THREE MILE PLAINS — Tom Shiers stepped foot on Juno Beach four days after it was the site of a deadly, Second World War battle that claimed the lives of 340 Canadians in a single day.
The soldier, with a wife and two young boys back home in Newport Station, trained for this very day for months.
He headed for shore with his platoon, carefully following the lead of a sergeant. It was night, but there are some things even darkness cannot hide.
“The German gun emplacements were glaring right at you from the shore,” the 98-year-old recalled, as if reflecting on yesterday.
“Just the very size of them almost petrified a person to look at them. Here they are facing you, and they're on tanks.”
The bodies of fallen soldiers killed in combat on D-Day, June 6, 1944, had been cleared away, but broken machinery and debris remained as haunting reminders of the gruesome battle.
“Complete, absolute devastation,” said Shiers.
“You couldn't picture it because you'd never imagine anything like it.”
Shiers remembers staring at some pillboxes German soldiers would have hid in while Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France under fierce gunfire earlier that week.
“Three or four soldiers would climb in them and stick their rifles out of little slits and shoot, but they couldn't hold the Canadians back,” he said.
“When I went ashore they weren't firing at us.”
An offer he had to refuse
Shiers didn't have to go to war.
He wanted to.
Born in Gypsum Mines, Shiers honed his skills as a welder with the Fundy Gypsum Company in the early years of the Second World War. It was a trade that offered work close to home, near the family he started with his wife, Kathleen (Chambers) Shiers.
It sounds like an easy sell, but it was an offer Shiers had to refuse.
The first-class welder in his mid 20s eventually accepted a position with a shipyard in Liverpool that was refitting corvettes and minesweepers for the Royal Canadian Navy.
He regularly encountered military men two, three or even four years younger than him at the shipyard.
“Here I am feeling smaller all the time,” the quick-witted veteran confessed.
“Here I am welding, Rosie the Riveter's job, and these young fellers are going out and being blown all to hell.”
Shiers told his wife he wanted to join the Army, and she understood. The couple moved back to Newport Station, where she would tend to their children while he was away.
Shiers went to Halifax to enlist in 1943.
“My younger brother, Frank was already in the Army when I joined. My proudest moment was when I joined the Army and met Frank like that,” he said.
Shiers completed basic training in Petawawa, Ont., and promptly received a posting to Aldershot, England to train for D-Day.
He was asked to run a welding shop in England, but declined.
“I said, 'I didn't come over here to run a welding shop.'”
Working in the war zone
Shiers crossed Juno Beach with the objective of reaching the city of Caen, France. Caen was still in enemy hands the night he arrived, but his platoon eventually reached their destination.
It was there, in Caen, that Shiers experienced a most unexpected encounter.
Shiers worked as a heavy equipment operator tasked with repairing bombed bridges, and creating pathways for tanks in areas that had been shelled.
“Our job was to bulldoze everything out so the tanks could get through.”
They worked in pairs, and often felt like easy targets out ahead of the tanks.
“We were fair game then,” said Shiers.
The most challenging part of the job, he said, was not knowing what would happen next.
“Sometimes you would get into something a little bit scary, then it would ease up and then you would wait for an assignment and you'd wonder what in the world is next.”
Believe it or not, it wasn't all bad.
Shiers fondly remembers stumbling upon a welcome sight in the most unlikely of places while serving in Caen.
It was a day that was as routine as a day could be in a war zone. Shiers hopped out of his bulldozer to take a break, and started circling the machine to take in his surroundings.
He spotted a park that had been shelled, and walked over to get a closer look.
“It had all kinds of things blown to pieces,” he said, noting that the once beautiful landscape was now covered in deep holes.
Another soldier standing at the park — a big, tall man — caught his eye.
“I said, 'Oh my God, that can't be.’ And I kept walking towards him. He didn't turn at all. He was just looking at the devastation there,” said Shiers, his words tinged with excitement.
“I got right up behind him and I said: 'By God, the French people must be hard up for scarecrows!'”
It was Angus Williams, his good friend from Ellershouse. Williams was positioned behind Shiers as a member of the tank corps.
Shiers went on to cross paths with more men from Hants County, including a brother and cousin, as his unit advanced to Belgium and Holland.
Shiers is quick to point out there were no living conditions to speak of in the war zone. When they slept, they took cover in abandoned buildings, vacant trenches or under machinery.
“They shelled us one night and I remember you could tell the shelling was getting a little bit closer,” he said.
“It sounded like one was coming right for us, but it didn't. It went right over us.”
The people of Holland were good to the Canadian soldiers, but they had little to give. Often times, enemy forces stole their food and they were left to starve.
“I think the thing that struck me most was the little children and their stomachs all extended... that would break your heart, but you know you couldn't do anything about it.”
It may not have felt like it at the time, but they did do something about it.
Shiers was in Hamburg, Germany when the war ended in 1945. Holland was finally liberated after five years of Nazi occupation.
“It was wild. The first thing, and I don't know where it came from, liquor came out like in the barrels.”
A happy homecoming
Shiers spent months in Europe, with little money to spare, before he was able to return to Nova Scotia.
His family was in Halifax waiting for his ship to arrive the day he came home, and it didn't take Shiers' beloved wife long to pick her blue-eyed husband out of the crowd at Pier 21.
A rush of joy came over Shiers, who felt extremely lucky to be reunited with his family.
“It was another world all together. Up until that time you got used to walking around with your head over your shoulders, looking back. That was all gone.”
Shiers, who now resides in Three Mile Plains, went back to work for the Fundy Gypsum Company after the war.
He was married to the mother of his three children — two sons and a daughter — for nearly 75 years. She passed away at the age of 93 in September. She was able to stay home, with Shiers, until she died.
Shiers reflects upon his time in the military every now and then, especially around Remembrance Day.
Asked to share the main lesson learned from serving in the Second World War, he responded without hesitation: “Keep your head down.”