At precisely two minutes to seven this morning, Second World War veteran John Swityk awoke and went about preparing for the Remembrance Day services in downtown Langley City.
For close to seven decades now, he hasn’t missed a service, always grateful to share the moment of reflection with his wife of 68 years, Helen, his daughter Dianne, his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, fellow veterans, a handful of close friends, and a sea of a few thousand complete strangers.
It’s a day of incredible sentimental significance, the 95-year-old Murrayville resident told the Langley Advance.
“The reason I come is because when I landed on D-Day [as an anti-tank gunner], I saw for the first time in my life dead people… bodies floating around in the water. They were my friends,” Swityk said, getting a little choked up as he recalled the moment still quite vividly 72 years later.
“I’m here for them. For all the people we lost. For my friends. I just think I need to do this every year for them,” he explained.
Looking around the crowd of people gathered at today’s service in Douglas Park, he said the outpouring of support by so many “means a lot to me.”
He was a sergeant with the Regina Rifle Regiment, who served from 1940 to 1946. He was discharged seven months after the war was over – held back because he was still needed to work as warden in a jail in Reading, England. There, he was responsible for 125 prisoners on the third floor of the prison – most of them Canadian soldiers who were jailed for desertion.
He remembers hating the job, every 12-hour shift seeming like an eternity. But based on his seniority, he stayed in that post for an additional three months – only being relieved of duty when he was taken to hospital to treat a harsh rash that kept breaking out on his leg.
Turned out that while on the front line, he took shrapnel in his left leg. He never reported it, not thinking it was that big a deal and wanting to remain with his troops.
After being nurtured back to health, the Saskatchewan-born and raised soldier was discharged out of Calgary, and instead of heading home to the Prairies, chose to head west.
He’s never looked back, settling in Vancouver – working in various print shops through his career. A short time after moving west, he also met and married the woman of his dreams, Helen, and they had three children, two grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, moving out to Langley 22 years ago.
“I’ve never missed a Remembrance Day since I got out of the army in 1946” and he had no intention of missing today’s services.
He enjoys the atmosphere of the Langley City service, and the efforts made by the fellow legionnaires to make the service meaningful for all who attend.
Getting up early on every Remembrance Day, he said part of his annual routine is watching the services in Ottawa for an hour.
Then, with the aid of his daughter, he begins to get ready.
He checks over his uniform jacket to make sure it is properly decorated with all his medals, including the most recent honour – a medal representing a knighthood bestowed upon him last year by the president of France.
In February 2015, the ambassador of France to Canada, Philippe Zeller presented Swityk with the French National Order of the Legion of Honour for the aid he offered in liberating that country.
Then, putting on his beret and grabbing his cane, he takes on this special day that includes visiting with old friends, laying a wreath, and taking a time to reflect on those he served with, who were not lucky enough to come home.
CAPTION: John Swityk, 95, held the hand of his wife Helen leading up to Friday’s Remembrance Day services in downtown Langley City.