March 18, 2023. Last fall, after Alice van Bekkum, Chair of the Groesbeek Cemetery Faces To Graves Foundation, sent Pieter a list of 39 soldiers from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regiment who were killed during the Battle of Bienen in Germany on March 25, 1945 and are buried in the Canadian War Cemetery in Groesbeek, The Netherlands, Pieter saw that photos were missing for 12. One of these was John Joseph BOHON.
“…Bohon? Isn’t that a Ukrainian name?…” Pieter asked. “…Maybe, in a shortened form…” I replied.
That short conversation ultimately led to successfully unlocking a search for family. After finding no family named Bohon who could be related, Pieter finally discovered that when he enlisted, this soldier shortened his surname from BOHONKO to BOHON!
Searching for Bohonko led to obituaries of John’s brother and sister-in-law, which finally led Pieter to Debbie Mierau of Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
….John was born in present-day Ukraine….
Debbie confirmed that the family was of Ukrainian heritage, with roots in the Zakarpattia (Sub-Carpathian) region in Czechoslovakia, but now part of Ukraine. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zakarpattia_Oblast)
“…My grandparents, John Bohonko and Nanca Kohut (who I called Dido and Baba) were from the village of Velykyi Bereznyi in Ukraine where they were born, raised and married….” Debbie explained. A literal translation of the village name is Big Birch. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velykyi_Bereznyi)
Debbie wrote that after the birth of their son Johnny “…Dido made a decision to go to Canada so his son would know a life without wars and rumours of wars….” John was born February 12, 1925 in Velykyi Berznyi.
“….He left in 1927 and spent … long, hard years away from his family trying to make a life for them. He rode the rails from one side of the country to the other looking for a good job (almost freezing to death in Weyburn, Saskatchewan) to make a home for them in Canada. Finally … he sent for Nanca and Johnny. Baba, who had never been out of her village, made the trek with young Johnny in tow … to catch a ship to Canada….”
John and his mother Nanca sailed from Rotterdam, The Netherlands aboard the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, and arrived as landed immigrants in Halifax, Nova Scotia on December 29, 1929.
John’s mother, who became known as Ann in Canada, “… did not speak English but managed to make her way by train to Toronto where Dido was waiting for her at the station. He proudly took them to the house he had constructed and where they lived until the 1970s. Baba grew much of her own food and Dido worked hard for CN Rail, supporting his family throughout the Depression. Five more children joined the brood. Dido never looked back. He loved Canada so much and insisted his children be raised as Canadians. Baba always missed her family and country very much but understood her family was much safer in Canada….”
After finishing Grade 9 and a year in high school, John studied art for a year at the Ontario College of Art. “…He … painted murals on his bedroom walls…” but art was not his career at this point.
….John enlisted in Halifax….
He did bush, forestry, and carpentry work for 2 years before enlisting with No. 6 District Depot in Halifax, Nova Scotia on December 13, 1943. At the time, he had been employed for two years by Foundation Maritime in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia as a carpenter’s helper. (See https://hazegray.org/navhist/canada/fm/)
In an interview for his Personnel Selection Record, John was described as having “…a neat, pleasing appearance…” An adventurous soul, he “….left home and has done considerable wandering, taking whatever jobs he could find….”
His enthusiasm and artistic talent were noted. “…Enthusiastic and aggressive… Having a natural talent for Art he has made this his hobby…”
John made a good impression. “…As this recruit is keen and willing, has a good physique, and is anxious to see action, he should be suitable for Infantry training….” However, as John was under 19 years of age – and therefore ineligible to be sent overseas – he was recommended for “…enriched training during basic training…”
Just as John turned 19 in February 1944, he was transferred to No. 60 Canadian Infantry Basic Training Centre (CI (B) TC) in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
On July 2, 1944, he was sent to A14 Canadian Infantry Training Centre (CITC) in Aldershot, Nova Scotia for further ordnance training in 3 inch mortars. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ML_3-inch_mortar) As he was there at the same time as Clifford BATEMAN, perhaps they trained together.
After passing the mortar course he was attached to S-5 Canadian Driving and Maintenance School (CD & M School) in Woodstock, Ontario on September 8, 1944, for a 3 week carrier driving course for 3 inch mortarmen.
After successfully completing the course, John was rated suitable “…for overseas operational duty in Canadian Infantry Corps as specialist to armoury…”
He was reassigned back to A14 CITC in Aldershot in preparation for overseas service, but first allowed special leave of 96 hours before leaving Ontario to travel back to Nova Scotia. Per Debbie, John “…went home to visit his family before being sent to Europe. My mother remembers him walking down the road with his gear and rifle on his back. He turned and waved to his little sister, who adored him, and she watched him walk away….”
….John was sent overseas….
John returned to Aldershot, but was not there long. On November 7, 1944 he was sent to No. 2 Training Camp in Debert, Nova Scotia in preparation for going overseas. He left Canada for the United Kingdom on November 21, 1944 – from Halifax, the same city in which he arrived in Canada at the end of 1929.
Upon arrival in the United Kingdom on November 28, 1944 he was assigned to No. 3 Canadian Infantry Reinforcement Unit (CITR).
On January 8, 1945 he was sent to Northwest Europe as part of 21 Army Group, and then on January 26, 1945, was assigned to the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, joining them in Holthurnsche, The Netherlands, located near Berg en Dal, and very close to the German border.
The Regiment reached Kellen, Germany near Kleve, just on the other side of the border with The Netherlands, on February 12, 1945. On February 14, using amphibious vehicles, the North Novies evacuated Warbergen as they made their way to Emmerich.
Next, the Regiment participated in Operation Blockbuster. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Blockbuster).
…John lost his life in the Battle of Bienen ….
By March 20, 1945, Allied troops were on the banks of the Rhine River for Operation Plunder, a military operation to cross the Rhine on the night of March 23, 1945. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Plunder) They got as far as Bienen, when troop movement stopped due to blown bridges across the Rhine in that area.
In ‘No Retreating Footsteps’ by Will Bird, he noted that the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had made “… three attempts …. to capture the village, but they were turned back by very heavy machine gun fire from the front of the village, supported by heavy mortar fire…”
On March 25, 1945 the North Nova Scotia Highlanders were tasked with passing through the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who had been stopped in front of Bienen during the night.
In the article ‘Too Close To The Guns!’ in Canadian Military History, Volume 12, Numbers 1& 2, Winter/Spring 2003, pp.5-28, author Lee Windsor recorded that “…At 7:45 am, Lt Colonel Forbes established his tactical headquarters near a great windmill at Rosau Farm…” on the outskirts of Bienen.
“…The battalion’s 3 inch mortar platoon and attached Cameron heavy mortars set up behind the farm while the rifle companies formed up to advance….” A and B Companies moved up to their start line at what became known as Argyll Farm. Cameron referred to the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa Regiment.
The war diary for the North Nova Scotia Highlanders for March 25, 1945, explained the plan of attack. “…The Plan adopted was to use a fire plan of a series of concs and stonks, with one gun per troop firing smoke. Thus the whole open approach was hoped to be shielded from the enemy. As the troops reached initial objectives, the guns were to lift onto further stonks in the rear covering the approaches along the EMMERICH road and MILLINGEN road. The platoon of medium machine guns of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa was to take on targets …. of the medium machine gun attack…” ‘Concs and stonks’ referred to concentrated artillery.
What Debbie wrote mirrored the war diary information. “….Johnny’s platoon was assigned to relieve an exhausted Scottish platoon trapped and under fire in a farmhouse near Bienen, Germany. On the way to the farm, the North Novies came under German machine gun fire. Johnny was killed on March 25th, 1945 – one month away from liberation….” The Scottish platoon she refers to would be the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a Canadian Regiment.
A war casualty never ends with the death of a soldier. “…My mother remembers when the telegram came to the house to tell Baba and Dido of the loss of their first born child.…” Their pain was felt by so many families in similar circumstances.
…John is buried in the Canadian War Cemetery in Groesbeek ….
Like Clifford BATEMAN, Ralph Schurman BOULTER, and Charles ‘Marshall’ CARSON, John was temporarily buried on March 26, 1945 in the military cemetery in Rees, Germany before being reburied the following year in the Canadian War Cemetery in Groesbeek, The Netherlands.
…Reflections by John’s niece ….
John’s niece Debbie shared her reflections. “…It has always been a wonder to me how much my grandparents had been through to save my Uncle Johnny from wars only to have a war reach across the ocean to take him anyway. Although I never met him and he died nine years before I was born, I have always felt a connection to him and wish I had met him. I grew up in a family dedicated to sports. I was an artist and creative. War had taken away a mentor to myself and my children, who inherited his talents.
This is only one story of the 104,685 Canadians who died in the 20th century wars. One of them may have cured cancer. One of them might have found a cure for Covid. All of them would probably tell you that war is cruel and destructive. That being said, I am proud that my Uncle John died fighting Nazis, but he is missed by all who knew him and some that didn’t….”
Thank you to Debbie Mierau for providing photos and information on her uncle, plus her thoughtful reflections. Thank you to Shawn Rainville for researching the newspaper archives that provided the lead to find living family members.
Pieter has been successfully working his way through the list of soldiers from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders killed in Bienen whose photos were missing. Coming up in Part 6: Kitchener Langille.
If you have a story to tell, please let Pieter know. Email him at email@example.com, comment on the blog, or tweet to @researchmemori1.
….Previous stories about North Novies killed during the Battle of Bienen and buried in Groesbeek….
- Clifford BATEMAN: https://onthewarmemorialtrail.com/2023/03/16/on-the-war-memorial-trail-the-battle-of-bienen-part-4-the-wwii-soldier-from-a-small-fishing-village-in-newfoundland-who-lost-his-life-in-germany/
- Ralph Schurman BOULTER: https://onthewarmemorialtrail.com/2023/03/07/on-the-war-memorial-trail-the-battle-of-bienen-part-2-the-wwii-battle-drill-instructor-from-oleary/
- Charles ‘Marshall’ CARSON: https://onthewarmemorialtrail.com/2023/03/12/on-the-war-memorial-trail-the-battle-of-bienen-part-3-the-wwii-soldier-from-cape-tormentine-who-lost-his-life-in-germany/
- Harry William DOUCETTE: https://onthewarmemorialtrail.com/2021/02/09/on-the-war-memorial-trail-atlantic-canada-remembers-part-6/
- Austin Havelock MUNROE, plus a list of the 39 soldiers: https://onthewarmemorialtrail.com/2022/11/29/on-the-war-memorial-trail-the-search-for-a-photo-of-austin-havelock-munroe-is-on-youtube/
- Edison Alexander SMITH: https://onthewarmemorialtrail.com/2023/03/04/on-the-war-memorial-trail-the-battle-of-bienen-part-1-the-wwii-soldier-whose-body-shielded-a-wounded-major/
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