Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Veterans returning to France to commemorate 70th anniversary of D-Day

Forever thankful

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A Canadian flag is seen near Juno Beach, near Caen, Normandy.

DAVID VINCENT / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

A Canadian flag is seen near Juno Beach, near Caen, Normandy.

John Stoyka sits at the table near Premier Greg Selinger and listens to others speak about the importance of returning to Normandy 70 years later.

Stoyka, 88, was an 18-year-old rifleman with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles when he first set foot in France in 1944, days after the Allied invasion.

His reason for going back for the anniversary of the June 6 invasion is simple -- to pay tribute to friends who were killed during the Battle of Normandy before the Allied breakout in August.

"Keep in mind that we go back because we have friends buried in the cemeteries there," he said. "Many of them were between the ages 18 and 25, so they never really had a life."

Also going is Stan Butterworth, 89. He was a tank gunner in the Fort Garry Horse and experienced his brother being killed in later weeks during the liberation of Holland.

"Some of these graves in these cemeteries are known only to God," Butterworth said.

The two men are among a group of five veterans going back to Normandy, all invited as guests of the premier, to participate in a series of Canadian and international events starting June 4 with a presentation to D-Day veterans. Lower Normandy President Laurent Beauvais and Selinger will present a medal to Butterworth.

The event follows one in Winnipeg in October 2012 when eight Normandy veterans, including Stoyka, were presented with medallions by Annie Anne, vice-president of Lower Normandy, thanking them for their service.

The cost of the trip will be covered by a combination of federal and private sponsor support. The other vets going are Jack Tennant, Jim Parks and Francis (Frank) Godon. Private sponsors include James Richardson & Sons Limited (Hartley Richardson), CanadInns (Leo Ledohowski), Neil Bardal Funeral Centre (Erik Bardal), Albert El Tassi and Magellan Aerospace.

Selinger said between events the provincial delegation will have meetings with their European counterparts to promote the province, including Centreport.

"I always like to fit in economic talks on these trips," Selinger said.

The Manitoba delegation will include representatives of Manitoba's business, academic and arts communities including Omnitrax, World Trade Centre Winnipeg, the Université de Saint-Boniface, Red River College, the University of Manitoba and the Manitoba Arts Council.

D-Day memorial events start June 5 when the federal government hosts a ceremony at the Canadian cemetery in Normandy with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's wife Laureen.

The next day will see commemorations with Manitoba veterans of the Fort Garry Horse and Winnipeg Rifles at the villages of Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, Bernières-sur-Mer and Rots in Normandy. Later in the day, Selinger is to attend the international ceremony at Sword Beach with Queen Elizabeth, Harper, U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders.

Selinger will attend the Canada-France commemoration at Juno Beach with Harper, Prince Charles and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. The event will be live-simulcast in Canada.

The Canadian commemoration of the 70th anniversary is June 7 at the recently renovated Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery with Harper. The cemetery holds 2,958 graves, the majority containing the remains of Canadians, with 87 of them unidentified.

Selinger is to speak at an event that follows, organized by the Canadian Battlefield Foundation.

Bill McGowan, 90, was invited by the premier to go overseas, but declined because he's not as mobile as he once was.

"I was over eight years ago," said McGowan.

He joined the Fort Garry Horse in 1943 and landed in Normandy on June 7.

"You can't believe the emotion that there is with the French people today. The kids, they climb all over you. They want to touch you. They still celebrate in the villages the day they were liberated by the Canadian Army.

"The French people are forever thankful."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2014 A4

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