Athletes

Vancouver athlete, veteran, 94, honoured for role in D-Day

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THE PROVINCE: PATRICK JOHNSTON – Lloyd Williams won a national basketball championship, is in the B.C. Rugby Hall of Fame — and now he’s a recipient of the Legion d’honneur, France’s most prestigious decoration.

“That’s quite an honour, not for me, but for my guys,” the Second World War veteran says over the phone.

Last year was the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, and the French government sought to honour as many Canadian veterans who took part in the operation or the liberation of France as possible. Williams was honoured this summer in a Vancouver ceremony.

Williams, now 94, was in command of a landing craft ferrying troops to the Normandy beach designated as “Gold.”

With 130 or so soldiers aboard, “we left Southampton (England) at two or three in the morning,” he said.

The weather was terrible in the channel and while the water was mostly cleared of mines, the beaches weren’t. Williams’ craft struck one, meaning he and his crew were stuck overnight making repairs.

Back in action, they spent the next month-and-a-half ferrying more troops from England to France, “dodging mines” all the while, he said.

Raised on the west side of Vancouver, Williams went to Kitsilano High and joined up with the navy when the war broke out. An able athlete, he’d already played for the Meraloma Club’s senior men’s rugby team as a schoolboy, before playing for a navy team in Victoria.

After the war, he kept playing at the University of B.C., for the Meralomas and representative rugby for Vancouver and B.C. The Meralomas have run many sports teams over the years: soccer, football (they’re the precursors to the modern B.C. Lions, that’s where the Leos got their orange and black), some famous rugby squads too, but in 1947 their men’s basketball squad won the national championship.

The official record says that team was called the B.C. Packers, after the fish-packing company, but that’s not so, said Williams. “That’s crap, we were the Meralomas, you can quote me on that,” he declared.

After his sparkling rugby playing career came to an end, he moved into rugby administration, eventually serving as the provincial body’s president in the late 1970s.

Williams’ time with the navy took him around the world. As part of Combined Operations Headquarters, he was involved in delivering troops to the beaches of North Africa, Italy and France.

At one point, the troopship he was on, sailing from North Africa back to Britain, was sunk by a U-boat “about 90 miles northwest of Gibraltar,” he said. The Germans remained in the area, looking to take prisoners. The ship’s radio man had managed to get a call out before the ship went down and ground-based fighter planes scrambled to the area, keeping the U-boat at bay long enough for acorvette to double back and rescue Williams and his adrift mates.

Another time, he was on a ship sailing the long way around Africa to avoid the German air force in the Mediterranean and deliver British troops to the Suez region of Egypt. They stopped over in Durban, South Africa.

They found the nearest pub. “Sorry, we only have Canadian beer today,” the bartender told the Canadians. The thing was, Williams and company had forgotten to put on their “Canada” flashers on their uniforms. When they revealed to the bartender where they were from — they all were handed an extra beer.

After the war, Williams returned to Vancouver, married his high-school sweetheart, Bette and had three kids. Now there’s grandchildren and a great-grandchild.