“I have no complaints”
D-Day veteran Joe Petrie lived through the horror of war, but the 98-year-old hasn’t let the memories get in the way of a life well lived.
“I have no complaints,” said the New Waterford resident, one of a dwindling number of still living Canadian soldiers that were part of the Allied invasion of Normandy that began June 6, 1944.
Petrie, who will celebrate his 99th birthday next week, was one of an estimated 14,000 Canadian troops who landed on Juno Beach after crossing the English Channel on that fateful June morning 75 years ago. About 950 Canadians died in the landing on the mined beachhead that was defended by well-positioned and deadly German gunposts.
The attack was part of Operation Overlord and came to be known as the Battle of Normandy. The D-Day invasion began with a 1,200-plane airborne assault that was followed by the landing of almost 160,000 troops who traversed the channel is some 5,000 vessels. The Allies met stiff Nazi resistance, but within three months more than 2,000,000 soldiers had landed in France as the tide of war turned against the Germans.
Like many Second World War veterans, Petrie isn’t immediately forthcoming with details of the day of the invasion. But he still remembers.
“I wasn’t scared, I didn’t have enough brains to be scared,” he said with a chuckle.
But his levity belies the memories of a war that would claim the lives of as many as 85 million people. Time has faded those memories somewhat but even after three-quarters of a century they have yet to disappear.
Petrie, whose beloved wife Agnes passed away in 2014 after 73 years of marriage, still exudes charm as he entertains a visitor in the New Waterford home he built back in 1954. As he held court at the dining room table, he joked with his caregiver about what was for dinner and when it would be served.
After a minute or so of silence, his still-clear eyes stared out at the middle distance. He leaned forward and began to speak in a now raspy and whispery voice. He referenced a moment that occurred a day or so after the landing.
“There was a garden and there was a woman on the ground and she was talking about a child — I turned around and I saw the infant on the ground,” he said as his voice trailed off, leaving the listener with no doubt as to the fate of the child.
He wiped a tear from his cheek and remained silent for a moment before he turned and looked his visitor in the eye.
“That’s why we don’t talk about the war,” he said.
But not all of Petrie’s wartime recollections are the stuff of nightmares. He spent just over four years in the army beginning with his enlistment on Oct. 16, 1941. His amusement was obvious as he recalled his journey overseas.
“We went over on the Queen Elizabeth,” said Petrie, who was one of an estimated 750,000 Canadian and American troops who would eventually cross the Atlantic on the celebrated ocean liner.
“We were headed to Portsmouth, but things were so crowded that the ship took us all the way up to Scotland where we got on a train that took us south through England all the way back."
After surviving the Normandy landing, Petrie made his way through northern France and Belgium to the Netherlands.
As a member of the engineers, he was known more for his prowess with a screwdriver than with a rifle.
“We had to keep everything running — there were so many vehicles,” said Petrie, who was honorably discharged from the Canadian Armed Forces on Nov. 29, 1945.
Then, like so many other young men who had served overseas, he returned home to a world trying to come to terms with the aftermath of the world’s most costly war. Petrie went on to a career that utilized his mechanical skills, while also spending a brief time in the coal mines and, in later years, on a car sales lot. He also worked as an appraiser.
Nowadays, the venerable Second World War vet maintains an active interest in both world affairs and his local community. He gets out to as many events as he can to share time and stories with both those who fought and those who were fortunate enough not to have been in combat.
He suffered a minor stroke a couple of years ago and now uses a walker to get around. But he can stand on his own and remains miffed that his driver’s licence was revoked.
“His licence is a touchy subject around here,” confirmed caregiver Cecilia Beaton.
“Every time I take him out he tells me that there is no reason why he shouldn’t’ be driving.”
Petrie had expected to be going to a D-Day anniversary celebration on Thursday, but the New Waterford legion has been closed lately due to internal issues involving the branch’s executive.
Meanwhile, at least one other local veteran of the invasion of Normandy will be acknowledging the world-changing event’s 75th anniversary. Marshall Desveaux, also of New Waterford, served with the 3rd Canadian Battalion Infantry from 1942-1946 and landed in France two days after D-Day. Both Desveaux and Petrie received the French Legion Medal of Honour for their efforts.
Another New Waterford veteran passed away just two weeks ago at the age of 101. Mike Laffin was a bomber pilot who was shot down over the Netherlands just 10 days after D-Day. He spent 11 months as a prisoner of war. Upon his return to Canada, Laffin attended university and became a dentist. He also served as an MLA and was well-known in local sporting circles.
In the days leading up to the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we have received poems from two readers that commemorate the historic event that saw nearly 160,000 Allied troops land on the beaches of Normandy and parachute behind enemy lines starting on June 6, 1944. The invasion force included an estimated 14,000 Canadian troops whose target was Juno Beach.
Throughout the night a restless dream
Brought me back in reverie,
Carrying me across the sea,
I stood on the sands of Normandy.
The beaches were silently waiting
A deadly game of war,
Bridged against eternity
Regiments by the score.
They did not stop to ponder,
Nor did they hesitate
To do the duty there at hand
And rendezvous with fate.
A morning fog embraced them
As they held fast to their guns
And though they stood together
Each man was alone.
A silent prayer, a muttered swear,
Anger, pride and sorrow,
Flashing thoughts of loved ones,
Hope for glad tomorrows.
The roaring guns, the fiery, blast,
Now death was boldly flying,
As thousands fell upon the shore,
The bloom of youth lay dying.
I saw the face of a soldier fair
As he lay in the sand and the mud.
A picture he clasped close to his heart
Was stained with his own dear blood.
His side was torn with an ugly wound,
He knew that he would die,
And as he closed his saddened eyes,
I heard him question, "WHY."
- Audrey Currie Greenhalgh, Glace Bay
(editor’s note – Audrey wrote this poem on the 50th anniversary of D-Day and felt it was “time to reflect and remember the young valiant men and boys who gave the supreme sacrifice that we may live in peace and freedom. We will forever remember them as the unforgotten heroes of this decade and decades to come.”)
We landed in France on the sixth day of June,
We landed just after the descent of the moon;
We landed on sand that was glistening white
But was littered with dead ere the coming of night.
The Army, the Navy, the Air Force on high,
Raised a din that could be heard, near and nigh;
The Jerries were nervous as any could see
But they were no more nervous than my buddies and me.
On, ever onward our forces did toil,
To wrest from the Germans a little more soil;
That morn was horrible, too horrible to tell
Like the tortures thought up by the devil in hell.
There were many brave men died on that fateful morn,
When hopes of a lost people were again reborn,
And we must see that they died, not in vain,
Or the horrors of that morn will be re-lived again.
Maybe not by you or by me,
But by our children whom we fought to keep free;
So let us pray to God, each day,
That hence forth our lives would be lived, His way.
- John Joseph Quann Jr., Glace Bay
D-DAY AT 75: Remembering the heroes and sacrifices of Atlantic Canada:
- VIDEO: The road to D-Day
- Why a school in France is named for a Pictou soldier
- U-boat hunter Roderick Deon returns to Juno Beach for D-Day
- Sound of gunfire rang in P.E.I. soldier’s ears
- North Nova Scotia Highlanders at the sharp end of D-Day invasion
- STORY MAP: Follow the D-Day experience of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders
- 12 North Nova Scotia Highlanders murdered at Abbaye d’Ardenne
- ‘It was noisy as the devil,’ says St. John’s torpedo man
- 59th Newfoundland Heavy Regiment was eager to do its part
- A P.E.I. dispatcher’s long, uncertain journey to Normandy
- LAURENT LE PIERRÈS: D-Day invasion was best birthday present for my Dad
- ‘Sight of our boys being blown up ... wouldn’t leave my mind:’ Bedford veteran, author
- Dartmouth veteran's first combat mission was D-Day invasion
- Halifax air gunner had bird’s-eye view of D-Day
- ‘We had everything fired at us but the galley sink’: Yarmouth County veterans share war and D-Day memories
- New Waterford veteran has lived good life after surviving D-Day invasion
- JOHN DeMONT: An old film clip of D-Day shows the nature of courage
- D-Day landing map’s origins a mystery to army museum historians