Jim Parks still vividly remembers the day he and his platoon stormed the beaches of Normandy more than 70 years ago.
Parks, a member of the Winnipeg Rifles, was among the first wave of Canadian soldiers to land at Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, two minutes before the main assault wave hit. His boat was struck by the Germans as heavy machine guns fired on them, forcing him to jump in the water.
“We had to sort of swim in,” he said, remembering looking back and seeing a fellow soldier still in the water.
“We don’t know [if] they’re alive or dead,” Parks recalled.
Parks, 98, who now lives in Mount Albert, Ont., about 67 kilometres north of Toronto, lied about his age to join the army, claiming to be 18 when he was actually 15. He joined up after his brother Jack Parks persuaded him to enlist. Both brothers stormed Juno Beach on D-Day, although they weren’t on the same landing craft. And both made it out alive.
They were among roughly 14,000 Canadians who landed at Juno Beach on D-Day, joining the more than 150,000 allied troops who fought their way ashore on five beaches in Normandy that day. Some 359 Canadian soldiers died on D-Day, according to an account of the battle on the Veterans Affairs website, and more than 800 were wounded.
A new documentary film titled Little Black Devils — From Juno to Putot, that is being shot in France, will include both Parks brothers. Parks said Little Black Devils was the name given to their team.
In 2011, the film’s creator Frederick Jeanne met Parks in Winnipeg. Parks helped him write a book on the Royal Winnipeg Rifles called Hold the Oak Line.
“They were very close to death but they managed to escape the Second World War untouched,” Jeanne said.
“Jim was a special witness … He saw many things.”
The five-part documentary film is set to come out in 2024, Jeanne says.
Parks credits his crystal-clear memory in part to being so young at the time of the war.
“I was just in the impressionable age when you’re a teenager,” he said.
“Everything that you get there is locked in … People remember a lot of things about their high school.”
Rob Cullen, whose dad Gilbert Cullen was a gunner in the Canadian Army’s 12th Field Regiment, met Parks roughly a decade ago at a Remembrance Day ceremony.
“My dad landed right behind Jim with the artillery and I spoke to Jim about it,” Cullen told CBC Toronto..
“And Jim said, ‘Yes, it’s absolutely true,’ and we just kind of blossomed from there as friends.”
Cullen’s father also survived the war and died in 1980.
Cullen and his wife travelled to Normandy in June of this year.
He has a ritual of going into the waters off Juno Beach on the anniversary of D-Day at the hour of the start of the attack. At 7:30 a.m. he walks as far and as deep as he can go while standing.
“Sometimes it’s warm and sometimes it’s freezing,” Cullen said.
“I do a lot of thinking and I pay some respects to the guys who came ashore and the ones who didn’t make it. And I fill up the ocean a little bit with my tears and have my moment, and then I walk back in the same time that my dad landed.”
While at the beach in the early hours, he noticed a group of four young men slowly approaching him. He was stunned when he spotted an emblem of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles on their jackets.
“We start talking and they’re asking what I’m doing there and they tell me, ‘We’re filming a movie here about the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.’ And I said, ‘Well, I know one of those guys. his name is Jim Parks.'”
“The one guy looks at me, he says ‘I’m playing Jim Parks in the movie.’ I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it,” Cullen said.
“There is nobody else on the whole beach. Me, my wife and these four guys. And I find the guy that’s playing Jim Parks in a movie that I never knew was being filmed. It was absolutely jaw-dropping.”
Cullen said it’s important stories about soldiers like Parks continue to be shared.
“We are losing so many veterans,” he said.
“You know, we say, ‘Lest we forget.’ Well, here’s this crew of guys over in Normandy working on a shoestring budget, putting together a motion picture about our soldiers and their sacrifice.”
Meantime, Parks says he still stays active. He drives to his local gym about three times a week to work out.
“I get a swim about once a week, but most of the time it’s in the gym … it’s a lot of socializing,” Parks said.
“Just to keep out of mischief, really.”
He says he hopes he can return for the opening of the film in 2024.
“I think we said to Fred, ‘When you do the premiere over there, how about an invite?'” Parks said, laughing.