Remembering one of Revelstoke’s last Second World War veterans

Second World War veteran John Augustyn and his daughter Christine Brown laid the first wreath on behalf of MP Wayne Stetski and Canada during the Remembrance Day ceremony in 2017. (Marissa Tiel - Revelstoke Review)Second World War veteran John Augustyn and his daughter Christine Brown laid the first wreath on behalf of MP Wayne Stetski and Canada during the Remembrance Day ceremony in 2017. (Marissa Tiel - Revelstoke Review)
John Augustyn never missed a Remembrance Day ceremony. “It was his day,” said Christine Brown, daughter. This photo was taken at last year’s ceremony in Revelstoke. (Jocelyn Doll/Revelstoke Review)John Augustyn never missed a Remembrance Day ceremony. “It was his day,” said Christine Brown, daughter. This photo was taken at last year’s ceremony in Revelstoke. (Jocelyn Doll/Revelstoke Review)
John Augustyn with fellow military friends. Augustyn is on the far right. (Contributed)John Augustyn with fellow military friends. Augustyn is on the far right. (Contributed)
Augustyn was awarded two defense medals, the Polish Star, Italy Star and the Monte Cassino Commemorative Cross. (Contributed)Augustyn was awarded two defense medals, the Polish Star, Italy Star and the Monte Cassino Commemorative Cross. (Contributed)
Emily and John Augustyn. Emily, John’s wife, died in 2014. (Submitted)Emily and John Augustyn. Emily, John’s wife, died in 2014. (Submitted)

When John Augustyn died this summer, it brought the end of an era closer.

He was one of the last living Second World War veterans in Revelstoke.

“The continuity is being lost. As time goes on people will be less aware of the Second World War,” said Gary Krewskinski, president of the Revelstoke Legion.

READ MORE: Revelstoke Remembrance Day celebrations different during pandemic

Augustyn died at the age of 101 on Aug. 1, 2020.

The Second World War from 1939 to 1945 was the largest and deadliest conflict in history, involving more than 30 countries and up to 85 million deaths.

Augustyn endured some of war’s worst horrors. The following is a summary of an article written by Sarah Newton from Reved Magazine in 2012.

Soon after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 from the west, forcing France and Britain to declare war on Germany, the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east.

The Red Army vastly outnumbered the Polish defenders and approximately 320,000 prisoners of war were captured.

Augustyn was one of them.

For the next two years he was worked almost to death, labouring in Soviet iron mines, farms and breaking rocks for airfields. Once, he was forced on a death march of almost 1,000 kilometres.

While other prisoners died by suicide, went insane or were shot by their captors, Augustyn somehow survived.

In 1941, Germany broke the Hitler-Stalin Pact and invaded the Soviet Union with three million soldiers, which was the largest invasion force in the history of warfare.

The next year, Polish soldiers were granted amnesty by the Soviets if they joined the Allies against Germany. Augustyn was sent on another long march in an overcrowded cattle car to Uzbekistan to fight with the British. He arrived starved and weak from malaria.

In the British army, Augustyn resupplied the front lines, managing to walk away from three attacks that destroyed his truck.

More than 70 years later, Augustyn told Newton he still struggled falling asleep, troubled by memories of being trapped in ditches, surrounded by the dead and the smell of burning flesh.

Christine Brown, daughter, said her father had few difficulties talking about the war.

“He wanted people to know the good and the bad.”

She remembers him saying that an individual’s mother is the most important person in someone’s life.

“As his friends lay dying, he said they would always call for their mom.”

Augustyn was awarded two defence medals, the Polish Star, Italy Star and the Monte Cassino Commemorative Cross.

When the war ended, Augustyn moved to Canada and worked on a sugar beet farm in Alberta.

There, he met his wife Emily and the two moved to Revelstoke in the 1950s.

In Revelstoke, Augustyn became a logger. Brown said one of his favourite pastimes, well into his 90s, was chopping wood (which had to be cut precisely 16 inches long and stripped of bark for neater stacking).

Emily and John Augustyn. Emily, John’s wife, died in 2014. (Submitted)

Augustyn was also an avid gardener.

When Laura Stovel bought the empty lot beside Augustyn’s house, at first he opposed Stovel’s plans to construct a home because he worried it would shade his garden.

To optimize the growing season in Revelstoke, Augustyn built a plastic-covered cold frame against his home to harness any heat escaping from the house.

This allowed him to grow endives into December, sometimes even January.

“He became my gardening mentor,” said Stovel.

In Stovel’s book Mountain Harvest, a collection of stories from senior gardeners in Revelstoke, Augustyn said his passion for gardening kept him young.

“I can’t simply sit down and wait to die. Instead, I sit on a stool and weed my garden.”

Stovel said Augustyn only got annoyed with her once, when her sprinkler inadvertently splashed onto his raspberries.

He always watered his garden by hand.

Augustyn tried to not let anything go to waste– even his broad beans were tied up with computer cables salvaged from the old Revelstoke secondary school.

Stovel said Augustyn was annoyed when people bought something new, instead of spending time to fix it.

When a resident had a tree cut down on their property, Augustyn would have it hauled to his home for firewood.

Although Augustyn lived a long life, Stovel said he always returned to his war stories.“He experienced more than any of us ever will.”

Approximately 75 years after the guns fell silent across Europe, the number of Canadian veterans, more than one million during the Second World War, are plummeting dramatically.

The latest numbers estimate Canada is losing hundreds of Second World War veterans each week.

“As time goes on, we’ll be less aware of what the veterans went through. It’s a significant loss,” said Krewskinski.

Out of the 1.1 million Canadians who fought, about 26,200 remain – with 5,900 in British Columbia.

There are at least two other Second World War veterans living in Revelstoke. John McMillan served in the Canadian Navy from 1943 – 1945 on HMCS Saguenay. Miki Harding also served in the Canadian Armed Forces during the war as a supply clerk in Calgary. Both are residents at Mt. Cartier Court, a long-term care home.

READ MORE: CPE students record veterans’ memories

Correction: The Nov. 5 newspaper incorrectly stated John Augustyn was the last living Second World War veteran in Revelstoke. That was incorrect.

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
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