We have hockey to watch because of heroes' sacrifice

Updated: June 7, 2006, 8:28 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- John C. Clark lives in Spring Hope, N.C., about 35 miles from Raleigh. "I'm not doing bad for an old guy," he said with a laugh this week. Spry and spunky at 85 years old, the retired farmer is one of those North Carolina residents who are getting caught up in the Stanley Cup finals without pretending to know the ins and outs of the sport.

"I've been following the Hurricanes this year," Clark said. "It's been surprising how they've come up. They've got their heart in it!"

Over the phone from Edmonton, Wally Strang, 80, admitted: "I don't want to say this, but I will. I think the Oilers have their hands full."

So why John C. Clark, the ex-farmer, and Wally Strang, a one-time Vancouver police officer who went on to have a long career in newspapers, radio and advertising in western Canada?

On the day this is being written, the June 6 off day between Games 1 and 2 of the Edmonton-Carolina series, the two men are symbols, representative of a generation's contributions.

As the Cup finals continue, as Canadians and Americans on both the Oilers and Hurricanes attempt to reach a common goal and feel a group sense of accomplishment with little concern for national origin, they are the jumping-off points for a look at the momentous events of 62 years ago.

D-Day and the Normandy campaign.

June 6, 1944, and beyond.

Cpl. Clark came ashore on Utah Beach, one of the five code-named areas on about 50 miles of the Normandy shore. The Americans landed at what were designated the Omaha and Utah beaches on the west side. British forces came ashore at the Gold and Sword beaches. Canadian troops landed at Juno Beach, between the two British sites. Strang, as a young signal officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, was part of a flotilla that dropped off some of the Americans at Utah Beach.

Canadians and Americans worked separately but in concert for one goal.

Fact is, most of us in my generation were too selfish, blinkered and even ignorant to pay sufficient attention to these sorts of things for way too long. It wasn't that we didn't know about World War II. We didn't know. Until my own father, Jerry, was in his mid-70s, I didn't show much interest in getting him to talk about his World War II experiences as a P-38 fighter pilot who flew 67 combat missions in the one-man, twin-engine plane in the Pacific Theater. Of course, part of that was his own reluctance, which was so typical of his generation and such a common phenomenon that I know quite a few heads are nodding out there this very second.

It applies to both North American nations, whether it involved the fighting against the Germans in Europe or the Japanese in the Pacific. But the added component here is that in the United States, in so belatedly recognizing the service of our elders, we probably haven't done enough to recognize that Canadian forces made crucial contributions, as well.

Including at Normandy on D-Day and beyond.

Clark was from Northern Indiana, serving in the Army's 4th Infantry Division. In the dark on that morning off France, he and his fellow Americans disembarked from the Higgins boat, knowing they were about to come under fire. Clark was a forward artillery spotter, meaning he was supposed to locate and pinpoint where the artillery firing should go. He was one of about 20,000 American troops hitting Utah.

"They dropped the gate, and we just rolled out," he said. "At the time, we thought we were on the beach, but we weren't. It was still dark, and we hit a sandbar, and the guy dropped the gate. The boat went under the water, and we rolled out. I know now that probably saved my life because by the time I swam in, got in -- it was 400 or 500 yards, as near as I can figure -- the second or third wave was landing. I was supposed to have been one of the first ones on the beach. ... There were a lot of boys in the first few waves who didn't make it."

At Utah, the Americans were trying to take out three armored pillboxes.

"When I got there, they had one pillbox out and they were after the other two," Clark said.

Also, Clark was part of the blowing up of the obstacles the Germans had placed near and on the beach.

"We lost one whole battery of guns," he said. "We had 105 [millimeter] howitzers, and that boat, I guess the skipper strayed off the course, and they hit a mine. We lost 59 men before we ever got to the shore."

Yet Clark goes out of his way to point out that the landing at Omaha was even more perilous than the one at Utah. At Utah, the American forces suffered 197 casualties, and one of the reasons for the comparatively low number was that U.S. paratroopers, including the "Band of Brothers" in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment's Company E were distracting and engaging the Germans beyond the beach, destroying weaponry that could have been used to fire on Utah Beach. "We had about a half-mile to go after we hit the beach," Clark said, "but it was through swamps. We hit the easy beach; we didn't have as much to contend with. The boys at Omaha really had it rough."

Clark was wounded twice as the 4th Division moved on. The first time was only a minor nuisance because he was hit in his shoulder by a wooden bullet. After he passed through Paris, he was hit a second time in Belgium.

"That was the fleshy part of my hip," he said.

Before Clark could go back into action, the Germans surrendered, an outcome that was inevitable -- at a horrendous Allied price -- after the successful Allied landings.

Years later, the combat at Omaha Beach was depicted in "Saving Private Ryan," the film that -- in its brilliant opening scenes -- drove home the horrors of D-Day. The men on Utah Beach didn't have it as "rough," but that's certainly relative.

"That's as near as you can get to the actual landing," Clark said. "The thing that isn't there is the smoke, the odor and the smell of the guns. There was gunpowder, so you could hardly breathe. Of course, and the odors from the blood and ..."

Clark stopped there.

Strang was from Vancouver, and he had gotten into the Royal Canadian Navy at 16 by lying about his age. "We loaded up American soldiers off the Isle of Wight, just at the entrance to the English Channel," he said.

Eventually, he said, the Canadian ships unloaded the Americans at Utah Beach.

"There were a whole flotilla of Canadian craft that went in there," he said. "These were LCILs -- Landing Craft Infantry Large. The fronts didn't open. The ramps came down the side, and the soldiers came off the sides."

He said there were as many as 20 of the landing craft in a flotilla, with more than 300 men on each.

"Pretty much all the soldiers we took in were black Americans," he said. "A lot of people don't know that."

I had to admit I didn't. But I subsequently discovered that the involvement of black soldiers on Utah Beach and the Normandy campaign is a matter of record, including their role as guards for German POWs on the beach.

To the east of Utah and Omaha, Canadian troops were on Juno. On D-Day, the Canadians at Juno suffered almost 1,000 casualties, including about 340 killed. Altogether, about 1,000 Canadians died in the first week of Normandy fighting. That was a small slice of the approximately 45,000 Canadians who died in the war.

"Those boys over there had some trouble," Clark said of the Canadians at Juno. "They got off the beach better than the British did. But they were fighters, I have to give them credit for that."

Strang, the Canadian sailor, got to know many Canadian Juno Beach soldiers as an activist and officer in one of the Edmonton-area Canadian Legion posts. "There's very few of us left now, though," he said.

Sad, but true.

(In a small-world twist, Strang served as the news director at Edmonton's CHED radio for about three years in the late 1950s. That's the station that carries the Oilers' broadcasts.)

Author Mark Zuehlke of Victoria, British Columbia, has written several books about Canadian contributions in World War II, including "Juno Beach," about D-Day; "Holding Juno," about the defense of the beach June 7-12; and a trilogy about Canadian forces in the Italian campaign.

"The American story was so dramatic with Utah Beach, so American historians get focused on the American part," Zuehlke said of D-Day. "British historians get focused on the British part. The Canadians sort of were forgotten by the American and British main histories. In fact, if you look at the official [military] histories of both of them, the Canadians are barely mentioned.

"That was what prompted me to do 'Juno.' I really wanted to bring out the Canadian side. It struck me as curious, and I really thought the Canadian story needed to be told."

It wasn't just that Americans didn't know much about the Canadian contribution, Zuehlke said. "I really do think it was short-shrifted in Canada, as well."

On the D-Day anniversary three years ago, the Juno Beach Centre -- a museum honoring the Canadian contributions in the invasion -- opened at Courseulles-sur-Mer, France.

Garth Webb, 87, was a lieutenant in the 14th Canadian Field Regiment on D-Day and was in action on Juno Beach. "I went there on a LCT (landing craft -- tanks) because we had some guns called 'priests', which were 105-millimeter guns on Sherman chassis," he said in a phone conversation Wednesday night from his home in Burlington, Ontario. "We fired from the water onto the beach in support of the guys before they landed. After that, we came into the beach."

I wasn't able to catch up with Webb until Wednesday night, because he was at Normandy on the D-Day annivesary, taking part in the dedication of a monument honoring the Canadians killed. The monument is at Bernieres Sur-Mer, the village at Juno.

Webb, a retired real-estate appraiser and Toronto Maple Leafs fan who earlier led the successful campaign for the establishment of the Juno Beach Centre, briefly spoke at the Tuesday ceremony, saying it was an honor to be back at the site of the landings. And he read from the message on the monument, which says that it is dedicated "to the men who fought without promise, reward or relief for the liberation of Europe and the hope of a better world."

In New Orleans, the National D-Day Museum was closed for only 93 days after Hurricane Katrina. Recently, Tom Hanks -- the star of "Saving Private Ryan" and a co-producer of "Band of Brothers" -- wrote a letter sent to thousands, an appeal for new members and for financial support for the museum. It actually deals with the entire war and carries the congressional designation as America's "National World War II Museum." Membership can be as low as $25 for an individual.

On the off day between Games 1 and 2 -- and always -- both nations could be proud about what happened June 6, 1944.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."