Jim Jenkins remembers boarding a barge on the English Channel early on June 6, 1944. But until he was aboard, no one explained to the Oakwood, Ont. native where he was going.
His senior officer, Capt. Elmer D. Bell, made the situation a little clearer.
“Boys, there’s no more training,” Bell said. “We’re going to be on the coast of France in the morning.”
Artillery Gunner Jenkins, then 19, knew that he and the rest of the 19th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery, would be landing in Normandy on Juno Beach as part of D-Day, the largest amphibious landing attempted.
Jenkins, now 90, remembers the not-so-graceful landing he made as the invasion of Northwestern Europe began that morning.
“When we first hit the beach, we had six feet of water (in front of us); it was just too deep to get (our equipment) off,” he said.
They had to pull the ramp up and try again. On the second try, with more velocity, they faced another problem.
“We hit a sandbar this time,” Jenkins said. “It swung the boat right into another empty ship. The ramp plowed right through the back of that ship. I’m the first guy off, and I’m looking through my little peep hole and I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Jenkins’ crew improvised, using acetylene torches to cut away enough metal to lower their ramp and get ashore. All the while, they were attacked by German mortar shells and enemy aircraft.
“The sky was black with our own (fighter aircraft),” Jenkins said. “I didn’t see a single (German) plane get away.”
On the beach now, Jenkins drove his trusty half-track armoured vehicle past barbed wire and signs warning of land-mines. He said his experience on the farm gave him the ability to drive anything and everything.
After their crash landing, Jenkins caught up to the rest of his outfit in the town of Basly, south of Juno Beach. There, they were met with hostility.
“They were pecking at us from the church tower and some of the houses,” Jenkins said. “We blew the tower off of one of the first churches.”
In a strange twist of fate, Jenkins would later become the owner of one of the 105 millimetre shells from an M7 “Priest” tank that hit that very same church tower.
Still it was in Basly that Jenkins recalls one of his more vivid memories.
“There was a lady that had 12 children, and the kids were hysterical,” Jenkins said. “We tried to get the kids under cover so they wouldn’t get hurt, and the next day, that mother found me with an open roaster in her hands that had a roasted chicken in it.”
“I never forgot that,” Jenkins said.
Through Basly, he continued driving his half-track. He drove it throughout the Battle for Caen, and then through France, Belgium and Holland. He drove through the winter into February.
“It was not very pleasant in February to have to get down into a slit-trench or anything like that,” Jenkins said “The conditions were very poor.”
It was on Feb. 8, 1945 that the first attacks into Germany were made.
“1500 guns opened up at 5 a.m. and it was some racket that you hadn’t heard before.”
It was into Rees, Germany where Jenkins led reconnaissance missions, scouting locations for his regiment. Still driving the same half-track that travelled across the English Channel and crash landed onto Juno Beach with him.
“It allowed you to get through rough terrain,” he said.
And it got Jenkins to within weeks of the end of the war in Europe. On April 12, 1945, however, Jenkins ran over two big box mines that exploded beneath the half-track vehicle.
“That was the end of my wartime days,” Jenkins said.
The blast left Jenkins with a major concussion and internal injuries.
How he made it to that point without breaking, puzzles even him.
“I really think the older people that had families at home took it harder than some young buck like me,” Jenkins said. He was only 16 when he joined the Army. He was 17 when he left for Europe.
He was 20 when he returned home.
There, waiting in the doorway of his parents home was his soon-to-be wife, Joan.
“I took her home that night,” Jenkins said. “And we’ve been together ever since.”
Now, 70 years later, Jenkins will observe Remembrance Day a little differently.
“Ever since I’ve come home from (the war), I’ve gone to my hometown in Lindsay and marched in their Remembrance Day parade,” Jenkins said. “This will be the first year I haven’t.”
Instead, Jenkins will be at Centennial College’s East York campus to tell his story and what Remembrance Day means to him.