SUMMERSIDE – Jim Winn, 89, has a T-shirt hanging in his closet that he only puts on once a year.
It’s dark gray, with bold lettering printed on the front: 1944, D-Day – Juno Beach.
He got it from the Royal Canadian Legion years ago and though it’s in good shape, it has a worn-in look to it.
Two large Canadian flags have been stitched on, post purchase; one on back and one on front.
This shirt means more to Winn than almost anything.
It is his great treasure.
It is the worst day of his life made manifest.
He’ll never let it go, he said during a recent interview at his Parkhill Place apartment.
“The memory of D-Day is too deep in me soul to ever forget,” he said, a tear in his eye.
“D-Day – that’s the one day in my life that I’ll never forget, until I close my eyes for good. That’s more important to me than anything you could get.”
Winn’s road to the beaches of France started innocently enough, in a P.E.I. hay field, near his hometown of Conway.
He and some other young men had just finished a job for a local farmer, making hay.
They were eating their lunch when someone brought up their bleak prospects for employment.
“Some fella, bright aleck – could have been meself – spoke up and said ‘let’s join the army.’ The next morning the four of us were on the train to Summerside and the armouries.”
Winn was assigned to the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, did his training at various camps around the Maritimes and was shipped to Scotland via Halifax.
After several more weeks of training he and his unit transferred to England and were eventually loaded on troop transports heading for France.
On June 6, 1944, Winn climbed into a landing craft with his squad and set out for Normandy.
“You could look up, but you couldn’t see the sky for airplanes. It was just black,” he recalled.
As they came ashore under heavy fire, a mortar squad that had been in the wave ahead of them called for a man to replace one of theirs who’d been killed.
Winn filled in and helped fire mortars for a while before they dismissed him back to his own unit.
For more than a month they fought and advanced through occupied France, until one fateful day in a field, near Carpiquet Airport, when a shell exploded in the air above Winn and a piece of shrapnel hit him in the back of his shoulder.
He doesn’t remember how long he was on the ground, but he eventually managed to stand up and walk to a paramedic camp.
The next time he woke up it was in an English hospital.
But his war wasn’t over.
Once his wounds were healed, he was shipped back to the mainland, this time to Belgium.
From there they fought all the way to Germany and finished the war at the Port of Emden.
After pulling occupation duty for a while Winn volunteered to serve in the Pacific theatre of the war, but Japan surrendered before he’d finished his training.
Like so many of his comrades, Winn didn’t talk about the war for many years after he returned home.
He’s since opened up about it, though he still finds it difficult to talk about.
“It brings back too many memories. When I started reviewing and talking about it I used to find it terrible hard. But now, it just comes natural. But I don’t feel good. I lost a lot of young friends my own age. Nothing will ever replace them in my mind,” he said.
War is a specter on mind that never goes away – but it is through the telling of stories like Winn’s that society learns, said LeRoy Gamble, president of the president of Summerside Legion Branch #5.
In honour of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of First World War, the Legion in Summerside has prepared a small ceremony for Saturday, June 14.
At 10:40 a.m. the members will march from the Legion to the cenotaph in Memorial Park where a few dignitaries will speak and a moment of silence will be observed for the fallen. If it rains, the ceremony will be held indoors at the adjacent Trinity United Church.
All are welcome and the public is encouraged to attend.