In 2006, Eliane Vanbrenseghem, a resident of Courseulles-sur-Mer who was 12 years old during the landings, came to the Juno Beach Centre to make a donation: the bracelet a Canadian soldier had given her on June 6, 1944. Eliane had a question: Given that the name of the soldier, “Capt M.W. Chepesiuk”, was engraved on the back of the bracelet, and the insignia on it specified he served in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, would it be possible to find out if this soldier had survived the war and if so, what he had become?
This question is often asked to the JBC’s personnel and the answer is the following: the first thing to check is to see if the name is on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website as it lists all the Allied soldiers who died during the two world wars and lists their place of burial. If the name is not on this list, one can deduct that he survived the war. This is when the research becomes more complicated. Military personnel service records are protected by privacy laws and only in the public domain 30 years after a veteran’s death and only family members can request his files by contacting the National Archives of Canada.
In the case of Captain M.W. Chepesiuk, and given the singularity of his surname, an internet search led to the obituary of a Canadian surgeon bearing the same last name and information about his family. Once contacted, the family was able to confirm that the name on the bracelet was not the surgeon who had recently passed away, but that of his brother, Maurice W. Chepesiuk who had died a long time ago (a name of Ukrainian origin).
It was then possible to contact Maurice’s daughter, Maureen Chepesuik, from Chemainus, in British Columbia, Canada, and to inform her that the bracelet her father offered to a little girl from Courseulles-sur-Mer on June 6, 1944 was on display at the Juno Beach Centre, the Canadian Museum on the D-Day Beaches.
In 2007, nephews and great nephews were able to make the trip to Normandy and visit the museum to see the bracelet and meet Eliane. This week, it was Amy Godkin,, Maureen’s daughter, who came to visit with her partner Andrew Sawden to see her grandfather’s bracelet and discover this story. Amy only knew her grandfather as a small child. When she visited the Centre, she was eager to discover more of Canada’s story during the Second World War and her grandfather’s implication in it. Life’s fortune made it that she could connect to this history through an object that tells his story.
Thanks to this connection, the Juno Beach Centre now hopes that more information about Captain Maurice W. Chepesiuk can be obtained. Amy has indicated that she will request her grandfather’s military service records and should be able to provide the JBC with a photo of him that will allow the museum to put a face to his name.
With regards to Eliane, she no longer lives in the town, but her story and that of the bracelet were on display for three years as part of the temporary exhibition “Grandma, what was it like during the war?” Her story, in her own words, is below.
“Our parents often spoke in low voices. Certain pieces of news should not reach our ears: messages from London, which were transmitted by word of mouth along the adult grapevine.
In May, aeroplanes flew past in the sky and dropped pamphlets, but I don’t remember what these messages said. During the second fortnight in May, every evening, we left the house in which we lived on the harbour in order to spend the night in a different house in the centre of the village. I did not know the reason for this. It was how things were, and our parents had learned to hold their tongues – the German Army had occupied the village.
On June 5, in the evening, towards midnight, we heard loud, dull thuds near the sea. We went out the house, and saw extensive glows over the sea, in the sky.
We were so surprised that we didn’t go to bed that night. I think our parents were hoping without really believing; they had been waiting for this moment for so long.
In the morning, at 6:30 a.m. we went out into the street and, near the house, I saw a face all covered with blacking, a head sporting a helmet covered with netting, then another face, painted the same, then three, then yet more. I watched all this with a mixture of surprise and fear. I turned towards my parents and both their faces were beaming with joy. I was reassured. My father said, “It’s the Landings!” and a voice replied in French, “Yes, Sir, it’s the Landings!” What a joy it was to hear that voice! For the child I was, this was the voice of a friend. Then other soldiers came, and I was very much in awe of them. They told us to put our hands in the air. I was really scared; I didn’t understand why I had to put my hands up. Later, I learned that their mission was to search for German soldiers who might have been hiding in the houses. They went into every room in our house, but didn’t find anything.
They continued their search in the other houses in Courseulles. They told us not to stay in our house and to go to a less inhabited part of the village. We left under artillery salvoes fired by ships offshore at the surrounding villages, and the uninterrupted passage of aircraft. Houses were burning. My father belonged to the Passive Defence, and was tending to wounded civilians. We saw other soldiers coming, but they were in caterpillar-tracked vehicles, and then a tank. I picked roses, which I gave to the soldiers. One of them, on a tank, stretched out his arms to me. I kissed him, saw his ID bracelet, wanted it; he hesitated, and I said, “Yes, yes, souvenir, souvenir!” He gave it to me, along with sweets and chocolate…
Around 11:30 a.m. we were able to go back up to our house, but I couldn’t go through the streets, there were soldiers everywhere, sitting on pavements, some of them completely exhausted. Others were clinking glasses with folk from Courseulles and getting acquainted with Normandy cider and Calvados…
In the village, I saw columns of captured German soldiers who were walking under escort, prisoners of the Canadian soldiers. There were military vehicles and troops everywhere. I don’t remember what happened in the afternoon. It was June 6, 1944, the year I turned twelve.”
– Eliane Vanbrensegem, 12 years old on June 6, 1944 in Courseulles-sur-Mer
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.