WWII Veteran Hugh Buckley speaking to senior students at Windsor Secondary
Monday, June 5, 1944 – the seas off of Normandy, France were so rough that 19-year-old Hugh Buckley had a horrible bout of seasickness.
"I said to myself, 'I might as well just die now; nothing can be as bad as this. Tomorrow we might have a hard time, but at least we'll be on dry ground'," said Buckley to a group of more than 100 grades 11 and 12 students gathered over their lunch hour at Windsor Secondary School, as he explained what it was like for him personally to be involved in the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy during the Second World War.
On Tuesday, June 6, 1944, the largest seaborne invasion in history, known as D-Day, began the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control and contributed to the Allied victory of the Second World War. Buckley was a member of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, a Canadian regiment which included a fleet of Stuart tanks that stormed Juno Beach on D-Day. His role was as a gunner on a tank, controlling the main machine gun, and also acting as the radio operator for his tank.
Buckley recently visited Windsor Secondary to share his story with students. Students sat silent, captured by Buckley's words as he explained what it was like to be on the deck of a landing ship that fateful morning.
"There were thousands of ships as far as you could see," he said. "My regiment actually landed late, so the poor ground troops who landed on time didn't have the tank support they expected and there were many casualties."
They fought until nightfall on D-Day and by the end of the day there were only three reconnaissance tanks left, Buckley recounted to the students. "Thank goodness one was mine. Although my crew commander died."
Buckley was invited to speak to students at Windsor Secondary by teacher Megan McEwen, who was hoping to personalize the World Wars for her students.
"There are not many Second World War veterans still living and it's their stories that truly enable us to glimpse into the significance of the World Wars. Hearing Buckley speak transports us there – we feel what he was feeling and we see what he was seeing. It is a really powerful learning experience for students," said McEwen.
During a question and answer session at the end of the event, students not much older than Buckley himself on D-Day, had an opportunity to enquire about moments of war that remain vivid memories in Buckley's mind to this day. One of the students asked Buckley what he is proudest of from his time fighting in WWII.
"I'm proud of the fact that I was one of the first people to cross into Germany and that the people there treated us as liberators. They were so relieved that we had arrived to defeat their government. We didn't expect that response from the German citizens and it was really moving to me," he replied.
Another student asked how he felt when he heard the war was over.
"Thank God," Buckley said with a laugh. "I was relieved and couldn't wait to get out."
Following the war, Buckley returned to Canada, studied at UBC and raised a family. Since then, he has been a guest of honor at many remembrance ceremonies in Canada and abroad, and in 2014 he received France's highest award of military distinction –the Legion of Honor, on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings. Hugh plans to return to Juno Beach this summer on vacation.
Buckley with students and teach Megan McEwen at Windsor Secondary