Gilbert Young could not have known what he was in for when he signed up to fight for Canada in the Second World War.
Sitting in his North Shore apartment, the 95-year-old is visibly proud of his experience — raising his arms when talking about receiving fire, holding an imaginary rifle when returning it.
The only gaps in the action are when he pauses to catch his thought. Then the small living room transforms back into Normandy.
But he does not talk about it often. Not with family or friends.
“Not really,” he said, quickly returning to his tale.
“So we lost a sergeant … ”
Young was 20 when he was among the first Allied troops to arrive on D-Day on the shores of Normandy on June 6, 1944 — 75 years ago on Thursday.
Toiling in a mine in Ontario, Young joined the military after a recruiter visited his work. He volunteered to be a paratrooper at basic training but didn’t take his first jump until months later in England.
It was from a balloon. So were jumps two, three, four and five.
“We were training all the time until D-Day,” he told KTW.
“When D-Day came along, it was all ready to go. There were so many of us.”
Just after midnight on D-Day, 24,000 Canadian, British and American troops descended from the sky on Nazi-controlled Normandy, France.
Young was one of the first.
“We were the first to jump,” he said.
“It’s not that I wanted to be, but I was one of the first ones. The others came after us. You could see them coming down, the silhouettes, when we landed. When it was dark you could look back and look up and see the silhouettes.”
Young’s first job on dry land was far from glamorous and it quickly got worse. First, he was tasked by a superior to cut a barbed wire fence.
When he finished, he was told to lay on his stomach to help the other paratroopers proceed.
“Everybody stepped on my back and went across,” he said, beaming.
“Then I followed the rest.”
Not long after landfall, Young and his fellow soldiers took fire.
“All hell broke loose,” he said.
“They were shooting at us. It was still dark. Tracers were flying all over the place. Then we fell back and the day was coming. You could tell when the day was coming.”
Daybreak on D-Day was far from the end for Young.
In the weeks that followed, there were more firefights, seized prisoners and a desparate leap into a trench that resulted in an edge of barbed wire cutting off his pants and leaving a lasting scar.
Young said he saw members of his company killed, including a number of friends and superior officers.
He was also nearly taken down by enemy fire.
“I got hit right here,” Young said, gesturing to his left shoulder, then to the top of his head.
“And right through my hat. That one grazed me.”
Young was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant.
His company was in Germany by then, having jumped above the Rhine into the falling Nazi stronghold.
In a German warehouse, Young said, he was dared by a fellow Canadian soldier to take a motorcycle for a spin.
He was still 20.
“It was a really nice motorcycle, but I didn’t know what I was doing,” Young said.
“I went too fast.”
He fell and broke his leg. His military career was over.
After a few months at a hospital in England, Young was home in Ontario and soon returned to work in the mine.
A friend later got him into working “the bush” — felling trees.
That’s how he wound up in B.C., first a job felling a hydro right of way near Revelstoke and later work in Vancouver, Alaska, Prince George, Haida Gwaii, Logan Lake and, eventually, Kamloops — where he now enjoys sitting in his apartment and watching baseball, which is what he will probably be doing when D-Day’s 75th anniversary is remembered on Thursday.
He cheers for the Blue Jays.
“I guess it’s got to be Toronto,” he said.