By Mike Baker
The Haliburton community came together to honour a real-life war hero this past weekend on the 77th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy.
Ninety-seven-year-old Harold Rowden was a member of the 3rd Division of the 13th Field Regiment on that fateful day – June 6, 1944 – crossing the frigid waters of the English Channel and storming Juno Beach alongside 14,000 of his Canadian comrades as the Allied forces sought to push the Nazis out of France.
According to Reader’s Digest Canada, who published a story highlighting Rowden’s accomplishments in an article in Nov. 2017, ‘Rowdy’ as he was known by his friends was trained as a dispatch rider. He went ashore near the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer with his bike and fought beside his friends, people he had signed up with back home in Port Hope, Ont.
As a dispatch rider, his job was to transmit coded messages to his commander from various observation posts.
It was fitting then that this past Sunday’s event was organized, largely, by motorcyclists. Mark Duggan has been the driving force behind similar rides in other communities over the past number of years. When Rowden recently relocated to Haliburton, becoming one of the first residents of the new Gardens of Haliburton retirement home, Duggan made preparations to ride north.
He organized a route from King City, just north of Toronto, up to the Highlands. Close to 100 bikers in total took part in the event, including 52 individuals from the Haliburton Highlands Riders Club, who tagged on in Carnarvon.
Jim Bird, the Highlanders Riders’ club president, was instrumental in ensuring the event went off without a hitch. He communicated back and forth with Duggan, members of his club and the Haliburton Legion in the days leading up to the ride.
Kevin Dunlop was one of the local participants. He spoke to the Echo on Monday morning, reflecting on his participation in the ride.
“It felt like an honour… To be able to honour a man that’s really given us the freedom to go out and ride and do whatever we want, it’s just incredible. At 17 years of age, he was laying his life on the line for his country – Sunday just felt right,” Dunlop said.
Linda Heeps, a member of the Haliburton Legion, was similarly moved by the event, saying it almost brought her to tears on multiple occasions.
There were dozens of onlookers from the community stationed across the road from the Legion building, taking in the spectacle, which included the 100-strong motorcycle party participating in a drive-by along Mountain St. Heeps said the crowd only added to the special feeling of the day.
“This individual is 97 years old, so our ability to thank these people for putting their life on hold to keep us safe… We don’t have many chances left,” Heeps said. “I always get so emotional over these things. I watched some of the D-Day stuff the night before, and I just couldn’t imagine our age group doing something like that. Any age group doing something like that.
“When the landing gears came down, and the boats hit the beaches, these men were coming out against machine guns. I just cannot imagine. Anyone who is a veteran has more bravery than anybody I have ever known,” she added.
Rowden got quite emotional as he was presented with a plaque by the motorcyclists, thanking him for his duty all those years ago.
Dunlop had the opportunity to meet Rowden in person, something he said was “absolutely inspiring.”
“The surprising thing for me was that he felt undeserving. He stated that he didn’t deserve this,” Dunlop said. “It was nice to see so many people showing up and telling him that yes, he did deserve it.”
While overseas, only a few days after storming Juno Beach, Rowden’s regiment was attacked. Four of his comrades died after his troop were hit with a concussion grenade. His commanding officer was struck by a piece of shrapnel, which had lodged into his neck. The man was bleeding out before Rowden stepped in, covered the wound and applied pressure until help arrived, saving the man’s life.
His service came to a premature end on July 29 when, during the Battle for Caen, Harold was hit with a blast that seriously injured his left leg. He spent months recovering in mainland Europe, eventually being shipped back to Canada in December 1944.
Rowden received eight medals for his service in WWII, including France’s highest honour, the rank of Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour.
Now that he has relocated to Haliburton, Heeps said Rowden would play a pivotal role in upcoming Remebrance Day and Decoration Day celebrations, should he choose to do so.
“Harold is a hero. A true hero. Anything the Legion does, he will always be involved in and invited,” Heeps said. “It was just such a special day, and so nice being able to recognize someone who literally put everything on hold and laid their life on the line all those years ago.”