This story first appeared in print in the Winter 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. Read the e-edition here:
The day my mother passed away, I was rushing out the door to the hospital when my then-96-year-old neighbour John Augustyn stopped me and said, “Lowrie” – that’s what he called me. “Lowrie, I almost died.” He said he was pulling the snow off his metal roof when it avalanched and buried him. All that was exposed was his baseball cap. Luckily, his friend John Prescott was helping him and, seeing the exposed ballcap, was able to dig him out.
That was John. He was a survivor. “I should have been dead many times over,” he would say and he would begin to tell his war-time stories. “Man oh man, did he ever love to share his stories,” said his grandson, Dan Brown. “John could tell a story with precision detail and keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time. Not one detail missed, not a date, not a meal he had on a specific day back in 1945, not the type of bullets flying over his head as he was being targeted while driving supplies to the front lines. He wouldn’t miss a thing.”
In 2012, John shared his stories with Revelstoke teacher Sarah Newton, who compiled them, adding her own research, in Jon Augustyn’s Amazing Story of Survival.
John was born on May 12, 1919 in Stopnica, Eastern Poland, where his family had a small farm. When World War II began 20 years later, he became a soldier, defending the nearby border with Russia. The Russians invaded, captured John, and sent his family camps in Siberia.
John was among 800 Polish soldiers sent to work in a Russian mine as slave labourers. The men worked 200 meters underground in dangerous conditions with little food. After a falling rock injured his leg, he was assigned to help a female mining engineer with deliveries. That accident may have saved his life. The engineer taught him to drive, a skill he would use later in the war.
The captive men built roads, worked on a dairy farm, and built an airport runway in Lvov (now in Ukraine). Starving, with little hope of freedom, some committed suicide but John pressed on. In June 1941, when the Germans bombed the Lvov airport, the Russians marched the prisoners away from the front into Russia. Newton quotes John, “We started out on the march as 150 prisoners. After 700 miles we were now 800 prisoners.”
Once, the prisoners scrambled into a ditch during a fire fight with the Germans and another man fell on top of John. That man was shot and killed while John survived.
John never forgot the horrors he witnessed. “With blood all over my face, nowhere to wash, the blood dried hard in my nostrils and ears.” Still, he said, the prisoners were “friends, helping each other, walking together, hand in hand, hand over shoulder so you don’t fall, so you can sleep a few seconds. Hanging on each other, so tired. If we couldn’t walk, we would be shot.”
Finally, when Russia joined the Allies, Stalin ordered the prisoners freed. In Strabelisk, Russia, they were formed into a Polish contingent – in Newton’s words, “a rag tag starving group of prisoners” – to fight Germany and its allies. While they travelled to Uzbekistan, near the Afghan and Pakistani border, many succumbed to malaria. John recovered to full health.
At the Caspian Sea they were taken by train to Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbasy) where they were shipped to Phleve, in Persia (Iran). Sick, starving and exhausted,the men struggled for life. Those who died were thrown overboard.
In Phleve, British paramedics took them to a hospital. “They took all our old clothes,” he told Newton. “I couldn’t even stand up anymore, a skeleton. They washed us, disinfected us, gave us intravenous, vaccinations, good medical care, all by the British Army. I tell you, we thought we were in paradise. After so much medication, I fall asleep. In the morning, nurse comes and said ‘AH! I thought you were dead!’ And I said, not so fast!”
Once he recovered, he was appointed as a driver in the British army – much safer than being a soldier on the front lines. He drove supplies and soldiers in Iran, Iraq, Palestine (Israel/Palestine) and Egypt, from where he and 19 other drivers boarded a ship bound for Taranto, Italy. When their ship was struck by a torpedo, a British destroyer rescued them. “They threw us a rope bridge, even though both ships were moving all over. The fi rst four drivers who went ahead of me fell in. My friend and me tried to go across crawling, and the sailors hauled us up as soon as we got to the ship.” Twelve drivers drowned. Another narrow escape.
In Italy, trucks were often attacked and John had many narrow escapes, including during the long battle for Monte Cassino. For his efforts, John was offered a promotion from corporal to sergeant but he turned it down. “I was a big shot as a driver, and able to save money. I didn’t want to be promoted because I would lose my truck and all the perks that went with it.” In Italy he was paid $30 a month and was very happy with that.
After the war, the British offered the Polish soldiers the choice of returning to Poland or settling in an allied country. John had heard good things about Canada and decided to move here.
Before the soldiers departed, their commander told them, in John’s words, “‘You going to new country, civilian life. You gotta get used to it, make your mind. Everything you have been through in the war, it will stay with you all your life.’ He was a good commander. We shook his hand, we were crying. The disasters, prisons, bombing, attacks, shooting, killing, war, everything you went through, all of a sudden finished. It was a difficult thing to do, this transition to a normal life.”
Allied veterans from non-Commonwealth countries could become Canadian citizens if they worked on a farm for one year. John moved to Lethbridge where the soldiers were discharged, and given $270 each. “I could have bought a model A car for that price. It was a big day!” John told Newton. He had already saved $600 “so I had lots of money. I always saved money.”
John and his three Polish companions worked for two years on a sugar beet farm, then went to Fernie. There, a Doukhobor man suggested that John buy a power saw and work in the forestry industry. That’s exactly what he did, eventually working for his longtime employer, Celgar logging company, out of Revelstoke.
On a trip back to Lethbridge, John met the love of his life, Amalia (Emily) Vettori, a nurse from Milan. They married in Lethbridge and John brought her to Revelstoke. The couple had two daughters, Delores and Christine, and bought the little white house on the corner of Third Street and Connaught where they would spend the rest of their active lives.
John and Emily were known for their beautiful, abundant garden. John grew fruit and vegetables; Emily nurtured her flowers and did the preserves and cooking. John often bragged about Emily’s white borscht. “So tasty, I tell you,” he would say. His garden lasted late into autumn. A hole in his unheated garage floor, covered with a trap door, stored apples and beets until the spring. A fur coat, purchased at the thrift store, insulated them and he sprinkled them occasionally with snow to keep them fresh.
John’s garage was a wonder. He would never throw anything out, neither screws nor machinery. As Brown said, “John taught himself everything he knew about fixing and working on chainsaw engines during his time as a faller. He was determined to learn so that if his saw broke down he wouldn’t have to pay someone else to fix it.” His reputation for fixing things grew and he could often be seen, well into his 90s, repairing small engines.
John was a wonderful neighbour, as generous with his fruits and vegetables as he was with his stories, which reminds me of another of his many brushes with danger. He would not pick his fruit until they were ripe, even if bears were around. A few years ago, a bear climbed into his plum tree, right near our shared fence. John would have none of it. He grabbed a long stick and from my side of the fence he started poking the bear to try to get him down. Of course, this episode became fodder for another of his wonderful stories.
John lived to be 101 years old and could be seen, often helped by a family work party, gardening and stacking his precious firewood – cut 16 inches precisely – until he was 99.