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D-Day FEATURE: In the sons of soldiers

Dave Murray and Craig Speirs (inset) recount war stories from their parents on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. - Colleen Flanagan/The News
Dave Murray and Craig Speirs (inset) recount war stories from their parents on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

A hail of metal was screaming down from all directions as the Germans set up a vicious crossfire on Juno Beach and Bud Murray wondered if he would survive.

“When he came off the landing craft, there were bullets coming every which way,” said his son, Dave Murray.

“The German machine guns were set up so they could just crossfire.”

His dad was hit by either a bullet or shrapnel in the leg, but adrenalin had kicked in and he was able to find shelter behind armoured vehicles that were part of the second wave of Canadian troops storming the beach on D-Day in northern France, 70 years ago.

Then fate intervened.

Despite the withering fire, the driver of one vehicle – Dave figures it was a flame thrower – stuck his head out.

“He got his head shot off. The lieutenant yelled out, ‘Hey, can anyone drive this thing?’”

Bud thought if he was going to survive, he’d better try.

Once inside the vehicle, he figured out the controls and he made it off the beach and on to French soil to join the massive Allied campaign to push the Germans out of France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

It was the luck of the draw if you made it back or not.

Bud survived the next year as Canadian troops fought north from the Normandy region of France, into Belgium, liberated the Netherlands and fought their way into Germany to help end the war in May 1945.

One day brought a lasting memory, when his unit liberated a concentration camp Dave believes was in Germany. His dad had to drive the bulldozer to do a mass burial of the victims.

Dave said the camp’s colonel kissed his dad’s foot after he gave him a cigarette.

“That really shook him up, having to bury that many people. That was quite a trauma having to do that.”

Today, June 6, marks the 70th anniversary of that day, the largest seaborne invasion by Allied troops landing in northern France to start the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

When it was over, Bud returned like thousands of others who paid the price, and started a career in construction, driving the heavy equipment like he drove in the army, and raised a family of eight children.

“He was quite a person. He was a boxer. He was a physical trainer instructor, as well,” Dave said.

“He was a ‘not-take-any-prisoners’ kind of guy.”

One thing that stuck in his dad’s mind, though, was the gratitude of the Dutch to Canadians for liberating their country from German rule.

“That’s something that impacted him as long as he would remember. He thought that was really gracious of them.”

Before the war, Bud, from Qu’ Appelle, Sask., was a pro hockey player with the Flin Flon Bombers. He even had the chance of trying out with Eddie Shore’s team in Springfield, Missouri, but opted for the army instead.

It was either sign up for Shore “or go off to war,” Dave explained.

Dave says 70 years is a significant chunk of history and that most veterans have since passed on. His dad died in 1984, at age 73. With collective memories starting to fade, Dave said he might write something for his Pitt Meadows Today web paper, and he might ask for a moment of reflection at the City of Pitt Meadows council, where he’s serving his first term.

Dave agrees, his dad’s war experiences, which led to his drinking, affected him as well.

“Absolutely. I think it certainly increased alcoholism.”

When his dad’s old army buddies came over, they’d start to reminisce.

“As a kid, you listen to the stories. You don’t know what’s factual. We listened to the rhetoric.”

He agrees, his dad’s past affected his own present.

“It absolutely does. It doesn’t matter what war you look at, it affects generations through generations to come.”

But overall, Dave figures he’s gained more from his upbringing, saying he has a good social conscience.

“It helped build a good social fabric, in what I’m doing in politics.”

He has supported Canadian soldiers, but was glad to see the last of the troops leave Afghanistan this year.

“One of the things that bothered my dad growing up in the Depression, he couldn’t understand up until 1939 – there was no money.

“The second the war started, there was money everywhere.”

Jobs were plentiful.

“It was like night and day. It was like somebody turned a switch on.”

 

•••••

 

At 6’4”, Craig Speirs’s dad Bob stood out in a crowd.

“He was the tallest one in the platoon,” Speirs recalled.

That extra height came in handy on D-Day as Canadian troops fought for a foothold on a beach in northern France.

While the landing craft carrying the troops had tried to run into shore as far as possible, many soldiers were in over their heads when they jumped from the boats into the surf.

So Bob was there helping his comrades get to shore.

“To me, that says a lot about my dad,” says Speirs, a former Maple Ridge councillor.

Speirs’s dad signed up in Vancouver or New Westminster, then was posted to Regina Rifles and shipped over to England in April 1944.

He was a rifleman, then took on the job of motorcycle dispatch rider – the Second World War version of a text message. With no WiFi, messages had to be carried in a satchel on a speedy motorcycle across rugged country under enemy fire.

“His bike got hit a couple of times. It was sniper fire,” said Speirs.

His headlights were shot out.

Bob, though, managed to survive – until he smashed his Norton motorcycle into a truck on in October 1944, driving the gearshift through his foot.

He may have hurt his foot, but the accident was a blessing in disguise. Bob was sent back to England to recover and while there met Craig’s future mom, Betty.

He met her while they were both riding bicycles.

“She was a bomb girl, working a lathe, making parts for torpedoes,” Speirs says proudly.

“She was specially trained to run the lathe and was one of the first women to do so.”

And he recalls his dad approving of the movie, Saving Private Ryan, saying it was a good account of what the Allied invasion was like.

Craig’s recollection of his dad’s wartime exploits 70 years ago are sketchy, however.

“He didn’t like to talk about it much. It wasn’t that pleasant a memory.

“He didn’t join the legion. He didn’t march in any Remembrance Day parades – until the (50th) anniversary of the liberation of The Netherlands.

“Then he got his medals and marched in the parade. He was very proud of that. That was the only time he talked about his experiences,” Craig says.

“And then he put them away – there you go.”

Instead, it was his letters to friends and family that tell the story about those momentous days.

“I learned more from his letters home.”

According to some of them, which the family has recorded digitally, there were bright spots.

“It makes me laugh when we get bombed,” Bob wrote. “The fellows are in their trenches.

“When a bomb lands, they all look up to see if a cow got hit. If it did, we have steaks and onions for supper.

“They sure can carve up a cow in a hurry,” Bob said in one his letters, dated July 21, 1944.

In another letter, from Aug. 4, Bob adds some more colour from fighting in France.

“I figure I’m pretty good at French now. I was talking to some French girls the other day and I got everything they said.”

“I’m trying to get a few real good souvenirs, such as a German revolver, if I can, and some trinkets also,” he said in another account from Aug. 18.

He also complained of sore feet: “But today, a French lady brought me a kettle of hot water and some sort of powder. It really done them good.”

When Bob and Betty returned to Canada, he spent most of the rest of his career as a psychiatric nurse in Riverview Hospital.

He kept in touch with a few buddies from the war days. One of them was so emotionally wounded “he limped through life,” heading off into the woods for a month every so often.

“Because he was so messed up.”

Craig said his dad would talk about the war in relation to that. He wouldn’t talk about the things he’d seen, just that he’d seen them.

His dad’s easy-going nature didn’t allow him to carry any of the horrors of war.

Instead, the couple just put the war behind them and raised a family of five.

His dad’s generation did a lot for the next.

“He was glad to pay that price. He always thought of others first,” Craig said. “One generation sews the seeds, the other generation picks the fruit.”

Like Dave Murray, Craig won’t do much for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. He might go to a parade, if there is one.

“It gives me deep appreciation to those who’ve given so much so we can enjoy our freedom.”

 

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