While the commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings took place, a smaller ceremony on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine (Québec) honoured a local 97 year-old veteran. On July 13, 2014, Mr. Conrad Landry received a medal containing sand from the beaches of Normandy from Mr. Jean-François Legrand, president of the General Council of the Manche Department in France.
When I heard about this event, I knew I wanted to meet Mr. Landry and to learn more about him, his decision to leave the Îles-de-la-Madeleine to defend a country he did not know, his war stories, and his return to civilian life. I did not expect to discover the story of M. Landry’s unusual journey and incredible memory.
It was a meeting outside of time and space. Three hours spent with Conrad Landry and Joan Smideley, M. Landry’s wife whom he had met in England, asking questions, listening to their answers, trying to understand, to put myself in their shoes. It was a master class in life, humanity, and love.
Conrad’s life story began on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine in 1917, during a time when the islands were isolated and self-sustained. There were no salaries, only the necessity to work hard for the needs of the entire year. Fishing, livestock, agriculture, gardening, all to eat once winter came around. Then the war began, and there was no future for the men of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine other than enrolling into the army: to travel, they said, to see the country and earn a salary. They left, four of them together. A few weeks of training in Valcartier, a few months in New Brunswick, a few days of leave to say goodbye to their friends and family in the isles and they were off, crossing the Atlantic, already scared of being hit by a torpedo or machine gun fire. They arrived in England in 1941 and there completed three years of training.
Years went by and, while rumours of an Allied invasion were swirling, no one knew where or when it would occur. On June 5th, 1944, they were told to load the boats and bring their gear. They went aboard; there were boats as far as eye could see. The announcement followed: the men were to land on French soil the next morning, in Normandy. A pit formed in their stomachs.
Arriving the morning of June 6th in Bernières-sur-Mer with the Régiment de la Chaudière, Conrad managed to avoid stepping on a land mine while disembarking the landing craft, unlike the man on his left. He found shelter behind a stone wall to avoid German gunfire.
Conrad then jumped ahead to bring me to Carpiquet, where for five days and five nights the fighting never stopped. The soldiers were at the end of their strength. On the 5th of July, the day before the taking of Caen, Conrad’s vehicle was hit and blown up. He was projected out of the vehicle and received a blow to the head that cost him an eye; other internal injuries would manifest themselves later. But he was alive and Caen was now the target. The town was bombed incessantly and Conrad remembers perfectly well that, though the bombings may have helped the soldiers on the ground, they destroyed a city and the civilians who had not fled.
A few weeks of convalescence followed, after which the war continued for him in the Netherlands and in Germany, finally ending May 8, 1945.
Conrad went back to England where he immediately married Joan, whom he had met before D-Day. He was sent back to occupy Germany for a few months. The newlyweds left afterwards for Conrad’s native land, the Îles-de-la-Madeleine.
They left behind a wounded Europe for a land where war had not left its mark. No more weapons, no more noise, no more bombings, no more risks… a well-deserved, peaceful environment in which to try and live with the ghosts of their violence- and anguish-filled youth. The anguish of those who remember saying good bye to friends or family without knowing if they will see them again, and of the woman who was waiting for a letter between June and August 1944, when soldiers did not have the leisure to write or confirm they were still alive, were not easily forgotten.
Today, Conrad is 97 years old and is among the few veterans who remain to share their experience. Joan is 87 and watches over him. One can sense that after so many years and so many difficulties, they continue to rely on one another; one may also be inclined to wonder how they would live without one another.
They had lives far from ordinary, and their sharing of their story and their version of History truly touched me. It was History as told by those who lived it, and not by a teacher in classroom.
Life is made up of crossroads and this one was unlike any other. I thank the good fortune that led me to cross paths with this couple who has so much to share.
Contributed by Elena Haratsaris, age 26, born in Caen, Normandy, resident of Québec for 7 years.
Military photos of M. Landry sourced from The Memory Project, Canada.
Dispatches from Juno shares all the news, events, and stories from the Juno Beach Centre in France and Canada. Interested in contributing a story to the blog? Email the editor at email@example.com.