Frank Wong was only 25 years old when he went ashore with the Canadian Army at Juno Beach during the Second World War’s Normandy Invasion.
Almost 59 years later, he remembers clearly the Canadian Army’s push through the northern regions of France and into Belgium, Netherlands and, finally, Germany, with the German army retreating before them.
“It was quite exciting during that period because we were moving through the French countryside and people were waving at us and everywhere we stopped, they’d bring us wine,” said Wong.
The Burnaby resident was recently honoured by the Dutch government for his part in liberating the Netherlands.
Joop Corijn, consul general of the Netherlands in Vancouver, presented Wong with the ‘Thank You Canada’ medal.
Starting about three years ago, the remembrance medal has been given to all Canadians who took part in the liberation of the Netherlands through 1944 to 1945 – about 6,000 veterans nationwide.
The ceremony was held in early May at the Chinese Canadian Military Museum in Vancouver.
“I felt quite honoured,” he said, noting his whole family – including two grandchildren – attended the presentation.
It’s not the only notable event connected to the Second World War that Wong’s attending this year.
The former soldier will also attend the June 6 opening of the Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer in Normandy, which was built to commemorate the Canadian army landing there in 1944.
Born in Vancouver in 1919, Wong enlisted on May 1, 1942.
After doing basic training in Vernon, he went to Barriefield, Ont. – near Kingston – for his advanced training.
In February 1943, Wong was shipped to England where he joined up with the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers – and the waiting began.
“Everyone knew that we were training for the (Normandy) invasion – it was just a question of when,” Wong said, adding the delay was difficult and frustrating at times.
“I guess (like) most people, you’re training, you’re getting impatient, you’re all set to go.”
The first wave went over on June 6, but there wasn’t enough room on the shore for everyone to land at once, so the remaining Canadians – including Wong’s company – went in July.
“We went through the streets of Dover in the middle of the night,” Wong said, recalling the other nighttime memory – reaching Normandy.
“I never saw so many ships on the beachhead in my life,” he said.
They climbed down rope ladders onto landing craft, which took them ashore. Although the earlier landing had cleared the way for the later wave of soldiers, Wong said they were still being fired upon by Germans who were farther off.
Just south of the beach is Caen, and all Canadian troops in France fought there together because, although the city was supposed to have been cleared right after the initial invasion, it was more difficult than expected to clear the Germans out.
“It took about six weeks before the city was taken,” said Wong, who was with the 2nd echelon mobile workshop.
He described it as a repair centre for medium- and heavy-artillery and vehicles where “everything was on wheels” so they could move when the artillery did.
The troops travelled through northern France, crossing the border into Belgium and reaching Ghent before they left the countryside.
“Ghent was the first city with bright lights,” remembered Wong of the city northwest of Brussels, adding they still had to be wary of German snipers there.
“We had to carry our rifles with us.”
The army had also been carrying provisions with them since Normandy – there was no other way to resupply short of retracing many thousands of steps.
Another route was needed and Antwerp was chosen as the landing site.
Allies were already in charge of the Belgian city but, although it is a port, it’s 80 kilometres from the sea and the Germans were still in control of its approaches.
It took almost two months from the beginning of October 1944, but Canadian and British troops fought heavily, eventually clearing the way for the first supply convoy to arrive at Antwerp in late November.
They passed on to Nijmegen and Arnhem in the Netherlands but spent the winter in nearby Terborg, with a constant reminder of danger.
“The Germans were sending over ‘buzz bombs,’ and Terborg was right on their route,” Wong remembered. “You’d keep your fingers crossed and wait for the explosion.”
One bomb hit a church and killed 20 people, he said, adding he was in more danger another time in Terborg.
“It dawned on me that somebody was shooting at me,” Wong remembered.
In the spring came the ‘big, final push’ and the 2nd Canadian Corps went through the northeastern region of the country and, crossing the Rhine, into Germany.
When the war officially ended, Wong wasn’t actually with his unit – he was returning from a short course at the Sorbonne, offered to Canadian military personnel on a rotating basis to give them respite from the fighting.
“When the train stopped at Brussels, people were celebrating the war was over,” Wong said, adding he stopped to share in the celebrations.
“So unfortunately I missed the train.”
He hitchhiked back to his unit afterwards and found the mood considerably more sober, although soldiers had talked for days about how they’d party when the war ended.
Issued with a bottle of beer for the occasion, “they were just glad that the war was over. No one was celebrating,” Wong said.
And the war wasn’t quite over for them yet.
Wong’s unit returned to clear Arnhem, which was free of civilians because “the whole city was booby-trapped,” he said, adding they lost six more soldiers to mines.
“Especially after the war (was over), that was sad.”
Since that time, Wong has returned to the Netherlands – most recently in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the liberation.
It was also around the time of the queen’s birthday but, his guide pointed out, there were more Canadian than Dutch flags attached to buildings and posts.
“This is how much the Dutch people think of the Canadians,” Wong said. “It was nice.
“Everywhere I went, people walked up to me and shook my hand: ‘You’re my liberator.'”
by Mia Thomas, Burnaby Now, June 04, 2003