Sitting in his Normandy hotel room this week, New Brunswick’s Norman Kirby told Eric Brunt about taking on a German Tiger tank. It was quite a feat from a Bren gun carrier, but Kirby’s officer was unimpressed by the 18-year-old’s daring, and basically told him to get on with things.
Kelowna’s Eugenie Turner had her own story for Brunt. It was her job to log which planes left her British airfield and which ones came back. Then she would call the casualty office to say who was missing.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, she worked around the clock.
Colin Brown, a Canadian officer on loan to the British army — just like Brunt’s great-uncle, the one who died in Holland — recalled being attacked by Allied aircraft after wind took the signal-flare smoke that was supposed to guide the bombers to their target and blew it his way. This must be what it feels like to be a German soldier, the Ancaster, Ont., man told himself as the bombs rained down. He passed that memory to Brunt on Tuesday.
Today, the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France, will be a busy one for Brunt. The 26-year-old Victoria filmmaker has travelled to France, and Juno Beach, to record the ceremonies and the tales of 31 Canadian veterans who have travelled there for the occasion.
It’s a mission the Oak Bay High and University of B.C. film school grad has been on for 13 months, crossing Canada to capture the stories of the country’s few remaining Second World War vets. His goal is to release a feature-length documentary called Last Ones Standing next year (a trailer can be found at ericbruntmedia.com).
He began his journey after his grandfather, Clifford Brunt, died in Victoria at age 95, taking his stories with him, untold. How many other Second World War memories were disappearing, Eric asked himself.
So, last May, he set out in a little white Ford van — the same model the post office uses — driving from town to town in search of veterans willing to share their past.
He did so on the cheap, spending nights in his vehicle until Jan. 4, when his frozen water bottle told him it was time to start paying for a GoFundMe-assisted Airbnb.
Brunt reached St. John’s, N.L., in April, then turned around and headed back west, picking up a bilingual friend to help with French-language interviews in Quebec. He pulled into Victoria May 28, just in time to hop a plane for France and the D-Day anniversary.
The Normandy trip was an extravagance he couldn’t afford to pay for, but also an opportunity he couldn’t afford to miss. When else would he have such a chance?
As it is, the window is closing quickly. He estimates that fewer than 41,000 of the 1.1
million Canadians who served in the war
survive. Those who remain are acutely aware of their status. “They’ll talk about how they’re the last guy from their air crew, or the last guy from their ship,” he said, on the phone from France.
He figures that awareness has made some of them more willing to take part in his project. Five or 10 years ago they would have been more reluctant to open up, but now realize this is their last chance to do so, to let people know how it really was. Some of the old veterans — almost all are well into their 90s — initially said they found the memories too traumatic to revisit but, once they got going, wanted to talk and talk.
It’s obvious that Brunt likes his subjects. “One of the big surprises has been how humble these people are,” he says. In an age in which people can’t sign a Facebook petition without self-righteously bragging about it on Instagram, it was remarkable to run across all these people who thought their efforts were undeserving of attention.
Brunt wonders if that was related to growing up in the Depression, to just shutting up and doing what they had to do to get by. “The war was just another thing they had to survive.”
Theirs are histories Brunt thinks his contemporaries need to hear. “My generation really has no idea.”
Not much time left to hear the Last Ones Standing, though. Already, about 40 of the 386 people Brunt interviewed have died since he recorded them.
Jack Knox is an award-winning columnist, now in his 30th year with the Victoria Times Colonist.