The cost of freedom

George Lacquement still remembers what the sky looked like on June 6, 1944.

A tank operator, George was stationed in England with his Canadian armoured division. In the hours leading up to the Allies’ Normandy invasion, he watched as bombers and fighters crossed the English Channel heading for France.

“When they went over on D-Day, the sky was just black with planes,” says George.

When they returned, George saw a different picture, with single and small groups of planes limping back.

“I saw big bombers — you could drive a jeep right through them, the holes were that big in the bodies,” says George. “They were coming back across the channel into England, some with one or two engines instead of four, and they would land any place they could find to land.”

George enlisted in the military in February 1942, at the age of 17.

“In Ardmore, where I was raised, there were four of us who used to hang out together in the little town. They got called up. Of course, I didn’t. So we went into Edmonton for them to sign up. When they got there, I said, ‘Well, this is kind of ridiculous. I’m going to be left all alone.’ So I said, ‘I’m going too.’”

A young George Lacquement sports his army uniform.

During the war, George worked with armoured vehicles as a driver and mechanic. On D-Day, his regiment was at Thursley Commons with their tanks, ready to defend against a counterattack.

“We were sitting there with live ammunition, waiting to protect anything in case the Germans came in.”

George became a member of the Kangaroos, the name given to the 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment. They operated tanks that had been turned into armoured infantry carriers. The two-man crew could transport up to 15 members of the infantry into battle, where they would jump out with their machine guns and surprise the Germans.

George’s memory is fading, but he still remembers a few close calls. During a couple of days off in Antwerp, George and his friends were walking down the street and saw a café on one side and a movie theatre on the other. They flipped a coin and decided to go into the theatre, which was showing The Plainsman. They found three seats at the back of the auditorium.

“A V-2 rocket came in the end of the screen and exploded,” recalls George. It killed many of the people in the theatre, including George’s friends.

George spent time recovering in an American hospital and then a British hospital outside Antwerp. It was attacked by a German air raid during the Battle of the Bulge. He was transferred to a hospital in England, but the Canadians lost track of his location, and he was declared missing in action. It was more than a month before a Red Cross worker saw his name on a list and George’s family was told he was alive.

A collage on the wall of George's room includes photos of his military service.

After the war ended, George stayed in Europe for several months and worked as a transport sergeant, teaching a class of mechanics. But he began to experience mental health effects that would last for decades. When he returned to Canada in 1946, George remembers being irritable and short-tempered.

“It was bad. I would fly off the handle. I wouldn’t take nothing from anybody. I’d scrap right now.”

After his first wife died, George met Marge, and they were married in 1989.

“The kids say he used to get really hot under the collar,” says Marge. “Mom said, ‘Don’t blame him. Blame the war.’ That was true, but you still have to live with it.”

Marge noticed that she and George had their most heated arguments in the car. One day in the early 1990s, as they were driving to the legion to meet someone from Veterans Affairs, she’d had enough.

“I walked in and said, ‘You do something to this guy or I’m going to push him out of the vehicle.’ And they did. They sat him down and talked to him, and after that, he was looked after.”

George was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nearly five decades after his military service. He was prescribed medication, which he still takes every day. He says it’s made a big difference for him.

“We used to call it shell shock. And that was a bad thing,” says George. “It affected me for many years.”

George has a metal ammunition box at home where he stores memorabilia from his military service as well as objects kept by his grandfather, who served as an officer in the French army during the First World War. He enjoys going through the box and sharing his stories with family or friends. But Marge knows there are painful memories that he doesn’t share.

“I remember when he first started looking through that case and showing me stuff, he’d get so far down and then he’d quit. There was something about the rest of it that wasn’t good.”

George enjoys a visit with registered nurse Michelle Mulligan and her dog, Foster.

Now 95, George lives in long-term care at Bonnyville Health Centre, about 20 kilometres from where he grew up. Michelle Mulligan, a registered nurse at the centre, says George is widely loved by fellow residents and staff. He’s known as a jokester who enjoys teasing his fellow residents at mealtimes and squirting staff with his little water gun when they enter his room.

“He is always so polite and so gracious, a true gentleman, he really is,” says Michelle. “It amazes me, the kind of person George is, after all he’s been through.”

Before Christmas, George faithfully wore his mistletoe headband.

George says it’s important to remember the price that was paid for the freedoms we enjoy. Before his health declined, he was active in the local legion and would regularly go to schools to speak at Remembrance Day ceremonies. George knows he doesn’t have much time left, but he wants to make sure the stories live on.

“I think that people should know about it,” he says.

Contribute to The Vital Beat

Have a story to share about health care? An idea for an article? We value all contributions.

Submit an idea