There is a house overlooking the beaches of Normandy that now serves as a museum and contains a photo of Tofino local Whitey Bernard when he was a kid, chasing after his war-bound father in New Westminster.
Bernard participated in a Royal Canadian Legion Pilgrimage in 2017 that toured through Europe, visiting war museums and battlegrounds, including where the Allied Forces conducted the largest sea-based invasion in history at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
“The Germans had taken over that house and they had radios in there and they’d taken over the living room area and were using the house as a radio station,” Bernard said.
The house is still owned by the same family that owned it 75 years ago and much of the radio equipment remains inside, along with Claude P. Detloff’s iconic ‘Wait for me Daddy’ photo of a five-year-old Bernard.
Bernard said he met the family’s matriarch and gave her one of the commemorative toonies depicting the famous photograph. He recalled that, when she discovered he was the little boy in the photo, she was overwhelmed with emotion.
“She just broke down in tears and then she ran in and she got all her grandchildren and her daughter and they all came out,” he said. “We all had our picture taken and everything and then she wanted to know if I would give her permission to frame the coin and put the story up on the wall.”
Bernard said he was happy to oblige the request and added that he’s accustomed to the emotional reactions the photograph produces.
“People are emotionally attached to it,” he said. “It’s real. It is what it was. It was a mother and a father and a little kid and the father is going off to war…It’s not about guns and tanks and airplanes and bullets and gung-ho stuff, it’s about the reality of going away and kids’ daddies going away. You don’t know when Daddy’s going to come back, you don’t understand that he might never come back, you just know that Daddy’s going to go away and he isn’t going to be there when you wake up tomorrow morning.”
Bernard was just about to turn nine years old when D-Day was announced and he remembers a feeling of dread around his family members, though he said school continued and life carried on as normal.
“Nothing happened any different at all. It was just another day in the war, other than the newspaper came out and said they’d landed in France…Nothing changed in your day-to-day life on D-Day. In fact, because of the time change, you didn’t even know it happened until 14 hours later and then you only knew what happened by the news releases on the CBC radio,” he said.
“Nobody knew about D-Day until it happened. There was a threat and people talked about it, but nobody knew the hour, or the day and then, when it happened, that’s when people started to wonder…There was a lot of trepidation once they knew that it was taking place. Of course, the newspapers didn’t tell the truth about the thing, they just gave the good side. They said, they landed and it was successful. So people were just left worried about the folks that they thought could have been over there, because they didn’t know.”
He said it wasn’t until after the war that he learned his father had not been at D-Day.
“My dad and my uncle Joe were both in armoured brigades and, for all we knew, every Canadian soldier was going over on D-Day and, when it was announced, there was a lot of concern in the family,” he said. “We knew they were alive because we hadn’t got the phone call or the telegram saying that they weren’t. That was the only way you knew that the person was still alive. The letters that I’ve got and the V-mail that my Dad sent, it would be a month and a half before you got them.”
He added it’s important to honour the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6.
“It was a big moment in our military history where they partnered up with the Brits and the Americans and it’s still the biggest military exercise that has taken place in history,” he said. “To land there on a defended shoreline, in the moment, with the resources that they had, in bad weather and so many things having to be coordinated together and doing it successfully, considering the number of people involved…was a major achievement and the defeat of the German War Machine would never have happened if they hadn’t pulled it off. It was a huge endeavour and they would never have won the war without it.”