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‘Hope for the best’: D-Day vet, 100, speaks on war and remembrance

Second World War veteran Richard Rohmer says 80th anniversary trip may be his last
Canadian Lt.-Gen. Richard Rohmer takes part in the veterans reception as part of the D-Day 75th Anniversary British International Commemorative Event at Southsea Common in Portsmouth, England on Wednesday, June 5, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Richard Rohmer is not sentimental when he says, matter-of-factly, that this may be his last D-Day anniversary trip to France.

At 100 years old, the Second World War veteran says this 80th anniversary is his last decennial commemoration, and perhaps the last time he makes the trip to France at all.

“This is the last one. This is the 80th anniversary and there won’t be any others to follow because we’re running out of people,” he said of the anniversaries marked every 10 years.

“But the opportunity to be there for the 80th is an important one to me because I was there for the beginning.”

Rohmer is part of a dwindling camp of Canadian veterans who fought in a battle that altered the course of the war, and the course of the 20th century.

On Normandy’s shores, the largest-ever land, sea and air invasion took German defences by surprise on June 6, 1944 and marked the beginning of an 11-month liberation campaign that would end with Allied victory and Adolf Hitler’s defeat.As a then-20-year-old reconnaissance-fighter pilot, who joined the war effort in 1942, Rohmer surveilled the skies overhead during the battle.

“It’s hard for anybody who’s alive now to understand how deep that change could have been if we had failed,” Rohmer said. “The people who were the enemy were very hard at work and trying to conquer the rest of the world. We made sure they didn’t.”

What’s true for Rohmer, about this being his last decennial, is likely true for many veterans who fought and survived the fateful battle. It invariably raises the question of how to ensure their memories and lessons are preserved.

In an interview from his care home at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Veterans Centre ahead of the D-Day anniversary, Rohmer spoke about the legacy of the war, returning to Normandy and the importance of remembrance.

A prolific author and distinguished lawyer, Rohmer remains a student of world events, and tied his reflections on the war to his fears about authoritarian strongmen around the world, the importance of preserving democracy, and to the suffering in Gaza.

“I know I will live forever in a sense. And I know I will not live forever in a sense,” said Rohmer ahead of his departure with Canada’s delegation to France to mark the occasion.

Nearly 150,000 Allied troops stormed the French beaches on D-Day, including 14,000 Canadians. About 359 Canadians were killed that day and another 5,000 died in the ensuing months of battle.

Veterans Affairs Canada estimates that about 9,297 veterans of the Second World War and Korean War were still alive as of March 2023. The tally does not differentiate between the two wars.

At 100 years old, Rohmer would not be faulted for opting out of the transatlantic trip with Canada’s delegation. Yet, he said his life has been marked by seizing opportunities as they come.

“If there’s an opportunity to let people know that (those) events changed the world 80 years ago, then it’s well worthwhile,” said Rohmer, who served as chair of Canada’s advisory committee on the planning of the 60th anniversary and served as an adviser to the 70th.

“The only thing to expect is change and to make sure that the best you can, that you can influence the course of events, which is one of the things that I’ve always tried to do in my life.”

And influential Rohmer has been.

Among his list of accomplishments, he chaired a provincial royal commission on publishing in the 1970s and as a lawyer played a pivotal role in the development plans for the Ontario Science Centre, as well as the CN Tower and the surrounding area.

One of the most decorated citizens in Canada, Rohmer’s shirt is weighed down during the interview by more than a dozen awards pinned above his breast pocket, including the Order of Canada and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

For him, a legacy of D-Day is the successful fight for inclusive democracy against those who wanted to take it away, he said, and for a Canada where people around the globe can come to make a home.

“The reality is the atmosphere for the reception of people all over the world is still here, it’s very strong. And if the Germans had succeeded back in wartime, we wouldn’t have had this type of growth,” he said, after making reference to the roughly 400,000 annual newcomers expected to arrive in Canada.

Yet, he said the “very real” possibility of another world war remains. It’s been that way for “all the months and years and days” since the end of the last one, he added.

“People are still prepared to go to war. And that hasn’t changed and is one of the greatest threats to world peace.”

D-Day is, in part, remembered as a prodigious feat of international military co-operation. Rohmer said that underlying co-operation between like-minded nations remains the “essential element of keeping our world peace,” praising the “various bodies” that help administer it.

“The opportunity to talk nation to nation is essential and has to be maintained. And whether it is maintained – I think we’re going to find out in a fairly short period of time the way things are moving at the moment,” he said.

He lamented the rise of authoritarian strongmen in “huge territorial countries” with “huge populations” and “huge trade objectives.” As a still-serving member of the Forces, he was careful not to name names.

“It’s a frightening mix when it’s not led by a group of people and instead it’s just one. And we are watching very carefully to see what that one is going to do in several countries at the same time.”

When asked to reflect on the immense suffering and loss of life experienced during the Second World War, he interrupted to say that suffering continues.

“And it’s experiencing right now in Gaza – just unbelievable stuff going on,” he said.

Humanity will not change “just because we tell it to,” he said. But what we can do, he said, is hope.

He said he felt that hope even in the depths of the war and in the near-death encounters he had over the 135 missions he flew during the global conflict.

“Hope for the best. Hope for the best. Hope for the best. Hope for the best,” he said, almost like a prayer or an invocation, as he leaned on his walker, put on his military cap and made his way out of the room.

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