‘I lost a lot of good friends’
A witness to history marks solemn day
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/11/2009 (4889 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Currie McMillan and his fellow minesweepers finished their work on June 6, 1944, they had little doubt they were witnessing history — they just didn’t know whether it was going to be good or bad.
After clearing German mines off of Omaha Beach in France, they made their way back out to sea. "We were the first Allied ships to approach France. We went in as close as we were supposed to go (to shore). That’s when the defending forces saw us and starting firing. Then our commanding officer told us our work was done, we had cleared all the channels we were supposed to and he said, ‘Let’s get out of here!’ " said McMillan, now 89.
"The second time, the fellows in the landing craft were going by us and landing on the sandy beach. We could watch them with binoculars and see them dropping and being hit."
McMillan said the D-Day invasion, one of the Second World War’s epic battles, was a joint effort between Canadians, Americans and the British.
"We worked with the American army and the British air force. That way, if any one sector failed, they couldn’t blame one country. That was a safety rule," he said.
Once his ship was out of harm’s way, McMillan said D-Day, as incongruous as it may seem, was a "beautiful, calm, sunny day."
"Our crew came up and was sunbathing on the deck. It was a tremendous release. We got 33 mines that morning. We had the radio tuned to the BBC and they had reporters on the beach that had just been talking about American troops flooding ashore. Then over our heads would come more airplanes. It was like being at a football game with a radio," he said.
McMillan said their every move was meticulously planned. If the German defences had proven impenetrable that June day, his boat had been given a back-up mission. "If the invasion failed, we were to come back and pick up any troops that we could," he said.
As he talked about the D-Day battle 65 years ago, McMillan made clear he will celebrate Remembrance Day in a very literal way.
"I lost a lot of good friends in the air force and in the army. I try to remember them. My father was a doctor in (the First World War) too. I’ll put on my uniform and my medals and I might go down to the cenotaph. It brings back a lot of memories. It’s not always easy."
McMillan got his first taste of minesweeping while training in Halifax. A German submarine put down 50 mines in the approach to Halifax Harbour one night and he was part of the crew sent out to clear the area. "That’s when it became quite exciting. Now we had a job to do. We had to sweep these mines. Several ships going in and out of Halifax Harbour were sunk because of these mines," he said.
After the success of the Normandy invasion, McMillan came home but he returned to Europe shortly afterwards to clear English waters of defensive mines put out by the British navy.
He and his first wife, Patricia, had two daughters, Joanne and Susan, both of whom live on the West Coast. Ten years ago, following Patricia’s death, he married Lorna O’Brien, whom he has known since 1940.