In 66 years of marriage, Deer Park residents John and Suzie Stohn have been through a lot together. They also went through unique experiences prior to marriage, as both served during the Second World War.
John served with the 11th Army Field Regiment while Suzie served with the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRENS) and, while they knew one another from their days at McGill University prior to the war, it was not until after they completed their tours that the two decided to get married.
After undergoing extensive training both in Canada and England, John’s time in the army saw him battling his way through much of Europe, with a few close calls along the way.
One of his many notable experiences came when he was on a ship that brought his regiment from the UK to Sicily.
“We went out into the Atlantic and nobody on the ship knew where we were going except the people running it,” he said. “We came back through into the Mediterranean and when you go past Gibraltar, everybody knows where you are. There were six or seven (German) ships there and they knew exactly where we were.”
Fortunately, his ship was given cover by Canadian and British planes that flew over offering protection and keeping the German ships in check.
On one such flyover, however, the Allied planes wound up being tailed by German aircraft. Though the Canadian ships were troop transports and did not have anti-aircraft guns, those on the ships did what they could to help out.
“Each troop had things like Bren Guns – light arms – and the major damage that happened to our ship was caused by one of our own people who was shooting a Bren Gun and shot our aerial off,” John said.
The Canadians landed safely in Sicily, which was in Allied hands at the time. The 11th Army Field Regiment was repeatedly called in to spell other regiments, and John recalled his most nerve-wracking experience came when Allied forces were trying to hold ground near Monte Cassino.
“A New Zealand regiment had a gun position just south of Cassino,” he said. “Everything was going just fine with them until (the Allied forces) decided to bomb a position just north of Cassino.”
The Germans had taken over a monastery there and were using it to spy on Allied troops. When Allied planes flew over to bomb the German soldiers, a malfunction on one of the planes led to disaster.
“Through a malfunction, the bombs fell out of one of the planes and landed on the New Zealand regiment that was on Mount Trocchio,” John recalled. “When the next planes came and saw where the bombs had landed, they thought that must have been the target and they dropped their bombs there, too.”
The 11th Army Field Regiment was called in to replace the New Zealand regiment, which John said marked his darkest days in the service. With Axis troops able to look down on the Canadian soldiers from above, the position was difficult to hold and led to the lives of a number of soldiers.
“That was six bad weeks,” he said.
He was also one of a few servicemen tabbed to split from the rest of his regiment at one point in hopes of ambushing German soldiers before they could attack the marching line of Allied troops. Fortunately, that plan was nixed before John and a few fellow troops were sent off.
“We would have been completely cut off from any other Canadians and anyone else,” he said. “Our chances of getting out of there was going to be absolutely zero.”
While he was never wounded, he did contract malaria while sleeping out in a rainy field in Italy, recovering in both a Canadian hospital and a British convalescent camp.
After VE Day, John was one of a group of troops tasked with preventing Axis soldiers from crossing the Zuiderzee to get back to Germany. While there, he and his Sergeant Major enlisted to continue fighting on the Pacific front. They were given a 30-day leave before they were to be sent off to fight again and received some good news before he was shipped off again.
“On the 30th day of my leave, it was V-J Day, so the war was over on that front, too,” he said.
Suzie served as a WREN coder, doing her part to aid the war effort by allowing more Canadian servicemen to serve overseas.
“Our job was to replace the sailors serving (in Canada) so they could go to sea,” she said. “I didn’t go to sea myself, nor did I have any desire to go to sea.”
Her contributions – and those of her fellow WRENs – were nonetheless invaluable to the Allied efforts and vital in opening the door for women to be able to serve in the military.
Like her husband, Suzie enlisted largely because it felt like the right thing to do at the time.
“We felt we were doing something important for the country,” she said. “We knew it was important because we were serving a purpose.”
She admits, however, she had another reason for joining the WRENs.
“I liked the uniform,” she said. “I certainly liked the uniform better than the QWACs (Queen’s War Aid Commision) uniform.”
While the Stohns met prior to the Second World War and maintained contact throughout, they were primarily just friends until they were reunited after the conflict ended.
“We dated a bit before, but we weren’t engaged or anything during the war,” Suzie said. “I think I always knew, though, that he was the one I was going to marry.”
Suzie will march with the Wrens at City Hall as part of the city’s Remembrance Day services on Sunday, Nov. 11.
Ceremonies will take place in downtown Toronto at both Old City Hall and Queen’s Park beginning at 10:45 a.m.