Teacher Patrick McLean has been sharing his grandfather’s D-Day story for years — no special anniversaries required.
The Hunting Hills High School teacher proudly displays a photo in his classroom of John William McLean with his 104-member company with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles before they landed on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944.
McLean said his grandfather, known as Jack, was one of only about 20 soldiers in that photo who survived D-Day.
“He was part of the first wave and he was a very lucky survivor,” McLean said.
“It took grandpa a lot of years of his life before he was able to really talk about it, but then he openly talked about it all the time. We learned a lot as a family.”
McLean said his grandfather was seriously injured after he came ashore. When he regained consciousness, he rejoined his company, but was ordered to return to the beach to be sent back to England for treatment.
It turned out that being wounded likely saved his life.
“He was part of C Company, that was actually all captured two days later on June 8, and most of them were actually murdered. So when he talks about his friends, he’s talking about the guys he left when he had to return to the beach.”
McLean said his grandfather described his walk to the beach the loneliest he ever experienced. When he arrived at the beach, it was full of wounded soldiers waiting to leave.
He ended up sharing a blanket with a captain who also had a flask of alcohol that he shared with the 23-year-old rifleman.
But the captain’s injuries proved fatal.
“The man said, ‘I have a picture of my wife in my pocket. Can you get it for me?’ (His grandfather) did and then he said, ‘I can’t see her.’ And then he died.”
McLean said his grandfather, who died in 2010 at the age of 88, knew D-Day was going to be memorable.
“They were given ice cream on the boat on their way across the channel. He remembered that. Ice cream was always his favourite and he thought they must be making this a special day if they’re giving us ice cream.”
His grandfather wrote a letter to his wife on the boat to Juno Beach in case he didn’t survive.
McLean said he asks his students to think about what it would be like to write such a letter, and it’s an exercise they don’t take lightly.
“They can imagine how hard it would be to write a letter that both reassures people and tells them how much you care for them, as it may be the last time. They can put themselves in that position.”
He said students are curious about Canada’s participation in the Second World War, and D-Day in particular.
“There’s a lot of pride there. They know that a lot of really great things were done.”
And students are always eager to share what they know about their relatives, he said.
“It’s kind of an important coming together, this sharing of stories, realizing why it’s important to learn the history of your family.
“I always love the opportunity to talk about my grandpa. He’s a hero of mine,” McLean said.