Remembering to forget
War anniversary journey an important step for local veterans
Saturday, Jun 07, 2014 06:00 am
On June 6, St. Albert residents Bill and Marge Opitz were to be part of a flotilla of buses that was scheduled to visit Juno Beach to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy, France.
The couple has made similar journeys many times before. They do it because Bill has found it’s the only way he can ease the painful memories of war.
Bill, 90, and his wife Marge, 86, both served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, Bill was in the engine room of the HMCS Bayfield, which was part of the 31st Flotilla of Canadian minesweepers.
“My job was lead stoker on the minesweeper HMCS Bayfield – sweeping mines along the French coastline to enable the Allied troops to get to the beaches of Normandy,” Bill said.
The Bayfield was one of 14 Canadian sweepers that swept 60 kilometres of coast in pitch blackness. They cleared the way for the troop ships that followed and, though they were within 1.5 miles of the French shore, they received no enemy fire.
“The Canadians and Norwegians had the minesweeping job. We made two sweeps from Utah Beach, to Omaha, to Gold Beach, Juno and Sword Beach. The minesweepers were there first before the invasion,” Bill said.
The ship was steam-powered to reduce the noise and it had no lights. By 4 a.m., cloud cover protected the sweepers as they crept silently through the water to cut the mines loose. To prevent the sound of the explosions from alerting the Germans on shore, the devices were not detonated. Instead, the mines were cut and allowed to drift free.
While Bill was on the Bayfield, Marge was in Halifax. Though they were already engaged to be married, Marge had no way of knowing what was happening to Bill on D-Day.
“That day I was working in the kitchen,” she said.
They are remarkably agile for their age and live in their own townhouse/condo in Erin Ridge. Still, they’ve enlisted help for this trip, the first time they’ve done so – their daughter and son-in-law will go with them. Marge has not been well in recent months and Bill needs a stair-lift now to get to and from to his basement.
“It will be a hard trip. It’s never easy. It’s very emotional. It’s always hard but this time it will be harder,” said Marge.
On the 60th anniversary of D-Day, an Associated Press photographer shot a photo of Bill as he wiped tears from his eyes as he walked along Juno Beach. This year Bill will need a walker or perhaps a wheelchair but he and Marge, his wife of 68 years, will be there and they will be there together.
Bill believes that for the past 70 years he’s suffered from post traumatic stress. He’s had nightmares every night.
“It’s locked in your mind. I’ve improved. I can talk about it now, but I never talked to the kids about it. I think going back to the source helped me,” he said.
Bill was 17 in 1942 when he lied about his age and joined the navy, but he’d already had a tough life growing up in the Depression and riding the rails looking for work.
Conditions on the Bayfield were hard, with little more than bully beef and hardtack for meals. The men slept in a crowded space with hammocks slung across one another. He served on the ship for 27 months.
“It stank. It was hard to live,” Bill said.
On June 6, 1944, as the troop ships came in, the Bayfield was posted a few miles offshore.
“They didn’t figure they’d make it. We were supposed to pick up survivors if need be.”
So, their sweeping duties completed for the time being, Bill sat and watched the war. Using a small Brownie camera, he took photos. In some ways, the helpless horror of watching – almost as a bystander – was the hardest. There was absolutely nothing he could do.
“There was a solid line of ships – 60 miles long. I saw the carnage, the destruction and the spilled blood in the waters.”
Bill is still haunted by memories of the noise and the flak explosions, especially the scene he remembers of planes being shot down.
“You knew – there would be a ball of flame – they were going down. You’ve never seen fireworks like what I saw. It never leaves you,” he said.
He remembered that two friends, who perhaps felt a similar helplessness, left the Bayfield and swam ashore.
“They shouldn’t have left the ship,” he said, adding that though both survived, they were badly injured and disfigured.
When he and Marge visit the graves of fallen Canadian soldiers this weekend, he will remember those men but also boyhood friends from the Stettler area, where he grew up.
He’ll remember his own experiences too, including later days during that summer of 1944, when a torpedo was shot between the Bayfield’s anchor and the ship. Or the way it felt down in the engine room when they hit a mine.
“When you hit a mine, it lifted the ship right out of the water and the noise reverberated down in the engine room like you wouldn’t believe.”
He and Marge were married in October of 1945, 10 days after he returned from overseas and was discharged. They have four children and many grandchildren and the family photos are proudly displayed in their St. Albert home.
For the most part, Bill’s war mementoes are tucked away, even though D-Day memories have been right in the front of his mind almost every day for 70 years.
“My visit to the 60th anniversary celebration at Juno was an extremely sad reminder to me of all who died there and on the other beaches of Normandy that day so many years ago. For those of us who survived, the memory is etched in our minds and hearts forever,” Bill said.
“I have to go back. I go back so I can forget.”