PHOTO: Alannah Kim, a student from another tour group, OC Tyler Herbert, Chris Strom, Skyler Gushulak, Emlyn Cameron, Casey Rogoza, (and front) Kelyn Vos and Claire Poulin in the Ypres bell tower (missing are CO Dorinda Kora, cadets Adam Poulin and Keira Cameron) ; and the group at the Vimy memorial.
After two years of planning and fundraising, nine Atikokan air cadets with two squadron leaders enjoyed a nine-day tour of Canada’s WW I and II Battlefields in Europe over the March Break.
Atikokan’s 600 Starfighter Squadron members Casey Rogoza, Kiera and Emlyn Cameron, Christopher Strom, Skylar Gushulak, Kelyn Vos, Claire and Adam Poulin, and Alannah Kim were accompanied by Officer Cadet Tyler Herbert and Commanding Officer Dorinda Kora.
It was a powerful experience for the entire group, and it took them to stops in Amsterdam, Vimy Ridge (in its 100th year commemoration), the beaches of Normandy and Juno, and finally to Paris.
Particularly striking for the kids, who ranged in age from 13 to 16, were the battlegrounds of the Normandy campaign, where about 5,400 Canadian soldiers died, as troops waded ashore to the beaches and worked their way through the obstacles and minefields under the killing zones of the German gun positions.
One of the main landing sites of the D-Day campaign was Juno Beach, where the Allied Forces sustained heavy losses under machine gun fire, but managed to overwhelm the German strong-points with Sten-guns, small arms fire, and grenades. The D-Day Battle was a turning point in World War II and led to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Having just studied this in Grade 10 History, cadets Christopher Strom, Skylar Gushulak, and Claire and Adam Poulin said it brought the pages of history to life.
“It changes the way you think about what happened,” said Strom. “Because when you’re there, you know it really happened.”
Before heading to Juno Beach where the vestiges of the war still remain, the group watched a powerful video at a nearby museum that helped them visualize what those soldiers were thinking as they came off the boat and under enemy fire.
“Juno Beach – it is so real there,” said Claire Poulin. “The Museum and the video just really brought it home, it made you realize what a solider may have been thinking and feeling as they landed – how exhausted and lacking in sleep they would have been at that point.”
“It does really hit you, realizing that thousands of people died where I am standing. It was emotionally overwhelming and I wasn’t anticipating that,” recalled Herbert.
One fond memory for the cadets was an impromptu stop their tour bus made at their request to see a German gun in Normandy. While not on the itinerary, it was a rare opportunity for them to “see the guns still intact, something you could actually touch,” said Herbert. In fact, they did more than touch: Herbert helped hoist each of the cadets atop the massive weapon for their photo.
The whole trip was “an eye-opener,” agreed Kora, who added that she learned new aspects of Canada’s wartime contribution. She said the existence of mass graves containing the bones of unidentified soldiers, both Canadian and German; the close proximity of the battle lines on the beaches of Normandy; the ‘no man’s land’ between battle lines, were things she would never have known or understood fully without seeing it with her own eyes.
“It’s one thing to read about, but when you’re walking in the crosses it’s totally different,” said Kora.
What hit home for the group were the individual and personal stories of the war they gleaned. Adam Poulin learned that 43 sets of brothers are buried at Omaha Beach’s US cemetery. His twin sister Claire was struck by the ages of some of the war dead, age 16 and likely even younger. “That could be my brother. It made me want to cry,” she said.
The tour was conducted by Educational Tours and called ‘Canada’s Battlegrounds’ and while it occurred in the 100th year since the battle of Vimy Ridge, the tour offered much more insight into both wars. The group started in Amsterdam, where they visited the Anne Frank house (“It was really small, considering how many people lived there,” said Claire.), the Jewish Museum, Jewish deportation centre, and a Portuguese Synagogue during two days in the Netherlands.
The visit offered some insight into Dutch culture with a cheese farm, a windmill farm, and a wooden clog factory on the itinerary.
“Our family is Dutch so it was nice to see [and learn] some of my own culture,” said Kim, who was intrigued to learn how the positioning of windmill blades were used to signal certain messages. (Kim and Kiera Cameron, both Grade 8 students, were the youngest participants).
The Normandy portion also included a visit to the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, the final resting place of over 2,000 Canadian who were lost early in the Battle of Normandy.
In the Vimy region, the group spent two days touring sites that marked the First World War battles including Passchendale (a significant battle the Allied forces engaged in a few months after taking Vimy Ridge where over 4,000 Canadians died), the Essex farm where surgeon John McRae wrote the famous poem, In Flanders Fields, the Flanders Fields Museum, the Vimy Memorial, and the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing soldiers of the Commonwealth countries who were killed in Ypres, France.
The vestiges of intensive and intricate trench warfare, a symbol of the particularly brutal WWI combat near the border of France and Belgium, (which included the first use of poison gas in combat by the Germans on French, Algerian, and Canadian troops) can still be seen.
The trenches of opposing sides separated by ‘no man’s land’ were surprisingly close in proximity, said Rogoza, a Grade 9 student. “They were so close to each other. You don’t think about that, but they were only a few feet away from each other. Where you’re sleeping could literally be feet away from another guy’s gun barrel.”
Among the names of the missing at the Menin Gate Memorial, Kiera and Emlyn were able to find the name of a relative, 35 year old William Nutter.
Vimy’s landscape remains a stark reminder of the battles nearly 100 years ago, and Gushulak said that it was surprising to see how the war had forever changed some landscapes, which remain fields of craters and mounds, now covered in lush green grass.
The WWII bunkers used by the Allied Forces and the Germans fascinated Vos and Rogoza in particular, as they were mostly intact and they got to go in and walk around in them.
After some pretty sobering site seeing, the trip ended on a light note, with a few days in Paris, and the chance to see the Eiffel Tower at night and tour the Louvre Museum and Napoleon’s Tomb.
The whole nine days (March 10-19), went incredibly smoothly, and Kora and Herbert say the cadets demonstrated the maturity, discipline, and responsibility they have learned through their cadet training. (The ‘push-up rule’ for tardiness helped keep the group on time and together, leaders and cadets jokingly agreed.)
Taking on responsibility for chaperoning nine youth on an international trip had Kora “worried at first,” she said. “The kids were so good, though I didn’t have to worry. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
The trip was two years in the planning and entailed extensive fundraising to reach their goal – which they did. “We raised the full amount for the trip plus spending money for the cadets,” said Kora. “We basically held fundraisers every month, bake sales, walkathons, yard sales, raffles, clean-up at the Sapawe dump, food booths at the Bass Classic and Mudfling.”
All cadets who signed up by the fall of 2015 were eligible for the trip. The cadets will host a presentation of their trip to share their experiences and photos with the community.