At 95, local Second World War veteran Richard (Dick) Brown, speaking to SooToday with a strong, clear voice, sharp mind and good sense of humour, will be travelling to France to take part in the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings at Juno beach.
“I’ll be 96 soon, so it’s important for me to go over there this last time,” said Dick, who still lives independently in his Sault home.
“I think we should all remember D-Day. I knew some awfully nice guys who didn’t come back from the war. They were just wonderful guys. I grew up with them, played hockey and baseball with them. We were great friends.”
Dick was born and raised in Port Arthur (which was amalgamated with Fort William to form Thunder Bay in 1970) in August 1923.
He joinied the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942.
“I hated the guts of the Nazis, and a lot of my friends had joined the air force,” Dick said succinctly of his decision to join the war effort.
Many Canadians, including Dick, were trained for duty through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan here in Canada, along with British, Australian and New Zealander wartime air force members.
Upon arrival in England, he was attached to Britain’s Royal Air Force.
Dick served as a tail gunner on a Halifax bomber, but he and his crew never dropped a bomb on enemy territory.
Instead, he and his fellow crew members performed special night operations, dropping arms, ammunition and Allied secret agents into Nazi-occupied France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Norway.
Loads Dick and his crewmates dropped included large, 17-pounder artillery guns and jeeps.
Dick and his crew flew over enemy territory the night of June 5, 1944, towing a glider full of British Special Air Service troops, landing them behind enemy lines to support the waves of Allied troops who stormed the Normandy beaches the following day.
“We trained with the glider pilots for a couple of months before D-Day. We reached our target. We were successful. Those glider pilots were wonderful. The airborne troops on the gliders landed in pitch dark and seized two bridges and held them until they were relieved, and the troops who relieved them were able to move armour and heavy artillery across the bridges.”
However, Dick and his crew, eager to know how the mission went, didn’t know of its success until much later.
“We were so interested in the glider pilots because they were stationed at the same base as us, we had gotten very fond of each other and we had great respect for each other. We went to the intelligence office and asked how they were doing and they would say ‘just fine, just wonderfully.’
“(But) they were a bunch of liars,” Dick said bluntly.
“The British didn’t have very good radio communication. We only found out how they did once the glider pilots came back from the whole thing.”
Being a tail gunner was exceptionally dangerous duty.
However, Dick said “I was quite happy to be a gunner with a Royal Air Force crew. There were six of us and I was the only Canadian, the rest were Scottish and English. We were a composite crew of the British Commonwealth.”
“I had the opportunity to fire my guns a few times. We flew at night by ourselves at never more than 5,000 feet, finding the places to drop arms and ammunition with the help of Morse code signals from the ground.”
“We were shot up a couple of times, but never shot down. We were always able to get back alright.”
Dick returned to Fort William after the war, still involved with aircraft.
He worked as a production planner for Canadian Car and Foundry, a company which turned out Harvard planes, the Harvard a pilot training aircraft associated with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Declining an offer to work for Canadian Car and Foundry in Quebec, Dick secured employment as a clerk for a timber company in an isolated northern Ontario location which was accessible only by train.
Moving to the Sault in 1964, Dick worked as a payroll supervisor for Weyerhaeuser, retiring at 65.
“I’ve been lucky. I still have my great-grandchildren come every Friday night and I feed them supper. I spoil them, then I send them home,” he chuckled.
Dick will be accompanied on his trip to Normandy by his grandson Anden Brown, a Canadian Army soldier.
“He is just delighted, and so am I. It’ll be great to be together. I’m sure I’ll have a great trip.”