WW II veteran connects with family of fallen war comrade
Chance meeting in workplace brings families together after 75 years
Stuart Johns was just 18 years old when he signed up for the Canadian army in 1943.
He was serving as a loader-operator on a tank on Aug. 28, 1944 along with his commander Vern Boudreau, 23, when they came under mortar fire at Pont de L'Arche, France, near Rouen. The crew was outside having lunch.
"He dived to go under the tank, so there wasn't room for me so I just flopped on the ground," said Johns, now 94 years old.
Johns wasn't injured, but Boudreau was struck by shrapnel in the rectum.
At the time, Boudreau said he wasn't in pain, Johns recalled, and even waved a casual goodbye as he was taken away for treatment.
The crew later found out Boudreau died before he could reach hospital.
"He bled to death from internal injuries," said Johns.
Johns kept the incident to himself for several decades after the war until the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Holland, in 1995.
"That's when he started to tell us about things," said Nancy Johns-Root, his daughter.
In a subsequent trip to the Bretteville-sur-Laize cemetery in France in 1996, Johns, his grandson Kevin Diotte and Johns-Root found Boudreau's grave.
"And that's when dad told the story of Vernon Boudreau. He said 'This was my crew commander,' and he told us how he died, " said Johns-Root.
Over the years, the Johns family — which includes five grandchildren — came to feel closer and closer to Boudreau.
Subsequent trips to France included pilgrimages to Boudreau's grave, which included leaving flowers and stones as tributes.
"It almost feels like he's my uncle or something, but he's not," said Johns-Root.
Still, details of Boudreau's life remained a mystery. Despite efforts over the years, the Johns family failed to find Boudreau's relatives.
Fast forward to last month when Diotte started a new job working in aircraft repair for WestJet in Toronto.
One day, Diotte noticed one of his co-workers, Jonathan Davidson, was looking up WW II information on a computer.
Sensing a fellow war buff, Diotte shared photos with Davidson showing Diotte and Johns at the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy — also known as D-Day — in France a few months earlier.
One of the photos was of Diotte and Johns standing at Boudreau's grave.
Davidson, whose wife is related to Boudureau's great niece as first cousins, said his wife's family is from Canso, N.S. — just a few kilometres from Little Dover where Boudreau lived before he joined Canada's WW II forces.
Davidson got a hold of his wife's cousin in Nova Scotia who confirmed Boudreau was her great uncle.
"It was pretty mind-blowing for a couple of days," said Diotte, speaking to CBC News from his home in Toronto. "I'm like, 'I don't believe this.'"
"I was so absolutely flabbergasted," said Johns, recalling Diotte's news.
"It was amazing. I just couldn't believe that there was actually someone alive that would have served with my uncle," said Boudreau's niece Jenny Rhynold, 66, in a phone conversation from her home in Little Dover.
Though they had heard stories about the man, the Johns family knew very little about Boudreau, since Johns only fought with him for four months and didn't get to know him very well.
They thought he might have been an only child. According to Rhynold, however, he was the youngest of 10 children.
The two families hope to get to know each other better through FaceTime. Johns-Root said she wants to organize a trip to Nova Scotia next year with Johns, as long as he's physically able.
"I think it's important for the family in Nova Scotia to know this family in Windsor, Ont. cares about their loved one," said Johns-Root.
Johns said, when he passes away, he would like to have some of his ashes spread on Boudreau's grave in France.
"I can hardly believe it," said Johns. "It's a good thing Kevin is such an observant boy."