“There aren’t too many of us around,” said 88-year-old Second World War veteran Joe Gagne when asked about his visits to local schools. “I used to go with other guys, but they’re gone.”
Gagne is indeed one of the few Second World War veterans who are still active in their community and participates in Royal Canadian Legion events. As a member of Branch 11, on Dawes Road, for 25 years, Gagne strives to be active as much as he can so he can educate the public and in particular the younger generations.
But first, how it all started.
Gagne was born in 1924 in Cartier, Ontario, a small town northwest of Sudbury. As a teenager, he learned about and worked on steam engine trains. After he turned 19, his father, also a railway worker, got him an apprenticeship job as a machinist. It wasn’t long after that he was asked to go for a medical examination to join the army.
He passed his medical and was then asked to report to camp in Toronto, more specifically the Horse Palace at the Exhibition grounds, where he spent a few weeks sleeping in the horse stables with nothing more than a bunk bed and a desk. It was July 1943 and the Germans were already showing weakness in the Soviet Union and in the Atlantic.
Soon after, Gagne and his mates were sent to Brantford for training. Because he had a skill as a machinist, Gagne was sent to train with the Engineering Unit, which specialized in building infrastructure in places that had been destroyed so that troops and equipment could advance.
“You were scared,” said Gagne of the time in training. “But what are you gonna do?”
Within less than one year of enlisting, Gagne was on a ship, which he jokingly called a ‘bucket’, on his way to Europe.
“Because of the German submarines the ship kept changing course so they couldn’t target us,” he said.
After spending some time in Scotland, his unit moved to the beaches of Normandy.
“We got there about a week or two after D-Day. They had to gain some ground inland before we could get there with all our equipment – trucks and bulldozers,” he explained.
His unit left Juno Beach and started making its way to Caen, where they encountered many streets in ruins after being bombarded by the Germans.
“I remember when we got to Saint Martin Square in Caen and there was a great statue of someone on a horse holding a flag,” recalls Gagne. “After I found out it was Joan of Arc.”
As they pushed closer to the border, Gagne recalls hearing the gun fights and shelling that would take place just ahead of his unit.
“A lot of times we would be on the way back from getting something and then they’d start to shell. You could hear them, and you’d stop and get underneath your truck,” he said. “When we dropped off the bulldozers in Caen we were close enough that we could hear the small guns fire.”
His unit eventually made it to Germany just as the war ended in 1945. He remained in Germany for nearly ten months before returning home via New York City.
After a couple of train trips, Gagne was back home in Cartier and went straight back to work. Because the war was over and the need for steam engines was drastically lowered, he was moved to North Bay where he met Margaret, his wife. They got married in May of 1948. They have three boys and a girl, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
They moved to Sudbury soon after, and Gagne finished his apprenticeship as a machinist.
“It took me eight years to serve a five year apprenticeship because I was gone three years,” he said.
In 1966 Gagne and his family moved to Toronto where he worked his way up from a dispatch foreman to a manager at CP Rail in Agincourt where he retired after 20 years in 1986. He kept the railway spirit running in the family. His oldest became an electrical apprentice, another son became a locomotive engineer, and the third son was once a carman.
Asked by a neighbour if he wanted to join the Dawes Branch 11 Legion, Gagne jumped on it and would spend his time bowling with other members.
In his 25 years there, Gagne has marched in parades, participated in Remembrance Day ceremonies and has educated many young people in various local schools.
“I liked going to the schools and talking to the kids. They always had good questions,” he said with a smile. “Some would ask me ‘where did you go to the bathroom?’, and I would explain that we’d dig up a hole, do what we had to do, and then covered it up.”
Gagne used to visit schools regularly with other veterans, but is saddened that many are no longer around. He still visits the schools when asked and looks forward to it, often bringing war memorabilia and photos to share with the children.
“All I need is someone to drive me there, and I’ll be there,” he said.