Ladner playwright Allen Desnoyers has travelled from coast to coast with his historical musical Pier 21, making it as far as Halifax where the story began.
Staging well over 100 shows has had a profound impact on the playwright, his cast and crew, but perhaps nothing has hit home more than a recent visit with 96-year-old Dutch war bride Aleyda (Piep) Campbell.
“We visited her just last week after some shows in Cochrane (Alberta) and she still gets emotional sharing what an indelible experience it was when the Canadians came to free their town of Oos from Nazi occupation,” Desnoyers told the Optimist.
“She remembered how a Canadian soldier handed them a loaf of bread and the family gathered around to stare at it for a long time while it sat on the table. They hadn’t seen a full loaf for years.”
He said this was eight months before the end of the war, and she and her pianist brother decided to put on a concert for the troops.
Later, her family put on a Christmas dinner for three Canadians by saving their meat ration coupons for two months so the family could share a tiny roast beef with the soldiers, decorating the dining room with what little they could find.
“One of soldiers, Monty from Toronto, was so overwhelmed by the gesture, he put a picture of his family in front of his plate and openly wept at the Christmas dinner saying over and over, ‘Just like home, just like home,’” recalled Campbell.
These young men were barely in their 20s and a long way from Canada.
Aleyda’s future husband Colin was one of those men. She said she married one in a million.
“Like half a million other soldiers, he was sent on a troopship departing from Pier 21 in Halifax to fight the Nazis, not knowing if he’d ever return,” said Desnoyers. “This year marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day and Colin was on Juno Beach that day before helping liberate the Netherlands.”
In his musical Desnoyers named the soldier and his Dutch war bride Colin and Aleyda to honour what they went through.
“They both returned to Canada after the war, arriving at Pier 21 a few months apart,” he said. “She said Colin never really spoke about his experiences at Juno Beach, but when they visited there years later he needed to walk by himself for a while. What she remembered him saying was at the end of the day of that longest ‘Day of Days,’ he and the surviving Canadians gathered to count who was left. 2,048 Canadian soldiers are buried at Juno Beach.”
In the Pier 21 musical, Aleyda sings:
“Who am I that strangers would give their lives for me?
That sailed away from here to set me free?
All the years of darkness battered and confined
Now, I’m safe in Canada
Its heroes left behind.”
For the Remembrance Day weekend, Desnoyers’ Canadiana Musical Theatre Company will stage the musical at the Tsawwassen Arts Centre on Saturday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Desnoyers is hoping veterans and their families will attend.
To purchase tickets, call 604-943-9437.