Canadian youths in Normandy learn about D-Day sacrifices

Air cadets corporals Kate Skinner and Aurora Van Esch from the 121 Red Arrows Squadron in Guelph, Ont., commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Braden Latam

The Canadian ceremony at Juno Beach in Normandy began with a procession of 359 Canadian and French teenagers and young people, representing the number of Canadian soldiers who died there on June 6, 1944.

All of the young women and men were learning about the sacrifices made by the thousands of Canadian and Allied troops during the Normandy landings.

But many of the students had already been making personal connections with the stories of the fallen before they left Canada.

READ MORE: Find our full D-Day coverage online

Among them were air cadets corporals Kate Skinner and Aurora Van Esch from the 121 Red Arrows Squadron in Guelph, Ont.

Under the guidance of Maj. Steve Harwood, the 13-year-olds researched the lives of a D-Day soldiers before travelling to France.

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Skinner learned about the short life of her namesake, Pte. D.J. Skinner of the the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa. After surviving D-Day, he died in Normandy on July 8, 1944.

The younger Skinner visited his grave during her trip.

READ MORE: A ‘perfect jump’ — D-Day veteran, 97, parachutes into Normandy

“I think it’s really important we are here because a lot of youth nowadays, they don’t really pay attention to what happened so long ago,” she said.

“I think it’s really amazing and incredible that we got this opportunity to come here and remember those who fought and lost their lives for us.”

WATCH: Maritime students mark 75th anniversary of D-Day

Click to play video: 'Maritime students mark 75th anniversary of D-Day' Maritime students mark 75th anniversary of D-Day
Maritime students mark 75th anniversary of D-Day – Jun 6, 2019

Van Esch researched the life of Capt. C.P. Rivaz, who died in Normandy five days after D-Day.

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“He was a part of our regiment in Guelph, 12th Field Regiment, and he was artillery,” she said.

“It was really cool to learn about someone who was here on that day and go to his grave and pay respects to him.”

Twins’ tribute to fallen brothers

Alberta sea cadet twins Amanda and Brook Hanik were among a large group of students who travelled to Normandy with EF Educational Tours Canada.

They were assigned the task of researching the fallen brothers Gordon and Ronald Branton.

Gordon died at 24 on D-Day, but his older brother Ronald was killed just over a month later on July 8, 1944. He was 28.

The siblings are buried side by side at Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery.

Sea cadets Brook and Amanda Hanik at the graves of Ronald and Gordon Branton, at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, Normandy. Diane Hanik

“It was on D-Day, right when (Gordon) arrived on the beach. A couple of steps onto the beach, he just got shot,” said Amanda.

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The Hanik sisters, who are from Drumheller, Alta., found out that a nephew of the brothers lived not far from them.

Larry Branton and his wife Dawna welcomed the 13-year-olds into their home and invited them to learn more.

Brook and Amanda Hanik with Larry Branton, nephew of Gordon and Ronald, and Larry’s wife Dawna. Diane Hanik

“They let us come, and we were allowed to read their diaries and see their medals,” said Brook.

“They were really amazing and they said: ‘Well, you guys can print off some pictures and put them on the gravestone,’” said Amanda.

The sisters placed the photo between the brothers’ graves on the eve of D-Day.

WATCH: Global News coverage of a special commemorative ceremony held at Juno beach to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day

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Current members of the Royal Regina Rifles, who were also at the cemetery, posed for pictures with the girls and gave them challenge coins from the regiment.

The twins say the whole week has been beyond anything they could have expected, with the D-Day ceremony leaving a lasting impression.

“It’s hard to imagine how a nice beach like this had people running up to it and getting shot every second,” said Brook.

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