Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Juno Beach museum lacks punch
It was cool, overcast and raining intermittently, with strong winds driving the grey water against the beach, as we stood on the spot where D Company of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles came ashore on this sector of Juno Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
"The weather was much like this," said Matthew McHugh, our tour guide from the Juno Beach Centre, which is located here, about 50 metres from the water's edge at high tide.
The land rises gently -- no seawall -- to a sandy plain with tall grasses and shrubs. The terrain hasn't changed much, McHugh says, but most of the Nazi bunkers and pillboxes that once defended this location have slipped beneath the sand, although the local government here has restored one former observation bunker.
Others remain buried, but there are plans to restore them, too.
A sense of pride and awe was evident as members of the tour group looked across the beach and imagined the troops moving forward with heavy packs during low tide under fire, crossing obstacles and barbed wire and fighting their way inland. The naval and air bombardment had failed to destroy the extensive nest of German firing positions.
D Company (about 120 men) was led by Maj. Lockie Fulton, a farmer from Birtle, who was continuously in action from D-Day until the end of the war. He took command of the regiment in October 1944 when he was decorated for bravery by Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. After the war, the modest hero returned to farming and served on the local school board.
His story is typical of the thousands of young men who left ordinary jobs, if they had one, and went on to perform extraordinary feats for their country, earning the moniker The Greatest Generation.
It seemed odd there was no plaque or monument to the regiment on this spot, although one was installed farther to the east in 1964, where other units of the Winnipeg Rifles came ashore.
Several field guns and concrete obstacles that were used by the Germans to halt the Allied advance are situated outside the museum, which itself looks like a bunker, but it was actually designed to resemble the five points of the maple leaf.
The journey inside the museum, however, was disappointing for many members of the tour group, some of whom were expecting a more intense experience and stories about the men who landed here.
A large group of Winnipeg Rifles, for example, including Maj. Fred Hodge, was murdered by the SS after surrendering in the days after the invasion, but there was no mention of that, either.
Just one gallery is dedicated to the invasion itself, while the rest cover a variety of areas, including films and exhibits about Canada today, its peacekeeping roles and commitment to multiculturalism and so on.
It wasn't long before everyone on the bus sounded off.
"It seemed like a CBC special emphasizing how people felt about war, rather than what actually happened," said Jeff Davis, an aeronautical engineering technologist in Calgary.
Stéphane Guevremont, our tour guide and historian, was also disappointed. "It was a display about Canada and not about what happened on Juno Beach," he said. "It talks about everything else, it even goes to Italy, everywhere except what happened right here."
"It misses the mark if you are a Canadian tourist," he added.
Dave Fermor, an anesthetist from Calgary, said he disagreed. "It's important for non-Canadians to know the whole story," he said. Some tour members were also upset that as many as 20 bunkers Canadians faced on D-Day have not been restored, but Fermor said other bunkers in other sectors have also disappeared from view.
McHugh said when the Juno museum was built, it was assumed only Canadians would be interested, but experience has shown other people are intrigued by Canada's role, which he agreed has been forgotten, hence the belief that more context and background was needed for visitors.
Today, about 30 per cent of the roughly 60,000 visitors a year are Canadian, while most of the rest are French, British and Dutch.
The museum was the inspiration of Garth Webb, a D-Day veteran, who decided something was needed to mark Canada's role in the war. After raising $10 million from the private sector and the French and Canadian governments, the museum opened on June 6, 2003.
Until then, there were plaques for the various regiments that landed here, and a few artifacts of war, but nothing else to remember Canada's major contribution to cracking Hitler's "Atlantic Wall."
Webb passed away on May 8 this year.
Historian Mark Zuelhlke wrote "Juno Beach is the Canadian star of World War II remembrance." Maybe so, but for some visitors, it's a very weak light.
It might be a fine piece of architecture, but it's no Vimy Ridge. In fact, there is still no outstanding monument in Europe or in Canada to our contribution in the Second World War, an oversight that is waiting to be corrected.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 J5