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'Nobody wins in a war': Veteran reflects on D-Day as he gets France's highest honour

VANCOUVER — Joseph Vogelgesang was a 19-year-old infantryman when he landed on Juno Beach in Normandy, France.
Joseph Vogelgesang poses in this 1944 family handout photo when he was 19-years-old. A statement from the Consulate General of France in Vancouver says Vogelgesang will be decorated as a Knight of the Legion of Honour to acknowledge his contribution and bravery in the liberation of France. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Vogelgesang Family

VANCOUVER — Joseph Vogelgesang was a 19-year-old infantryman when he landed on Juno Beach in Normandy, France.

Now aged 99, the D-Day veteran reflected on the 80th anniversary of the operation that was the beginning of the end of the Second World War, after he received France's highest decoration at a ceremony in Vancouver on Thursday.

"There's nobody (who) wins in a war," he said.

Vogelgesang was named a Knight of the Legion of Honour to acknowledge what the French Consulate General in Vancouver called his contribution and bravery in the liberation of France.

Consul General Nicolas Baudouin, who presented the medal, said it showed “profound gratitude” for Vogelgesang's service during the war, including his contributions on D-Day.

Vogelgesang said he still vividly remembers D-Day. Almost 160,000 troops landed on the beaches of Normandy that day, including some 14,000 Canadians.

He says he wanted people to understand the cruelty of war. If they did, he said, there might be less need for the military in future.

"People who talk about a war that have never been there do not understand what happens in a war. They just read about it or see about it, but they never realize what's really taking place," said Vogelgesang.

"I'd like to see them realize that … maybe we will get less military need, or maybe we'll better the whole world by doing that, realizing what war really does."

Vogelgesang, who now lives in Abbotsford, B.C., volunteered in his home province of Saskatchewan at the age of 17 and left for England in early 1944 as part of the Calgary Highlanders.

He remembers the advice he got from his superior on June 6, 1944.

"My sergeant told me, if you live for the next 48 hours, you will live for a long time, and I learned a lot in 48 hours," said Vogelgesang.

Vogelgesang was "a little overwhelmed" to receive the medal, which he said he shared with the soldiers who were in the same boat during the landing on Juno Beach.

After the ceremony in St. Julien Square in Vancouver, Vogelgesang was surrounded by family at the nearby B.C. Regiment Reserve Recruiting Office.

His youngest daughter, Sharon Bunn, said ahead of the ceremony that their family was “bursting with pride and gratitude” upon hearing he would receive the French honour.

“We know that he went to the war at a very young age and nowadays, I can’t imagine how a 17- or 18-year-old would get through what he got through,” said Bunn, who flew from Saskatchewan to Vancouver to join Thursday's ceremony.

“All of us are very, very proud and really grateful for what he did and the sacrifices he made,” she added.

Bunn said her father has hesitated to share what he went through during the war.

“I think that as you can imagine, it was difficult. He shared little, tiny bits, but nothing really graphic,” said Bunn.

She said Vogelgesang, who lives in his own apartment in the Fraser Valley city, is staying up-to-date on current affairs. “He's very no-nonsense,” she said with a laugh.

Vogelgesang married his wife, Irene, in 1945 and they had three children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The Legion of Honour is the highest decoration bestowed by France, and more than a thousand Canadian veterans have received a medal since 2014.

The consulate general said anyone who knows a living Canadian veteran who took part in the operations on French soil can contact the French Embassy in Ottawa because they may be eligible for the medal.

France's Legion of Honour was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to reward citizens for their merits, no matter their background.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2024.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press