Written on a ship during World World War 2, in a convoy to “Operation Husky” it was Lieutenant John Stephens job as a 5th Canadian Field Ambulance Officer to keep the young men on board in shape with exercises and they admired that that at age 35 he always joined them. Penned just before they were put into the water to walk to the beach for a secret invasion of Sicily only to met by the Germans! Many had been sick on board in the dark waiting as it stormed. His wife received the following 4 letters sometime after the Death Notification. The letter contents below are the original information from these letters. Note: the airmail letters were always censored for security reasons. His daughter Barbara Cooke adds “my brothers and I were ages 2, 4, 6 & 10 when our father died. He said so as not to forget us, he memorized our voices before he left Canada. My mother never loved again”. My dad is buried in a WW2 Canadian Cemetery in Sicily. (Too near to Mt. Etna’s Volcano). A Special Thanks to Barbara Cooke for this information.
Letter #1: 5th Field Ambulance, Canadian Army Overseas:
Here is a long promised letter that I have been about to write for some time. I am enclosing the snap I promised in a recent air letter. I hope you like it. It is a pretty good likeness except that the photographer insisted I look up and I really wasn’t as sour as I look in the snap. There is a large mail in today duck but it hasn’t been sorted yet so I do not know what is in store for me in the way of letters. It seems such a long time since I’ve had word from you. It will be that much nicer when I get it all in a bunch. I haven’t even had an answer to my cable telling you that I received my Commission. While I thought surely at the general tone of one of your more recent letters was to the effect that you thought I would change now that I changed rank, for shame, you who knows me so well should think a thing like that. I can assure you love that I have not changed in the least and have no intentions of doing so.
I spent a few days in Scotland a short time ago, but didn’t have much of an opportunity to be in one place very long. It was long enough to know the meaning of Scotch mist however. These people over here have the most whimsical way of describing ordinary garden variety of rain. It seems that the mist sets down frequently at this time of year. I will be writing a letter tonight pet so I will deal with some things I may not have mentioned or made room for in air letters to go into at length. You have have not told me any more about what our new landlord has gone and done about getting the house ready for you. From your recent description of the work you have done on the house I assume that he has given up! Just why are you are doing it instead of having him get it done puzzles me a little or is he as hard to get things out of us as Mr. Adair was. I wish you were able to get another place before next winter, as that must be hard to even get some heat out of with that old furnace the way it is or was when I last saw it. I have a good idea that the bonds you are buying are for one purpose only and that is for a down payment for a home for us. Keep that thought ever present in your mind pet and if you see someplace you like now go ahead and do what you want on it. Your judgment on any thing of that sort suites me.
I have several letters to write tonight before going to bed. It seems so strange to be going to bed in daylight time. 11:30 at night is just dusk. But I can sleep anywhere now under all conditions even without my little pillow that I might remind you is still only on loan to you. All for now darling and I will dream pleasant dreams of you tonight. Love and kisses to the bairns. All my love to you. John.
Everything is going well and am better acquainted with the men of my section. I am quite pleased and am going to enjoy working with them. They seem to have taken to me okay and that is half the battle. Quite a number of them are from Toronto. Nice lads. One or two are from the west end. I suppose the “old corner” is a strange place these days with all the most familiar faces gone. Lizzie writes that she had a very nice letter from you recently and was very pleased to hear from you, also that she had heard from Gord Woods and will let you know how to contact him. He was planning to go there for his leave. I am in a different section of the country so it is not likely I will run into him for a while. I am trying to catch up on my mail love and as it is getting late. I have several letters to write tonight before going to bed. It seems so strange to be going to bed in daylight time. I can sleep anywhere now and under all conditions even without my little pillow that I remind you is still only on loan to you. All for now my darling and will dream pleasant dreams of you tonight. Love and kisses to the bairns. All my love to you. John.
P. S: When you write Ethel again give her my address for Ed. I have been in one or two to the places that the U. S. Navy Base is at but not knowing the name of his ship, I was not able to make any concrete inquiries. It would be nice to see him again, particularly on this side of the world. Your picture darling is sitting before me and to say the least, I certainly would exchange everything to be looking at you in person, but barring that it will have to be second best. I have to be satisfied with just looking at it and thinking all the reminiscent thoughts that I like to keep present in my mind always.
Letter #2: From the ship
A follow up of yesterdays letters, although news is scarce, I haven’t the excuse of being too busy. It has been lovely sunshine and I am getting a nice tan, but going through my usual stages of singeing first and peeling and burning again. Everything is running along smoothly and if it weren’t for our escort would appear like a pleasure cruise. We dine with glistening glass and silver and nice white linen. Everything very dignified too. Can you picture me being very dignified eh? Ships concerts have been good, mainly composed of volunteers and I have kept the men in good spirits. We will be quite likely to be in action soon. I don’t want you to worry about it as I wright be perfectly safe and only too be glad to be doing something to hurry this crazy business along to a quick conclusion. Lets hope its over soon love so we can resume where we left off. Or have you got so used to not having a grouchy husband under feet, and are quite happy as you are. I wrote my bank to send you $10 a month out of my account until I can make arrangements thru the paymaster to have it sent direct with your regular monthly cheque. I think I wrote to you about your increase in allowance would be for yourself and the children. Be sure and let me know if you got it okay and please don’t go short for anything for yourself or the children.
Plan on saving a certain amount of it. Knowing you I don’t worry about that. I’m thankful that you are handling the finances. I feel sure we will have some money when this war is over. The 3 officers I bunk with are in the throes of trying to repack kits. There is some tall old sweating and swearing going on. Each one accusing each other of stealing equipment etc. Some fun and I am looking down from the lofty height of my top bunk and enjoying it thoroughly as mine is all done. I have a gem of a batmen who looks after me like you did. The only thing he doesn’t do is mother me. How would I go for a big load of that right now from you. There are so many things you used to do that are very vivid in my mind and I often close my eyes and I look back on those pleasant thoughts and memories and know those were very happy hours we spent together. All for now Love as I want to pen a letter to the bairns and I will write again tomorrow. Pleasant dreams and may I be in them! Keep smiling and remembering I love you. John.
Letter # 3: From the ship
As mail closes in an hour or so I wanted to get one more letter to you as mail will be scarce for a while now. I forgot to enclose the souvenir for “Stuffy” in my last letter but I will do so in this one. News is scarce as our routine is pretty much the same every day. Zero day is approaching and we are all set for it. You can depend on on it now love that we will give a good account of ourselves. Don’t worry love will you. I will be okay and have every assurance that I will continue to be. Always keep in mind that my greatest aim in life now is to get this war over with and get home to you so you can rest assured I will look after John W.
Somehow I feel quite detached from all this, physically I am here but nothing ruffles me very much and I seem to get things done much better. My thoughts are with you always. I often sit down and conjecture just what you might be doing and believe the little trials and tribulations of the children. The ocean is a little choppy right now, but on the whole it has been a very pleasant trip. My whereabouts are security, so if you even surmise don’t discuss it with anyone for a while anyway. Although by the time this reaches you the world will have had some exciting news. Recess for now darling, tea time and us soldiers must have our tea so we will be back shortly. A big kiss for now while I am away. Here I am again duck and I just heard an announcement that the mail is closed in a few minutes so I will close now. Keep smiling and remembering all my love to you. John.
Letter #4: From the East
As this is the first opportunity we have been allowed to give some reasonable concrete information, I am a little at loss to know quite where to start. My last letters were sent from the north of Scotland where we were based waiting to sail. For security reasons we were not allowed to even mention that. I found it quite nice the short time I was on shore. But did not have much opportunity to see very much of it as I came directly from the train to the boat. The boat we are on is a very nice one. I share a cabin with three of our unit officers and we are very comfortable. At the present its not so cool at night, it is necessary to sleep in the raw. It seems a long time since I have done that. Our meals are excellent and served in the well known English style. If I stay on here I sure would get fat. This being an officer sure has its points where comfort is concerned. We passed some land last night and it was the shoreline of Africa, just where I do not know.
Our convoy is well protected, and several subs are sorry they attempted to interfere, our score is 3 – 0. I am quite disillusioned about a lot of things. The blue of the Mediterranean for example. It is quite a different shade than the other water we passed through but still not quite what I expected. Our reason for being here of course you will read about and will probably have heard about over the air before this reaches you. Please don’t worry about it love as I will be quite safe. I am glad this time has come because it means that I will get home to you that much sooner. The sun is hot but nice. How long I will like it remains to be seen. The little gift I had for you is still with me and will be practically back to its original starting place before I mail it. It certainly will be well travelled before it reaches you. Say hello to all the folks and tell the bairns I am writing them tonight, when I will write you again. Love to all with all my love to you. John.
The above 4 letters were The Last Letters John Stephens wrote before his death.
The letter below was penned by a friend of John’s, and has been shortened, describing a day in the life of a medic. October 1943.
“At present I’m in the stages of recuperation from a very foolish act of mine which came very near to costing me my life and costing my driver his. I was given a special missive to a Brigade Commander and a jeep & driver in which to deliver it. I was driving along the directed route but somehow got a bit ahead of everything. I still don’t know how I managed to go past my destination but I did and was in the area of our forward patrols where I noticed things a bit lonely and altogether too quiet and decided to return and try again a bit further back.
I pulled the jeep up and was in the process of turning it about when a smoke bomb landed in front of us. My driver and I had run smack into a small force of Germans who tried to cover us with smoke and take us as prisoners. My driver received several bits of phosphorus about his face and neck, and I received about 10 or 12 small bruised about the face. Fortunately my eyes were not hit and I jammed the little jeep into gear & headed down the road as fast as I could go. They were lightly armed and their fire did not penetrate the pile of luggage behind me so with a few burns we managed to extricate ourselves from what could have been a most sticky situation. Three of my burns have healed up completely and the rest are on their way. I look as though I’d had an argument with a buzz-saw or else had a combination of hives & leprosy. People say one’s life flashes before their eyes, but honestly, all I could see was smoke and my thought was to get the – – – – out of there in a hurry”.