Whitey Bernard spent 14 sobering days in July retracing the Canadian Army’s footsteps through Europe during the two World Wars.
He wanted to see where his dad, Private Jack Bernard, had fought for all those years he was away from home before returning a changed man.
“Dad didn’t talk much about it, didn’t say much about it. When he came home, his marriage was shot and he was starting life over again at age 35. He had a tough war, he was in the front lines for five months. He was a different guy,” he said. “A little bit, here and there, he’d drop something. He’d tell a story, usually something humorous, and then when it got down to, ‘Did you do this or that?’ I just was told as a little kid, “Don’t ever ask me that again.”
Whitey was one of 42 participants in a Royal Canadian Legion Pilgrimage this summer and, while his father was his motivation for going, the sites Bernard saw quickly overpowered his original outlook of the experience.
“They actually took me to the place, the actual spot, where he lost his tank. His tank was blown up and the driver was killed. I got to see that actual place,” Bernard told the Westerly News.
“But, as we go through the trip and you start to go to the graveyards and stuff, it changes your whole perspective on the thing. This isn’t like, ‘Let’s go down memory lane here and where was dad and where was grandpa,’ and this sort of stuff. It starts to get to you after a while, when you see the size of the graveyards…This wasn’t some glorious escapade of us guys beat those guys. We went to a German graveyard. I can tell you, it was full. They were dying in large numbers on both sides of the fence, in both wars.”
The pilgrimage experience started off at Juno Beach and followed the Canadian Army’s WWII footsteps through to Holland and then back into Belgium to go through WWI.
Bernard recalled visiting Dieppe and seeing the guns still in place.
“The guns aren’t faced out to sea, like you’d think they would be, the guns are faced up and down the beach. The entire beach, where the guys landed at Dieppe is absolutely completely covered with machine gun and cannon fire…900 Canadians died in four hours. It’s a real sobering experience,” Bernard said.
He added seeing the landscapes where battles were fought made him realize how visible soldiers would have been and how impossible it must have felt to find cover.
“You have this idea that you’re gonna break through and charge off and split the enemy in half, but that wasn’t the situation at all,” he said.
“It was dirty, bitter, hard, slow-going. It was the same thing in Italy and when we saw what they were up against, you have great respect for what they were trying to do.”
He recalled visiting Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge and Ypres, where “battles came alive” and participating in the Legion Act of Remembrance in vast graveyards, including one at the Menin Gate in Ypres, a town he explains, “was completely bombed flat in WWI.”
“The Gate is a monument for 56,000 soldiers from Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, that have no graves. They do a service at the Menin Gate 365 days a year, every night at 7 p.m,” he said.
Throughout the journey, Bernard was consistently reminded of his own experience during the war as the ‘Wait for me Daddy’ photo that catapulted him into celebrity status and made him a bond-drive darling constantly popped up.
Bernard was five years old when newspaper photographer Claude Detloff snapped a photo of him breaking away from his mother and running after his dad who was marching down a New Westminster road, off to war.
He said he received strong emotional responses each time he saw it during the Pilgrimage and explained he was the little boy in it.
“It’s not an overwhelming part of my life, but it’s always been there and that picture, showed up in the weirdest places you can imagine in France,” he said adding he received a particularly moving response from a woman who owns a house and small museum at Juno Beach.
“She got tears in her eyes,” Bernard said.
“Then she had to go and get her daughter and her grandchildren all out there to meet me…There were seven or eight incidents like that where, all of a sudden, there was the picture.”
He added the photo is famous because of the realness of the situation so many lived through, either as children watching a parent leave or a parent leaving a family behind.
“He went away and I saw him once in five years,” he said.
“When you tell a little kid that now, at the school or something like that, they can’t fathom it. When you get a little bit older and you have kids of your own, you can’t imagine taking yourself out of your kid’s life for five years.”