Courtesy of Nancy Johns / Windsor Star
Passing through customs in Toronto last month to board a Paris-bound flight with members of her family, retired kindergarten teacher Nancy Johns-Root was worried about how the security folks might react to the “bag of rocks” buried deep in her luggage.It turned out to be a non-issue, which was a good thing because those rocks — small stones extracted from her father’s backyard in Windsor — carried messages of love and gratitude from city schoolchildren to young Canadians who lie forever in the lush fields of France.A dozen of those stones, with images of poppies painted by kids from King Edward School and the Giles campus of Bellewood School, now lie at the base of the Essex Scottish memorial in Dieppe, France where scores of young men from the Windsor area were killed during the disastrous raid of Aug. 19 of 1942.Other stones, bearing simple words of gratitude, have been placed at headstones in Commonwealth war cemeteries in Normandy and elsewhere in France and Belgium.Two years ago I wrote about Stuart Johns, a Turner Road kid who enlisted on the day of his Walkerville Collegiate graduation. Johns, who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his efforts, served in the Canadian Grenadier Guards. He was a tank crew member in the Battle of Normandy and in combat across France, Belgium and Holland into Germany.His loving, tight-knit family had promised Johns, a remarkably fit 92 at the time of the column, that if he remained in good health, they would accompany him to the 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations.Well, mission accomplished. Johns, now 94, is back home, mowing his grass and puttering in his garden, while three daughters, two nieces and a grandson recover from jet lag following a 13-day bus pilgrimage to First and Second World War battlefields in France and Belgium.
Second World War veteran Stuart Johns of Windsor points to his brick at the kiosk at Juno Beach Centre in France during the celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June 2019.
Courtesy of Nancy Johns /
The seemingly indestructible Johns was one of just 47 Canadian veterans, including 96-year-old fellow Windsor resident Charles Davis, feted during D-Day ceremonies on Juno Beach where 14,000 Canadians stormed ashore to spearhead the liberation of Europe.Johns-Root said a relative, Essex New Democratic MP Tracey Ramsey, played a key role in the ceremonies.“Tracey did Canada proud. She was all over the place, always there for the vets and always a smile on her face.”The people of Normandy, especially residents of the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer where the Canadians came ashore in 1944, welcomed their guests with open arms. “It was a super great welcome. Canadian flags were flying from windows and balconies all over and everyone had Canadian stuff on. The people, it seemed, just wanted to touch a veteran,” marvelled Johns-Root.A must-do for Stuart Johns was a family visit to the Mont Ormel battlefield, south of the city of Caen, where members of the 1st Polish Armoured Division, battling to close an escape route for thousands of fleeing German troops, had been surrounded on a ridge and were almost out of ammo, water and other supplies when Johns’ regiment, the Grenadier Guards, broke through to relieve them and evacuate several hundred wounded.As the regiment’s war diary for Aug. 21, 1944, put it: “The Poles cried with joy when we arrived and from what they said, I doubt if they will ever forget this day and the help we gave them.”Now, said Johns-Root, that ridge where so many died offers a panoramic view of a lovely pastoral scene, looking down on villages and church spires dotting the valley far off into the distance.Another essential stop was the Canadian war cemetery at Bretteville-sur-laize where 3,000 Allied personnel, including John’s tank commander, Vernon William Boudreau, and his Windsor childhood pal, Pilot Officer Ralph Ernest Lemmon, are buried.Johns, who is putting the finishing touches on a memoir he’s been honing for 15 years, has told his family this was likely his last trip to France.Perhaps not. If he still has his health in five years, when he’ll be 99, the family wants him to consider attending the 80th D-Day anniversary ceremonies.One way or another, Stuart Johns will return to Normandy. He’s told his family that when he passes, he wants some of his ashes buried next to his tank commander whose life ebbed away at age 23.I can’t think of a more fitting occasion than Canada Day weekend to raise a glass in homage to a truly remarkable email@example.com
Second World War veteran Stuart Johns at the Grenadier Guard plaque at Mont Ormel, France, during the celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June 2019.
Courtesy of Nancy Johns /