Canada’s newest centenarian has two tips for longevity.
Russell Kaye, who will be 100 years old on Friday, says his first suggestion is to stay busy and avoid moping.
“If you wake up in the morning and want to go back to bed, that’s not going to work,” he says.
The other part of the equation, the resident of Riverview, N.B., acknowledges, is that he has had an abundance of luck.
Kaye was a gunner with Canada’s 12th Field Regiment during the Second World War. He was one of 133,000 Allied troops that stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. This summer will mark the 80th anniversary of a day that left more than 4,400 Allied soldiers dead, including 381 Canadians.
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Kaye had been placed with the Winnipeg Rifles for the landing at Juno Beach and remembers knowing he could die at any time.
“I almost felt like I was in a card game gambling with my life,” Kaye says. “I said to myself ‘If I step right, I could get killed, or if I step left, I could get killed’. Whatever I did, I made it. But it was a little tricky there for a few hours.”
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Perhaps due to the trauma of that day, Kaye spent decades trying to forget what he lived through. His memories are vague of what is one of the most important days in Canadian military history. The Allied landing established a beachhead in Normandy and led to the liberation of Western Europe. Nazi Germany surrendered 11 months and one day later.
Kaye remembers little of what he did on Juno Beach. He says the troops simply did what they were supposed to do. Many had spent years in England preparing for the day.
“I think the training saved a lot of lives,” Kaye says. “You didn’t stop and think ‘what do I do now?’ We knew what to do next – keep going.”
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One of the most vivid memories for Kaye wasn’t from the war – but after it. Returning home to New Brunswick, Kaye walked from the train station to the family farmhouse in the village of River Glade, west of Moncton. His brothers were outside waiting for him.
“They went wild when they saw me,” he says. “I remember that day as if it was yesterday.”
Like many veterans, Kaye rarely shared his wartime experiences with his family.
His son Christopher says always wanted to know more, but understood his father wasn’t comfortable telling the stories. Despite that, Christopher Kaye followed his father into the military, serving as a medic in the Royal Canadian Regiment for 30 years and retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer. Five grandchildren also joined the military.
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Christopher Kaye says his own experiences helped him understand why his father kept many of his memories locked away.
“I think it was better for him,” Christopher Kaye says. “Maybe you just don’t want it to appear that you’re vulnerable.”
After returning from the war, Kaye stayed in the military. He served 26 years, and then joined Corrections Canada for two decades. But his son rarely talked about his past. Christopher says his father didn’t even attend Remembrance Day ceremonies.
“Honest to God, I think most of his colleagues in Corrections Canada never even knew he was a veteran.”
After decades burying his memories, Kaye started digging them up seven years ago. He was invited to be an ambassador for Wounded Warriors, a nonprofit that helps Canadian veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. It was at the urging of his kids that he agreed.
In 2019, Kaye returned to France and Juno Beach for the first time. He was joined by his son and two daughters for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Kaye calls walking on the sand of Juno Beach and being with his children one of the highlights of his life.
Looking back on a life that has spanned 100 years, a small stretch of beach in France was where he spent one of his worst days, and one of the best.
“That was a moment I won’t forget,” he says. “You can’t get any better. I never ever dreamed I’d be back there.”
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