William H.A. Willbond MSM, CD

FAREWELL TO A NOBLE PARATROOPER WARRIOR

We wrote him up for the Order of Canada, our own Jan DeVries.
He was one of the distinguished original 1 Can Para Battalion guys.
He was a fine example, to young jumpers, both women and men.
We won’t see the likes of his ilk, e’er again.

His soul’s gone up to the clouds on young strong Pegasus’ wings.
He is back with the Battalion, where the heavenly chorus sings.
Jumping into the darkness prior to the D Day warriors going ashore.
Jan was wounded in action, healed, and went back to the war.

A Pickering ON ambassador, Jan was an old soldier who gave more.
He helped to keep Corporal Topham’s VC here, on this Canadian shore.
We will miss your advice and council to Canada’s young jumper crew.
Jan, it has been a real honour and a pleasure to know a man like you!

RIP JUMPER!

A D-Day Survivor’s Lifetime Of Service

Ted Barris, National Post Jun 6, 2012 – 8:41 AM ET

Canadian D-Day veteran Jan de Vries
Former paratrooper and Canadian D-Day veteran Jan de Vries, right, chats with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, on May 22, while his wife Joanne looks on. (Photo by Norm Betts for the Queen’s Own Rifles.)

When he strode onto the stage that Nov. 11, the diminutive Jan de Vries didn’t seem the dragon-slaying type. The string of medals on his burgundy blazer attested to his service and bravery as a youth, but the intensity of the auditorium spotlight at Agincourt Collegiate in east-end Toronto revealed the lines in his aging face — lines that were likely first drawn by the severity of his experience on June 6, 1944.

“When we jumped into Normandy during the night,” Jan de Vries told about 1,000 high school students, “we were seven miles off course.”

At that 2001 event, the then 77-year-old greying de Vries proceeded to give the student assembly some context. He explained that on D-Day it was the First Canadian Parachute Battalion’s job to seize key bridges and causeways inland from the French coast, to destroy German gun positions and to halt or delay any German counterattack against Allied troops landing on the Normandy beaches. The problem was that he (and the other 550 Canadian paratroops) had to reach those objectives in darkness through enemy-occupied territory. Then de Vries mentioned the consequences facing the paratroops that night.

“If you get captured by the German army, our commanders told us, you’ll become a prisoner of war,” de Vries said to the students. “If you get captured by the SS (Nazi secret police), you’ll be shot.”

A thousand students previously restless in their auditorium seats went silent. The wily veteran had the teenagers exactly where he wanted them — anticipating his landing in Normandy — but he kept them in suspense by detouring to some biographical background. Born in Holland in 1924, an immigrant to Canada in 1930, de Vries asked his student audience if they’d ever had part-time jobs. They nodded. He said, like a lot of young guys, he’d worked after school at his dad’s business, an East York gas station. When the war broke out, he told the students, he wanted to be a pilot; but the air force discovered he was colour blind.

“Then I saw some paratroops walking down Bay Street,” he said. “It was the look, the way they carried themselves, the high brown boots, the berets. I went to the closest army recruiting office and said, ‘I want paratroops.’”

De Vries described a bit of his training in Shilo, Man., where he learned how to handle weapons and explosives; how to attack and demolish bridges, pillboxes, barbed-wire entanglements and casements; but most important how to leap from a moving aircraft. But he didn’t actually make his first jump until the battalion got to the south of England in July 1943. Training continued for the next year in preparation for D-Day. Then de Vries tantalized his audience again. He remembered a British brigadier warning the novice paratroops that no matter how well prepared the battalion was in training, when the real thing happened in France, it would be total chaos. De Vries’ audience was now ready to jump with him.

“It’s black, just total black. You couldn’t see a blessed thing. Just black,” de Vries said. “The chute opened with a jerk. I had my hands up to control, but I didn’t know whether to go forward, backward or anything. So, I just hung there ready if anything happened. It was just seconds and bang, I’m on the ground.”

It was 12 minutes after midnight D-Day morning. And the brigadier was right. De Vries heard Germans in the darkness all around him. He looked for the comrades of his paratrooper drop. They were scattered over acres of French forest and farmland, much of which the Germans had flooded; one fifth of the regiment became casualties in the first hours of Operation Overlord — captured, killed in combat, or drowned in the flooded landscape. De Vries did not disappoint his student audience. They were suitably frightened by his anecdotes and remembrances of lost comrades, but most particularly by his punch line.

“And did I mention, I was no older than many of you are today.”

Jan de Vries survived the D-Day drop, fought through Normandy and was wounded by a sniper July 31, 1944. He refused convalescent leave and re-joined the battalion in time for the Battle of the Bulge in the Belgian Ardennes. Then, in March, he parachuted over the Rhine River into Germany, where fellow paratrooper and medical orderly Corporal Fred Topham earned the Victoria Cross; despite a severe head injury during the battle, Topham ensured that all other wounded paratroopers were treated before taking first aid himself. It was a story de Vries would one day bring to national attention.

Having seen his homeland, the Netherlands, safely liberated, in 1946 de Vries returned to Canada for an honourable discharge and to pick up where he’d left off. Civilian life demanded he be just as versatile as he’d been in uniform. Back in Toronto, de Vries operated a taxi business, a carpenter shop and then — from the 1950s to the 1990s — worked in the construction business. But wartime remembrance was never far away. When the Royal Canadian Legion launched its Living History speakers’ bureau, he became an active member. When the Dominion Institute did the same with the Memory Project, de Vries dedicated countless volunteer hours going into classrooms and speaking to student assemblies.
“He never says no,” his wife Joanne de Vries repeated often.

Indeed, with Joanne at his side, Jan took on the volunteer challenge of placing memorial plaques wherever the First Canadian Parachute Battalion had fought in Europe. He led fundraising missions across Canada for the Juno Beach Centre museum in Normandy; in 2004, during 60th anniversary D-Day observances in France, president Jacques Chirac awarded him with Chevalier (Knight) status in the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration; de Vries always wondered, “Why me, with so many other deserving veterans to choose from?”

In his 80th year, when he had earned the right to spend more time with his six children, 15 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, Jan de Vries mounted another important crusade. When it appeared that Cpl. Fred Topham’s Victoria Cross might be sold offshore, de Vries led a round-the-clock campaign to raise awareness and $300,000 (bettering a British collector’s offer) to keep the VC in Canada. On March 24, 2005, on the 60th anniversary of Topham’s award-winning action in Germany, Jan de Vries presented the VC to the Canadian War Museum. At the ceremony, he congratulated all but himself.

“Thanks to ordinary Canadians,” de Vries said, “the story will be preserved and shared with Canadians for years to come.”

Jan de Vries died last month at the age of 88. Like the country did in 1939, when it turned to its youth for wartime service, Canada’s heritage will have to depend on those whom de Vries inspired to carry his torch of remembrance.
National Post

Ted Barris is a journalism professor at Centennial College. His bestselling book — Juno: Canadians at D-Day, June 6, 1944 — is published by Thomas Allen.