Veteran keeps D-Day stories alive

Jack Houston says he worries about what will happen when the last of the Second World War veterans die and no one is left to keep the memories alive.  |  Brenda Hunter photo

A 96-year-old man from Manitoba embraces every opportunity to talk about the Second World War and his experiences

Jack Haddow Houston, a veteran of the Second World War, turned 21 three days before the epic D-Day invasion of German-occupied France by Allied troops at Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Earlier this month he turned 96 and celebrated the 75th anniversary of D-Day at his home in Birch Lodge in Hamiota, Man.

He was one of the lucky ones.

The nightmarish experiences he witnessed during his time overseas with the 12th Manitoba Dragoons are painful for Houston to recall. However, he continues to do so, with extraordinary detail. He believes this is his purpose, the important reason why he is still here and of sound mind — to share the stories, lest people forget.

“Once we ran over a mine and it literally blew all the wheels off of our armoured vehicle,” recalled Houston.

“Another time in Holland while on foot, I felt a bullet whiz by my ear and later noticed the hole in my hat. Those weren’t my days to die, I guess.”

Houston has always been fiercely patriotic and embraces every opportunity to talk of the war and his experiences, answer questions from curious parties (especially young people), honour his fallen brethren and preserve the sanctity of the period. But never has he spoken so candidly as he did on the 75th anniversary of that pivotal day.

Houston actually landed at Juno Beach on D-Day plus one, the day after the D-Day invasion. There were so many soldiers involved in the attack that there was physically not enough room on the boats for all of them to go at once.

He was in an amphibious tank and was able to disembark on dry land, unlike the day before when rough seas and underwater land mines disabled landing craft and forced troops to disembark in the water and make their way to shore amid heavy gunfire.

Houston said he was not prepared for what he saw as the tank he was in manoeuvred over the bodies and debris and up the steep banks to the hills and beyond.

“There were miles of bodies laying everywhere … bodies, death and destruction,” said Houston. “It was far more terrifying (than any movie could depict) and worse than they could ever put on film.

“The water was full of boats. No one had any idea how big of an event this was or was going to be. All we knew was that we needed the beach to be ours and it would be the foothold we needed.

“We believed everything they said (on the radios). We had to keep pushing forward, we were the front line and those behind us were relying on us to clear the way. We were part of the reconnaissance outfit, we plotted out the bad spots, cleared it out and got rid of the enemy. We had no concept of where we had been or what we had conquered. We were given maps for a small area and when we conquered that, we got the next map. I was watching the world literally through a six by 10 (inch) window (in the tank). We had no idea until later how pivotal that day had been.

“There were so many dead boys on the roadside … but we had to keep moving. Where would we be today if we hadn’t? The Nazis would have ruled the world. Hitler wanted the world and he wasn’t going to stop, and there is proof in that. The war was a necessary evil.”

Recalling the moment when he learned the war was over was an emotional time for Houston.

“We were 50 miles east of Oldenburg, Germany, headed for Berlin when we got the news. ‘It’s all over boys, come back’ came across the radio. The relief in those words is indescribable. I will never forget that for sure.”

Houston was one of five siblings in a family of seven to enlist. They all were fortunate to return home.

“I enlisted because I was patriotic and loved this country. My brothers were over there, I needed to go.”

In total, 359 Canadian soldiers were killed and more than 700 others were wounded or captured out of 21,400 Allied troops who landed on Juno Beach, which was one of five Normandy beaches involved in the D-Day invasion.

By the end of the Battle of Normandy, the Allies had suffered 209,000 casualties including more than 18,700 Canadians, 5,000 of whom lost their lives.

According to Veteran’s Affairs Canada estimates, about 41,000 Canadian war veterans were still living as of March 2018.

That number is rapidly decreasing each year and is of grave concern to Houston.

“What I most fear now is that what we did will be forgotten; that our jackets and medals will hang in a museum somewhere and no one will tell the stories. I guess that is my purpose, and I will talk till I can’t, I guess.”

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