Categories: Entertainment

Jumping into history

It is not in the Canadian character to beat its chest. All too often we downplay our nation’s heroics, but a documentary of Canadian paratroopers plans to show the humanity and sacrifice these soldiers have made to protect the people they serve.

Two St. Albert men are spearheading Paratroopers – The Canadian Story, a 90-minute documentary set for release in 2011. It tells the 70-year history of parachute soldiers from 1942 to the present, motivated men who sought adventure, action and challenge.

Retired Capt. Bill Dickson, who served in the Armed Forces for 37 years, and director/producer Dixon Christie have teamed up to tell the story of Canada’s Airborne, an elite fraternity renowned for its physical toughness and hazardous missions. The film is a full-scale documentation with personal interviews interspersed with archival film footage, photographs and graphics.

This project is high priority due to the advancing age of Second World War and Korean veterans. Many soldiers of Dickson’s vintage felt it was necessary to create a lasting legacy to honour the service and preserve its memory before the post-war parachutists become members of the “Last Post” club.

“These are stories that need to be told. They need to be captured. They need to be preserved forever. And the way it is done in this documentary — with such depth and perseverance — is very important,” says Dickson, a former Canadian Forces infantryman and paratrooper of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and the Canadian Airborne Regiment.

In addition, he served as peacekeeper during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and spent 18 years out of country on United Nations and NATO tours. Dickson also chairs the movie advisory committee as military consultant.


It is Sunday, March 21 and Christie is at the Edmonton Garrison filming another round of interviews conducted in private with only a skeleton crew, something he feels is necessary to put the paratroopers at ease. “Some of these men have never spoken to anyone about their experiences. For some of these veterans, the experiences are profound and cathartic in a way that has never been done before,” explains Christie.

Among today’s paratroopers is Spruce Grove resident Robert Copeland, a retired Airborne soldier with 17 jumps. He also volunteered for a one-year tour in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, a terrain that was not conducive to jumping.

“It was a delta area, all open land and wet. They could see you for miles,” he explains. Instead Copeland operated in small six- to 20-man teams that conducted missions travelling down the Mekong River in patrol boats. At other times he lifted off in Huey helicopters to hunt the Viet Cong and conduct raids and ambushes.

He was one of 50,000 Canadians that enlisted at the time. “I believed in the politics and I got tired of talking about it and went down there.”

But not all stories are about war. For instance Claude Petit of Wetaskwin is a paratrooper with 62 jumps to his name. He served in Korea with the PPCLI, where he was wounded by a mortar attack. “You grow up in a hurry. You think to yourself, ‘what are we doing here.’ There’s a bunch of human waste all over the place.”

But Petit, past president of Aboriginal Veterans, is famous throughout paratrooper lore for his boxing skills. The five-foot 11-inch, 220-lb. soldier is a four-time Canadian Army Boxing Champion. He made history winning the British Empire Boxing Championship in 1964. “It was the biggest boxing match in the Commonwealth. It meant a lot to me. I was the only Canadian that ever won one.”

Since Christie began shooting in Dec. 2008, he has interviewed more than 200 former paratroopers and active soldiers across Canada, and each story is stamped with its own brand — be it guilt, pain and death or optimism, honour and courage.

Once completed, the documentary will be more than a series of vignettes. It will explore the complex dual nature of soldiers — the compassionate human and fearless warrior. It will look at the nature of man, how technology has changed the face of war and how politics influences military decisions.

Some of the past paratroopers Christie has interviewed include Joe Pringle. “He was one of the guys jumping in Normandy. He was scared of being fired upon by Germans. He was so terrified of dying, he found a way to pull in the parachute. He was in freefall for the last five to 10 seconds so he could die faster.”

And then there was Bill Tremain, a rare individual that survived a double malfunction — one chute refused to deploy and the second one opened only partly. “He thundered in and bounced. He broke himself up pretty bad, and blanked it out of his mind.”

Perhaps one of the most poignant was Bucky Harris, a jump master that trained soldiers throughout the Second World War. “He was deeply wounded that he was never allowed to go overseas and fight. He was too good at his job and they wouldn’t let him go.”

Through life and death situations, the camaraderie of a deeply ingrained brotherhood binds every parachute soldier together. In fact, it was friendly camaraderie that kick-started this entire project.

It all began several years ago during an Airborne Monument ceremony at Siffleur Falls, a panoramic area near Rocky Mountain House. For the past few years it has become an unofficial gathering place for many of the Canadian Airborne brotherhood.

During one of these get-togethers, Major-General Herb Pitts invited a visiting Dutch couple from Einhoven to attend. With a hand-held camera, they filmed the event. After returning to Holland, they edited the piece and sent a DVD copy to Pitts.

Pitts turned it over to Dickson, who promptly said, “If they can do it, why can’t we?” Owners of the David Thompson Resort near Siffleur Falls introduced Christie to Dickson, beginning another can-do chapter in military history.

While Dickson’s motive to get this venture off the ground is deeply personal, Christie has said, “I have had a rich and blessed life. I felt the vets and current service soldiers give so much — in some cases their life. I wanted to give back and this was something I was good at doing.”

Paratroopers – The Canadian Story will be more than a digitized history lesson. In our fractured world, it will be a reminder that ordinary men can reach extraordinary heights, even sacrificing their lives for others because they believe it is the right thing to do. And that is no small feat.

To see some of the interviews visit www.paratroopers.ca.

Anna Borowiecki: Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.