There are many iconic images from the D-Day landings in Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, but only one film captured the moment that Allied troops leapt out of their landing craft and into war.
The rare, grainy, black-and-white footage shows Canadian troops arriving on Juno Beach. It was recorded by an automated camera fixed to the back of the landing craft, and as a result, the soldiers’ faces aren’t visible, except for one. For a brief moment, a young soldier looks back towards the camera with a frightened expression. In response, the soldier behind him reaches out with a reassuring hand and pats his shoulder.
“It’s the most remarkable footage ever,” said military historian Mike Bechthold. “It’s that moment of humanity in such a terrible encounter that really speaks to how these guys did it. They’re not fighting for king, they’re not fighting for country — they’re fighting for each other.”
For 75 years, the identity of the young soldier seen in the film remained a mystery so a group of Canadian historians recently set out to find him.
A total of 14,000 Canadians took part in the D-Day invasion, and military historian Marc Milner knew the odds of identifying one soldier from a single image were slim.
“He had to survive 70 years and he had to survive the war and he had to have a family. And goodness knows where he’s gone now,” Milner said.
Their best clue: the footage was from the North Shore Regiment from New Brunswick. Milner showed the soldier’s image to a surviving veteran from the regiment, who recalled a young private named Baker.
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“They went through the lists of the regiment at the time and lists of the company and found out that there was one Pte. Baker who had a serial number that started with an F,” Milner said. The letter F in the serial number meant he was likely from Nova Scotia rather than New Brunswick.
Eventually, the historians found an obituary for a Pte. George Baker from Liverpool, N.S., who had survived the war but died in 2003 at age 80. The obituary also noted that Baker had a daughter named Karen McLeod.
“I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe it,” McLeod told Global News, describing the day she received a phone call about her father’s image from D-Day. “That was daddy. When I saw it, I knew it was him.”
She says her father rarely talked about the war. He was just 20 years old when he signed up to fight.
“He was a little country boy brought up with just cows and chickens around him. I doubt very much that he had any idea of all what he was going to do until he got there,” she said.
Baker’s image is now featured on a commemorative coin produced by the Royal Canadian Mint to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
McLeod says her father would’ve been proud, albeit embarrassed by all of the attention.
“There were young men on that boat that probably did every bit as much as what my father did,” she said. “It’s just that he happened to be the one that looked back at the camera.”
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