'I'm just one of the lucky ones': Canadian veterans recall liberation of the Netherlands
W5's special Remembrance Day report, The Liberators, details the heroic efforts of Canadian troops who brought freedom and dignity to the people of the Netherlands in the Second World War. It’s a story of liberation, told through the voices of Canadian veterans who fought there, and from Dutch people who honour the Canadians’ sacrifices. Below, Peter Akman recalls a special time spent with one of those veterans who returns to the Netherlands for the 75th Anniversary.
TERNEUZEN, THE NETHERLANDS -- Emerging from the crush of people on the boardwalk in the southern Dutch town of Terneuzen, a man in a wheelchair is surrounded by a military escort. As soon as he sees me, and even before he has stopped moving, he flips up the foot supports on his chair and starts struggling to his feet.
Like a right jab he sharply extends his hand, proclaiming “I’m Don White.”
His handshake is surprisingly firm considering he’s a 95-year-old, it instantly grabs your attention. Within seconds of meeting him, it feels like White is as excited to meet me as I am to meet him.
One by one, that same scenario and handshake plays out with everyone in our group. His smile stretches across his face as he leans in to listen intently to every word being spoken to him.
On this day White, who is a Canadian war veteran, is a guest of honour, Canada’s representative for the kickoff for a year-long celebration in the Netherlands. Royalty, politicians and a sea of people wearing orange have come out to celebrate the liberation of their country from the Germans.
Seventy-five years earlier, White was a member of the Royal Canadian Dragoons. The moment he turned 18, he joined the war effort. White says wanted to go to Europe to fight for Canada and the British Empire, he wanted to stop Germany and the march of the Nazis.
“When I finally turned 18 and signed up in the full-time militia, I signed up in Toronto," he said. "I signed up about 8:00 in the morning. got up early and went up there. And 10:00 at night I was on the train for Dundurn, Saskatchewan for my training.”
For 3 years, White trained in The Prairies – becoming a Reconnaissance soldier, he learned how to operate the radios and how to load and fire shells from a Staghound armoured vehicle. By 1944, his regiment was ready and White got his chance to join the fight.
He and thousands of Canadian soldiers fought their way across Europe by sea, air and land to push the German occupiers out – White and his Dragoons first landed in Italy before moving into Belgium and the Netherlands. The fighting was brutal, months of house to house battles and slogging through flooded battle fields. Hundreds of Canadians were injured or killed in the effort. White says he fought every day not knowing if he would survive to fight another.
“You were trained and you had a job to do and you might be scared. But you knew the guy next to you depended on you so you weren’t going to let him down and you hoped he wouldn’t let you down. So you kind of overcome your fear.”
On May 5, 1945, the battle to liberate the Netherlands ended. And since then, the sacrifices of Canadians have been honoured in that country.
“I think it’s because people understand that living in a free country is not normal – you have to defend them,” explains Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. ”There's so many Canadians came here to help. There's so many died in that effort and there was this fantastic guy, Don White. He’s now famous in the Netherlands.”
Today, White stands just over 5-feet tall and is wobbly on his feet, but back on Dutch soil, he has a pep in his step like he did seven decades ago.
Hoping to get to know him better, I ask if we can go for a short walk. I offer to push him in his wheelchair over the uneven boardwalk but he wants none of that. We set off, White with a smile and me with one hand under his arm, and his military handlers and family not far behind.
The boardwalk is lined with outdoor bars and restaurants filled with people on this warm sunny day. For a the first few moments, White is lost in thought.
“It feels so good to be here. Almost as good as when I first came here. Almost.”
Within a few seconds, our conversation is interrupted. It didn’t take long for people to recognize that “famous” Canadian soldier named Don White.
Spontaneous applause broke out like a slow rolling wave down the boardwalk. People craned their necks, trying to get a look at the man in the uniform. Then as if choreographed, they stood in unison, the cheers and applause grew even louder.
White smiles and waves, almost embarrassed by the outpouring of appreciation. Then a tear appears on his cheek, and as if needing to explain he leans in and pulls me in to listen.
“I’m just so lucky. I’m just one of the lucky ones. I’m just here representing the guys who couldn’t be here. It’s almost as many times when I get quite emotional as there is these good times.”
But White quickly wipes his eyes and puts on another big smile as a woman approaches us. She’s crying herself.
“Would you mind if you take a picture with us? Because my son is also in the army. In the Dutch Army,” she said.
White of course agrees, as he does over and over again, as a small line forms in front of him. Everyone wanting to meet the “Famous Canadian Soldier.”
Eventually, after all the pictures, handshakes and hugs, White reaches out for my arm to guide him back to his wheelchair. Without a word, he lowers himself down into the seat, he’s still smiling but you can tell he’s tired.
A few weeks later, back in his home town of Oshawa, I meet up with Don White again. Far from the celebrations and the fanfare, the royalty and the politicians, I ask one last question – what does it feel like to be him right now?
“The good Lord’s blessed me. He got me through some rough times. I met one of the greatest individuals, persons in the world, my wife. And we’ve had a great life together and I have a great family, three kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And I’m just blessed with such a good life I’ve had.”
Watch the W5 documentary 'The Liberators' this Saturday at 7 p.m. on CTV