Emilien Dufresne was a solider with the Royal 22e Régiment during the Second World War. He was one of 14,000 Canadian soldiers who stormed Juno Beach on 6 June 1944. Learn Dufresne’s story of being taken prisoner by the Germans, forcefully put to work in a sugar factory, and how he was liberated.
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"In Düsseldorf, we passed a group of women on the side of the road. They tried to give us water but the Germans wouldn’t allow it."
I was in Cloridorme [Quebec]. There was a troop from the Royal 22nd Regiment that was going around, recruiting soldiers. I joined them. I went around all of the Gaspésie region with them. I finally enlisted in Quebec City [with the Régiment de la Chaudière]. [My parents] took it poorly. My father was a veteran so he knew what to expect. It wasn’t the same for my mother though; she didn’t like it at all.
[On D-Day], the first ships were blown out of the water. We lost a lot of men. We landed in the water, up to our shoulders. We had to drag ourselves up to the seawall. Our job was to overtake the 88 [millimetre] cannons. We took them and we advanced but our group advanced too far. We had dug in for the night and the Germans caught us and took us prisoner. That ended the hostilities, those ones anyways. It was hard though.
We started walking from Courseulles-sur-Mer to Paris. We walked all the way to Paris. It took us a couple of weeks. They led us through the biggest villages. We were prisoners, so they were showing us to people. It was publicity for them. When we arrived in Paris, they loaded us onto animal trains. There were about forty of us in there. We spent eight to ten days in the train, going to Germany. You can only imagine what we endured. There were no toilets in there. It wasn’t very hygienic.
Because we were Canadians, we weren’t treated as poorly as the Russian [prisoners]. They were treated very differently. At first, we worked in a sugar factory. We worked there for six months. The Russians were approaching, since we were on the Polish border. So they made us walk again. I received news only twice from my parents, through the Red Cross. It wasn’t often.
In Düsseldorf, we passed a group of women on the side of the road. They tried to give us water but the Germans wouldn’t allow it. Two English prisoners moved towards them, against the orders of the Germans, and they were shot. They shot both of them.
Some [guards] were a bit more tolerant than others. There were some Serbs who were guards, they were pretty tough. One of the guys with us was a Frenchman who was in the German Army. He had befriended us since he knew that we spoke French. We saw that he was a Frenchman. We made him cry the whole time that he was with us. We asked him a ton of questions. What was he going to do after the war? He was in the German Army. He wouldn’t be able to go back to France anyway. He probably regretted his decision.
Anyway, you need to have morale strong spirit. You can’t let yourself go. You have to make it. I knew I was going to get out of there one day, and that’s how it happened. One day we got out. It went like this: on April 9, 1945 the Americans arrived that morning. I was in a camp with Australian prisoners. They thought it was the Russians coming. I realized that it wasn’t the Russians, it was the Americans. We all left the camp and went to meet the Americans. There weren’t any guards left anyway. They had all left. It was a great day. [The return home] was complete euphoria. Within about ten minutes the house was full of people. I was the first to arrive. There were quite a few of us soldiers in the parish. It took some time.
I followed in my father’s footsteps. He didn’t talk to us about the war, and I didn’t speak of it either. I said to myself, we’ll get out of here. A Frenchwoman was touring Canada. She stopped at the motel behind our house. We talked. She told me that in Canada people knew that a war had taken place, but they didn’t know how it happened. It’s because they didn’t experience it. They can’t know how it happened. So that’s how I got the idea to write the book. That’s when I started slowly to write.
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