be built and I feel like these trips solidify that in people, that we can't just repeat those mistakes,” he said during a speech at the 49th Biennial Royal Canadian Legion Manitoba/Northwestern Ontario Convention that was held here over the weekend.Fellow air cadet Sgt. Maxwell Van Drunen said the trip was an amazing experience and helped him to realize the sacrifices that were made in both world wars.
“When sitting in a classroom being told all these things, you don't get to appreciate how much they went through and how much they sacrificed for us,” he explained.
“It was amazing. It allowed me to wake up and realize what they did for us.”
Van Drunen also really enjoyed seeing the Eiffel Tower and visiting Amsterdam.
“It was really cool learning about foreign cities and how they work,” he noted.
“It was also interesting to see all the other cities because they have so much history and old architecture they've managed to keep up over the years.”
Warrant Officer 2nd Class Courtney Sinclair was amazed as well, particularly at the buildings' designs in Bruges, Belgium.
The city features impeccably maintained medieval structures, cobbled streets, and distinguishing canals.
Sgt. Rya Hawrylak said she really enjoyed walking down the beaches of Normandy.
“I got to represent one of the 359 soldiers who didn't make it off the beach and it made me realize how fortunate I was to have my great-grandfather fight on the Canadian soil here instead of going across because it means he got to be buried in his hometown with my great-grandmother,” she remarked.
“It was just wonderful to meet everyone there and meet some of the other air cadets that were there.”
Like many of the other cadets, Hawrylak said the trip was definitely a “wake-up call” for realizing the significance and sacrifice that was made during both world wars.
“You never realize how real it is until you go to those sites and get to see everything there,” she noted.
For Courtney Sinclair, seeing the Jewish synagogues and the Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam was “eye-opening” and really made the history come alive.
“They had a bunch of pictures and little write-ups about these people and their lives and what happened to them [during the Holocaust], so that was really interesting to see,” she explained.
Visiting the Vimy Ridge Memorial was one of Sinclair's favourite days on the Europe trip.
“I remember reading a lot about Vimy when I was growing up, so actually being able to be there and see it was incredible,” she enthused.
“It was also the battle where Canada solidified itself as a nation, so it was really good to see that in that respect as well.”
During the tour of the Vimy Ridge memorial, Sinclair said she was shocked by the actual size of “No Man's Land.”
She said it was about 40 feet long and the cadets could have conversations with one another from the British side to the German side.
“In movies and stuff, they always make it look like it's very far apart and then you have to go for a distance. But it definitely wasn't—at least not at Vimy—so that was cool,” Sinclair noted.
Visiting Flanders Fields and seeing how vast of an area it covered was another highlight from the trip, she added.
“I always kind of pictured it as a square field with a bunch of poppies but that's definitely not what it is,” Sinclair explained.
For Sinclair's mom, Kirsty, who helped chaperoned the trip, the best part was watching the kids experience everything firsthand.
“Watching them see things for the first time and watching them grow and change as they moved from never leaving North America to the last day when they were going in Paris on their own,” she remarked.
“Just the self confidence that they gained . . . that's what was most impressive to me.”
Looking ahead to the cadets' next trip, Kirsty said she'd like to see them do an educational tour in Ottawa to get more of the Canadian perspective of the world wars, on Canadian soil.
Over a nine-month period, the air cadets raised over $20,000 through their meat draw, pancake breakfast, “Jimmy the Janitor” event, garage sale, and bottle drive to ensure no cadet had to pay out of pocket to attend the trip.
The trip was also made possible through generous donations from the Emo and Fort Frances Legions, of which the cadets say the are extremely grateful.