By Mike Anderson
Private Jim Parks was 19 when he landed at Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles (RWRs).
He joined the storied regiment, nicknamed “The Little Black Devils,” at the Minto Armoury in Winnipeg four years earlier, at 15, with his brother Jack, who was 16.
“I was underage. But I had been a cadet, and I knew all the answers,” Parks, now 99, said.
“The sergeant recognized me. He was in charge of the cadets and knew I was still a cadet. But he agreed to let it go.”
After completing his training, Parks shipped off to England in 1941, where he took part in the coastal defence of southern England.
He says preparations for the invasion began in earnest in 1943, with his regiment rehearsing beach landings with live ammunition and artillery fire.
“There was a gung-ho attitude. One sergeant was always talking about it. But most of us weren’t as excited as he was,” Parks admits.
On D-Day, He was attached to the combat engineers. His job was to remove any obstacles in the water preventing the landing craft from reaching the beach.
The combat engineers were scheduled to come ashore before the first wave, but his unit landed with the infantry in the confusion.
As his landing craft approached the beach, it was hit and began to sink. Parks was forced to swim ashore without any gear.
“I told the sergeant it was too bloody deep. He said: you have to get off!” Parks recalls. “The water was too deep. And I had to swim for it.”
“When I got to shore, there were so many guys from the rifle company already wounded. One of the corporals was badly wounded and later died. So, I picked up his Sten gun and went to a sand dune.”
Parks said they faced machine gun fire from pillboxes along the beach, as well as constant mortar fire.
He also said the Germans trained machine guns to fire from the side, along the length of the beach, creating a killing zone the Canadians had to cross — more than 130 soldiers were killed or wounded that day.
Miraculously, Parks would survive the landing and see action as part of a mortar platoon in the Battle of Putot, Carpiquet and Falaise before liberating Holland, Belgium and pushing into Germany.
Parks had several other close calls during WW2.
In Normandy, a shell burst buried him alive in his fox hole, leaving only his arm sticking out. Fortunately, his friends saw his arm and dug him out.
Parks was also wounded during the liberation of Holland, when a German shell landed close to him, blowing him through the window of a house. The blast damaged his ears, and he still has small fragments of shrapnel in his leg, which are too close to an artery to be removed.
Parks says that he was often scared, especially under artillery fire, leading him to question why he volunteered in the first place. But he credits several Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) for keeping him focused.
“You took your cue from the sergeants. They were cool guys. They seemed to be acting okay, so we followed their lead,” he said. “Whoever picked these NCOs did a good job.”
Remarkably, one of Parks’ platoon commanders was my uncle Andy Bieber.
Like many officers in the RWRs, Capt. Bieber was not a career soldier. He was a star halfback with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, having won two Grey Cups (1939 & 1941) with the team before signing up in 1941.
Parks respected Bieber, who he says had a soft spot for his men and would sometimes join them after a night drinking in the officer’s mess.
But Parks also recalls a stern Bieber ordering him to clear out German soldiers from the basement of a house in Holland.
“Every time there was a dike, there was a group of houses. And Bieber said to me: Parks, check out that house! I said, who me?”
Parks said he swore under his breath at Bieber as he approached the cellar doors, but was relieved when a German soldier came out waving a white handkerchief.
After WW2, Parks became a Major in the reserves and received several military awards, including the French Legion of Honour.
In 2020, at 96, he walked to raise funds for the Juno Beach Centre, receiving $20,000 in donations.
Parks continues visiting schools and participating in Remembrance Day ceremonies, including Toronto City Hall’s Remembrance Day.
He has also appeared on many TV and radio stations and is the subject of a French documentary called “Little Black Devils, from Juno to Putot,” currently in post-production.
Looking back on WW2, Parks says he was glad he could play a role in liberating Europe, but he points out that many of his friends died in Normandy.
“Usually, when I talk to students about Remembrance, I ask why these young men sacrificed their lives. They sacrificed their lives for Canada. Don’t take your country for granted. There is a price for freedom.”
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