Nfld. & Labrador

This D-Day veteran is 97, and he still sells poppies every year

People come to the donation table to shake Rod Deon's hand and get their picture taken with him.

'I felt it's my duty to do what I can,' says Rod Deon, 97

Retired navy veteran Rod Deon has been a fixture of the Royal Canadian Legion's poppy campaign for 50 years. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

When Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 — D-Day — Rod Deon was there.

"D-Day was a terrible day. It was windy, there was a northeast wind and drizzle, and there were ships, maybe two, three hundred ships in the English Channel," Deon told CBC News.

"Airplanes overhead like you wouldn't believe. And torpedoes, and Germans trying to get in, and we chased them out."

And every year for the last half-century, when the Royal Canadian Legion conducts its annual poppy campaign, Deon, 97, has been there.

"I felt it's my duty to do what I can. So I always campaign. I never miss one," said Deon.

Poppy campaign volunteer Grace Parrott says working with Rod Deon is like working with a celebrity. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Deon was born in Nova Scotia in 1921, and raised in Boston until the Depression hit and his parents went back to Canada looking for work.

He was a hull technician — called a shipwright — when he signed on with the navy in 1942. The navy was looking for shipwrights, and he wanted to follow his friends — mostly fishermen — who were enlisting.

On D-Day — which set the stage for the liberation of France and the Allied victory on the Western front during the Second World War — Deon was aboard HMCS Ottawa, providing sea support for the troops hitting the beach.

In the weeks after D-Day, the Ottawa hunted down three German U-boats, and 74 years later, Deon still remembers the dates.

Poppy campaign volunteer Grace Parrott takes a picture of Deon with a donor at the Howley Estate Sobeys in St. John's on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

"One off of Juno [Beach] on July 6, exactly one month from D-Day, and another one off of Brest, and one off of Bordeaux, France, August the 18th and the 20th," he said. "I was on not much sleep for three days chasing those U-boats."

After the war, he settled in Ontario and worked building churches and other construction projects. In 1968, he helped found Legion Branch 617 in Don Mills, Ont. A few years ago, he and his wife moved to St. John's to be closer to their daughter, and he's kept on collecting donations and pinning poppies to lapels.

Grace Parrott — who volunteered this year for the campaign when she heard legions were having difficulty finding enough people — said sharing the donation table with Deon was like working with a celebrity.

"When I found out that I was going to have him here today, it was so exciting," she said. "Since he's been here today, so many people are coming up, shaking his hands, wanting photos taken with him. It's unreal."

Rod Deon was given the Queen's Diamond Jubilee medal in 2012 for his 1953 woodcarving of Queen Elizabeth II. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

People can see his medals for his war service, and his legion service. He was also awarded a Queen's Diamond Jubilee medal in 2012 for a wooden portrait he carved — a hobby of his since he was a child — of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 for her coronation.

In the last five decades, Deon has missed only one year of the campaign, because of a construction job. He said it's important to him to help with the campaign, which raises money for veterans who need help with health-care costs or other living expenses.

His own father was a veteran of the First World War, and lost a lung and a leg from the fighting. Deon uses a cane to stand and his hearing was permanently damaged by the boom of the destroyer's guns, but as long as he can, he said, he'll be back every fall to shake hands and pose for pictures.

"As long as I can, because part of the poppy campaign is my pension," he said, laughing.

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About the Author

Daniel MacEachern is a St. John's-based reporter and producer with CBC News. You can email him at daniel.maceachern@cbc.ca.