Apeldoorn, Netherlands The day was miserable and cold, but nothing could chill the warmth of the greeting Canada's veterans received yesterday.
About 200,000 Dutch citizens endured persistent rain and occasional hailstorms to pay tribute to the aged men who liberated their country from Nazi tyranny 60 years ago. The 1,500 Canadian veterans who marched and rode through Apeldoorn's streets were greeted with waves of applause and unrestrained affection.
The parade is held every five years both to celebrate the victory in the European theatre of the Second World War and to honour the Canadian soldiers who liberated the Netherlands. The Dutch have previously shown that they haven't forgotten what the Canadians did for them, and yesterday was no exception.
The crowds pressed on to the parade route to shake the veterans' hands and to say "Thank you." Young girls handed out bouquets of flowers and kisses while other people passed over cans of beer.
"This is fantastic," said a beaming Edgar Bedard, who served with the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa. "I think these are about the best people in the world."
The affection was clearly reciprocated. Amelea Bar, 25, handed flowers to the veterans as they passed. "We have a free country and we owe it to them," she said. "They are welcome, very welcome here."
More than 7,600 Canadians died in the campaign to oust the Germans from the Netherlands.
Many of the veterans, survivors of battles from Nijmegen to Groningen, walked the 2½-kilometre route through the centre of Apeldoorn. But most elected to ride on one of the 200 vintage military vehicles provided by a Dutch military enthusiasts' group.
Canadian flags -- there were even a few of the Red Ensigns that the soldiers actually fought under -- lined the route of the parade. Homeowners hung signs that said: "Thank you, boys," "Thank you, Liberators" or simply, "You wrote history."
A particularly boisterous group of Dutch sang the praises of the old soldiers throughout the 2½-hour event. "For he's a jolly good fellow," they sang, "we won't forget you all."
Saskia van der Steun, 16, and two friends handed out bouquets and kisses to the veterans as they passed. "I just wanted to thank them for everything they did," she said.
A day earlier in Amsterdam, crowds in Dam Square cheered Canadian veterans arriving in the vintage vehicles.
RCAF veteran George Church of Barrie, Ont., posed for pictures and shook the hands of countless Dutch admirers.
"It's just a wonderful thing," said the 83-year-old, dressed in his wartime blue uniform. "I only wish we could convey some of this to the people at home, not so much for me, but for the poor guys who are at Sunnybrook," the veterans hospital in Toronto.
The warmth of the greeting by the Dutch at the parade clearly overwhelmed some of the old soldiers, who said it reminded them of the greeting when they drove through liberated villages.
"It's a bit emotional," said Bill Ramsden of Morden, Man., who served with the 12th Manitoba Dragoons.
"This late in the game, it's amazing they still show their appreciation the way they do," added Wally Smith of Peterborough, Ont., who served with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.
"What you see here is almost a repeat of what happened 60 years ago," said General Ray Henault, the former chief of defence staff who is soon to take up the top military position with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "They remember the liberation and they remember what Canadians did for them."
But the assumption among both participants and spectators was that this was likely the last Apeldoorn parade involving large numbers of Canadian veterans. Few of them are under 80 years of age and there is an acknowledgment, as 84-year-old Sam Wormington of the Royal Canadian Artillery put it, that "you don't live forever."
The number of Second World War veterans has been cut in half in the past decade and officials of the Department of Veterans Affairs said that about 500 are dying every week. Neither the Dutch nor Canadian government is committing to any future large-scale commemoration of the liberation of the Netherlands.
The Dutch are also debating whether to transform their May 5 Liberation Day celebrations to emphasize the link with the war. Dutch members of parliament are pushing for something called Peace Day.
The fact that yesterday's parade might have been the last seemed to only deepen the intensity of the emotion. Many of the veterans were saying goodbye as they waved to the crowds.
"They are so old now that they're not coming back, I think," said Gini Oosterhoff.
Doug Vidler, who served with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, said he doesn't think he has another parade in him.
"I'm 81 now and in another five years, I'll be 86," he said. "If I'm still around."