Beyond The Uniform

Second World War Veteran walking to honour those lost and raise funds for Canadian landmark

Above image: Jim Parks, left and Juno Beach Centre, France. 

Jim Parks, a 96-year-old veteran of the Second World War, took the first steps of a symbolic walk on October 8 in honour of the 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the war.

Parks started his role as the official ambassador for the Remembrance Day Races, a virtual run/walk event to raise funds for the Juno Beach Centre (JBC), Canada’s Second World War memorial, and the museum D-Day Landing Beaches in Normandy.

Starting at his local Legion Branch 382, Parks, the former marathoner, chose to tackle the JBC’s Strongpoint 1500m distance, named for the German strongpoint and 1500-metre stretch of beach overcome by Jim’s battalion, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, on D-Day.

Jim Parks, a 96-year-old veteran of the Second World War, took the first steps of a symbolic walk on October 8 in honour of the 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the war. He is walking to honour the 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the war and raise $1 for each Canadian soldier that was laid to rest in cemeteries in Normandy, 5,200. He is walking to honour the 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the war and raise $1 for each Canadian soldiers killed, wounded, or captured in Normandy. Image courtesy of Jim Parks.

Bad weather cut the first leg of his walk short, but he will be continuing his walk of remembrance with his family’s support as November 11th approaches.

Parks has chosen to commemorate Remembrance Day this year by sharing his story and walking to raise awareness of the JBC’s cause, reflect on his remarkable war experience, and pay tribute to those lost in the war 76 years ago.

His original goal was to raise one dollar for every Canadian soldier who lost their lives and was laid to rest in cemeteries in Normandy, $5,200. However, he has surpassed that goal and now aiming to raise $18,700, the number of Canadian soldiers killed, wounded, or captured in Normandy.

Infantrymen of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in a Buffalo amphibious vehicle taking part in Operation VERITABLE en route from Niel to Keeken, Germany, 9 February 1945. Photo by: Capt. Colin McDougall. Item number 2116 image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

“We have 5,200 good Canadian soldiers buried in Normandy,” Parks commented. “Regular Canadians; fathers, uncles, that are over there 3,000 miles away. We don’t get to see them, so it’s important to bring it forward, to bring the memories back to Canada, and show them what this walk is for.”

Alex Fitzgerald Black, historian, author and Manager of Outreach and Operations at the Juno Beach Centre Association, the charity in Canada who operates the JBC said, “The Juno Beach Centre has steadily grown over the years. We welcome about 100,000 guests every year, totalling over one million since opening our doors.”

Parks enlisted when he was only 15 years old and landed on D-Day when he was 19. He was engaged in a battle to take the Leopold Canal in the borderlands between Belgium and the Netherlands 76 years ago. At the Leopold, he and his comrades helped secure one of the most critical Canadian-led victories of the war. In an environment of tricky terrain, they endured the mud and cold to defeat German gorces along the Scheldt Estuary.

She added, “Many people across Canada will remember the JBC as the site of last year’s official commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It was also featured on the Amazing Race Canada, where Jim greeted the contestants on the beach.”

He says due to COVID-19, they are in a rough spot this year, relying on revenue from the museum boutique to help fund their operations. They had to close for three months, and they don’t expect to get back to their regular visitor numbers for years now.

“The funds raised through the Remembrance Day Races will go a long way toward helping recover our lost revenue so we can weather this pandemic and continue working to make sure people like Jim and his fellow comrades are always honoured and remembered,” he stated.

The JBC in Normandy, France, was established in 2003 by veterans with a vision to create a permanent memorial to all Canadians who served during the Second World War and to preserve this legacy for future generations through education.

For over fifteen years, the JBC has been designated a site of national historical significance to Canada. It has been the host to official Canadian and International commemorative events, including the Canadian government’s official ceremony for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019.

Infantrymen of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles advancing through fields during Operation SPRING near Ifs, France, 25 July 1944. Photo by: Ken Bell. Item number 1181 image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Parks enlisted when he was only 15 years old and landed on D-Day when he was 19. He was engaged in a battle to take the Leopold Canal in the borderlands between Belgium and the Netherlands 76 years ago.

At the Leopold, he and his comrades helped secure one of the most critical Canadian-led victories of the war. In an environment of tricky terrain, they endured the mud and cold to defeat German gorces along the Scheldt Estuary.

Parks has returned to Normandy several times since the war, most recently in 2019, for the 75th anniversary of D-Day at the JBC, which now stands in almost the same spot where he came ashore that day, on June 6, 1944.

“When I am at the Juno Beach Centre, I can look over towards the [Seulles] river, and I can tell you exactly where I landed,” Parks said. “I was almost right in front of where the Juno Beach Centre is now.”

One of the most harrowing memories Parks shares about his D-Day experience is the moment he came upon his wounded comrade, Cpl. William John Martin lying on Juno Beach. Despite the machine gun fire, Parks stopped and held Martin in his arms as the young soldier took his final breaths.

“I do a lot of talks now, and I always stress the importance of remembering the people who gave their lives,” Parks explained. “This walk is a walk of remembrance. It brings up a lot of memories for me. They become very vivid. When people are doing their own walk of remembrance, I want them to take the time to think about the reason they are walking. They are walking for all the Canadians who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

The Remembrance Day Races are open for registration until November 28.

“When I am at the Juno Beach Centre, I can look over towards the [Seulles] river, and I can tell you exactly where I landed,” Parks said. “I was almost right in front of where the Juno Beach Centre is now.”

There are three distances participants can choose from: the Strongpoint 1500m, the Juno Beach 8k, the length of the stretch of Normandy beach code-named Juno, and the Remembrance 21.1k, named in honour of the 21,000 Canadian and British troops who landed at Juno Beach on D-Day.

Participants receive a race kit from the JBC’s race partner, VR Pro, that includes a commemorative medal modelled after the same medal Parks wears to mark his service in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.

It also includes the choice of a neck gaiter or face mask designed for the races, remembrance items from the Legion, a commemorative D-Day map, a Juno Beach coin, and more. Race kits will be mailed to participants upon registration. Racers can also set up their own fundraising page where people can sponsor them.

People can register online here.

Anyone wishing to sponsor Jim Parks and help him meet his new goal $18,700, the number of Canadian soldiers killed, wounded, or captured in Normandy. Support him here.

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Julia Lennips

Julia is a journalist who is an avid reader and an artist. She is living in North Bay, ON pursing her passion for reporting.

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