One man’s war story: How a plant worker from Sarnia was murdered in a French orchard

John Lychowich

George Mathewson

The newly released City of Sarnia War Remembrance Project documents 306 Sarnia soldiers who have fallen in war and conflicts.

This is the story of one of them:

John Lychowich was born on the plains of Manitoba and made his way to Sarnia as a young man in search of work.

He knocked around town for a time before landing a carpenter’s job at the Polymer Corporation, which was a good gig for an unschooled farm kid.

The plant was being built on Vidal Street to make rubber from oil for the Second World War effort, and he found a home in the work camp there.

He also fell in love and proposed to a gal from Kitchener, who accepted.

In 1943, Lychowich enlisted in the army and began training at Camp Ipperwash and elsewhere.

He became a private in the 7th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division, and 10 months later found himself staggering onto a beach at Normandy, part of the largest seaborne invasion the world has ever seen.

It was June 6, 1944 – D-Day – and the Allied assault on German-occupied Western Europe had begun.

Lychowich would survive the beach landing but was captured a short time later by German troops.

The young plant worker from Sarnia couldn’t have known it then but an enraged Adolf Hitler had ordered his 12th SS Division ‘Hitler Youth’ to murder prisoners captured in scattered groups across the Normandy countryside in retaliation for the invasion.

On June 8, the brown-haired Lychowich was seen standing among a group of 13 unarmed Canadian soldiers in the orchard of a chateau near the village of d’Audrieu. The trees were in full bloom. It was 4:30 p.m.

At a command from the senior Nazi officer the prisoners were lined up in a row. The firing squad consisted of SS troops with rifles and officers with pistols. With the first volley of shots all of the Canadians went down, although some weren’t killed outright.

Hearing moans, an officer walked over to inspect the survivors. One, at least, hadn’t been hit at all and was feigning death.

But there would be no reprieves this day. One by one the officer finished them off with bullets to the head.

When the British army took possession of the Chateau d’Audrieu the following day they found a row of 13 soldiers lying dead along a fence.

John Lychowich was 26.

The systemic execution of at least 156 Canadians by their German captors is regarded as one of the worst war crimes in Canadian history.

Eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence from those brutal days are documented in the book, “Conduct Unbecoming” by Howard Margolian. Only two senior officers of the 12th SS were ever tried for war crimes.

Back home, Lychowich’s mother and fiancé received the dreaded military telegrams containing the words “we deeply regret to inform you.”

John Louis Lychowich was a strong, vigorous man with deep brown eyes who stood 5 foot 7. He could speak some Polish, loved to play baseball and knew how to cook.

He lies buried in the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Reviers, France.

Lest we forget.

Sources: The City of Sarnia War Remembrance Project; Canadian military records; “Conduct Unbecoming: The Story of the Murder of Canadian Prisoners of War in Normandy,” by Howard Margolian.

REMEMBRANCE DAY SERVICES

Remembrance Day ceremonies in Sarnia will start a day early this year.

The public is invited to join members of the Sarnia Legion in a walk from city hall to the Legion Cenotaph at 7:00 p.m. Nov. 10. Those walking will carry lit candles, each memorializing either a fallen soldier, or honouring a past or serving military member.

The candles will be sponsored by a $5 donation to the Legion’s Poppy Trust Fund.

On Tuesday, Nov. 11 the annual parade will start at 10:30 a.m. at the Legion’s Front Street office en route to the Cenotaph in Veteran’s Park for an 11 a.m. service to commemorate the sacrifices of those who have served in Canada’s military.

The Point Edward Servicemen’s Association will hold a Remembrance parade on Sunday, Nov. 9, leaving 10:45 a.m. from Michigan Avenue service club to the Cenotaph.